Unsung Auteurs: William W. Norton

September 21, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: late screenwriter William W. Norton, who penned White Lightning and Gator.

With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’ll be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters for the next weeks in the Unsung Auteurs column. Though screenwriters usually and inappropriately exist largely in the shadows of others involved in the making of a film (directors, actors, even producers), their counterparts in the world of literary fiction have traditionally received far, far more attention, obviously because they are the single, usually definitive author of a work. In line with this, many fiction writers have become celebrities unto themselves, with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut, J.K Rowling, John Grisham and the like just as well known for their own life stories as they are for the fictitious worlds they’ve created. The lives of screenwriters, on the hand, are largely unknown, with Mank and Trumbo two rare examples of films about real life movie scribes.

If you want a screenwriter with an incredible life story, however, you can’t go past William W. Norton….and all of the following exists principally outside of the work that he did in Hollywood. William W. Norton was born in 1925 to struggling Mormon Utah rancher parents who lost everything in The Great Depression, and then hauled their lives to California, where Norton attended high school. During WW2, Norton enlisted in the US Army and served in Europe as an infantry officer with Patton’s Third Army. That’s right, not in the film unit or somewhere behind the lines, but in Patton’s infantry.

The Scalphunters, William W. Norton’s first major screenplay.

After returning home from WW2, Norton started writing, mining his own experiences in WW2 and The Great Depression for content, with some of his plays eventually staged by local theatre companies. A keen observer of social justice (way before the term even existed), Norton joined The Communist Party in his youth, which would later come back to bite him. With The Red Scare in full effect, and cutting its ugly way through Hollywood, and in 1958 Norton was dragged before the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee, but stood tall and refused to reveal the names of other communists, as many were forced to do.

Norton began his screenwriting career in 1961, but we’ll jump back to that later. After experiencing much as a young man, Norton’s life never became dull. He moved with his family to Ireland in the mid-1980s, where he became sympathetic to the country’s Catholic citizenry, and the violence perpetrated against them, leading him somewhat bizarrely into the embrace of the infamous IRA. Norton became so tight with them, in fact, that he and his wife Eleanor attempted to smuggle a large cache of guns and ammunition from the US into Ireland secreted in a camper van. The Nortons’ gun-running attempt, however, was foiled by authorities, and the screenwriter ended up spending nineteen months in prison, while his wife did five months.

Burt Reynolds and Bo Hopkins in White Lightning.

The couple were subject to a US warrant on the gun smuggling charges and were granted asylum in Nicaragua, where William W. Norton’s life just got more eventful. After bandits broke into his house in Managua, the screenwriter grabbed a gun and shot one of the home invaders dead, making him one of a very select few members of the Hollywood filmmaking fraternity to have actually killed someone. Obviously hugely rattled by this tragedy, Norton eventually moved to Cuba in the 1990s, but became horribly disillusioned with Communism, and fled to Mexico, before eventually being smuggled back into the US by his family. Norton eventually resettled in Santa Barbara, California, and lived the rest of his life quietly, though he did fear for a time that he may have been wanted by the FBI…which he wasn’t.

Oh, and then there were the films William W. Norton. After serving in WW2 and then working in construction and as a park ranger, Norton wrote for the theatre and magazines, Norton broke into screenwriting via a couple of programmers (1961’s The Grass Eater, 1963’s Five Minutes To Love) and a pair of low-rent sexploitation flicks (1964’s How to Succeed With Girls, 1965’s The Farmer’s Other Daughter) before finding legitimacy with the 1968 western The Scalphunters, which was directed by Sydney Pollack and starred Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis. Norton’s socially conscious script showcased a terrific black character in Davis’ savvy, ingenious escaped slave, and major Hollywood player Lancaster was so taken with Norton’s “unique, clever” script that he was compelled to take the project on.

John Wayne in Brannigan.

The relative success of The Scalphunters drove Norton to pen two more westerns, both excellent, and both starring Burt Reynolds (1969’s Sam Whiskey, and 1973’s The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Norton established himself as a writer of tough, muscular films filled with action, violence and larger-than-life characters, but spread willingly and inventively across genres. There were horror-thrillers (1972’s Poor Albert & Little Annie), war films (1970’s The McKenzie Break), high adventure pics (1973’s Trader Horn), urban thrillers (1980’s Night Of The Juggler, 1975’s Brannigan, which starred notorious conservative John Wayne, who was perhaps unaware that the film’s script was co-written by Communist Norton and Christoper Trumbo, son of famous Red Scare victim Dalton Trumbo), horror flicks (1977’s Day Of The Animals), and absolutely top-grade exploitation (1974’s Big Bad Mama, 1976’s A Small Town In Texas, 1976’s Moving Violation).

Norton is perhaps most famous, however, for the two “good ol’ boy”, backwoods action belters he penned for Burt Reynolds: 1973’s White Lightning and its 1976 sequel Gator. Essential in establishing Reynolds’ charming, southern action man persona, the films showcased the seminal character of tough guy Gator McKlusky, an ex-con moonshiner who uses his wits and fists to outsmart forces seemingly much greater and more powerful than he is. Funny, fast-paced and wonderfully entertaining, White Lightning and Gator also feature Norton’s appreciation for both the underdog and a snappy line of dialogue.

Lauren Hutton and Burt Reynolds in Gator.

Though not one to blow his own horn (when asked by a nurse the day before he died of a heart attack in 2010 at age 85 if she would know any of Norton’s films, he replied “I don’t think your I.Q. is low enough”), William W. Norton left behind a wonderfully tough, highly entertaining and, despite his protestations, keenly intelligent body of work. He also left behind an equally gifted writer and director in the form of his son, Bill L. Norton, another Unsung Auteur.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Helen Childress, Bill LancasterLucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot Silverstein, Liz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.