Picks and Pans Review: Spotlight On...

UPDATED 02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

>Patrick Sheane Duncan

MR. DUNCAN'S OPUS

WHILE MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS HAS ENGENDERED Oscar buzz for star Richard Dreyfuss, the story—of a music teacher struggling to communicate with his pack of disinterested students as well as with his own deaf son—has also been criticized as sentimental melodrama. Its screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan—whose recent work includes last year's Nick of Time and 1993's A Home of Our Own—agrees. "All my films," he says, "are about ordinary people who, out of their humanity, rise to exceptional heights."

This is territory Duncan, 49, knows only too well. The Los Angeles resident, whose $2.5 million payment for the upcoming Denzel Washington Gulf War drama Courage Under Fire places him among Hollywood's highest-paid writers, has done some rising himself. When he was 10, his father, a migrant farmworker, was stabbed to death in a barroom brawl in downtown Los Angeles. His mother—who moved the family to Michigan, where they picked fruit—remarried several times, bringing Patrick 11 younger siblings to care for. "I even helped deliver one," he recalls. "I cut the cord, cleaned up the afterbirth. Then I passed out."

After graduating high school, Duncan enlisted in the army; two years in Vietnam drove him to escape his old life. "If you're poor," he says, "you think something's wrong with you. I found that bullets don't discriminate between rich and poor." He got a history degree and studied creative writing at Grand Valley State College in Michigan and married a secretary (from whom he is separated). In 1976 he moved to L.A., doing script rewrites and "sneaking onto studio lots" to peddle his own screenplays.

With Opus, Duncan's career is soaring. "At the Golden Globes." he says, "I realized I'm a member of this club." Still, he continues to live modestly, sending some of his earnings to nieces and nephews to help support their education. He's glad to help. "We were white trash," he says. "Most people don't get out of that."

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