Tuesday, April 26, 2016

This Day in TV History (Death of Stirling Silliphant, ‘Writing Machine’ and Oscar Winner)

Apr. 26, 1996— Stirling Silliphant, 78, an enormously prolific, accomplished television writer of the Fifties and Sixties who went on to create the Oscar-winning screenplay of In the Heat of the Night, died of prostate cancer in Bangkok, Thailand.

I first took notice of this screenwriter-producer some years ago, in a PBS special that focused on screenwriting. Silliphant discussed a movie he was not involved with, Doctor Zhivago. In one scene, he explained, the eyes of Russian aristocrat Komarovsky pass slowly from slowly from a mother to her daughter. We already know that the mother is his lover; the gaze, Silliphant said, established, without the need of more lines, that Komarovsky wants to seduce the lovely teenaged girl, too. Nothing more needs to be said about the aristocrat’s corruption.

That explanation says much about Silliphant, however: about his professional’s interest in well-crafted screenplays, about his perception that images, not just words, are essential to the storytelling art of cinema, and about his interest in actors who could bring his own vision to life. (Two years after the release of Doctor Zhivago, Silliphant wrote the scenes that brought the actor playing Komarovsky, Rod Steiger, a Best Actor Oscar as the bigoted Southern sheriff in In the Heat of the Night.)

I became much more interested in Silliphant in these last several weeks because I’ve been watching on DVD the first season of the television series The Naked City. That title might mean little or nothing to readers of this blog. But older fans will recall the 1948 movie as a landmark in cinema for its on-location shooting in New York City, and the show—adapted for TV a decade later—for that reason and for its humane depiction of police, criminals and victims.

Though the movie is shown often on TV, the series is harder to track down. For anyone wanting to discover the roots of Law and Order, its precursor lies here in this drama, another series featuring two NYPD detectives—one a wise old hand, the older a younger partner requiring seasoning—along with the city, its neighborhoods and the ethnic groups that become a powerful collective character in its own right. I was born in 1959, the year it went on the air, and am fascinated by its black-and-white, noir-ish footage of much of the city (the old Penn Station and the New York Coliseum) that has ceased to be.

Remarkably, Silliphant wrote 31 of Naked City's first 39 episodes, including the pilot, and after it was canceled he wrote several more when it was revived as an hour-long series with different stars. He kept up a similarly fierce pace on his subsequent TV series, Route 66, in which he is credited with writing approximately half of the 118 episodes in its four-year run. Over the course of his career, his teleplays numbered in the high hundreds.

Silliphant laid out the markers for his working methods in no uncertain terms: “I map out five pages a day, thirty-five pages a week,” he said. “I keep revising the schedule and the four weeks become six weeks or eight weeks, but to take more than eight weeks for the first draft would be reprehensible.” No wonder a producer told Time Magazine in 1963 that Silliphant was “a writing machine.”

This stress on productivity (he managed to crank out 37 produced screenplays and about 50 novels, too) made Silliphant a go-to, well-paid scribe in Hollywood, but it also made him the subject of complaints that he was too facile—a hack, even. Novelist-screenwriter John Gregory Dunne accused him in a 1965 New Republic article of perpetrating "pseudo-seriousness." In a 2011 article for the Austin Chronicle, Michael Ventura recalled meeting his onetime idol in 1986, encountering a man who “had a marvelous gift, and he sold it out.” Still others felt his work was overly derivative, seldom breaking out of genre formulas, and—in the case of Jack Kerouac, who saw the two young drifters in search of America in Route 66 as all too reminiscent of his two main figures in the novel On the Road—guilty of plagiarism.

A writer who admits to no impediment in writing runs the risk of being judged as hasty and insufficiently committed to achieving great art. Silliphant himself readily admitted that two disaster epics that made him tons of money in the 1970s, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, provided him with little artistic fulfillment. But, especially in his work on The Naked City and Route 66, he put in extensive time on his settings, not only visiting them to absorb local color but also researching the areas in the local library.

After his highly remunerative work for film, Silliphant returned in the late Seventies to TV, finding an especially congenial form in the then-fashionable mini-series, “the most exciting new development for a writer that I have experienced in the past decade.” Such high-profile projects as Pearl, Mussolini: The Untold Story, and Space followed. But eventually the fad for such projects fizzled, and he left with his fourth wife, Tiana Alexandra, for Thailand, putting behind him "the cesspool that is Hollywood."

Silliphant was under few illusions about the manner in which the studios and networks could puree the most personal projects. His own resolve not to agonize, but simply get on with the work, led him to work on too many projects unworthy of his talent. But he deserves to be remembered with the likes of Paddy Chayevsky, Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, and Roald Dahl as writers who glimpsed and sought to fulfill the potential of the youthful medium of TV in the Fifties and Sixties.

(The image accompanying this post is from the first season of The Naked City, with John McIntire as the older, philosophical Irish detective, Dan Muldoon, and James Franciscus as his more action-oriented partner, Jimmy Halloran. Silliphant himself thought that his work on this series was better than his prize-winning screenplay for In the Heat of the Night.)

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