A writer, Blake didn’t have much luck selling his work. A friend was an unknown actor, and Blake had been writing screenplays. After about 15 scripts, he told his actor friend his latest idea, about American Indians during Civil War times. “He said, ‘Write a book. You have a much better chance of reaching somebody with a book’,” Blake remembered later. “He was adamant. He was even shaking his finger at me as I left the house that night. So a couple of weeks later, I started writing it.” By then, Blake was living in his car, and making ends meet by washing dishes at a restaurant. He finished the book, and it went straight to paperback in 1988, earning Blake a $6,500 advance.
With the story completed, his actor friend, who was getting better known, was interested in making it into a movie. The actor: Kevin Costner. The novel: Dances with Wolves. Blake got started on the script, and the film was released in 1990. It got poor reviews, but audiences loved it: it earned $424 million (vs a production cost of $22 million), and was the first western to win the Oscar for Best Picture since 1931’s Cimarron. The movie earned seven Oscars in all, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Blake and Best Director for Costner, and the Library of Congress has selected the film for special preservation as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The novel took off too, selling more than 3.5 million copies in 22 languages. Several other Blake scripts are in development to become films, the next being The Holy Road, about the railroad cutting through the country to open the western frontier. Blake “was at least a generation ahead of Hollywood and the audience,” says Daniel Ostroff, who is producing that film. Blake died May 2 in an Arizona hospice, apparently from Hodgkin’s disease. He was 69.