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Responsible for writing some of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was also an accomplished director who specialized in helming poignant ensemble character dramas. Kasdan first broke into Hollywood with the script for "The Bodyguard" (1992), which he sold in 1976, only to watch it languish in so-called development hell for almost two decades. Meanwhile, his script for "Continental Divide" (1981) captured the attention of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the latter of whom hired Kasdan to write "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), widely considered to be the best film in the franchise. He collaborated with Spielberg and Lucas again on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), a splashy action adventure that harkened back to the 1930s Saturday matinee serials. He next made his directorial debut with the steaming erotic noir, "Body Heat" (1981), after which he wrote the weaker, but nonetheless substantial "Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" (1983). Kasdan earned considerable acclaim for writing and directing "The Big Chill" (1983) before delivering a well-received update of the Western with "Silverado" (1985). After returning to form with "The...
Responsible for writing some of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was also an accomplished director who specialized in helming poignant ensemble character dramas. Kasdan first broke into Hollywood with the script for "The Bodyguard" (1992), which he sold in 1976, only to watch it languish in so-called development hell for almost two decades. Meanwhile, his script for "Continental Divide" (1981) captured the attention of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the latter of whom hired Kasdan to write "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), widely considered to be the best film in the franchise. He collaborated with Spielberg and Lucas again on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), a splashy action adventure that harkened back to the 1930s Saturday matinee serials. He next made his directorial debut with the steaming erotic noir, "Body Heat" (1981), after which he wrote the weaker, but nonetheless substantial "Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" (1983). Kasdan earned considerable acclaim for writing and directing "The Big Chill" (1983) before delivering a well-received update of the Western with "Silverado" (1985). After returning to form with "The Accidental Tourist" (1988) and "Grand Canyon" (1991), Kasdan fell prey to indulgence with the overly long "Wyatt Earp" (1994) and the widely panned "Dreamcatcher" (2003). Though he remained relatively inactive since those high-profile missteps, Kasdan's reputation as an exquisite craftsman built hope that he would one day again return to his previous form.
Born on Jan. 14, 1949 in Miami Beach, FL, Kasdan was raised in West Virginia by his father, Clarence, who was an electronics store manager in several cities, and his mother, Sylvia, an employment counselor. After earning his bachelor's degree in literature and his master's in education from the University of Michigan, Kasdan ditched his intention to become a teacher and found work as an advertising copywriter for W.B. Doner in Detroit. Despite deploring the advertising world, he plugged away for five years, even winning a Clio Award, and eventually found himself working for Doyle, Dane, Bernbach Advertisers in Los Angeles. Once there, Kasdan began writing screenplays while still working in advertising until he sold his first script, "The Bodyguard," in 1976. Though originally intended as a Steve McQueen vehicle, the script was trapped in development hell until 1992, when it became a hit release starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. Meanwhile, his screenplay for what became "Continental Divide" (1981) - an old school homage to Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn romantic comedies - caught the eye of director Steven Spielberg and led to an introduction to George Lucas.
Kasdan's career truly took off when he was hired by Lucas to write "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) after the original screenwriter, Leigh Brackett, died of cancer. Brackett had written a first draft before she passed, with Lucas penning a couple more drafts before turning over the project to Kasdan. The ultimate result was Kasdan penning what many felt was the best installment of the franchise, while in the larger scope "Empire" was hailed as an exquisite space opera that represented the very best of sci-fi cinema, in large part due to its possessing a darker tone than its predecessor. Kasdan soon became the go-to writer for Lucas and Spielberg, with producer and director tapping him to write "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), Lucas' contemporary update of the Saturday matinee serials that introduced late-century Hollywood's most iconic heroes, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). For an entire week, Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan spent full days discussing the story, the transcripts of which Kasdan used to write his first draft. Over the course of several more drafts, it became more and more refined, while Lucas and Spielberg battled Paramount Pictures over the budget. Upon release, the exciting action adventure - which followed Jones' quest to find the mythical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis - was widely hailed by critics on its way to become a huge box office hit that spawned three sequels of inconsistent quality.
Also that year, Kasdan finally realized his dream of becoming a director and made his debut with "Body Heat" (1981), a steamy erotic noir thriller about a smarmy Florida lawyer (William Hurt) seduced by a sultry woman (Kathleen Turner) into murdering her wealthy businessman husband. Without a doubt one of the sexiest thrillers released at the time, Kasdan's "Body Heat" was praised by critics and helped make the unknown Turner into a highly sought star. After "Continental Divide" was finally released with John Belushi in one of his last roles, Kasdan collaborated with Lucas on "Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" (1983), a script that was written well after the budget and models were in place. Initial concerns over whether or not star Harrison Ford would return to play Han Solo plagued the pre-production phase, with both star and writer agreeing that Solo should die as a result of self-sacrifice - an idea Lucas rejected. Arguably the weakest movie in the original trilogy, "Return of the Jedi" nonetheless was another massive box office success.
