Obituary: David Seidler

Writer whose personal story shaped his biggest film success


WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Writer David Seidler arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar party hosted by Graydon Carter held at Sunset Tower on February 27, 2011 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images)

Screenwriter David Seidler, who has died aged 86, was an inspirational figure who proved that not only can you achieve the highest echelons of the film industry in the twilight of your career, but that you can overcome great personal struggles to do so.

After decades of graft as a writer, at 73 Seidler became the oldest ever recipient of the Oscar for best original screenplay for his script for The King’s Speech. “My father always said that I would be a late bloomer,” he quipped in his acceptance speech.

The film, starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, won seven Baftas, and triumphed at the 2011 Academy Awards winning best picture, best director for Tom Hooper and best actor for Firth. It became the most successful independent British film ever, grossing £337 million worldwide.

Seidler’s screenplay, which depicted the true story of how King George VI overcame his speech impediment to address the nation after the outbreak of the Second World War, was inspired by his own childhood struggles with a stammer.

The screenwriter was born in 1937, months after King George took the throne, to fur broker Bernard and print-maker and graphic artist Doris Falkoff. His speech impediment developed just before his third birthday, on a boat to the United States where his family moved during the Second World War after their home had been bombed in the Blitz. He put it down to the trauma of the war; the abrupt upheaval and the journey – one of the three ships on their convoy across the Atlantic was sunk by German U-boats.

So debilitating was the stutter that Seidler was terrified of speaking in class or on the telephone when he was growing up on Long Island, New York, where his father had an office. “I had huge trouble with the ‘H’ sound, so when the telephone rang, I would break into a cold sweat, because I couldn’t say hello,” he recalled in an interview. “There came a period when I was actually excused from responding in class…. It was that bad.”

As a youngster he would hear the king struggle through his radio addresses as he rallied Britain against Adolf Hitler. His parents would tell him, “David, he was a much worse stutterer than you, and listen to him now. He’s not perfect. But he can give these magnificent, stirring addresses that rallied the free world.” Seidler was inspired and hoped to overcome his own difficulty. “If he could do that, I felt that there was hope for me,”

He told the Los Angeles Times, “I grew up always having a great soft spot in my heart [for him], because I knew he was a stutterer, who had, if not been totally cured, at least improved to the point where he could give these very eloquent, moving, stirring wartime speeches.”

Inspired to write about ‘Bertie’ since he became his boyhood hero for handling his stammer, he told the Telegraph, “King George was a childhood hero of mine, and as I grew up I wanted to write something about him, but I had no idea what the story was.”

Seidler did overcome the speech trouble, at 16. The way he did it was similar to King George: with the help of shouting expletives – as depicted in a scene in the film. Frustrated after attempts at speech therapy, Seidler changed tack. “I had been depressed, but now I was angry – I decided I deserved to be heard,” he told the Jewish Journal. “I learned some expletives, and I’d just leap around my bedroom like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, shouting the F-word. And when I did, I didn’t stutter – it was a huge relief.”

In 1981 he began the research for what would become The King’s Speech. He discovered that Queen Elizabeth had hired Australian speech and language therapist Lionel Logue to help her husband cure his difficulty – a fact that had not been public knowledge. “The royal family doesn’t like talking about the royal stutter,” Seidler would say. “It’s an embarrassment, and it’s swept under the carpet.”

Logue's surviving son Valentine, a brain surgeon, agreed to talk to Seidler and provide him with all the notebooks that his father kept while treating the king, but only once he had written permission from the then Queen Mother to make the film. Seidler promptly wrote to her, and she replied: "Please, not in my lifetime. The memory of these events is still too painful."

Seidler didn’t imagine he’d have to wait quite that long, however. Two decades later, in 2002, the Queen Mother died aged 101, and it took Seidler another four years to start in earnest, after he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

Seidler had originally set out to read genetics at Cornell University and become a botanist, but changed to a degree in English, graduating in 1959.

His writing career was a long time in the making. Seidler’s first job in the entertainment business was dubbing the dialogue for the Godzilla movies and in 1966-67 he wrote for the Australian TV show Adventures of the Seaspray. Three years working as political adviser and speechwriter to the first prime minister of Fiji followed, and advertising work in New Zealand. His next writing credits followed in 1980.

Giving writing one more shot as he turned 40, Seidler moved to Hollywood. There he conjured the idea for a film about Preston Tucker, the American car entrepreneur, and his old schoolmate at Great Neck North High School, the director Francis Ford Coppola, directed the script he co-wrote. Tucker: The Man and His Dream scored a Bafta, a Golden Globe and three Oscar nominations in 1988. That same year he won his first Writers Guild award for the Emmy Award-winning biopic Onassis: The Richest Man In The World. Other projects included writing for the animated children’s musicals The King And I, Quest For Camelot and Madeline: Lost in Paris.

The King’s Speech was originally written as a stage play. But there was no interest when it was sent to theatre producers in 2007. A rejection letter from the National Theatre said: “This is not yet a play, and if it were to become one it still wouldn't be for us.”

When the reading was later staged at a north London theatre, audience member Meredith Hooper was so taken by it that she called her son Tom, a director, to suggest he make a film.

The stage adaptation of the film, directed by Adrian Noble, was premiered at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in 2012 before opening at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre a month later, and Seidler was thrilled by it. He recalled loving the times his grandfather took him to plays at the Hippodrome, as he "so wanted to be part of that world”.

“Now I've got both what I wanted and needed,” he wrote in The Independent just before his play hit the West End. “No need to sing another Rolling Stones number, the one about not getting no satisfaction. This is very satisfying indeed.”

He was married to Mary Ann Tharaldsen, Huia Newton and Jacqueline Feather. All three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by a son, Marc, and daughter, Maya.

Elisa Bray

David Seidler: born August 4, 1937. Died March 16, 2024

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