Bryan Forbes, 86; directed ‘Stepford Wives,’ British films

NEW YORK — Bryan Forbes — an English film director best known for ‘‘The Stepford Wives,’’ the 1975 Hollywood thriller about women transformed into docile electronic incarnations of themselves — has died at his home in Surrey, England. He was 86.

His death was announced to European news agencies by a family spokesman, who did not say when he died.

Mr. Forbes had lived with multiple sclerosis since the mid-1970s; he attributed his long remission to a gluten-free diet and the support of his wife, the actress Nanette Newman.


Based on Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, ‘‘The Stepford Wives’’ starred Katharine Ross as ­Joanna, a young wife who moves to a bucolic suburb only to discover that its women are growing mysteriously, robotically submissive.

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In interviews Mr. Forbes said the producer, Edgar J. Scherick, expressly wanted a foreign director’s perspective on American suburbia. (The film was shot primarily in ­Connecticut.) In hiring Mr. Forbes, he also engaged ­Newman, who played the small but memorable role of the ­Stepford wife Carol. After Carol suffers a literal breakdown, she utters one of the movie’s most emblematic lines — ‘‘I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe!’’ — over and over in endless short circuit.

Mr. Forbes’s wife was also partly responsible for the look of the film. According to many news accounts, the original screenplay, by William Goldman, called for the post-transformation Stepford wives to be clad in hot pants and halter tops. A proper Englishwoman, Newman did not fancy such a get-up; as a result, the wives wear long dresses that suggest 20th-century plantation belles.

The movie drew mixed reviews but endures as an artifact of high camp and perhaps even as a quasi-feminist document. At least as much as Levin’s novel, it helped make the phrase ‘‘Stepford wife,’’ describing any woman who seems vapid and compliant, a part of the lexicon.

What united much of Mr. Forbes’s work — he was also a prolific screenwriter, as well as an actor and the author of fiction and nonfiction books — was a concern with eccentricity, marginality and, above all, loneliness. He was also known for directing some of the leading British and American actors of the postwar period.


His films as director and screenwriter include ‘‘The L-Shaped Room’’ (1962), which stars Leslie Caron as a resident of a seedy English rooming house; ‘‘Seance on a Wet Afternoon’’ (1964), with Kim Stanley as a psychic turned kidnapper and Richard Attenborough as her passive husband; ‘‘King Rat’’ (1965), a prisoner-of-war drama starring George Segal; ‘‘The Whisperers’’ (1967), a melodrama starring Edith ­Evans; and ‘‘International Velvet’’ (1978), with Tatum O’Neal.

As an actor, he appeared in many postwar British films, includ­ing ‘‘Hour of Glory’’ (also titled ‘‘The Small Back Room”), ‘‘The Wooden Horse,’’ ‘’Man With a Million,’’ and ‘‘The ­Colditz Story.’’

Mr. Forbes’s first marriage, to Constance Smith, ended in divorce. Besides Newman, ­survivors include two daughters, Emma Forbes and Sarah Standing.