Down and Out in Chicago

At the end of the 1949 Nicholas Ray film, Knock on Any Door, juvenile delinquent Nick Romano, played by John Derek, is sentenced to die in the electric chair for killing a cop, despite the attempts of his attorney, Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), to save him. The story didn’t end there, however, and African-American novelist Willard Motley wrote a sequel to his original 1947 bestseller in 1958 entitled Let No Man Write My Epitaph. It was adapted to the screen under that same title in 1960 and focused more on the ghetto drug problem than urban gang violence although the latter is still an omnipresent concern.

The novel picks up the story many years later as Nick Jr., the illegitimate son of Romano, and his mother, Nellie Watkins, are living a hand-to-mouth existence in the slums of Chicago where drug dealers and petty criminals weld considerable influence over their lives. Columbia Pictures optioned the book and assigned the film version to British director Philip Leacock who had relocated to Hollywood and recently completed two U.S. features (Take a Giant Step, The Rabbit Trap [both 1959]).

Film director Philip Leacock

For Leacock and the Columbia executives, the casting coup of Let No Man Write My Epitaph [1960] was Shelley Winters who had recently won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Diary of Anne Frank [1959]. 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.

Shelley Winters plays a single mom who gets hooked on heroin in the 1960 melodrama LET NO MAN WRITE MY EPITAPH.

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 [1959].

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. Winters and Ives had rehearsed the scene for an hour but during the filming of it, the actress accidentally slammed the car door on her hand. Winters was rushed to the hospital and x-rayed. Luckily, she hadn’t broken any bones but she had crushed the ligaments and cartilage in her hand. She ended up having to finish the movie with her left hand hidden in some way such as placing it in a pocket.

Jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald plays a supporting role in the 1960 urban drama LET NO MAN WRITE MY EPITAPH.

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 [1942] and two more prominent roles in Pete Kelly’s Blues [1955] and St. Louis Blues [1958]. 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 gives 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 is equally accomplished 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.”

A publicity still of Shelley Winters from the 1960 film LET NO MAN WRITE MY EPITAPH.

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.

Jean Seberg and James Darren star in the 1960 melodrama LET NO MAN WRITE MY EPITAPH, directed by Philip Leacock.

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[1953], Legend of the Lost [1957])

Let No Man Write My Epitaph was released on VHS in the U.S. in 2005 but there have been no DVD or Blu-ray releases of the film to date.  

*This is revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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