Barrett wrote the scripts for some of Hollywood’s most successful film and television productions. Among his most popular films were The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Green Berets, and Smoky and the Bandit. His screenplay for the comedy The Cheyenne Social Club won a Writers Guild of America award in 1970. One of his most enduring works has been the film Shenandoah, whose star, James Stewart, became a good friend.
Screenwriter. Once described as “perhaps the most prolific hyphenate (writer-producer) in Hollywood,” James Lee Barrett was born on November 19, 1929, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the son of James Hamlin Barrett and Anne Blake. He grew up in Anderson, South Carolina. Following the early death of his mother, he was reared by four schoolteacher aunts and was remembered as an independent and mischievous boy who chafed under the hand of authority. He served as a reporter for his high school newspaper and attained the rank of Eagle Scout in a local Boy Scout troop.
Barrett pursued his education at Anderson College, Furman University, Pennsylvania State University, Columbia University, and the Art Students League in New York. After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps he moved to New York City, where, failing to place any of the numerous short stories he had written, he began to try his hand at writing material for television. His first breakthrough was the production of his teleplay Cold Harbor, and soon after Barrett was writing for the big New York television market: Kraft Theatre, Playhouse 90, and Armstrong Circle Theatre. One of his Kraft teleplays, Murder of a Sand Flea, based on a Marine experience, caught the eye of the actor Jack Webb, who brought Barrett to Hollywood to adapt it into a movie. It was released in 1957 as The D.I., and Barrett remained in the film capital for the rest of his life.
During the next thirty years Barrett wrote the scripts for some of Hollywood’s most successful film and television productions. Among his most popular films were The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Green Berets, and Smoky and the Bandit. His screenplay for the comedy The Cheyenne Social Club won a Writers Guild of America award in 1970. One of his most enduring works has been the film Shenandoah, whose star, James Stewart, became a good friend. Barrett’s musical book for the stage version of Shenandoah won him a Tony Award.
Barrett’s made-for-television films include Belle Star, Angel City, The Day Christ Died, Mayflower: The Pilgrim Experience, The Law & Charlie Dodge, April Morning, Stagecoach, Poker Alice, Vengeance, and The Quick and the Dead. He created pilots for such productions as The Doctors Brandon, Big Bad John, The Judge, When the Whistle Blows, Running Hot, The Cowboys, You the Jury, and Big Man, Little Lady. He wrote the seven-hour, three-part miniseries The Awakening Land and the holiday special Stubby Pringle’s Christmas. He developed In the Heat of the Night for television and was the originator of the popular series Our House. “I’ve told mostly about people,” Barrett remarked near the end of his career. “And that, really, is what makes a good motion picture–the people and how real they are. Always the people.”
Barrett was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the writers’ Guild of America, West; the Dramatists’ Guild; and the Authors’ League of America. In 1998 he was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. He and his wife, Danish-born Merete Engelstoft Barrett, were the parents of five children. Barrett died of cancer on October 15, 1989, at his home in Templeton, California.
Barrett, James Lee. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.