Michael Blake, Oscar-Winning Writer of Dances With Wolves, Dies at 69

Michael Blake (right) with Kevin Costner and Jim Wilson at the 1991 Oscars.

Michael Blake, who wrote the novel Dances With Wolves and penned its subsequent film treatment, has died at 69, Variety reports.

Blake spent his childhood in Texas and Southern California, where he became enamored with the story of the Southwest. He studied journalism briefly before switching to film at the University of New Mexico. He then pursued a career in screenwriting. Only one of Blake’s screenplays made it to the big screen in the 1980s, but that film, Stacy’s Knights, starred Kevin Costner, who proved instrumental to Blake’s career.

Costner convinced Blake to write the novel Dances With Wolves, which subsequently sold 3.5 million copies and was translated into 15 languages. Costner, of course, directed and starred in the 1990 cinematic adaptation for which Blake won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The novel and film depict a Union Army lieutenant in the Civil War–era West who meets a group of Lakota people, eventually coming to appreciate their way of life and assimilating into their tribe.

The film came under criticism for its white-savior story and eschewing of historical accuracy (i.e., Lakota people have gendered language, one for males and one for females, which the film ignores), but it nabbed seven Oscars and made more than $400 million on a $22 million budget. It beat Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas in almost every Oscar category in which they competed, the exception being Joe Pesci’s much-deserved win for Supporting Actor. The film is credited with rejuvenating an interest in the Western genre, which Clint Eastwood soon usurped with his revisionist Unforgiven. In 2007 Dances With Wolves was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance.  

Blake was also internationally recognized for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of Native Americans and wild horses. His family has asked that any donations in his name be made to the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros.