SILLIPHANT, STIRLING

U.S. Writer

Stirling Silliphant was one of the most important and prolific writers of television drama in the 1960s, remembered particularly for his work on Naked City and Route 66. Although he had early success in the 1950s with a spate of feature films, and went on to even greater big-screen achievements in the late 1960s and 1970s, Silliphant maintained a constant presence in television throughout his writing career, and in the 1980s focused most of his attention on television movies, historical miniseries, and novels.

Silliphant's passage between big-screen and small-screen writing marked his work from very early on. He began his association with the movies as a publicist, first for Disney, and later Twentieth Century-Fox. Silliphant left that end of the business in 1953 to package an independent feature, The Joe Louis Story (honing his rewrite skills on the script). In 1955 he transformed a rejected screenplay into the novel Maracaibo (which was adapted by another writer and filmed three years later), and within the next three years saw five feature scripts produced, including Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall and Don Siegel's The Lineup. During the same period he aimed his typewriter at television, generating dozens of scripts for such anthologies as General Electric Theatre, Alcoa-Goodyear Theatre, Suspicion, Schlitz Playhouse, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as two episodes of Perry Mason.

Silliphant was completing his sixth feature script (Village of the Damned) when independent producer Herbert B. Leonard (Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, Circus Boy) hired him to write the pilot for Naked City, a half-hour series based on the 1948 "semi-documentary" feature The Naked City. With a resumé composed almost exclusively of anthologies and features, Silliphant's proclivity for self-contained stories was consistent with Leonard's vision of the series as a character-oriented dramatic anthology with a police backdrop, as against a police prodecural in the Dragnet mold. Silliphant wrote thirty-one of Naked City's first thirty-nine episodes, remembered today as taut, noirish thirty-minute thrillers offering both character drama and gunplay. Canceled after one season in its original form, the series was resurrected as an hour-long show in 1960.

In the interim, Silliphant remained busy with scripts for crime series like Markham, Tightrope, and The Brothers Brannagan, as well as an unsold private eye pilot, Brock Callahan. When Naked City was resurrected at a sponsor's behest for the 1960 season in the longer form, Silliphant was already collaborating with Leonard on another series-anthology hybrid, Route 66. (A third Leonard-Silliphant project for 1960 called Three-Man Sub--a sort of underwater Mediterranean variation on Route 66--did not sell.) Although he did write the pilot script and served as "executive story consultant" for the new version of Naked City, Silliphant would provide fewer scripts for the show because of his intense involvement with Route 66; still, the writing remained first-rate. The all-New York production offered a fascinating mix of action and Actor's Studio, yielding three seasons of compelling urban tragedy. The series was nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Drama category every year of its run.

Route 66 proved to be a critical and commercial hit, despite early concerns from Screen Gems studio abouts its premise: two young drifters searching for meaning on the highways of America. Filmed on location across the face of the U.S., the wide-ranging backdrops and visual realism of Route 66, and its mix of psychological drama, social commentary, romance, action, and big-name guest stars, all underlined by strong writing and supervision from Silliphant (and story editor Howard Rodman), paved the way for a four-year run. Spending much of this time writing and observing on the road, Silliphant would go on to write some three-fourths of Route 66's 116 episodes. Silliphant calls those four years the most intensive period of writing in his career, and the site of some of his best work.

Naked City was axed in 1963, and Route 66 a year later, but the "writing machine" (as one producer dubbed Silliphant in a Time magazine profile) did not pause. During the mid-1960s Silliphant freelanced for Chrysler Theater, Mr. Novak, and Rawhide before signing on as writer-creator of another nomadic adventure series, Maya, in 1967 (this time, two teens on an elephant wandering India). That same year Silliphant made a triumphant return to features, winning an Academy Award for his adaptation In the Heat of the Night. Even with this big-screen success (followed up with films like Marlowe, Charly, and The New Centurions), Silliphant did not abandon television. Despite a 1960 interview in which he eschewed the growing plague of "hyphenated billing"--alleging that the "miasma of memos and meetings" inevitably curtailed the insight and blunted the creativity of writer-producers--by 1971 Silliphant was one, serving as executive producer of the mystery series Longstreet. Notable as part of the 1970s-era cycle of "gimmick" detective series (Cannon, Ironside, McCloud), Longstreet--the story of a blind insurance investigator--was otherwise unremarkable. A year later the writer attempted to mount yet another picaresque series entitled Movin' On, this time concerning a pair of itinerant stock car racers (not to be confused with the 1974 series about truckers); the pilot aired as a TV-movie, but the series did not sell. Longstreet's cancellation after one season effectively ended Silliphant's involvement in the continuing series form--but not his television career.

Although he did pen several TV movies and his first mini-series, Pearl (based on his novel) during the 1970s, Silliphant concentrated most of his efforts on features. He produced Shaft in 1971 (and wrote the 1973 sequel Shaft in Africa); in 1972 he helped launch the popular cycle of disaster movies by scripting The Poseidon Adventure, followed by The Towering Inferno and The Swarm; and turned out successful thrillers like Telefon and The Enforcer (Clint Eastwood's third "Dirty Harry" film). A few more features followed in the 1980s, but for the most part Silliphant settled back into television, scripting a succession of made-for-TV movies (and unsold pilots), and epic mini-series such as Mussolini: the Untold Story, and Space. True to form, the fertile author also found time during the decade to publish three adventure novels featuring roving adventurer John Locke.

