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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
1960-64 Route 66
TELEVISION SERIES (contributing writer)
General Electric Theater
1955-65 Alfred Hitchcock Presents
1957-60 Alcoa-Goodyear Theater
1963-67 The Chrysler Theater
1981 Fly Away Home
1987 The Three Kings
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.
(novel). New York: Farrar, Straus, 1953.
"Lo, The Vanishing Writer." Variety (Los Angeles), 6 January
Slender Thread (novel). New York: New American Library, 1966.
(novel). New York: Dell, 1978.
Tiger (novel, John Locke Adventures). New York: Ballantine,
Bell (novel, John Locke Adventures). New York: Ballantine, 1985.
Star (novel, John Locke Adventures). New York: Ballantine, 1986.
"Stirling Silliphant" (interview). American Film (Washington,
D.C.), March 1988.
John Gregory. "Take Back Your Kafka." The New Republic (Washington,
D.C.), 4 September 1965.
Fingers of God." Time (New York), 9 August 1963.
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.
66." Variety (Los Angeles), 7 November 1962.
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.
Tom. Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television
Writing. New York: Continuum, 1992.