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A Unhailed Hero – Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God by Nat Segaloff

A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.

Thanks to one of my connections, I was able to see all of the episodes of the TV series Naked City (1957- 1963), 32 of the 39 episodes of the first season penned by legendary scenarist Stirling Silliphant (1918-1996). He was also Academy Award winner of In the Heat of the Night (1967), as well as contributing to Route 66 (1960-1964) in addition to other films and series too numerous to mention. The subtitle of this book is not accidental. Silliphant’s abilities as a prolific writer of produced and non-produced work easily matched others in the literary field such as Michael Moorcock (1939 – ) who also wrote under their own forms of divine inspiration as well as the economic necessity of appeasing creditors. While Moorcock dedicated the last volume in his Nomad of Time trilogy to his creditors, Silliphant had the additional burdens of lavish Hollywood life-style, four marriages, estranged children, and a compelling inspiration to write work that creatively addressed contemporary issues of his day.

His influence is unquestionable:

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. (1-2)

Despite this man’s achievements, I doubt whether he is well known in media departments today as he should be with their lemming-like reaction against past achievements and celebration of the ephemeral present.

Author of the penetrating biography A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison (2017) as well as studies of Arthur Penn, William Friedkin, and others, Segaloff is also a Hollywood insider in terms of his knowledge of the industry as well as being playwright, college instructor, journalist, and producer. In contrast to his more extensive work such as the Ellison biography, he has sensibly chosen a 224 page modest study of this highly prolific author knowing that various websites can supply information that is more detailed. This study, from BearManor Media, acts as a signpost to further exploration informed by access to the Silliphant Estate that sheds light on many of the writer’s dealings and interactions with the history and the entertainment industry of his day.

This book attempts to show what this spark was, a spark related both to the writer’s personality and to the historical era in which he functioned.

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 CharlyVillage of the Damned, and In the Heat of the Night. There was always something extra in what he wrote, some spark in his characters. (2)

After opening with introduction and acknowledgments, the prologue begins in media res with Silliphant’s Academy award for the screenplay of In the Heat of the Night. What made this writer of 200 screen credits, 150 teleplays for Naked City and Route 66, in addition to unproduced work, so special? Consider the author on In the Heat of the Night, which 

was a contemporary blend of new ideas and a classic genre…His scripts, hitherto primarily for television, caught the drama of characters in conflict with each other and within themselves. The merging 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)

The following sixteen chapters sketch the writer’s life and the projects he worked on in relation to changing times, some of which benefited his creative talent and others which resulted in frustration as those in that industry know all too well. After beginning working for the paranoid Walt Disney (19-20) and achieving his first four credits for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (20-21), Silliphant was fortunate to find himself in a world were “good, solid, fast script writers were hard to find”. (22) He found himself earning big money such as $100, 000 gained for writing  a Rawhide episode guest-starring Dean Martin. As Segaloff notes, Silliphant began at a time “when film and television producers actually wanted to read material and had story departments constantly on the lookout for it.” (23) He also collaborated with Don Siegel on the feature version of The Line-Up (1957) moving on to the television series Naked City whose scripts were “actor magnets” allowing the players to deliver good performances rare in the medium at that particular time. He regularly attended Hollywood acting classes to understand technique so he could write more effectively by supplying potential nuance rather than direct statements in his writing. (25) Alchemy of character would be one of the reasons for the success of Route 66 (45) where the audience would learn significant background information concerning the main characters that would make them not static but developing personalities with their own backgrounds emerging gradually throughout the series. The wooden-like personae of Jack Lord’s McGarrett in Hawaii 5-0 (1968-1980) did not inhabit Silliphant’s scripts.

Silliphant strongly believed that the work, and not age preference, represented the key ingredient for success (as quoted by the author):

There are millions of old coots who can only write mediocre material and millions of young minds who can’t do any better. If anything, the odds are in favor of the younger guys simply because they are writing for a medium which can seldom tolerate `excellence’ – a medium which only wants `hot’ or `trendy’ or ` best seller’ and we all know that those requirements can only be met by mass appeal comic strips disguised as motion pictures. (23)

He described his philosophy as follows (again, quoted by the author).

For me the proof of this is that virtually all of my television writing – which I consider in many instances to have been my best writing for the medium – has been original – the stories, the people, the thematic element – all these came from the cosmos of my life experience in one way or another. The attitudes and beliefs expressed began in my own psyche. How much simpler to write out of one’s self than to address an alien piece of material and find in it those elements which impelled the producer to acquire the property in the first place, then to try to dramatize those properties for the actor and camera, and yet still try not to submerge within this foreign stew your own personal feelings and beliefs. (26)

Although he became an adapter rather than an originator later, as Segaloff notes, one could also see Silliphant’s career in the light of that collective authorship Joseph McBride has defined elsewhere.

