Ira Levin and Orville Nuxhall

The best-selling novelist whose books became hit movies

Ira Levin, who has died at 78, never made any claims to literary greatness—he was once called “the finest hack writer in America.” Nor did he churn out best-sellers with the frequency of Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, publishing only seven novels over four decades. But his best-known works—Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, Sliver, and The Stepford Wives—sold tens of millions of copies. Their ingeniously plotted depictions of extraordinary happenings amid ordinary lives also made them natural candidates for the big screen, starring such A-list actors as Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow, Joanne Woodward, and Sharon Stone.

The son of a successful toy importer, Levin graduated from New York University, said the London Telegraph. “His father then expected him to join him in the toy business, but he had other ideas.” With support from his family, Levin became a writer and published his debut novel, A Kiss Before Dying, in 1953; it won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best first novel and was twice made into a movie. Following two years in the Army, Levin adapted Mac Hyman’s “comedy of military life,” No Time for Sergeants, for Broadway in 1955. Running for 796 performances, it made a star out of its lead, Andy Griffith.

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The play’s success also gave Levin the security to launch his career as a major novelist, said The New York Times. His style was unmistakable. “Combining elements of several genres—mystery, gothic horror, science fiction, and the techno-thriller—Levin’s novels conjured up a world full of quietly looming menace, in which anything could happen to anyone at any time.” The fictional universe he depicted “was a great deal like the real one, only more so: more starkly terrifying, more exquisitely mundane.” Rosemary’s Baby (1967), for example, concerns a young wife in New York City who appears to have been impregnated by Satan. “In The Boys From Brazil (1976), Josef Mengele, alive and well in South America, plots to clone a new Hitler.” Levin’s most enduring work, however, may have been The Stepford Wives (1972), in which “women in an idyllic suburb appear to have been replaced by complacent, preternaturally well-endowed androids.” The novel not only gave rise to two movie versions and two made-for-TV sequels, but “the phrase ‘Stepford Wife,’ and even ‘Stepford’ as an adjective,” soon became synonymous with anything mindless, conformist, or robotic.

Despite his print success, Levin’s real love was theater, said The New York Sun. “My books are more theatrical than the other way around,” he once said. “I think in terms of scenes rather than chapters.” In 1978 he had his biggest theatrical triumph with Deathtrap, a comedic murder-mystery that ran for 1,793 performances and made him $2 million. But “his mistress,” as he called the theater, proved fickle. “Interlock, a melodrama starring Celeste Holm and Maximilian Schell, opened Feb. 6, 1958, and closed three days later.” Levin’s Drat! The Cat!, starring Lesley Ann Warren, ran for only eight performances in 1965. In 1967, Dr. Cook’s Garden also flopped; the author himself had to direct it “after the original director, George Scott, showed his displeasure by pushing Levin down a flight of stairs during an out-of-town tryout.”

Levin, who was divorced twice, is survived by three children.

The pitcher who was the youngest-ever major-leaguer

One day in 1943, scouts for the Cincinnati Reds went to Hamilton, Ohio, to watch an outstanding amateur pitcher named Orville Nuxhall. They offered him a contract but he turned them down, preferring his job in a tool factory to support his family. But the scouts soon noticed Nuxhall’s 6-foot-3, 190-pound son, Joe, who was making short work of hitters twice his age with a fastball that exploded into the catcher’s mitt. Looking to fill their war-depleted ranks, the Reds approached Joe about playing for them. His parents gave their blessing, but only if he first finished the ninth grade. When Joe Nuxhall debuted with the Reds on June 10, 1944, he was only 15 years, 10 months, and 11 days old—the youngest player in Major League Baseball history.

His first game was not auspicious, said The New York Times. With Cincinnati trailing the St. Louis Cardinals 13–0 after eight innings, manager Bill McKechnie told Nuxhall to warm up. “Wearing cleats borrowed from a friend, Nuxhall made it as far as the top step of the dugout.” There, out of sheer nervousness, he tripped and fell on his face. When Nuxhall finally got to the mound, he got two outs and gave up two walks, only to be faced with the 1943 batting champion, Stan Musial. “It was a very scary situation,” recalled Nuxhall; he promptly gave up a single to Musial, as well as three more walks and another hit, allowing the Cardinals to score five more runs and win the game 18–0. “Those people that were at Crosley Field that afternoon probably said, ‘Well, that’s the last we’ll see of that kid,’” Nuxhall said later.

But it wasn’t, said The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Nuxhall spent the rest of that season and the next seven in the minor leagues before he made it back up to the Reds in 1952.” When he did return, to face the Brooklyn Dodgers, he feared a repeat of his ignoble debut. “I was nervous, more nervous than I was in ’44,” he said. “Here I was, walking out there to face Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and Pee Wee Reese!” This time, though, Nuxhall pitched three scoreless innings. That redeemed him, and except for one season, he stayed with the Reds until 1966. His best year was 1955, when he led the team in victories with a record of 17–12, and led the league with five shutouts.

For the last 28 years of his life, Nuxhall was a Reds radio commentator, signing off his broadcasts by saying, “This is the ol’ left-hander, rounding third and heading for home.” He is survived by Donzetta, his wife of 60 years, and two sons.

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