Obituary: Stirling Silliphant

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The Independent Online
The screenwriter Stirling Silliphant was a master of "the Oscar scene", Hollywood parlance for a scene that allows a star to pour out his heart and show his or her full range - and which inevitably features heavily in campaigns to get nominated for an award.

This applied not just to lead players, like Rod Steiger's racist Southern policeman in In the Heat of the Night (1967) or Cliff Robertson's retard- turned-genius in Charly (1968), both of whom won Oscars in Silliphant- scripted roles; it is impossible to think of The Poseidon Adventure (1972) without Shelley Winters's "I can hold my breath, Manny: it's the one thing I can do" monologue and death scene springing to mind.

Fond of quoting Raymond Chandler's dictum, "A good writer is one who can take a cliche and write it as though it has never been used before", Silliphant wrote unashamed movie-star parts for unashamed movie stars. Unfortunately, such scripts depended on genuine stars for their success. Silliphant's dialogue for The Towering Inferno (1974) or The Enforcer (1976) is no better than that in his less successful films, but it was tailored for real stars like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood; many other "stars" lacked the screen presence to deliver his dialogue as if they believed it.

Never was this more apparent than in The Silent Flute/ Circle of Iron (1978), a pet project Silliphant developed with Bruce Lee and James Coburn. While someone with Lee's personal magnetism and strong belief in the project could have pulled it off, David Carradine simply looked like an uncomfortable straight man in a Monty Python sketch.

Yet Silliphant was far from a hack. Generally regarded as a "hired gun", he continually failed in his efforts to interest studios in his own more spiritual, personal projects, such as his long-held ambition to film Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan ("Not being able to make that film has got to be the great disappointment of my life," he once said). None the less, at his best Silliphant produced high-quality work within a commercial framework, containing ideas that could have seemed outrageous to a mass audience at the time - a black policeman more civilised and intelligent than a white one, for example. A committed liberal, he took great trouble with his research, and often the vagaries of his dialogue had much to do with the egos of his casts (he had to rewrite McQueen's part in The Towering Inferno to give him as many lines as his co-star Paul Newman).

Born in Detroit in 1918, Silliphant wrote his first story at the age of five, and worked as a sports writer before becoming a publicity director for 20th Century-Fox between 1946 and 1953. He became an independent producer on The Joe Louis Story (1953), alternating between low-budget films such as Phil Karlson's Five Against the House (1955) and Don Siegel's The Lineup (1958, an expanded version of a television series) and writing for television shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66 and The Naked City.

It was not until MGM hired Silliphant to write an adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos for Ronald Colman in 1958 that Silliphant really hit his stride as a screenwriter. Colman's death the same year and worries over the film's potential offensiveness to the powerful Catholic League of Decency kept it off the screen until 1960, when it was filmed as Village of the Damned. The infuriated Silliphant broke his contract with MGM and went back to television for several years before returning to films in 1965 to script Sidney Pollack's directorial debut, The Slender Thread.

In the Sixties Silliphant was an early student of Bruce Lee, recommending his teacher to many of his Hollywood contacts and even writing a scene- stealing cameo for him in Marlowe (1969), an enjoyable update of Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister, as well as a role in the television series Longstreet, although attempts to build a series around him were constantly thwarted by the studio executives' reluctance to gamble on an Asian actor.

Silliphant proved more successful with black actors, thanks to the growing media attention on the civil rights movement, which found an eloquent screen spokesman in Sidney Poitier's detective Virgil Tibbs, one of the first black screen heroes in a position of authority, in In the Heat of the Night. Described by the writer as "The Defiant Ones with cops instead of cons", it slickly combined a message movie with an above-average thriller plot to great critical and commercial success and earned Silliphant an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. (The following year he won a Golden Globe Award for his screenplay for Charly).

Just as successful, and certainly more influential, was the Shaft series. With its hip theme music, gritty location work and a very contemporary hero in Richard Roundtree's black private eye, Silliphant produced the 1971 original, served as executive producer on Shaft's Big Score (1972) and as writer on Shaft in Africa (1973) before the hero spun off into his own short-lived television series. Although often dismissed as cliched and patronising, the films were unique in being the first from a major studio to show black characters as being as self-reliant as white action heroes. Explaining their success in an interview with Tony Crowley in 1978, Silliphant noted, "It is in the mistakes that a film can really work. The first Shaft was raw, had mistakes, heaps of them - you could almost see the shadow of the camera boom. But it had an angry kind of vigour to it. And that, I think, goes with what people want: honesty, challenge, excitement, involvement, unpredictability and energy."

Although certainly no worse than Paul Gallico's novel, The Poseidon Adventure was one of his weaker screenplays. Its surprise box-office success kick- started the Seventies obsession with disaster movies that would dominate the decade and much of the remainder of Silliphant's career. He was to work with the Poseidon producer Irwin Allen three more times, most successfully adapting two novels brought by rival studios into one picture and coming up with one of the biggest hits of the decade, The Towering Inferno. Silliphant went to great lengths researching the picture in an effort to turn it into more than merely a "Grand Hotel catches fire" star vehicle, adding an attack on poor safety standards after discovering from firemen that their biggest enemy wasn't so much fire as corrupt builders.

These disaster films were punctuated by efforts for major talents that failed to quite come off. The Killer Elite (1975), a confused spy thriller not helped by its director, Sam Peckinpah's contempt for the material and on-set introduction to cocaine; The Enforcer (1976), a tired third outing for Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry; and Telefon (1977), an efficient but outdated Cold War thriller started by director Peter Hyams (who co- wrote) but finished by Don Siegel.

Originally intended as an immediate follow-up to Poseidon, and somewhat bizarrely reworking the plot structure of In the Heat of the Night as a killer bee movie, the failure of The Swarm (1978) had a catastrophic effect on the reputations of both Irwin Allen and Silliphant. Silliphant had been involved in flops before - most notably Murphy's War (1971), which left a trail of debts in its wake - but never anything on this scale. With crass dialogue to spare ("General, can we trust a scientist who prays?" "Son, I wouldn't trust any other kind"), it became a favourite of Clive James, but despite inexplicable optimism from Warner Bros, who lavished their biggest-ever budget and largest-ever release on the picture, The Swarm proved to be not just the flop of the year but of the decade. Almost overnight Silliphant's reputation turned from Oscar-winning scribe to unwitting purveyor of high camp. A further screenplay for Allen, When Time Ran Out (1980, about a volcanic eruption), proved, if anything, even more inane, despite the presence of High Noon's Carl Foreman as co-writer.

Of Silliphant's subsequent projects, only an above-average adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1979) was of any note, which he executive- produced for television from a script by Paul Monash after failing to get his own script of it made as a theatrical feature.

Like many Hollywood professionals of his day, Silliphant found it hard to adapt to the late Seventies and early Eighties as what was once unconventional became the convention a new generation of writers was reacting against. His style found itself overtaken by films that were either more subtly written or more explicitly realistic: the bizarre Sylvester Stallone arm- wrestling/child-custody vehicle Over the Top, his last produced film screenplay, might just have worked in the Thirties with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, but in 1987 seemed more the stuff of daytime television than big-budget cinema.

Yet, if the later projects were ill-conceived, Silliphant was well paid - enough to retire to Thailand in 1988 with his wife Tiana Alexandra Du Long, who directed the 1994 documentary From Hollywood to Hanoi.

Trevor Willsmer

Stirling Silliphant, screenwriter: born Detroit 16 January 1918; married 1974 Tiana Alexandra Du Long (four children); died Bangkok 26 April 1996.