Wednesday 25 April 2018

Bill Norton

Hollywood screenwriter who went on to help rebel groups in Central America and become a gunrunner for INLA

Bill Norton, who has died aged 85, was best known as a successful Hollywood screenwriter until he was arrested as a gunrunner for Northern Irish terrorists in 1986.

A lifelong political radical, best known for writing The Scalphunters (1968) -- a comedy-western starring Burt Lancaster -- Norton went on to write several films for the actor Burt Reynolds, including Sam Whiskey (1969) and White Lightning (1973), as well as Brannigan (1975), starring John Wayne.

But after retiring from showbusiness, Norton rekindled his youthful left-wing ideals, helping rebel groups in Central America by procuring arms for them. When he and his wife Eleanor moved to Ireland, they became involved with the IRA splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Their activities were to lead to their arrest, trial, imprisonment and exile.

William Wallace Norton was born into a poor family on September 24, 1925, in Ogden, Utah. During the Depression the family moved to California, and at El Monte High School a journalism teacher encouraged his interest in writing.

However, in his senior year he was expelled for fathering an illegitimate child with his girlfriend, Betty Conklin, whom he married but later divorced. He saw action with the US army during the Second World War.

On his return he worked briefly as a reporter for a local newspaper but switched to building work, conscious of his working-class origins. Having joined the Communist Party at the age of 21, he was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958.

While employed by the California State Park Service, Norton wrote plays and short stories in his spare time. Some were filmed as low-budget B-pictures, but in 1968 he had a breakthrough with The Scalphunters.

Another dozen action screenplays followed, but in 1985, when he retired from screenwriting, Norton met a political activist who asked him to help procure guns for a revolutionary group in Guatemala. Norton began buying weapons at local gun shows and delivering them to contacts in various car parks in Los Angeles. Norton, whose mother was Irish, was also sympathetic to the IRA's campaign, and moved with Eleanor to Ireland. Using his own money, he began buying guns in southern California and smuggling them into Northern Ireland to arm the INLA.

On their second such trip, in June 1986, the Nortons collected a camper van that had been shipped from Los Angeles to the French port city of Le Havre.

Intending to drive it to Ireland, they were intercepted by the French authorities. Inside a hidden compartment of the van police found two submachine guns, 12 rifles, 23 revolvers and more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

The Nortons and two Irish nationalists, including Sean Hughes, the suspected leader of the INLA, were arrested and convicted on gun-smuggling charges. Hughes was also wanted by gardai in connection with the murder of an officer in Dublin in 1982.

Norton served 19 months of a four-year sentence, spending several months in solitary confinement. On his release in 1988, Nicaragua granted him political asylum. He and his wife moved to Managua and subsequently to Cuba, where he quickly became disillusioned with communism after witnessing the government's paralysis in dealing with famine. Worried that he might be arrested, he re-entered the US illicitly in 1990, smuggled in from Mexico by his former wife Betty and daughter Sally.

For several years he lived incognito, until a lawyer convinced him that the federal authorities were no longer interested in his case and he returned to California. Having given most of his money away to political causes, he spent his final years painting.

Bill Norton, who died on October 1, is survived by his second wife Eleanor, their son and daughter, and by three other children. He asked that his ashes be scattered in Northern Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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