Roald Dahl


September 13, 1916
November 23, 1990
Cause of Death
Myelodysplastic Syndrome


A major figure in children's literature, British writer Roald Dahl also excelled at crafting tales for adults, along with the occasional screenplay. During World War II, Dahl became a formidable young fighter pilot, and used those experiences as the basis for his earliest published writings, which included the children's book The Gremlins (1943). Dahl subsequently focused on distinctly n...


A major figure in children's literature, British writer Roald Dahl also excelled at crafting tales for adults, along with the occasional screenplay. During World War II, Dahl became a formidable young fighter pilot, and used those experiences as the basis for his earliest published writings, which included the children's book The Gremlins (1943). Dahl subsequently focused on distinctly non-kid-friendly stories that showcased his barbed dark humor. In the 1960s, he returned to literature for youngsters, penning fantastical classics such as James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). Dahl also worked directly in film and television, writing for the macabre mystery series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (NBC, 1955-1965) and movies such as the Bond adventure "You Only Live Twice" (1967). In 1961, Dahl hosted the eerie TV show "Way Out" (CBS), and he later created the series "Tales of the Unexpected" (ITV, 1979-1988), both of which featured adaptations of his singularly sinister stories. Dahl continued to pen fiction for all ages until his death in 1990. His legacy endures, not only in his many beloved books, but also in their various film incarnations, which tend to be at least a little bit droll and unusual.

Born in Wales and raised by his Norwegian mother after the death of his father, Dahl was an avid reader in his youth and enjoyed mythical yarns. His school years were marked by trouble with authority and general unhappiness, though he found at least momentary comfort at the local candy shop. Growing up to be a lanky Welshman, Dahl developed considerable interest in other cultures, and this led him to work abroad in Africa before World War II. Despite his notably non-compact height of almost six and a half feet, he became a pilot during the conflict and saw his fair share of aerial combat. After being encouraged to write about his wartime exploits for The Saturday Evening Post by esteemed author C.S. Forester, Dahl gained the attention of Walt Disney, who worked with the aspiring writer on the animated movie "The Gremlins," a playful story about aircraft-dismantling creatures. While the film stalled, the project led to an illustrated book version of the tale that was quite successful.

Instead of capitalizing on his partial victory as an unlikely children's writer, Dahl turned to fiction for fully grown people, devising diabolical stories such as "Man from the South" (1948) and "Lamb to the Slaughter" (1953), which were rooted in pitch-black comedy. Due in part to the poor reception of his debut novel, Some Time Never (1948), Dahl largely avoided the form in his fiction for adults, preferring to stick with sharp, pithy tales that left a nice sting. Before long, his stories began making their way to television on various anthology programs, and he furthered his relationship with Hollywood, however unintentionally, by marrying American actress Patricia Neal in 1953. He later wrote the teleplay for "Lamb to the Slaughter" for the series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," with the episode directed by the legendary filmmaker himself. Dahl subsequently took a page from the Hitch playbook and began hosting his own show of strange tales, entitled "Way Out," which didn't last long, but provided shorter and decidedly not-so-sweet versions of his work.

By the early 1960s, fatherhood inspired Dahl to return to kids' literature, with James and the Giant Peach, published in 1961. The story of a young English boy whose parents are eaten by a rhinoceros, the book followed James on his seafaring adventure aboard a massive magical peach that also houses friendly talking insects. The novel firmly established Dahl's knack for tempering quirky humor and fantasy with a slightly unsettling edge, an aesthetic that he further refined with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The candy-coated tale, featuring the fascinatingly eccentric character of Willy Wonka, drew heavily on Dahl's childhood, particularly an era when he resided near a Cadbury chocolate plant. After the international success of the book, Dahl continued to write children's novels, while still penning his regular fiction stories, which were gathered into collections every few years.

Given Dahl's restless imagination, it's not surprising that he found yet another outlet for his creativity in screenplays. A friend of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Dahl was commissioned to write the script for "You Only Live Twice" (1967), skipping some major plot points of the original book in favor of his own concepts. Dahl also contributed to the whimsical screenplay of the movie musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968), a project that led him back to kid territory. After penning the thriller "The Night Digger" (1971), which starred his wife, Dahl adapted Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the major Hollywood feature "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971). Partially due to an unauthorized rewrite that strayed from the book, Dahl didn't care for the film, though it went on to become a universally loved classic, thanks largely to Gene Wilder's nuanced performance as Wonka. Soured on feature screenwriting, Dahl never wrote a film script again.

Safely away from celluloid, Dahl penned many of his finest children's books during the early 1970s, including the woodland-animal-featuring Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970) and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972), an even more outlandish sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Other books of the decade were the father/son tale Danny, the Champion of the World (1975) and The Enormous Crocodile (1978), a fable geared towards very young readers, as well as one of many Dahl books illustrated by Quentin Blake. In 1979, Dahl returned prominently to his adult-oriented work by launching the television series "Tales of the Unexpected," based on his short-story collection of the same name. The anthology show was, fittingly, an unexpected success that ran for nearly a decade, accumulating an impressive list of guest stars along the way, including John Gielgud, Ian Holm and Michael Gambon.

During the 1980s, despite his advancing age, Dahl remained prolific, , with the kids' favorites The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983) and Matilda (1988) all coming out within years of each other and going on to movie interpretations. Although he had still been going strong, Dahl died of a severe blood disease in 1990, leaving the world without one of its greatest authors. A number of major filmmakers went on to give his work new interpretations, however, with varying critical and commercial success. Dahl was able to dismiss Nicolas Roeg's 1990 take on The Witches shortly before his death, but it's likely that he may have approved of Henry Selick's "James and the Giant Peach" (1996), which inventively used both live-action acting and stop-motion animation to excellent effect. The same year, Danny DeVito's version of Matilda popped up, becoming another family favorite over the years and even prompting a later hit musical.

