Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God

BOOK: Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God
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Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God

© 1997, 2001, 2014 Nat Segaloff. Portions previously appeared in a different form in
Backstory 3
(University of California Press, 1997). Prior to his death in 1996, Stirling Silliphant assigned his copyright in their epistolary to the Author. UC Press has no ownership in any of the material herein.

Family photographs courtesy of Stirling Rasmussen and from the Estate of Stirling Silliphant, which granted use of Silliphant’s name, likeness, and personal writing.

All rights reserved by the Author. Except for brief passages embodied in published reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author and appropriate credit to the author and publisher.

Excerpts from non-authorial interviews, letters, screenplays, and other material appear under a Fair Use Rights claim of U.S. Copyright Law, Title 17, U.S.C. with copyrights reserved by their respective rights holders.

Many of the designations used by manufacturers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks or service marks such as Oscar®, Academy Award®, Edgar®, and Emmy®. Where those designations appear in this book and BearManor Media was aware of such a claim, the designations contain the symbols ®, SM, or TM on their initial appearance. Any omission of these symbols is purely accidental and is not intended as an infringement.

Because this page cannot legibly accommodate all the copyright notices, some notices appear at the back of the book in a section titled
“Credits,”
which constitutes an extension of this copyright page.

This version of the book may be slightly abridged from the print version.

Published in the USA by:

BearManor Media

PO Box 1129

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www.bearmanormedia.com

ISBN 978-1-59393-758-4

Cover Design by John Teehan.

eBook construction by
Brian Pearce
 |
Red Jacket Press.

 

To the memory and mentorship of Gregory Mcdonald “There are no wrong questions.”

Introduction and Acknowledgements

Stirling Silliphant loved being Stirling Silliphant. He worked hard at it. At a time when the public only knew a screenwriter’s name if he got arrested, blacklisted, or married a movie star, Silliphant drew coverage in columns, TV, reviews, and publicity because of who he was: the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. When the average Writers Guild member was lucky to get $30,000
[1]
for a script, he had a one million dollar, three-picture deal with Warner Bros. He worked every day on an electric typewriter, often writing one project in the morning and another in the afternoon. He wore a green eyeshade because he thought it looked cool. He kept several offices throughout LA so he could multi-task psychologically — though some were doubtless reserved for extramarital flings. He was on the A-list’s A-list, yet when the Beverly Hills party circuit became boring, he moved to Mill Valley in Northern California to stare out at the bay. He drank fine wines, collected stamps and Lalique crystal, and, when he liked the feel and design of Gucci bags but thought the logo garish, he had the company custom-make his without
Gucci
on them.
[2]

As with his best writing, there were many levels to the man. He was a strong union member who marched picket lines with the Writers Guild, a social progressive who pushed his agenda through his work, a passionate opponent of American wars in Southeast Asia, and a fierce critic of the very television industry that kept hiring him. Yet he also voted Republican and supported the first Bush Gulf War. He was a diligent collaborator, a generous teacher, and a quotable pundit. But he could also churn out work strictly for the money, turn his back on projects that went sour, and snap at people who didn’t measure up to his expectations.

Silliphant is associated with four widely differing periods in American film and television: he wrote the majority of scripts for the 1960-1964 television series
Route 66
; he was there for the beginning, the middle, and the end of the “disaster film” cycle of 1972-1980; he nurtured Bruce Lee and arguably godfathered the kung-fu craze; and he spent immense personal capital chronicling the Vietnam war from the Vietnamese people’s point of view, a torch that would be borne by his widow after he died.

If you grew up in the 1960s, as I did, you couldn’t help notice his distinctive name in the credits of TV shows like
Naked City
or
Route 66
(in those days, the networks were proud of who made their shows and didn’t squeeze them to the side of the screen) or in movies like
Charly, Village of the Damned,
and
In the Heat of the Night.
There was always something extra in what he wrote, some spark in his characters. In late 1974, I became New England publicist for
The Towering Inferno,
which he had written, and my duties included taking him on publicity interviews. He traveled with his new wife, Tiana, and it quickly developed that they had come to town not only to tout the picture but to visit Sparkman and Stevens ship builders on Boston’s historic waterfront to see how their new yacht was coming along. A master at working the Hollywood ropes, he had contrived to make the studio pay for the trip.