That same year, Kasdan directed his second feature, "The Big Chill" (1983), an ensemble drama that focused on a group of baby boomer college friends who reunite 15 years later for the funeral of a friend (Kevin Costner, whose limited scenes were cut.) Starring Glenn Close, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly, "The Big Chill" was both an artistic and commercial success, though it was compared to John Sayles' low-budget "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980). While Sayles' film was a touching character study of friends lamenting the loss of their innocence, Kasdan's film came across as knee-jerk 1960s nostalgia, complete with Motown soundtrack. The film's success, however, paved the way for other Reagan-era movies that romanticized 1960s ideals in order to reach that most desirable demographic, the disillusioned hippie. Despite the film's trappings, "The Big Chill" earned Kasdan an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Kasdan went on to write and direct the Western saga, "Silverado" (1985), a fairly well-reviewed film that nonetheless suffered a bit from an overly complex narrative and flat characterizations. With the standard storyline of four outlaws (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner and Danny Glover) banding together to take down a corrupt sheriff (Brian Dennehy), "Silverado" struggled to differentiate itself from other Westerns, though it was still favorably seen by audiences and critics.
With "The Accidental Tourist" (1988), based on Anne Tyler's quirky best-selling novel, Kasdan returned to his original form. The romantic drama focused on a travel writer (Hurt) who loses his son, separates from his wife (Kathleen Turner) and starts traveling the world, only to meet an unusual dog trainer (Geena Davis). Poignant and well-observed, "The Accidental Tourist" was the kind of intelligent, well-crafted work that Kasdan displayed earlier in his career, while featuring exemplary performances from the three leads, particularly Davis, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. For his efforts, Kasdan received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as his first Best Picture nod. After directing Kevin Kline in the middling dark comedy, "I Love You to Death" (1990), Kasdan wrote and directed one of his most acclaimed films, "Grand Canyon" (1991), an ensemble drama about a group of forty-somethings struggling to address the issues of class, race and violence in Los Angeles. Dubbed by some as a "Big Chill for the '90s" and starring Danny Glover, Steve Martin, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, Mary-Louise Parker and Kevin Kline, "Grand Canyon" was a critical hit, but suffered from lackluster box office. Still, Kasdan earned another Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Kasdan met with a considerably worse critical reception once "The Bodyguard" (1992) was finally released, though audiences paid no mind to reviews to the tune over $120 million at the box office, which was in part spawned by Whitney Houston's No. 1 single, "I Will Always Love You." Kasdan's next venture as auteur, "Wyatt Earp" (1994), which starred Costner in the title role, was overly long and rather indulgent exercise disguised as an epic biopic. Costner had previously been involved in another Earp Western, "Tombstone" (1993), but disagreed over the direction of the character and left the project to team with Kasdan. Released six months after "Tombstone," Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp" strikingly paled in comparison despite being a higher-profile and bigger-budgeted affair. Unfortunately, Kasdan did not fare any better with his next movie, "French Kiss" (1995), which became a success thanks to the comic savvy of stars Meg Ryan, Kline and Timothy Hutton, and the lush Paris scenery. While the world watched and wondered if he could recover the mastery of his best work, he next made rare acting appearances as Dr. Green in James L. Brooks' comedy "As Good As It Gets" (1997) and as a producer for "Home Fries" (1998), starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. His next project was the forgettable drama "Mumford" (1999) and the adaptation of Stephen King's novel, "Dreamcatcher" (2003), which was both maligned by critics and failed at the box office. Since the early millennium, Kasdan often worked as an uncredited script doctor on a number of studio pictures, while directing Kevin Kline in the low-budget comedy, "Darling Companion," which was shot in 2010.
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"Technically, movies have progressed to the point where 50 directors can shoot beautiful movies now, but what there has always been a shortage of--and it's more drastic than ever now--is writing. For the first 40 years of movies writers came out of theater or fiction or journalism. They brought with them classic ideas about character and narrative and dramatic construction. That was for the first 40 years. But for the last 20 years people have come out of television and MTV and out of a disintegrated popular culture, fragmented, and they don't bring with them any literary tradition. . . good writing is about the ambiguity, the complexity of life; there are no easy villains and no easy heroes. Good writing should be disturbing, should raise questions. That's what we tried to do in 'Grand Canyon.'" --Lawrence Kasdan (NEW YORK TIMES, January 16, 1992)
Received the Clio Award for his advertising work.
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