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William Norton: Action Screenwriter Turned Left-Wing Activist & Gunrunner

Big Bad Mama Angie Dickinson Roger Corman
Big Bad Mama with Angie Dickinson.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

The life of screenwriter William W. Norton, who died of a heart aneurysm on Oct. 2 in Santa Barbara at the age of 85, could be the basis for a good screenplay.

Norton was born Sept. 24, 1925, in Ogden, Utah, to a family of Mormon pioneers. After getting kicked out of school for fathering a child out of wedlock, dabbling in journalism, and working as a park ranger, he wrote screenplays for a number of action movies, most notably Sydney Pollack’s Western The Scalphunters (1968), starring Burt Lancaster.

Other major credits (often shared with other writers) include the Burt Reynolds vehicles Sam Whiskey (1969), White Lightning (1973) and Gator (1976); the box office flop Trader Horn (1973), with Rod Taylor; the John Wayne fish-out-of-water cop drama Brannigan (1975); and the cult flick Big Bad Mama (1974), with Angie Dickinson and William Shatner, and a tag line that read “Men, money and moonshine: When it comes to vice Mama knows best.”

I Dismember Mama

Among Norton’s other screenplays are those for the low-budgeters Five Minutes to Love (1963), The Farmer’s Other Daughter / Haystack Hooker (1965), and I Dismember Mama / Poor Albert and Little Annie (1972), about a madman out to kill his mother.

Additionally, Norton’s play Exiled in America was adapted into a movie by I Dismember Mama director Paul Leder in 1990. Maxwell Caulfied, Edward Albert, Viveca Lindfors, and Stella Stevens were featured in this tale about a Central American revolutionary who finds refuge in the United States, but must later hide from a CIA hit team.

After retiring from show business in the mid-’80s, Norton, who happened to be a former card-carrying member of the Communist Party, became a gunrunner for left-wing rebels in Guatemala and later for the Irish National Liberation Army, an IRA splinter group.

According to the Los Angeles Times obit, he and his wife Eleanor were arrested in France while trying to bring weapons and ammunition into Ireland.

“If you could witness as I have the tragic results of attacks upon homes and upon whole families by masked civilian hit squads because the families were under suspicion of favoring the IRA,” he remarked in a 1987 LA Weekly article, published while he was still behind bars in France, “I think you might well be moved to the same action.”

Following months in prison, Norton spent several years in exile in Nicaragua and later in Cuba, where he became disillusioned with communist leader Fidel Castro.

He later returned to the US, living underground for many years until he could be sure the government wouldn’t prosecute his case.

Norton’s son Bill L. Norton is a television director, among whose credits are Tour of Duty, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel.

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