Cast & Crew
On Chicago's seamy Southside in 1950, a group of down-and-out derelicts band together on Christmas to create a surrogate family for young Nick Romano, the offspring of a man executed for murder and a bar hostess named Nellie who salves her loneliness with alcohol. Among those hoping to spare Nick from the sordid life they have led are: Judge Bruce Mallory Sullivan, whose descent into alcoholism cost him his judgeship; Flora, a heroin-addicted blues singer; Fran, a big-hearted streetwalker; Wart, a disabled man who runs a newspaper stand; Goodbye George, a washed-up boxer; and Max, a cab driver. Years later, Nick has developed into a skilled pianist with hopes of winning a scholarship at a conservatory after graduating from high school. Nellie's dream for her son is threatened by a gang of local toughs who goad Nick into a fight by besmirching his mother and father. One day, Louie Ramponi comes to the bar in which Nellie works. Struck by Louie's resemblance to Nick's father, Nellie begins to flirt with him, but the cold-blooded Louie rebuffs her. Meanwhile, at the Romano apartment, Nick is about to leave to confront Eddie, a member of the gang, when George, who has just been released from prison, arrives. Nick excuses himself to meet Eddie in the alley, and when George sees the rest of the gang jump Nick, he springs to the boy's defense. After Nick and the others are arrested for disturbing the peace, Nellie is summoned to night court for Nick's arraignment. Upon learning of Nick's predicament, Wart sends Fran to find Judge Sullivan at his flophouse, but the judge protests that he is too drunk to defend Nick in court. Taking another swig of alcohol for courage, the judge finally agrees to accompany Fran to court, and they enter just as the magistrate sends George back to prison for violating his parole and sentences the rest of the boys to a fine of $50 each or ten days in jail. Identifying himself as a judge emeritus from the district court of appeals, the judge makes an impassioned plea for a trial by jury, but after he topples over drunk, the magistrate calls him a disgrace and a drunken vagrant. Just then, Louie arrives to pay Nick's fine and gives Nellie his business card. The next day, Nellie goes to the address on the business card, a florist shop that serves as a front for Louie's bookie operation, to repay the $50. Louie refuses the money and instead seduces her. At the apartment, meanwhile, Nick is practicing the piano when the judge comes to apologize. When Nellie comes home, she chastises Nick for fighting and he retorts that he was fighting to preserve her honor. Angry, Nick calls the judge a big drunk and storms out of the house, after which the judge resolves to help Nick by introducing him to "an old friend from another day." While the judge takes Nick to the posh North Shore of Chicago to meet his old friend, Grant Holloway, Louie cements Nellie's relationship as his mistress by plying her with heroin. At Holloway's penthouse, Nick impresses Grant and his daughter Barbara, or "Bobby," with his virtuosity at the piano. After Nick finishes playing, Grant takes him aside and confides that he defended his father at his murder trial and feels responsible for losing the case. Stating that he now feels an obligation to help Nick, Grant promises to help him win a scholarship to the conservatory. Soon, Bobby and Nick begin to date, and one day, while at The Art Institute of Chicago, they decide to go steady. Meanwhile, the judge, who is secretly in love with Nellie, sees her with Louie and bemoans to Fran that he feels like an old fool. Fran then informs the judge that Louie uses his floral shop as a front to deal heroin and has been supplying Flora for years. When Nick unexpectedly comes home one day and finds Louie poised in a suggestive position over his mother on the couch, he runs out the door. Eavesdropping from the hallway, Nick hears Louie insult Nellie, and when he rushes back to defend his mother, Louie slugs him. After Louie leaves, Nellie admits to Nick that she never married his father, then begins to writhe with symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Unaware that Nellie has become an addict, Nick believes that his mother's illness is due to her alcoholism. That night, when Bobby tells her father she has fallen in love with Nick, Grant worries about the difference in their backgrounds. After Nick phones Bobby to break a date because of his mother's