Joseph Stefano; Key Writer for 'Psycho'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Joseph Stefano, 84, a scriptwriter who influenced Alfred Hitchcock's revolutionary plot twist in "Psycho" and wrote for the science fiction television series "The Outer Limits," died Aug. 25 at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., after a heart attack.

Mr. Stefano began his career as a minor Greenwich Village showman and songwriter for the Las Vegas showman Donn Arden.

However, his reputation was enhanced in the late 1950s after writing an award-winning drama about a soldier's racial prejudice that aired on the television anthology series "Playhouse 90." He also wrote a romantic drama called "The Black Orchid," for which Sophia Loren won a best actress prize from the Venice Film Festival.

When his agent asked what was next, Mr. Stefano turned in a list of 10 top directors, including Hitchcock and William Wyler, and said jokingly not to pester him unless one of them had a job waiting.

To his surprise, Hitchcock responded, and Mr. Stefano was excited about working on a glamorous suspense film like "To Catch a Thief" or "North By Northwest."

Instead, he was handed Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho," about a mother-obsessed serial killer and hotelier named Norman Bates.

The film was a modestly budgeted production that many studio executives did not want made because it was deemed too tawdry for the prestigious Hitchcock. The director, who reportedly liked Bloch's "workaday characters and dingy locales," sought out Mr. Stefano after an early script draft by another television writer did not suit him.

Mr. Stefano told the Los Angeles Times: "Bloch's novel started with Marion Crane arriving at the motel and immediately being killed. My feeling was that, since I did not know anything about this girl, I wasn't going to care about her when she was killed. So we backed the story up a bit and learned something about her so that when she was killed, it would have more impact."

Mr. Stefano had her stealing $40,000 from her boss and stopping at the Bates Motel while on the run. Though she has a change of conscience about the money, Crane is knifed to death by Bates in a memorable shower sequence.

"Killing the leading lady in the first 20 minutes had never been done before," Mr. Stefano told a horror film fan magazine in 1990. Hitchcock suggested hiring Janet Leigh, then a major star, for the role of Marion because he thought it would add more of a shock.

Mr. Stefano also said he wanted to remake Bates from a drunk reprobate who peeks at girls to a more likeable young man. This led Hitchcock to suggest Anthony Perkins, a gangly juvenile star, for Bates.

The film earned Mr. Stefano a top award from the Mystery Writers of America and years of attention for having scripted one of the defining suspense classics of all time.

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