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Kurt Luedtke, reporter, editor, Oscar-winning screenwriter, dies at 80

By Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

Kurt Luedtke, who won an Academy Award for the 1985 film "Out of Africa, was nominated for an Oscar for the newspaper drama "Absence of Malice" and a former Free Press editor, died Sunday at Beaumont Hospital, his wife, Eleanor Luedtke, confirmed in an email.

He was 80 years old.

Kurt Luedtke holds Oscar he won for a screenplay based on material from another medium for the film "Out of Africa," at Academy Awards in Los Angeles, March 24, 1986.  Luedtke died Sunday, August 9, 2020, his wife Eleanor confirmed in an email.

Luedtke disdained Hollywood but brought the glamour here, in a way. He could often be seen dressed in a tatty sweater and jeans, lunching at a suburban eatery with a big shot such as director Sydney Pollack.

Before he ever set foot in Hollywood, Luedtke cut a wide swath through Detroit journalism. He was first a reporter, then an editor at the Free Press from 1965-78.

He was a charismatic editor who brought excitement to the newsroom, and demanded the same from his reporters.

“He was brilliant, darkly witty, and a ceaseless provocateur,” said former Detroit News columnist Laura Berman, who worked at the Free Press during part of his tenure. "Kurt was a mentor to many journalists, including myself, and especially to journalists who wanted to write screenplays.”

“He was the emperor of the madhouse,” said former Detroit News editor Judy Diebolt, whose first job as a reporter was at the Free Press in 1970. “We all lived for validation from Kurt.”

That he switched gears and became a successful screenwriter “surprised none of us,” Diebolt said. “He was the most fascinating man I ever met. Certainly one of the most brilliant.”

Born in Grand Rapids in 1939, Luedtke graduated from Brown University and worked as a reporter at the Grand Rapids Press in 1961 and then the Miami Herald, before arriving in Detroit in 1965, to be a Free Press reporter. He quickly became assistant city editor (1966) and was only 33 when he became executive editor.

When Luedtke was still a reporter he helped develop the successful Action Line help column that assisted readers with their problems. Later, as an editor, he decided that the feature section was boring and needed a shot of sophistication. He had Diebolt and Tish Jett write a gossip column, Darling. His goal: “That it’s accurate, and people are talking about it.”

As exciting as Luedtke required the newsroom to be, he was also a stickler for accuracy and vivid details, Diebolt remembers. “He created a newsroom where the worst thing you could do is have a mistake in a story. If you said a street was on the west side when it was on the east side, and it appeared in the paper, the sense of shame was so pervasive you could hardly wait for the day to end.”

Former Detroit Free Press editor Kurt Luedtke died Sunday, his wife said.

Luedtke also was a key part of the Free Press editorial team overseeing the coverage of the civil uprising during the summer of 1967.

In 1978, Luedtke quit the Free Press and decided to take a swing at Hollywood and screenwriting, the dream of many a journalist. Unlike most of them, he scored with the first film he was attached to, "Absence of Malice." He’d intended the story, of an ambitious journalist who ruins a man’s life, to be a novel, but it was optioned by Orion as a screenplay before he’d written more than a brief treatment.

The film, which eventually starred Paul Newman and Sally Field, paired Luedtke with director Pollack, with whom he was to have a fruitful collaboration for several more films.

The plot concerned a newspaper reporter, Megan Carter (played by Field), who relies on an anonymous source for a story that implicates an innocent man, Michael Gallagher (played by Newman) in a murder. The story had been planted by the source, and wasn’t true. Gallagher’s alibi implicates an innocent woman, who is named by Carter in her story. The publicity prompts the woman to commit suicide.

The word was that reporter Carter was an amalgam of several Free Press reporters Luedtke worked with, and that the story had its roots in an incident at the paper.

Another insider Detroit detail: The first name of the reporter played by Field, “Megan,” is a tip of the hat to the daughter of his good friend, former Detroit News publisher Bob Giles. The two knew each other years before Giles took over at The News, and would vacation together in northern Michigan.

Luedtke was nominated for an Oscar for this, his first screenwriting credit.

Later, Pollack and Luedtke worked as a team on "Out of Africa," which starred Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Based upon stories by Danish writer Isak Dineson about her life in colonial Africa in the early 20th century, "Out of Africa" earned Luedtke an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

The two men forged a tight bond. Photographer Linda Solomon remembers running into Luedtke and Pollack at a restaurant in Southfield in the '80s. When she asked questions about what their next project was going to be, Pollack would answer “yes” to every question, while Luedtke answered “no.” “It was like a comedy act,” she said.

While most journalists look upon their early years as a golden time, it’s hard not to see the 1970’s in Detroit as such, with reporters spying on each other in bars, and characters such as Luedtke riding herd on a young staff.

“There were two great dailies, and they couldn’t be more different, and yet each in their own way was just superb,” said Diebolt. “The News was bigger, but Kurt thought it was more fun to be a scrappy No. 2 newspaper.

“He felt that his job was to make his newsroom the most exciting place to work that he possibly could. And I think that Kurt’s brilliance stands.”

Luedtke is survived by his wife, Eleanor. At his request, there will be no memorial service.