illness, a concerned Bobby and her father come to the Romanos' apartment, where an embarrassed Nick orders them to go away, then calls his mother a dirty rotten drunk. The next day, Nellie goes to Louie to beg him for a fix so that she can attend Nick's audition at the conservatory. Louie demands that she pay for the drug, telling her to use the money she has been saving for Nick's schooling. After securing a packet of heroin, Nellie runs home to get a fix in her bathroom, and when Nick opens the door, he sees her, grabs the needle and smashes it on the floor. Declaring that his father was a killer and his mother a tramp, Nellie hands Nick the checkbook and begs him to withdraw the savings before she hands them over to Louie for drugs. Furious, Nick steals a gun from Wart's newspaper stand and heads to the flower shop to exact revenge on Louie. Meanwhile, the judge consoles Nellie and finally tells her he loves her. As Nellie begs for a fix, Max runs into the apartment to announce that Nick stole Wart's gun, and the judge realizes that the boy is going to the flower shop. At the shop, Flora is begging Louie for heroin when Nick breaks into the office, pulls out his gun and accuses Louie of making his mother an addict. Grabbing the gun from Nick's hand, Louie orders one of his thugs to take him into the back room and inject him with heroin. Meanwhile, Max drives the judge and Nellie to the florist shop, where they demand to see Nick. Declaring that Nick has already departed, Louie throws them out of his office, and when they leave the building they see Flora, who tells them that Louie's thugs are about to inject Nick with heroin in the back room. The judge and Max break down the door to Louie's office and as the judge strangles Louie with his bare hands, Louie shoots him with Nick's gun. As the judge and Louie stumble into the alley, Nellie frees Nick, sparing him from certain addiction, and they run into the alley, where they find the judge has collapsed from his wounds. As Nellie and Nick hover over him, the judge gasps "It's too late for me, don't let it be for you." Later, as the group assembles to examine the judge's belongings, Nellie vows to take the cure for Nick's sake, but Max observes that Nick is now grown up and will be leaving them. Meanwhile, Nick and Bobby meet on a street corner and walk past The Art Institute.
Boris D. Kaplan
Robert Presnell Jr.
William Randall Jr.
Charles J. Rice
Chester W. Schaeffer
Let No Man Write My Epitaph
For Leacock and the Columbia executives, the casting coup of Let No Man Write My Epitaph  was Shelley Winters who had recently won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for The Diary of Anne Frank . According to Winters in her second autobiography, Shelley II: The Middle of My Century: "I was rather pleased with this offer for the wrong reasons. When I was quite young, I had been under contract to Columbia for very little money. After a year, they had dropped my option, and the casting director, Max Arnow, had told me I just wasn't cut out for the movies I wasn't photogenic, didn't understand the camera and my voice was all wrong. So now I told my agent to make Columbia pay a lot of money, and I had to have a definite artistic involvement in the film." Winters was quickly cast as Nellie Romano, an unmarried single parent who resorts to prostitution to support her son and eventually develops a heroin habit, encouraged by her pimp/drug pusher Louie Ramponi.
Due to her special contract, Winters was able to convince Leacock to cast James Darren as her son Nick, Burl Ives, Jean Seberg, Ella Fitzgerald and Bernie Hamilton as the legless beggar known as Goodbye George. Winters had first met Hamilton during WWII when he auditioned for a play she was directing and she was so impressed with him, she invited him to look her up in Los Angeles after finishing his stint with the Navy. Hamilton did just that and Winters recalled, "I sent him to the right teachers, and he has had quite an illustrious career in Hollywood. He was the first character actor to break the color line, getting cast in parts that had originally been written for whites." Winters also campaigned heavily for George C. Scott in the role of Louie Ramponi but that part went instead to Ricardo Montalban. Scott, however, would achieve a major career breakthrough and his first Oscar® nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) just six months later for Anatomy of a Murder .