Silliphant's writing career is remarkable not only for its sheer volume of output, its duration, and its spanning of television and feature work, but also for the very fact that he kept an active hand in television after achieving big-screen success, and that, indeed, he considered television to be the medium most conducive to the writer's vision. His Oscar notwithstanding, Silliphant has charged that his In the Heat of the Night script was inferior to many of his Naked City teleplays. "As a matter of fact," he declared to writer William Froug, "I can think of at least twenty different television scripts I've written which I think are monumental in comparison." Truth be told, the bulk of Silliphant's features--most of which are adaptations--have tended toward formula, while the passion for character and ideas comes through most strongly in the television work.

Silliphant has repeatedly pronounced Naked City and Route 66 as the site of his best writing. It is difficult to disagree. These two series are surely Silliphant's finest achievements, and rank among the most original and well-written dramas ever created for the medium. A Variety columnist observed in a 1962 review of Route 66 that Silliphant "composes poetry which is often raw and tenuous, so it requires delicacy of treatment." As this suggests, Silliphant's "poetry" carried some risk. John Gregory Dunne cited Silliphant as a prime purveyor of television "pseudo-seriousness" in a 1965 article, and Silliphant himself has admitted a proclivity for the overwrought phrase. But with the right director and actors, no writing for the screen has been more powerful. And if the intense demands of series writing--and writing on the road, at that--occasionally failed to limit a slight propensity for pretension that sometimes overwhelmed characterization or credibility, by and large Silliphants' scripts for Naked City and Route 66 yielded moving renderings of troubled relationships and tortured psyches. Even his more purple moments speak to the ambitions he had for television as a dramatic form.

In 1968 TV Guide critic Dick Hobson, bemoaning the exodus of writing talent from the medium, lamented, "What became of writer Stirling Silliphant, whose Naked City's and Route 66's were once a repertory theater of contemporary life and times?" Seven years earlier, these selfsame programs were overlooked by a Federal Communications Commission member branding television a "vast wasteland," and critics bemoaning the demise of live drama. Meanwhile, Silliphant's "poetry" was living (broadcast) proof of television's capacity for brilliant writing and provocative drama, and thirty years later, the writing machine was still writing.

-Mark Alvey

STIRLING DALE SILLIPHANT. Born in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A., 16 January 1918. Educated at the University of Southern California, B.A. magna cum laude 1938. Married: Tiana Du Long, 1974; one daughter and two sons (one deceased). Served as lieutenant, U.S. Navy, 1943-46. Publicity director, 20th Century-Fox, New York City, 1946-53; screenwriter, independent producer for various Hollywood studios, 1953-80s; moved to Thailand, where he continued to work on movie and TV projects, 1980s. Member: Writers Guild of America West, Mystery Writers Association, and Authors League. Recipient: Academy Award; Edgar Allen Poe Award; Golden Globe Award, 1968 and 1969; Writer of the Year Award from the National Theater Owners, 1972; Image Award from the NAACP, 1972; Writer of the Year Award from the National Theater Owners, 1974. Died, in Thailand, 26 April 1996.

TELEVISION SERIES (writer)

1958-63 Naked City
1960-64 Route 66

TELEVISION SERIES (contributing writer)

1953-62 General Electric Theater
1955-65 Alfred Hitchcock Presents
1957-60 Alcoa-Goodyear Theater
1963-67 The Chrysler Theater

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (selection)

1978 Pearl
1981 Fly Away Home
1985 Space
1985 Mussolini
1987 The Three Kings

FILMS

In the Heat of the Night, 1968; Charly, 1969; The Poseidon Adventure, 1972; Shaft, 1972; The New Centurions, 1972; Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, 1973; Murphy's War, 1974; The Towering Inferno, 1974; The Killer Elite, 1975; The Enforcer, 1976; Telefon, 1977; The Swarm, 1978; Circle of Iron 1978; When Time Ran Out, 1980; Over the Top, 1986.

PUBLICATIONS

Maracaibo (novel). New York: Farrar, Straus, 1953.

"Lo, The Vanishing Writer." Variety (Los Angeles), 6 January 1960.

The Slender Thread (novel). New York: New American Library, 1966.

Pearl (novel). New York: Dell, 1978.

Steel Tiger (novel, John Locke Adventures). New York: Ballantine, 1983.

Bronze Bell (novel, John Locke Adventures). New York: Ballantine, 1985.

Silver Star (novel, John Locke Adventures). New York: Ballantine, 1986.

"Stirling Silliphant" (interview). American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1988.

FURTHER READING

Dunne, John Gregory. "Take Back Your Kafka." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 4 September 1965.

"The Fingers of God." Time (New York), 9 August 1963.

Froug, William. The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter. New York: MacMillan, 1972.

Hobson,Dick Hobson. "TV's Disastrous Brain Drain." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 15 June 1968.

"Route 66." Variety (Los Angeles), 7 November 1962.

"Silliphant Deplores that Bum Literary Rap Pinned on VidPix Writer." Variety (Los Angeles), 15 April 1959.

Silliphant, Stirling. Collected Papers. University of California at Los Angeles, Special Collections.

Stempel, Tom. Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. New York: Continuum, 1992.

 

See also Naked City; Police Programs; Route 66; Writer in Television