In 2005, director Tim Burton, who had been a producer on "James and the Giant Peach," decided to take his own swing at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, enlisting go-to actor Johnny Depp as a new incarnation of Willy Wonka. Despite sticking close to the book in some ways, the movie was marred by busy, noisy moments, but still managed to win over audiences. Seemingly intent on righting Dahl's cinematic legacy, studious filmmaker Wes Anderson created a 2009 stop-motion version of Fantastic Mr. Fox, with George Clooney voicing the title character and a star-studded ensemble along for the ride in supporting roles. The result was an Oscar-nominated animated triumph that proved that Dahl's witty and weird spirit could be channeled on film with an intuitively suitable medium overseeing the proceedings. Meanwhile, Dahl's books continued to be cherished by new generations of wide-eyed kids that were keen to read more about oddly unfortunate situations, unlikely young adventurers and disarmingly eloquent mammals and insects.

Life Events


Debuted as a writer in <i>The Saturday Evening Post</i>


First book, <i>The Gremlins</i>, published


First short-story collection, <i>Over to You</i>, released


Wrote the TV adaptation of his story "Lamb to the Slaughter" for "Alfred Hitichcock Presents"


<i>James and the Giant Peach</i> published


Hosted the short-lived TV show "Way Out"


<i>Charlie and the Chocolate Factory</i> released


Scripted the Bond film "You Only Live Twice"


Co-wrote the screenplay for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"


<i>Fantastic Mr. Fox</i> published


Wrote the screenplay for the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"


<i>Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator</i> released


"Tales of the Unexpected" began its long TV run


<i>The Witches</i> published


<i>Matilda</i> released


"The Witches" appeared in theaters


Film versions of <i>James and the Giant Peach</i> and <i>Matilda</i> both arrived on screens


Tim Burton's version of <i>Charlie and the Chocolate Factory</i> debuted


Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" premiered


Movie Clip

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) -- (Movie Clip) Definitely Unstable Just rescued after a near-accident by friendly motorist “Truly Scrumptious” (Sally Ann Howes), Jemima and Jeremy (Heather Ripley, Adrian Hill), who never go to school, indirectly introduce their crackpot inventor father Potts (Dick Van Dyke), and later his father (Lionel Jeffries, headed to “Inja!”), early in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968, from an Ian Fleming novel, and 007 producer Albert R. Broccoli.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) -- (Movie Clip) She's Not Just Any Old Car After an elaborate opening confirming the (title) car’s lineage, we meet Jemima and Jeremy (Heather Ripley, Adrian Hill) at play, Victor Maddern making an offer to Coggins (Desmond Llewelyn, James Bond’s “Q”) then meeting Sally Ann Howes (as Truly Scrumptious), in the family musical and technical marvel from Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968, starring Dick Van Dyke.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) -- (Movie Clip) Baron Bomburst, Title Song Inventor dad Potts (Dick Van Dyke) with sweetheart Truly (Scrumptious! Sally Ann Potts) on a beach picnic has just confabulated the evil Baron Bomburst (Gert Fröbe, a.k.a. Goldfinger) for the kids (Heather Ripley, Adrian Hill), cueing another Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman original and one of the first big tech sequences, in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968, from James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) -- (Movie Clip) Toot Sweets Joining nutty inventor Potts (Dick Van Dyke) making a pitch to candy kingpin Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice), cajoled by daughter Truly (Sally Ann Howes) and his own kids (Heather Ripley, Adrian Hill), the first big production number, and another Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman original, in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968.
You Only Live Twice (1967) -- (Movie Clip) Chinese Girls, Title Song Bond (Sean Connery) appears to be murdered at the hands of Ling (Tsai Chin), leading into Nancy Sinatra's rendering of the title song by Leslie Bricusse for You Only Live Twice, 1967.
You Only LIve Twice (1967) -- (Movie Clip) Funeral At Sea The funeral of a "British Naval Commander" (exteriors shot on the destroyer HMS Tenby at Gibraltar) is only a prelude to 007 (Sean Connery) visiting Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and "M" (Bernard Lee), this time on board a submarine in You Only Live Twice, 1967.
You Only LIve Twice (1967) -- (Movie Clip) Nothing But Volcanoes In his "toy" helicopter "Little Nellie," 007 comes under assault from bigger choppers as he approaches Blofeld's volcano hide-away in You Only Live Twice, 1967.
You Only Live Twice (1967) -- (Movie Clip) I Am Ernst Stavro Blofeld Perhaps a SPOILER as it's an hour and thirty-nine minutes into the picture, Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) finally appears facing the camera, having thwarted 007 (Sean Connery) in his scheme to sneak aboard a captured Soviet spaceship, in the fifth James Bond feature, You Only Live Twice, 1967.
36 Hours (1964) -- (Movie Clip) Don't You Know Me? At a German espionage site made to look like an American military hospital six years later, German psychologist Gerber (Rod Taylor) and nurse Anna (Eva Marie Saint) observe as American Pike (James Garner), kidnapped on the eve of D-Day, is awakened, in 36 Hours, 1964.
36 Hours (1964) -- (Movie Clip) Body Departed Lisbon Rapid plot development, as we?ve just seen James Garner as American Major Pike, in Lisbon on a mission, carrying details of the D-Day invasion, drugged by unknown villains, then transported in a coffin, evidently to Germany, where Rod Taylor speaks English, in 36 Hours, 1964.