Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Clippings: Bill Fiset's Oakland Tribune Column on Stirling Silliphant

Have a look at this piece by Bill Fiset, a columnist who wrote for The Oakland Tribune for about 350 years. This is a profile, which ran in the Tribune on February 27, 1961, on Stirling Silliphant, who was to Route 66 what Rod Serling was to The Twilight Zone. Some highlights from the article:

  • Silliphant wrote the first 32 scripts for the Herbert B. Leonard's gritty police series Naked City.
  • Silliphant wrote the first 24 of 32 scripts for Route 66.
  • Silliphant's typical writing schedule involved 10 hours of writing per day, six days a week.
  • Silliphant would go to filming location sites (and potential locations) to get ideas for stories.
  • Silliphant on Route 66: "With this 'Route 66' series older viewers have complained the two central characters are bums. They're not. They're 'going.' They're moving, restless, working for something. Maybe it's an outrageous dramatic premise, but it's a way of getting to say something. A viewer must accept such a premise with many TV shows in order to get to the commentary. The show is a success. The commentary I'm trying to write is the lack of people's ability to communicate with each other. We say it in different ways because there are no restrictions in the format. Tod and Buz are the central characters but may have minor roles, because the story is the important thing."

Stirling Silliphant (pictured left), born on January 16, 1918, was 42 when Route 66 went on the air. Like Martin Milner, he was born in Detroit and relocated to Hollywood with his family. He was a prolific author. By the time he died in 1996, he had more than 700 hours of television writing credit to his name. His masterful script for 1967's In the Heat of the Night netted him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

After In the Heat of the Night, Silliphant never had a shortage of writing gigs, but nothing would ever match the power of In the Heat of the Night (or Route 66, for that matter). His last screenplay was for the film The Grass Harp in 1995, a low-key costume drama set in 1940s Alabama. It had an all-star cast (Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen).

Silliphant died in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1996. In the not-too-distant future, I'll run one of his detailed obituaries on this Blog. He was a remarkable writer. He belonged to that generation of brilliant TV writers - including Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky - who were too brilliant and too talented for television.

I am not one of those overly nostalgic types who insists that such outstanding writing can't be found anywhere today. But you won't have an easy time finding it on America's big television networks. The place to go these days for outstanding writing is cable, especially HBO. The best cable TV shows have somehow managed to hire many of the heirs to Stirling Silliphant's brilliant writing tradition.

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