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March 5, 2011

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Ex-stutterer behind 'King's Speech'

THE Oscar-winning screenwriter of the "The King's Speech" describes how he struggled with his own stammer and overcame it in a moment of rage and fury. He speaks to David Germain.

Telling the story of the stammering king, George VI, has been a lifetime ambition for screenwriter David Seidler, ever since he subdued his own stutter almost 60 years ago.

Seidler won an Oscar for best original screenplay and delivered an acceptance speech with grace and without a trace of a stammer.

Born seven months after George took the British throne in 1936, Australian Seidler grew up paralyzed by the same impediment he depicts the monarch struggling to overcome in "The King's Speech," the best-picture favorite at the Academy Awards.

From just before his third birthday to age 16, Seidler stumbled and sputtered over his syllables so badly that he lived in terror of speaking in class, talking to girls, even answering the phone.

"I had huge trouble with the 'H' sound, so when the telephone rang, I would break into a cold sweat, because I couldn't say 'hello'," says Seidler, 73.

"I don't know if school still works this way, but in those days you had set places, and the teacher worked up and down the rows. If I could see her working toward me and she was just going to miss me that day, I would fake sickness the next day so I didn't have to go to school, because it was so terrifying to be called upon. There came a period when I was actually excused from responding in class. I didn't have to speak in class. It was that bad," he says.

Born in Britain, Seidler developed a stammer in 1940 on a boat to the United States, where his family moved during World War II. Seidler, who had an uncle with a boyhood stammer, figures his own began from the trauma of German bombs, the sea voyage and abrupt separation from his beloved nanny.

As George VI rallied his country, the young Seidler heard the king valiantly struggling through his radio addresses and hoped he might one day master his own speech troubles.

He eventually did, in his mid-teens, not long after George VI died in 1952 and the crown passed to his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Soon after that, the desire to one day chronicle the king's tale came to Seidler, who had decided he wanted to be a writer while still afflicted with his stutter.

"If you're born with two conflicting traits - in my case, I was a born ham, but I was a stutterer - and if you want to be the center of attention but you can't talk, you find another channel, and that's writing," Seidler says.

After college, Seidler tried play writing, then worked in advertising, Australian television and journalism. He came to Hollywood at age 40, "which, of course, is when any writer with any common sense is leaving Los Angeles," Seidler says.

His credits include Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," the animated feature "Quest for Camelot" and Elizabeth Taylor's TV movie "Malice in Wonderland."

It was not until a bout with throat cancer in 2005 that Seidler finally started on the story of George VI, known as Bertie to his family.

Seidler had wanted to begin the project in the early 1980s, but Bertie's widow, Elizabeth, the queen mother, politely asked him in a letter, "Please, Mr Seidler, not during my lifetime," he recalls.

Elizabeth was in her 80s then, so Seidler figured he would have to wait no more than a few years. But she lived to be 101, dying in 2002.

The film is built around the unlikely friendship between Bertie (Colin Firth, who won best actor at the Oscars) and unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (supporting-actor nominee Geoffrey Rush). Helena Bonham Carter, a supporting-actress contender, plays Bertie's wife.

Though he had researched Bertie's life for decades, Seidler also drew on his own experiences in speech therapy. He underwent many of the tricks depicted in "The King's Speech": having his mouth stuffed with marbles, reciting while listening to music on headphones.

"The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper first heard of the project from his mother, who attended a reading of a stage version Seidler had written. Afterward, she called Hooper and told her son she had found his next project.

"It's clearly the best script of his life," Hooper says. "He's really writing about his own childhood experiences through the guise of these two characters."

Seidler shared another experience in his youth that Bertie undergoes in the film, when the king unleashes a torrent of curse words in a burst of anger that momentarily frees him from his stammer.

At age 16, Seidler experienced his own F-bomb cure.

"Adolescence had hit, hormones were raging. I couldn't ask girls out for a date, and even if I could and even if they said yes, what was the point? I couldn't talk to them on a date. This was the '50s. You did talk on dates," Seidler says.

Fury over his condition grew to the point that he was jumping up and down on his bed, bellowing profanity. He found it empowering.

"If I am stuck with this stutter," Seidler recalls saying to himself, "you all are stuck with listening to me. I am a human being, and I'm going to talk, and you're going to have to F-word listen."

With that psychological turn, Seidler's stutter largely faded in a few weeks, to the point that he won a small part in a school play, "Androcles and the Lion" ("I played a Christian being eaten by a lion in the Colosseum, and I didn't stutter as I died.").

Before the Academy Awards ceremony, Seidler faced the daunting prospect of addressing a global audience the way George VI did.

Asked in advance what he felt about possibly delivering an acceptance speech, the former stutterer replied: "Terror. Abject terror. Not so much of stuttering. I'm not really concerned that I will stutter on that occasion. I think it's more that I could easily become the new Sally Field," says Seidler, referring to her giddy 1984 Oscar speech when she gushed to the crowd, "You like me!"

"I could easily blubber, because it's been such a long journey, and such a meaningful one to me, such a personal journey. I hope I don't disgrace my 21-year-old daughter, who's my date for the Oscars. She'll be sitting there mortified if her dad stands up there and can't speak, and weeps," he says. "But it would be a momentous occasion."


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