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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.

Mr. Stefano was scornful of two "Psycho" sequels that he said turned Bates into a "laughable figure" but later scripted "Psycho IV" (1990), a Showtime cable network film that highlighted the Freudian origins of Bates's inner torment.

He also advised director Gus Van Sant on the 1998 remake of "Psycho," with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in the leading roles. Most critics found the remake pointless, and Mr. Stefano also said he wished Van Sant had done more than copy his script and Hitchcock's camera angles.

Joseph William Stefano was born May 5, 1922, in south Philadelphia. His father was a tailor and made silk flowers, and this work influenced the plot of "The Black Orchid."

He was entranced by movies as a child and set up makeshift theaters in his parents' basement. Set on a performing career, he left for New York weeks shy of his high school graduation and took the name Jerry Stevens.

Leslie Stevens, an old Greenwich Village friend, created "The Outer Limits" for ABC in 1963 and recruited Mr. Stefano as a supervisory writer and producer. During the next two seasons, Mr. Stefano helped set the eerie tone of the series, which mirrored "The Twilight Zone."

Perhaps Mr. Stefano's most famous episode was "A Feasibility Study," about aliens who take a neighborhood block and transport it to another planet for observation. When the humans realize they are being watched for their slave potential, they decide to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the human race.

Mr. Stefano worked on many small-screen suspense dramas but periodically was lured back into film work. This resulted in a feline-based horror film called "Eye of the Cat" (1969) and a social drama about a man-woman-pig triangle, "Futz!" (1969), concocted by the off-Broadway experimental director Tom O'Horgan, best known for bringing "Hair" to Broadway.

Mr. Stefano tended to play down his role in the latter. However, he was particularly proud of "Two Bits" (1995), about an ailing grandfather and his 12-year-old grandson on a summer day in Depression-era Philadelphia. Al Pacino starred as the grandfather.

"At once solemn and dreamy, the film is a carefully assembled collection of vignettes remembered from afar in which even the more threatening characters have a golden aura," film critic Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times.

Mr. Stefano had an enormous sheet-music collection and once spent five hours challenging pianist Michael Feinstein about who could name increasingly obscure Tin Pan Alley songs.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Marilyn Epstein Stefano of Agoura Hills, Calif.; and a son.

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