November 25, 2004

Best-Selling Novelist Arthur Hailey Dies

NASSAU, Bahamas - Arthur Hailey, the best-selling author who plucked characters from ordinary life and threw them into extraordinary ordeals, died in his home in the Bahamas, his wife said Thursday. He was 84.

Hailey died in his sleep Wednesday a few hours after having dinner with two of his six children at his home in Lyford Cay on New Providence island, his wife, Sheila, said. She said doctors believe he had a stroke.

"It is obviously a shock to wake up to, but it was peaceful," she said. "Arthur was a very humble man but was delighted with the letters he used to get from readers praising his books. He was incredibly proud of them."

The British-born writer's knack for turning the mundane into thrilling tales brought 11 books published in 40 countries and 38 languages, with 170 million copies in print.

He used the nitty-gritty of bank procedures and hotel management as backdrops for page-turning plots, preferring real-life characters like managers and doctors to vampires and spies.

"I don't think I really invented anybody," Hailey said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. "I have drawn on real life."

In the 1968 novel "Airport," for instance, manager Mel Bakersfield faces a crisis when a mad bomber boards a flight.

The characters of "Airport" later hit movie screens, with Burt Lancaster starring as Bakersfield and Dean Martin as a womanizing pilot. The film opened the door for other disaster movies of the 1970s.

Other novels made into movies include "Hotel,""Wheels,""The Moneychangers" and "Strong Medicine."

The 1980 spoof "Airplane!" was based on Hailey's serious television screenplay, "Flight Into Danger." He had no control over the movie because the rights had been sold, but said he enjoyed the film.

Born April 5, 1920, in Luton, England, Hailey had to stop school at 14 because his parents couldn't afford to send him beyond England's free education system. He served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, flying patrol fighters in the Middle East and transport planes in India.

Hailey left England in 1947 for Canada, where he later received citizenship (while retaining his British citizenship) and worked as a sales promotion manager for a tractor-trailer manufacturer in Toronto.

He eventually quit to write television screenplays. The TV play "Flight Into Danger" was based on Hailey's in-flight experience of imagining what it would be like to have to take the controls if the two pilots became incapacitated.

"My mind has always been a storyteller's mind," Hailey told the AP in 2001.

His first novel, "The Final Diagnosis," was published in 1959 - about a hospital pathologist who causes an infant's death by mistake.

Hailey's novels received mixed reviews from critics, who often praised his research but sometimes said his writing slipped into cliches. Reviewing his 1979 novel "Overload" - about an energy crisis - one critic wrote in The Globe and Mail of Toronto: "His lack of literary finesse is overcome by his unerring instinct for a hot subject."

Hailey and his wife settled in the Bahamas in 1969. In later years, he stopped writing for the mass market, though he still wrote as a hobby.

Sheila Hailey said her husband's memory began deteriorating after two heart surgeries in recent years and a stroke two months ago.

"I began to grieve about eight weeks ago for him. He was not the man I knew and loved," she said. "He was quite fearful of crossing the line between forgetfulness and Alzheimer's and it bothered him immensely."

She said her husband's body would be cremated in a private ceremony in Nassau this weekend. She and her four sons and two daughters plan a party to celebrate his life in January, as was his wish.