The actual filming of Let No Man Write My Epitaph presented some acting challenges for Winters who had not had sufficient time to research the physical details of drug addiction and it resulted in, according to her, one of the most embarrassing moments of her entire career. The scene in question called for Winters to lock herself in the bathroom, "cook" the heroin, absorb it with the syringe and shoot up. "This shot," she recalled, "was being done with the camera on a huge crane, and it took several hours to light it. My acting was just great, I thought. But when I came to the part about getting the melted heroin into the syringe, I took off the top of the syringe and poured it from the spoon into the top of the tube. Philip Leacock, who had been patience itself, shouted, "CUT!" "All two hundred special-effects men and crew members and actors on the set froze, and this English, gentlemanly director got down from his perch on the huge camera crane, walked up to me, and carefully said, "Miss Method Actress, you did the research for this role about heroin addiction?" "Of course, Mr. Leacock," I answered, having the grace to blush....Mr. Leacock gently showed me that what I had been doing was impossible. He put the needle into the phony melted heroin and sucked up the fluid through the needle. All I could think of to say was, "Well, maybe addicts in New York do it differently." After that incident, Winters confided that "the director got me a technical adviser who was a doctor who took care of drug addicts, and from then on, I believe my performance improved."
The only other incident that caused Winters some concern on the set of Let No Man Write My Epitaph was during an outdoor scene with Burl Ives where the actress is supposed to emerge from a two-door coupe after an argument with Ives. "We rehearsed this scene for an hour, and it was rather an emotional one, then we finally began to film it...When I shut the car door, I realized my hand hurt, but I continued doing the scene until I had come to the end, and the director said "Cut!" I had slammed the car door on my hand and hadn't even realized it. I just said, "Burt, please open the door." When they took me to a hospital and x-rayed my hand, we found that I had no broken bones, but the ligaments and cartilage were crushed, and I had to finish the film with my left hand hidden in some way, usually in my pocket."
The supporting cast in Let No Man Write My Epitaph is one of the film's strongest assets and, in particular, it provided a rare dramatic role for jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald who had only acted in three other movies a small part in Ride 'Em Cowboy  and two more prominent roles in Pete Kelly's Blues  and St. Louis Blues . As one of Nellie Romano's drug-addicted neighbors, Fitzgerald registered strongly and was singled out for praise in several reviews including The New York Times but it would prove to be her last dramatic film role. And yes, she does perform some songs in the movie, including a rendition of "Reach for Tomorrow" with her piano playing dubbed by Cliff Smalls.
Teenage heartthrob/pop singer James Darren also gave one of his strongest dramatic performances in Let No Man Write My Epitaph - he would go on to co-star in the cult WWII adventure The Guns of Navarone the following year and Burl Ives acquitted himself admirably in yet another memorable supporting role. For Jean Seberg, however, Let No Man Write My Epitaph was a personal comedown for her after just returning from France and unanimous critical acclaim for her fresh performance in Jean-Luc Godard's A bout de soufflé [1960, aka Breathless]. According to David Richards in Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story, the actress "reported to Columbia only to discover that she was expected to undergo a screen test. She won over two young women who had never acted before, but the test was a sharp reminder of her lowly position on the lot. It also brought back painful memories of the Preminger ordeal [her role in Saint Joan, 1957]. This time, the part was hardly worth winning. Its only function was to provide a happy-ending-by-marriage to the saga of a sensitive youth (James Darren) growing up in a tough, drug-infested ghetto in Chicago. Because of illnesses among the cast and various production delays, filming dragged on through the new year. After the freewheeling adventures of Breathless, the studio system struck her as regimented and overbearing. "It seemed like there was someone popping me on the nose with a powder puff every five minutes," she commented."
Although Willard Motley's novel of Let No Man Write My Epitaph had not fared well with literary critics at the time, the film version was well received by most reviewers. Arthur Knight of Saturday Review wrote "Films on the once-forbidden subject of drug addiction are no longer a novelty, but Let No Man Write My Epitaph must be regarded as an exception. It avoids most of the clichés that have sprung up during the past few years...What makes it arresting is the obvious sincerity that underlies the production, an absence of sordidness or sensationalism for its own sake, and a genuine concern for human values." Variety reinforced this opinion with its verdict: "Powerful drama, well produced and superbly enacted." Some critics did take issue with the movie's depressing subject matter such as Paul V. Beckley of The N.Y. Herald Tribune who wrote "as grim as it sounds...The tone is unrelieved pathos, but...it has a certain grainy honesty." However, almost everyone agreed that the performances were outstanding, with The New York Times proclaiming "The best thing about the picture is Miss Winters as the frowsy, good-hearted woman who goes to pieces. And young Mr. Darren is almost as convincing, especially down over narcotics. This is a film with real urgency."