The next two chapters describe Silliphant’s contributions to two notable television series that followed the golden Age of live television – Naked City and Route 66., the latter described by the writer of 70 shows as “Pilgrim’s Progress, 1962” (33). Both he and fellow writer Bert Leonard had creative control in their contracts despite occasional network interference. The series used the then novel idea of filming at a different location for each episode featuring two leading characters Tod (Martin Milner) and working-class companion Buzz (George Maharis) who would be replaced by Viet Nam veteran “Linc” (Glenn Corbett. “His backstory was not only a manifestation of Silliphant’s growing concern over American involvement in Southeast Asia, it is believed to be the first continuing character in a U.S. network TV show who reflected the emerging Vietnam experience.” (34)  Unlike most escapist productions, Route 66 reflected not only the personal changes their creators were undergoing abut also an America moving from the 1950s into a more turbulent decade.  Like Naked City, character became the key to the quality of the series.

Ironically, Silliphant won his Academy Award for an adaptation but one that reflected the changes Civil Rights brought to the American landscape with an “unholy alliance” between white redneck sheriff (Rod Steiger) and Chicago African American detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). Like Alan Moore, Silliphant preferred original to film adaptions but when faced with the problem recognized the challenges. “It is my contention that adapting the work of another writer is far more trying and requires infinitely more professional ability than writing one of these so-called `original’ screenplays” (68) that are really artificial studio concepts. Silliphant himself came up with the shocking scene of Tibbs slapping a genteel older white man he did not respect responding in kind and hoped that the audience would see the film as much more than a message movie but more a sign of changing times.

He did not achieve the same success with William Wyler’s final film The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) that offered a bleaker view of the human condition since the writer recognized something we all now know today: “racial hatreds run deep in America – for that matter, all over the world.” (87).

Chapter 9 covers the writer’s friendship and professional involvement with Bruce Lee, a more multi-leveled person than the stereotype depicted in Tarantino’s latest atrocity, a dedicated talent who suffered from Hollywood’s stereotyped form of racism. However, Lee taught the writer other lessons in addition to technique and discipline, namely “a kind of spiritualism that helped him address concerns he was beginning to have about his life, career, and the world in general.”(93) Silliphant wrote the two-hour pilot that became the Longstreet television series where Lee plays the recently blinded detective’s sifu instructing him in the physical and spiritual aspects of martial arts. After Lee’s exclusion from the project that later became known as Kung Fu starring David Carradine, Silliphant worked on another project The Silent Flute derived from Lee’s handwritten eighteen page document (96) that turned into an unsatisfactory film ironically starring Carradine (100-101) Circle of Iron (1978). By then he had met and married another one of Lee’s students who would be his final wife, a Vietnamese refugee known as Tiana.

After chapter ten dealing with her life and involvement with the writer, the following chapter charts Silliphant’s involvement with 70s disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), the lesser The Swarm (1978) and When Time Ran Out (1980) all involving Irwin Allen as producer and sometimes director. He would also co-script Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975) that featured Tiana in a supporting role and Clint Eastwood’s The Enforcer (1976) whose novel idea involved supplying Dirty Harry with a female partner for the first time. Despite taking on Peckinpah’s film as a means not only to give Tiana a major role Silliphant also “wanted to take a stand for her people” (149) Unfortunately, Silliphant he saw his work drastically changed and could not get his name removed from the credits. Eventually he became disillusioned with changes in the industry and the Reaganization of America finally moving to Thailand as a protest against American insularity (163) as well as work there before cancer claimed him.

Despite setbacks, Silliphant left an enduring legacy as Segaloff points out in his final chapter “The Measure of a Man” as well as foresight seen in many of his unproduced projects that criticized the American involvement in Southeast Asia as well as the enduring “Ugly American” character he reacted against when turning to Buddhism.

Stirling Silliphant `got it right’ more often than not, and more often than most. He was both a craftsman and a businessman, someone who just did the damn job, sometimes because he wanted to, and sometimes because he had to, but he did it. When the source was inspired – when he found a way to make it touch his own life, as with Route 66 or Charly or In the Heat of the Night or…The New Centurions or The Silent Flute – the results were personal, revealing, and moving. Even with pictures that turned out to be worthless than the paper they were typed on, he found ways to invest himself in the characters and tried to engage the audience to do the same. (174).

This book should inspire the reader to explore his work and discern what alternative avenues may exist in today’s dire entertainment industry. It contains a fascinating list of unrealized projects such as an epic biography of Ho Chi Minh (1989), Silliphant’s rejected version of The Long Goodbye (1974), and the unaired pilot for The Med-Ex (1972) dealing with idealistic Vietnam veteran medics who decide to work in the remote Pacific northwest rather than going to medical school to become rich. Silliphant wanted to use the proposed series “to attack what was wrong with medicine” (193). As he stated, “Hospitals have bad vibes, the karmas stink” (193).

Two errors exist in this valuable book, ones that Bear Manor can easily correct. The first involves misspelling Lee’s Remick’s surname on p.209, n.124. I doubt that Sharon Farrell played a movie starlet in Marlowe (1968) as mentioned on p.211, n.155. She was probably the little sister from the title of Chandler’s original source novel. 

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International.

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