Norman Lewis Corwin, one of the most beloved professors at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and one of the country’s greatest radio dramatists, died on Oct. 18. He was 101.
Corwin was a Bostonian who, at 17, started on a course that led him ultimately into almost all forms of media. After 10 years as a newspaperman, he moved into radio and served as writer-director-producer for CBS in the heyday of that network’s glory with such memorable series as 26 by Corwin, Columbia Presents Corwin and such milestones in broadcasting as the four-network We Hold These Truths.
Corwin’s landmark radio drama, On a Note of Triumph, an hour-long poetic meditation on World War II, was hailed by writer Carl Sandburg as “a vast announcement, a terrific interrogatory, one of the all-time great American poems,” while Billboard declared it “the single greatest – and we use ‘greatest’ in its full meaning – radio program we ever heard.”
He wrote and directed stage plays, television dramas, motion pictures, three cantatas (one of which was performed in the Assembly Hall of the United Nations) and even the libretto of an award-winning one-act opera that was produced by the Metropolitan Opera. He wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Lust for Life, for which Anthony Quinn won an Academy Award for his performance as artist Paul Gauguin.
Among recent works, Corwin wrote the culminating ode to wrap up CBS’ nine-hour, 50th anniversary celebration. He was the author of 12 published books and led two award committees for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Until the end of his life, Corwin was a writer-in-residence at USC Annenberg. Dean Ernest J. Wilson III called Corwin “a true legend.”
“His insightful, inspiring body of work has been absorbed into the American consciousness,” Wilson said. “He gave us the benefit of his knowledge, wit and keen observations through many decades, and he was a literary treasure.”
Over three and a half decades, Corwin passed down to his students the values of integrity, empathy and excellence, Wilson said. “And even as the profession of journalism evolved, his contributions remained powerful and influential. USC Annenberg will proudly carry Norman’s legacy into the future.”
Corwin joined USC Annenberg in 1979, at the urging of professor Joe Saltzman, who had created a broadcast program and needed to add radio to the curriculum.
“When it came to radio, there was only one man in America I wanted to bring to USC and that was Norman Corwin,” Saltzman said. “We met over lunch and an hour later, he became a member of our adjunct faculty and taught at USC for the next three decades. I used to sneak into his class just to listen to his lectures.
“Norman Corwin was the most articulate person I have ever met. He used language in a way so unique, so eloquent, so funny, so precise that it was just a pleasure to sit with him and listen to him talk about anything and everything, especially the people he knew from the famous to the infamous to the people he met on a daily basis.”
At a 100th birthday celebration thrown for Corwin at USC Annenberg last year, Wilson quoted Corwin from an oral history he had shared with USC Annenberg professor Bryce Nelson on his 95th birthday. Corwin had said:
“My approach is distinct from that of searching only for what’s wrong. I lay heavy emphasis on what is right because that too often escapes the awareness of a writer…. I also place emphasis on rewriting, on the theory that all first drafts are trash. And that applies to my own first drafts. I think it’s terribly important to read, to watch television and movies, and listen to radio, to read books, magazines, newspapers, even when the material is poor. A student should learn what makes it poor.
“In sum, I urge my students to read widely. I believe in the benefits of intellectual osmosis.”