Over dinner at Locke-Ober restaurant — which Stirling paid for because he knew the studio would reject my expense tab — he and Tiana spoke of their love, their friendship with Bruce Lee, and their plans for an unflinching TV mini-series about Vietnam, to be titled
Fly Away Home.
We reconnected in 1992, when I wrote his monograph for
Backstory 3.
By then, the Silliphants had relocated to Bangkok, and we interviewed by fax: I would send him questions in the morning and he would return his answers that night, always neatly typed, spell-checked, and immensely quotable. One day he faxed that Tiana had just completed a documentary called
From Hollywood to Hanoi
about her life between two cultures. It was going to be shown at Harvard Square’s historic Brattle Theatre, and, since I lived a stumble away, would I look after her as a personal favor? Tiana and I hadn’t seen each other since that two-day press tour nineteen years earlier, and I saw that she was a whirlwind of energy, charm, and determination.

Stirling and I stayed in touch, not only by fax but in a surreptitious visit he made to Los Angeles in 1994 after I had relocated there from Boston. We met at Shutters, a posh hotel on Santa Monica Beach. He entered the cafe looking like a plantation owner in a white linen suit, a yellow shirt, and a Panavision smile. After our meal, we were met by his son, also named Stirling, who was attending UC Santa Cruz, and together we drove to the airport to see him off to Bangkok. I never found out why he had come to Los Angeles or why he alerted so few people, but I felt honored to have been one of them. Sadly, he died in 1996, before our
Backstory
collaboration was published in 1997 (academic presses make glaciers look like avalanches). After settling some estate matters in Thailand, Tiana moved back to Los Angeles and asked me to help collect his papers for his Special Collection at UCLA. She said many times that it was one of Stirling’s last requests that I tell his story. When you turn the page, you will fulfill that wish.

This is not an objective book, but it is, I hope, a fair one. I am less concerned with the minutiae of a filmmaker’s life than I am with the creative process and the events that fuel it. This is not a scholarly dissection of Silliphant’s oeuvre. First, I doubt how much of that sort of thing is valid in the collaborative world of commercial filmmaking; Second, it would bore me insensate. Scholars wishing to deconstruct Silliphant’s work and dredge for arcania are reminded that, in Hollywood, the writer may write the words but he seldom has the final one. Nevertheless, our unedited interviews are among my papers at the UCLA Performing Arts Special Collections.

Another purpose for this book is, in part, to amend that 1997
Backstory
monograph in light of information that has emerged since Silliphant’s death. It carries the same title and refers to a 1963
Time
magazine article in which an admiring television producer said Silliphant was “almost inhuman… a writing machine… the fingers of God.”
[3]
At the time of
Time,
Stirling was writing simultaneously for
Naked City
and
Route 66.
Over those series’ runs, he would contribute over 150 teleplays. The Writers Guild of America notes over 200 screen credits, which are cross-referenced in
Appendix A
with IMDb listings. This does not include his unproduced work (see
Appendix B
), workshops, script doctoring, lectures, and voluminous correspondence. With all that writing, it’s a wonder he found time to live. But live he did, and his life informed his work.

In addition to those who graciously granted interviews, on and off the record, I appreciate my unflappable agent, Agnes Birnbaum of Bleecker Street Associates, Andrew Abbott, Stephen Bowie, Donovan and Claire Brandt of Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, Tom Brown, Kevin Corcoran, Rick Dailey, William Froug, Christopher Hampton, Reg Grundy Productions, Barry Krost, Yon G. Lee, Russell Leven, James Robert Parish, Carter Potter, Melanie Rose, Susy Smith, Dr. Tanya Stoddard, Allan Taylor, Douglas Thompson, Michael Ventura, and John M. Whalen.

Martial arts expert and historian John Corcoran, author of
The Martial Arts Encyclopedia,
provided significant help with information on Silliphant and Bruce Lee. I deeply value the counsel of David Morrell, whose knowledge of All Things Silliphant was generously given. I owe a long-standing debt to Patrick McGilligan for providing me the opportunity to reconnect with Stirling for
Backstory 3.
My appreciation as well to Tom Hyry, Peggy Alexander, Brandon Barton, Robert Montoya, and Cesar Reyes of the UCLA Performing Arts Special Collections for access to the Silliphant papers; the staff of the Margaret Herrick Library and to Laureen Loeser of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Karen Pedersen of the Shavelson-Webb Library at the Writers Guild Foundation; and Jenni Matz of the Emmy Foundation of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In an industry that lies about its past as well as its present, these diligent professionals and their institutions preserve the truth.

To Tiana Silliphant; his sons Stirling Linh Silliphant and Stirling Rasmussen; and to his half-brother Allan Silliphant I owe incalculable gratitude for sharing memories that were at times joyous and at times difficult, but were always helpful.

