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|Also Known As:||Eugene O. Roth,Eugene Stutenroth,Eugene Roth,Gene Stutenroth||Died:|
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Though he emerged directly from film school to become a professional screenwriter, Eric Roth spent the first half of his career struggling to find his footing. After two box office duds in the late-1970s, Roth waited another nine years for his next credited project, "Suspect" (1987), which itself suffered from a lack of audience interest. It was not until his Oscar-winning adaptation of "Forrest Gump" (1994) that Roth began to emerge as a prominent Hollywood scribe. But his career almost took a turn toward disaster with his next film, "The Postman" (1997), a sci-fi epic that proved to be almost ruinous for all involved, especially Roth, who had, up to that point, a trail of failures and only one success. Things began an upward trajectory that rarely wavered off course when he wrote the excellent drama, "The Insider" (1999), which earned critical kudos for its complex and richly developed tale about a real-life whistleblower who risks everything to tell the truth about the tobacco industry. Ever since that film, Roth churned out scripts for several more notable films - including "Munich" (2005) and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008) - which finally helped land him on secure ground while becoming one of the most highly sought-after screenwriters working in Hollywood.
Born on March 22, 1945 in New York, NY, Roth was raised by his father, Leon, a producer and teacher at the University of Southern California, and his mother, Mimi, one of Hollywood's first female executives at a major studio, who worked at United Artists from 1958-1971. After attending the University of California, Santa Barbara, he earned his bachelor's degree in English from Columbia University. Roth returned to the west coast, joining the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a master of fine arts in film. His career began with early promise when he won the prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Award at UCLA. After graduating, he began writing documentaries, then produced his first fictional script, "The Strangers in 7A" (CBS, 1972), a crime drama about a building super (Andy Griffith) and his wife (Ida Lupino) who are held hostage by a sadistic would-be bank robber and his accomplices.
His budding career continued looking up when Robert Mulligan directed Roth's first feature, "The Nickel Ride" (1975), a post-noir crime thriller about a low-level gangster doomed to die, which premiered at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and received an uneven reception. Despite his rapid shift from college graduate to working writer, Roth began hitting some early speed bumps, including when he was brought onboard to develop the "Airport '77" (1977) sequel, "The Concorde - Airport '79" (1979), a jerry-rigged disaster vehicle that took a nose-dive at the box office. With that dismal failure on his resume, Roth would wait another eight years until he had another produced credit. He finally emerged with the fairly suspenseful courtroom thriller, "Suspect" (1987), which starred Cher as an investigative lawyer trying to defend a mute veteran (Liam Neeson) with the help of a juror (Dennis Quaid). Roth next collaborated with star Billy Crystal on "Memories of Me" (1988), a father and son reunion tale directed by Henry Winkler. Though at times mawkish and overly sentimental, the film did allow comedians Crystal and star Alan King to bring more emotional heft to their serio-comic roles.
Once again, Roth had a long stretch between credited projects. After five years, he received story credit and co-wrote "Mr. Jones" (1993) with Michael Cristofer, a romantic drama about an unconventional analyst (Lena Olin) who falls in love with a bipolar patient (Richard Gere). Though the film possessed an interesting storyline and an appealing cast, Roth suffered another box office failure. But his fortunes turned when the writer was handed the plum assignment of his career, adapting Winston Groom's forgotten novel into the Oscar-winning feature, "Forrest Gump" (1994). The saga of a mentally-challenged Southerner (Tom Hanks) with the seemingly uncanny ability to effortlessly pass through the social and political high points of the late 20th Century proved to be a surprise box office hit. A funny, winning, though occasionally overly sentimental drama, "Forrest Gump" tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, while its many catchphrases were etched into the lexicon. Such lines like "Life is like a box a chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get," "Stupid is as stupid does" and "Run, Forrest, run!" became ubiquitous, though they were sometimes used in mocking fashion. Nonetheless, "Forrest Gump" snagged 13 Academy Award nominations and won six, including for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hanks), Best Director (Robert Zemeckis) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Roth).
Now firmly established as one of Hollywood's top screenwriters, Roth finally appeared poised to scale greater heights. But he would again suffer a long lapse - more than three years - before his next produced script, "The Postman" (1997), hit the screens. Though another parable in the vein of "Forrest Gump," this overblown, big-budgeted, post-apocalyptic epic was dismissed by most critics and a disaster at the box office, despite the star power of Kevin Costner. A futuristic allegory that pitted an isolated hero (Costner) - a man who poses as a mail delivery man - against a militaristic leader (Will Patton) of an isolated community, "The Postman" was met with mostly derision from just about anyone who saw it. Roth was redeemed in part by his skillful adaptation of Nicholas Evans' romantic novel "The Horse Whisperer" (1998). Though overlong and lacking in chemistry between the two leads (Robert Redford and Kristen Scott Thomas), the film could not be faulted for its script, which depicted a sweet and tasteful romance between two sophisticated adults.
Roth managed to erase all memories of "The Postman" with arguably his most compelling and intricate film, "The Insider" (1999), a fact-based drama directed by Michael Mann about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), whose interview with "60 Minutes" resulted in unforeseen repercussions. Both Roth and Mann tailored the story almost as a thriller, introducing pieces to a puzzle that eventually coalesce into a compelling drama that indicted both Big Tobacco and television news. While not a huge success at the box office, "The Insider" became a critical darling and earned several year-end awards alongside seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Roth and Mann's screenplay. Mann again employed Roth's writing services for "Ali" (2001), a finely crafted biopic of boxer Muhammad Ali (Will Smith). The movie spanned the turbulent decade from when Ali - then known as Cassius Clay - first rose to prominence after defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, through his conversion to Islam, his difficulties with the draft board and culminating with his comeback fight in Zaire against George Foreman. Although it earned respectable notices, award nods for Smith and a healthy opening box office, the film faded quickly from memory.
Roth next collaborated with scribe Tony Kushner to write the script for "Munich" (2005), Steven Spielberg's dark and complicated take on the killing of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games, and the ensuing revenge mission by a secret Israeli hit squad led by a young intelligence officer (Eric Bana) that hunts down and kills the perpetrators across Europe. Based on George Jonas' novel Vengeance, the 1970s-style thriller ruminated on the ethics of the Israeli mission, despite its necessity, which caused an unusual uproar for a Spielberg film; while the athlete's families offered praise, the Israeli general counsel in Los Angeles, among other right wing Jewish groups, criticized the filmmaker for being naïve and ill-informed. Nevertheless, "Munich" was nominated for numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay - Roth's third such honor. Roth then penned Robert De Niro's second directorial effort, "The Good Shepherd" (2006), a richly-layered - if somewhat plodding - look at counterespionage and the forming of the CIA at the end of World War II. After writing the forgettable coming-of-age drama "Lucky You" (2007), Roth scored a big critical and box office hit with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008), an involving romantic drama about a man (Brad Pitt) who experiences life while aging backwards and whose one constant is his love for one particular woman (Cate Blanchett). The film earned several year-end nominations, including a Best Screenplay nod at the Golden Globes.
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