Henry Denker, prolific playwright and novelist, dies at 99

May 24, 2012

Henry Denker, a prolific novelist and playwright who may be best known for writing a long-running radio dramatization of the life of Jesus, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” died May 15 at his home in New York City. He was 99. The New York Times reported that he had lung cancer.

Mr. Denker practiced law before giving it up to write radio scripts in 1the 1930s. Throughout his long career, which included more than 30 novels, Mr. Denker addressed such powerful themes as justice, religion and treason — though his critics said he sometimes demonstrated more earnestness than finesse.

In a review of the 1963 play, “A Case of Libel,” about a war correspondent who sues a gossip columnist, a Time magazine critic wrote: “Playwright Denker ringingly declares for a responsible free press and due process of law, which is about as audacious as sponsoring the Ten Commandments.”

Religious ideas figured heavily in many of Mr. Denker’s works, including a series of 1950s television dramas set in biblical times. From 1947 to ’56, he was the writer, director and producer of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” for which he won a Peabody Award and many other honors during its 10-year run as a radio drama.

He noted in a 1948 New York Times essay that he called on an ecumenical panel of members of the clergy to review each episode.

“No script was broadcast till it had been approved by all of them,” Mr. Denker wrote. “This has kept the program out of the realm of controversy . . . It has proved that there is far more in common among all religions than any mere observance of the ritual differences would indicate.”

Writer Fulton Oursler borrowed the title of “The Greatest Story Ever Told” for a 1949 book about the life of Jesus, which became the basis for director George Stevens’s 1965 film of the same name.

In 1982, Mr. Denker told The Washington Post that he gave up the practice of law because he found it “too dull.” Nonetheless, he returned to the courtroom again and again in his novels, plays and scripts.

His 1956 court-martial drama (written with Ralph Berkey) about a U.S. prisoner of war in Korea suspected of treason, “Time Limit!,” was made into a film one year later, directed by Karl Malden with Richard Widmark in the starring role.

Comedian Milton Berle made a rare foray into a drama in Mr. Denker’s 1958 TV play “Material Witness” about a man who witnesses a murder. In 1975, Mr. Denker wrote “Judgment: The Court Martial of Lt. William Calley,” a television drama about the legal aftermath of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

He explored the life of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, for a 1958 television drama, “The Wound Within,” and for a 1961 Broadway play, “A Far Country.”

In the play, Mr. Denker’s depictions of Freud’s therapeutic sessions with a young female patient aroused grumblings from Freud’s descendants, but New York Times critic Howard Taubman wrote, “Mr. Denker has captured the dramatic core of an unforgettable experience in human revelation. He has done so because he has distilled the essence of a touching human story.”

Henry Denker was born Nov. 25, 1912, in New York. His father was a fur trader.

The younger Mr. Denker briefly studied to become a rabbi before graduating from New York Law School in 1934.

Mr. Denker gave up his law practice after three years and turned to writing for radio. At the dawn of the television age in 1939, he wrote for one of the first TV drama series, “False Witness.”

Mr. Denker followed a rigid schedule, rising at 5 a.m. seven days a week to write. He became immensely successful, with homes in Manhattan, Connecticut and California.

His wife of 62 years, Edith Heckman Denker, died in 2005. No other information about survivors could be learned.

Mr. Denker often recycled his work from one genre to another. His 1982 novel “Outrage,” about a man who seeks to avenge the rape and murder of his daughter, was produced that same year at the Kennedy Center as a courtroom drama. Washington Post theater critic David Richards found the play tedious, if well-intentioned.

“You can be perfectly sympathetic to the playwright’s arguments, applaud his cause, endorse his cries for action and still find his play to be a fraudulent bill of goods,” he wrote. “Making a case in the theater is not necessarily the same thing as making drama.”

In 1979, Mr. Denker published a novel and play, “Horowitz and Mrs. Washington,” about an elderly Jewish man’s experiences with his African American nurse. Mr. Denker later sued Alfred Uhry, the author of “Driving Miss Daisy” — which won the Pulitzer Prize and four Academy Awards — for plagiarism.

The suit was dismissed in 1992 by federal judge Michael B. Mukasey — who later became U.S. attorney general — who found the works “markedly dissimilar.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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