Finally, a very personal thanks to Ami, Ivanna, Adam, and Joseph (JB) Benjamin Lahmani for their love that, every day, I strive to deserve.

Nat Segaloff

Los Angeles, 2013

Prologue: In the Heat of the Oscars

April 10, 1968, should have been the best night of Stirling Silliphant’s life. Dressed in his own tux, he sat on an aisle seat at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, one of seven men nominated for the five films competing for the Academy Award® for “Best Screenplay of 1967 based on material from another medium.”

This year, the “Best Screenplay” and “Best Picture” nominees didn’t match. Out of the 250 or so films that were released theatrically during 1967, and thus had qualified for consideration, the general membership of the motion picture Academy had selected
Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,
and
In the Heat of the Night
as contenders. The screenplays, however, were chosen by the craft-savvy writing branch of the Academy, and they were slightly different:
Cool Hand Luke,
The Graduate,
In Cold Blood,
In the Heat of the Night,
and
Ulysses.
 
[4]
Silliphant had already won the Golden Globe and the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar®, and had been nominated for the Writers Guild of America award, for his clever adaptation of John Ball’s mystery novel,
In the Heat of the Night.
But who could tell how the balloting would go once the entire 5,000 member Academy voted? After all, most of them were over forty and slavishly loyal to old fashioned, conservative, big-studio fare (they nominated
Doctor Dolittle,
f ’r Chrissake), not a scrappy, race-conscious cinema provocateur.

Even as Hollywood congratulated itself on its night of nights, it was in transition. 
[5]
In 1966, Jack Valenti, who was then President Johnson’s close advisor, had been persuaded by MCA/Universal Chairman Lew Wasserman to leave the White House and take over the industry’s rudderless trade organization, the Motion Picture Association of America. Faced with competition from foreign films and a blossoming domestic independent cinema, both of which reflected the sexual and political liberation of the times, Valenti began constructing a letter-based rating system that would, in November of 1968, replace the starchy Production Code that was introduced in 1930 
[6]
to whitewash a series of Tinseltown scandals and stave off official censorship.

Moreover, film schools were opening all over the country to churn out hip young filmmakers. New York University (NYU), the University of Southern California (USC), and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), among others, were grooming an emerging generation that was poised to take movies to the next level, whatever that would be. So far, only Francis Coppola had emerged from one of these schools; tyros like George Lucas, John Milius, Randall Kleiser, Robert Zemeckis, Basil Poledouris, Donald Glut, Walter Murch, and their peers were still making student films. If they had any connection with the Oscars®, it was watching them on TV.

The original screenplay nominees were the oracles of change. Robert Benton and David Newman’s
nouvelle-vague-
influenced
Bonnie and Clyde
led the pack of originals. A sympathetic look at Depression-era spree bandits, the film had caused a sensation by first being buried by its studio, then resurrected to become a beacon among young audiences who embraced its exuberant anti-social message. The original screenplay for
Divorce, American Style,
by Robert Kaufman and Norman Lear, looked like a glossy studio movie, but its insights and attitudes were as subversive as those in
Bonnie and Clyde.
So was Frederic Raphael’s brittle, time-bouncing
Two for the Road,
which showed the dissolution and regeneration of a marriage through a succession of motor holidays. And finally, Jorge Semprun’s
La Guerre est Finie,
which most Academy voters doubtless read only in subtitles instead of its original French.

The race for “Best Adapted Screenplay,” in which Silliphant was running, was even more diverse.
The Graduate,
from Charles Webb’s thin novel, was about an older woman seducing a younger man, and it became a surprise box-office phenomenon in the growing “youth market.”
Cool Hand Luke
was an unrelentingly brutal chain gang drama, which continued star Paul Newman’s string of anti-hero hits and coined the catchphrase, “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
Ulysses,
based on the oft-censored James Joyce novel, drew its own controversy for using the word
fuck.
In Cold Blood,
from Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, brought shattering documentary realism to the sordid story of a multiple murder and the duo responsible for committing it. William Rose’s
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,
about how two sets of traditional parents — one white and one black — react to their children’s impending marriage, was an actors’ field day. Its seasoned director, Stanley Kramer, described it as a fairy tale because the intended husband, played by Sidney Poitier, was so perfect that the only reason to oppose his marriage to white Katharine Houghton was racism.

The anomaly among the nominees was
Doctor Dolittle,
the plodding screen adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s sprightly children’s books about a Victorian veterinarian who talks to animals. It was widely whispered that producer Arthur P. Jacobs and Twentieth Century-Fox had bought a nomination through parties and gifts to Academy members.

