While two-time Oscar champ Bette Davis could lay claim to being the first female president of the motion picture academy, her tenure was short-lived, lasting just two months in 1941.
Fay Kanin, who died Thursday at age 95, was the second woman to head up the organization, serving with distinction from 1979 to 1983. She understood what it meant to contend for an Oscar, having been nominated alongside her husband Michael Kanin for their original script to the Doris Day–Clark Gable comedy “Teacher’s Pet” in 1958; they lost to the “The Defiant Ones.” Michael had won this award in 1942 for co-writing with Ring Lardner, Jr. “Woman of the Year,” which was the first pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
Kanin, who had penned the play “Goodbye, My Fancy” which won Shirley Booth the first of her three Tonys in 1949, tried her hand at solo writing teleplays in the 1970s. After success with the Susan Hayward vehicle “Heat of Anger” in 1972, she won two Emmys for the 1974 telefilm “Tell Me Where It Hurts,” which starred Maureen Stapleton as a homemaker stirred into action by the feminist movement.
Kanin contended again at the Emmys the following year for the gritty “Hustling,” which examined the seamy world of prostitution and launched the career of Jill Clayburgh.
In 1979, Kanin adapted “Friendly Fire,” C.D.B Bryan‘s non-fiction account of one family trying to come to terms with the needless death of their son in Vietnam. The powerful telefilm won an Emmy and showcased comedienne Carol Burnett in a tour-de-force as a mother relentless in her quest for the truth.
That same year, Kanin was elected president of the motion picture academy, having served as a governor of the writers branch. In a statment, the academy noted that Kanin “was committed to the Academy’s preservation work and instrumental in expanding our public programming. A tireless mentor and inspiration to countless filmmakers, Fay’s passion for film continues to inspire us daily.”
Kanin kept working through the 1980s, reaping another Emmy bid for the telefilm “Heartsounds” in 1984 and a Tony nomination in 1985 for the book of the tuner “Grind.”
And she found time to chair the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress for two decades.
Michael, whom she married in 1940, died of lung cancer in 1993. That same disease had killed their son Josh at age 13. She is survived by her other son Joel.