Let No Man Write My Epitaph was not a popular success with moviegoers due to its bleak portrayal of life in the Chicago slums and it is not nearly as well known today as its predecessor, Knock on Any Door, but it remains one of Philip Leacock's best films along with his much more upbeat and award-winning 1953 feature, The Little Kidnappers, which scored honorary Oscars® for actors Jon Whiteley and Vincent Winter.
Additional trivia: Let No Man Write My Epitaph was adapted for the screen by screenwriter Robert Presnell, Jr., who worked in television for most of his career (The Twilight Zone, Mr. Novak, McCloud) with occasional breaks for feature films (Man in the Attic, Legend of the Lost )
Producer: Boris Kaplan
Director: Philip Leacock
Screenplay: Robert Presnell, Jr.; Willard Motley (novel)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: Chester W. Schaeffer
Cast: Burl Ives (Judge Bruce M. Sullivan), Shelley Winters (Nellie Romano), James Darren (Nick Romano), Jean Seberg (Barbara Holloway), Ricardo Montalban (Louie Ramponi), Ella Fitzgerald (Flora), Rudolph Acosta (Max), Philip Ober (Grant Holloway), Jeanne Cooper (Fran), Bernie Hamilton (Goodbye George).
by Jeff Stafford
Shelley II: The Middle of My Century by Shelley Winters
Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story by David Richards
Let No Man Write My Epitaph
The film's working title was Reach for Tomorrow. The film's title card is superimposed over an image of one of the lions that flank the entrance of The Art Institute of Chicago, which becomes a motif in the film. The same shot is then repeated at the end of the film. Toward the beginning of the film, "Nellie Romano" lies to her son "Nick" that his late father bequeathed him one of the lions as a symbol of his love. Later in the film, after Nick and "Bobby" decide to go steady Nick designates one of the lions as a symbol of his affection for Bobby.
Willard Motley's novel was a sequel to his 1947 book Knock on Any Door, which featured the character of "Nick Romano," the father of the character Nick Romano, who appears in Let No Man Write My Epitaph. The 1947 novel was the basis for the 1949 Knock on Any Door (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50), which, according to a March 1958 Los Angeles Times news item, was so successful that Harry Cohn, the head of the Columbia, bought the film rights for Let No Man Write My Epitaph.
A May 1958 Daily Variety news item indicated that Charles Schnee was originally to produce the project and that George Zuckerman was to write the screenplay. A December 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Lana Turner was considered for the role of Nellie Romano, a May 1959 Daily Variety news item noted that Columbia was negotiating with Henry Silva to play the role of "Louie Ramponi," and an October 1958 Hollywood Reporter item in the "Rambling Reporter" column stated that Michael Callan was to play the role of Nick. Although various Hollywood Reporter news item added Ed Shrinker, Thomas Tarzan, Michael Vandever and Richard Gering to the cast, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Studio publicity contained in the film's production file at the AMPAS Library noted that the studio originally considered shooting the picture in Chicago, but was precluded from doing so by the winter weather. Instead, art director Robert Peterson traveled to Chicago, where he sketched the skid row area which he then reproduced at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, CA. Although studio publicity indicated that Ella Fitzgerald sang the songs "Misty" and "Who's Sorry Now?" they were not heard in the viewed print.
The film's title, "Let No Man Write My Epitaph," is also a quotation that "Judge Sullivan" carried in his wallet. It was from the "Speech from the Dock," a speech originally delivered by Irish Nationalist rebel leader Robert Emmet in 1803 when he was sentenced to be beheaded for leading an abortive rebellion against British rule. The entire text reads, "Let no man write my epitaph. Let my character and motives repose in obscurity and peace, till other times and other men can do them justice."
Released in United States Fall November 1960
Released in United States March 1996
Sequel to "Knock on Any Door" (1949).
Released in United States March 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "The Films of Jean Seberg" March 15-28, 1996.)
Released in United States Fall November 1960