In the Heat of the Night
drank from two streams. Its timely racial theme brought it close to
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,
which, thankfully for Silliphant, was nominated in another category. But it was also an old-fashioned murder yarn. Years before mystery writer Walter Mosley created Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, John Ball conceived detective Virgil Tibbs, a black homicide detective struggling to keep his calm, not to mention his life, when he is impressed into solving a murder in a southern town that can’t accept a Negro (sic) as a human being, let alone as a highly competent out-of-town police officer. It was directed bravely and with coiled urgency by Norman Jewison, an industry favorite and a Canadian; shot by Haskell Wexler, whose political credentials were as strong as his photographic skills; and edited by Hal Ashby, who was about to become a director in his own right. The picture had been a box office hit and had scored well with the critics, but had, like
Cool Hand Luke,
become celebrated for a single line of dialogue barked by an outraged Poitier at Sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) when he’d had enough redneck condescension: “They call me
Mister
Tibbs!”

The film was a contemporary blend of new ideas and a classic genre, and Silliphant was the perfect — though not the first — choice to write it. His scripts, hitherto primarily for television, caught the drama of characters in conflict with each other and within themselves. The emerging New Hollywood, however, was about people in conflict with the world around them, heavy on plot but developing only just enough character to serve the action. 
[7]

Silliphant knew things were changing. He knew he had to keep up with the changes in order to survive. But first he had to get through the evening. Accompanied to the Oscars by his third wife, Margot, he looked around the auditorium while Rod Steiger and his actress-wife, Claire Bloom, read the adapted scriptwriting nominees and then announced him as the winner.

“I can recall that night, every second of it,” he said. 
[8]
“Mostly my disbelief to hear Claire Bloom call my name. And then I was whizzing down the aisles past all those smiling faces — wondering why are THEY smiling? — and, as though fast-forwarded, I was in front of the mike and mesmerized by the backdrop of faces and tuxedos and great boobs of all the dazzling ladies who’d spent all day getting their hair done — all looking up at ME and awaiting something more than ‘I want to thank, etc.’ Not having expected to win (would you — competing against
Bonnie and Clyde
and
The Graduate
?) I had prepared absolutely nothing. I do remember mumbling something about, ‘We members of the Writers Guild are not allowed to write on spec — and so I have nothing prepared,’ 
[9]
That seemed to do the trick — the audience gave me a warm sweeping feeling of love and support — and I may or may not have said thanks to Norman and Sidney and Walter [Mirish] and especially to [agent] Marty Baum, who got me the job. At least I hope I said that — then I was whisked off with my Oscar®, far heavier than I had imagined — but, then, when had I ever imagined I’d be holding one?”

In hindsight, the 1968 Oscars were a watershed moment for Hollywood. The Best Picture nominees (the winner was
In the Heat of the Night)
were not only wildly eclectic, they showed the confusion of a sixty-year-old industry roiled in creative and commercial panic.

But Silliphant refused to panic. Instead, he changed, as he had changed his entire career, from journalist to publicist to novelist to producer to television writer to screenwriter. He’d seen television go from a writer’s medium to a producer’s medium, and movies go from escapism to realism and back to escapism. He’d watched Hollywood change from a town where everybody knew everyone else to a place too big to know anybody. And he’d watched America change from a nation of innocents to a country where people were starting to acknowledge their place in the world and the responsibility that came with it.

“I’ve been writing and producing films for thirty years,” he said, looking back on his continual metamorphosis. “I’m into my third decade. It used to be that a decade could last you pretty well. You wouldn’t have to change too much from the start of year one to year ten; as a writer. I find now that I have to change as a writer, in terms of my style, my attitudes, my own internal relationship to life, about every ninety days. I am no more the same person I was in January of this year in any respect than some stranger. Well, that’s kind of frightening. But if I’m going to stay at the top of the heap or the head of the market, I must do that. So I’m constantly re-forming myself. It’s a good idea for any human being to constantly re-form himself, but at the point where it becomes a desperate scramble to keep up with what’s happening, it becomes alarming. When I first started as a writer, for the first ten years, I was sort of dumb and happy, and I just kept doing my work and some things were good and some things weren’t. In the second ten years, it began to accelerate, and I began to see that the world around me was changing faster than I was. So I had to get up to it first, and then ahead of it. That’s what kind of bothers me sometimes. 
[10]

But at this moment in 1968, his
In the Heat of the Night
Oscar still warm, he was the newly anointed Scribe-in-Chief of an industry that was heading for disaster. Ironically, in a few short years, he would create a series of screen disasters that would steer it back on course. But first he had other things on his mind.

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