Gore Vidal, the unapologetically liberal essayist, novelist, playright and sometimes screenwriter and actor, died yesterday from of complications from pneumonia at his home in the Hollywood Hills. He was 86.
Vidal’s writing, which includes hundreds of essays, best-selling novels and the Tony-nominated play The Best Man, a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway this past year, often contained savage critiques and attacks against an entrenched conservative political class.
Although Vidal published his first novel in 1945 at the age of 20 while still in the Army, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that he began writing for a number of television anthology series.
For Hollywood, Vidal scripted a number of pictures including 1958’s I Accuse!, the story of the infamous “Dreyfus Case” in which a Jewish captain in the French Army is falsely accused of treason, the adaption of the Tennessee William’s play Suddenly Last Summer and the World War Two drama Is Paris Burning? (1966). His books Lincoln and Myra Breckinridge were adapted for film, but without input from the writer. His play The Death of Billy the Kid became the classic western The Left-Handed Gun.
When he was approached to help director William Wyler with the script for the classic Ben-Hur, Vidal argued that there needed to be a deeper reason that childhood friends Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and the Roman tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd) would grow up to be bitter enemies. He suggested that part of their backstory should contain a homosexual affair that Messala was anxious to renew. Speaking out about this in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, Vidal stated that Wyler took the suggestion but kept the subtext hidden from Heston. Heston dismissed Vidal’s revelation stating that “a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.”
Vidal also dabbled in acting, appearing in small roles in the films Gattaca, With Honors and Igby Goes Down. For Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts, he played a longtime Pennsylvania democratic congressman whose reelection comes under attack from a charismatic conservative candidate.