Lewis “Lew” Hunter, a screenwriting professor emeritus in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, died Jan. 6 at a care facility in Tucson, Ariz., from COVID-19 complications. He was 87.
Hunter, who began teaching at UCLA in 1979, helped create the modern version of the school’s graduate FTV 434 course, which guides students step by step on how to write a full-length screenplay in 10 weeks. He was named co-head of the screenwriting program in 1988. After retiring in 2000, he returned to UCLA TFT to teach the 434 class each winter from 2001 to 2015.
The late professor, who authored “Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434” based on the course, taught Hollywood screenwriters including Michael Colleary and Mike Werb, who co-wrote “Face/Off” and worked together on “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Known for his encouraging attitude as well as kindness, warmth and generosity, Hunter was a beloved figure on and off campus.
“Lew was possibly the most exceptional person I will ever know,” said Meg Gifford, a screenwriter and former student. “He genuinely liked everyone without judgment.” As a professor, she added, “he made people believe in themselves. When you were around Lew, you were always discussing creative ideas or social issues that needed to be addressed and it was always done with so much positivity. He had the ability to create a space where everyone believed that anything is possible, especially positive change through writing.”
Hunter, a self-proclaimed farm boy from Guide Rock, Neb., was born July 18, 1935. He received his bachelor’s degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University, master’s from Northwestern University and pursued further graduate courses at UCLA. His Hollywood experience included jobs as an executive, producer and writer at the Walt Disney Co., ABC, CBS and NBC.
Before coming to UCLA, Hunter was a guest lecturer at universities throughout the U.S. During his academic tenure, he continued to hold international workshops and lectures. He also hosted monthly gatherings at his Burbank home for aspiring screenwriters, which became known as the Writers Block.
“You’d walk into his little house and there would be 60 people — current students, former students, standing and sitting, occupying every square foot — and he did that for years,” said UCLA TFT professor emeritus Howard Suber. “He didn’t send out invitations; you just knew it was a regular thing.”
“He was a teacher who people revered,” added Hal Ackerman, former UCLA TFT screenwriting co-head. “When you feel that you’re being supported in an area where support is so necessary, it gives writers a feeling of confidence that they can do what they want to do. He had that spirit, and that spirit pervaded the whole department. It was very much because it came from his heart.”
As a writer and professor, Hunter believed in the three-act structure, holding up as examples “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and other films. He also talked about his own Emmy-nominated film, “Fallen Angel.”
After retiring from UCLA, Hunter and his wife Pamela settled in the small town of Superior, Neb. For the next 20 years, their eight-bedroom Victorian home became the nexus of the Superior Screenwriting Colony, a training ground for aspiring screenwriters. In 2018, they bought another home in Tucson, where they could avoid Nebraska winters.
Hunter, one of the founders of the American Screenwriters Association, was inducted into its Hall of Fame. He was also the subject of the 2015 documentary “Once in a Lew Moon,” which chronicled his early life in Nebraska, journey to Hollywood and the positive impact he had on those he worked with.
In 2021, Hunter published his last book, “Naked Screenwriting,” which features Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Eric Roth, Alexander Payne, Callie Khouri and others talking about the art and craft of screenwriting.
“I never had the pleasure or privilege of meeting Lew Hunter, but his presence is deeply felt in the screenwriting program and his signature 434 workshop,” said screenwriting professor George Huang, who currently teaches the class. “The idea that students have to finish a full-length feature screenplay in the 10 weeks of a quarter still seems revolutionary even today, but this is how writers learn to write — by actually doing it. Lew literally wrote the book on screenwriting and his legacy of excellence will always be a part of UCLA TFT.”
Three funds, including the Lew and Pamela Hunter/Jon Zakin Endowed Chair in Screenwriting, have been created over the years in Hunter’s honor to support TFT, its students and faculty.
The university flag at Pauley Pavilion will be lowered to half-mast in Hunter’s honor on Feb. 2.
Hunter is survived by his wife, four children, eight grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. A celebration of life event will take place Memorial Day weekend in Superior.