Stewart Stern—it seems to go almost without saying—is best known for writing the screenplay to the seminal American classic, Rebel Without a Cause. This iconic film has overshadowed the rest of his output, which included collaborations with Nicholas Ray, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando (above, with Stern and Bea Lillie), as well as an Emmy for writing the 1976 TV miniseries Sybil. “He gets tired of talking about Rebel,” filmmaker Jon Steven Ward told me. And Ward should know: he produced and directed Going Through Splat, shooting hours of interview footage with the now 84-year old Stern that covers the writer’s life-or-death ordeal as an infantry leader at the Battle of the Bulge; his clashes with Nicholas Ray over Rebel re-writes; the early loss of James Dean; and the slow descent into writer’s block that effectively ended Stewart’s screenwriting career.
Determined not to be one of those reporters who can’t see past Rebel Without a Cause, I arrived at Stern’s house armed with questions about his scripts for Rachel, Rachel and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. Over mugs of herbal tea, we spent the morning talking about flying in a harness around and around the wings of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre (he has done this, on his 70th birthday, no less), and of the “overripe sense of reality” that, as a young actor, he brought to the role of Bloody Clifford in a production of Henry VI, where his homemade “severed head of the last Plantagenet I killed” drew both gasps and raves. I did manage to ask some of my prepared questions, yet in a roundabout way, Rebel, as you’ll see, won out.