Sidney Sheldon

Oscar-winning screenwriter who at the age of 52 started a new career as a bestselling 'trashy' novelist


Sidney Schechtel (Sidney Sheldon), writer, screenwriter and film director: born Chicago 11 February 1917; three times married (one daughter); died Rancho Mirage, California 30 January 2007.

Sidney Sheldon was a multi-faceted writer who won an Oscar for screenwriting and a Tony for the libretto of a Broadway musical before writing his first novel at the age of 52 and becoming one of the world's bestselling authors. Though "trashy" is a word that appears regularly in reviews of his work, Sheldon said, "I don't write for critics, I write for readers", and his books sold millions of copies worldwide.

Their glamorous backgrounds, strong narrative flow and plots that often dealt with women who triumph in a man's world, had particular appeal for female readers. "In real life," said Sheldon,

women are not stereotyped, nor are men. So I also write about women who are ruthless, domineering, nymphomaniacs, frigid, and about men who are weak, ruthless, satyriasts and homosexuals. The world is a complex place, filled with complex characters: a feast for writers.

Born Sidney Schechtel in Chicago in 1917, he was the son of a salesman who "never read a book in his life" and later described himself as "the only one of my family to complete high school". He made his first literary sale - a poem - when he was 10 years old, and won a scholarship to Northwestern University, but poverty and the Depression forced him to leave after a few months and find work as a theatre usher, then shoe salesman, then night-club attendant.

After the club's bandleader bought a song he had written, he went to New York to write song lyrics, but then switched his ambition to movies and moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a reader at Universal Studios. At night, he and a writer at the same boarding house, Ben Roberts, wrote original screenplays, one of which was purchased by the "poverty row" studio PRC.

Entitled South of Panama (1941), it starred Roger Pryor as a government agent battling spies who want the plans for a secret invisible paint. There were elements of matinée cliffhangers in the implausible tale, and Sheldon was later to describe his novels as having a similar style. "It's the technique of the old Saturday-afternoon serial," he said. "Leave the guy hanging on the edge of the cliff at the end of the chapter."

Sheldon and Roberts also wrote Gambling Daughters (1941) for PRC, and Borrowed Hero (1941) for Monogram. "I can't call them 'B' pictures," Sheldon said. "They were 'Z' pictures. But we got paid, and we got screen credits. We were professionals." For The Carter Case (1942), distinguished by John Alton's atmospheric photography, Sheldon and Roberts came up with a truly surprising "least suspected" villain. Sheldon then received sole screen credit for the best of his "B" movies, She's in the Army (1943), starring Veda Ann Borg as a cabaret singer who becomes an ambulance driver.

Sheldon served briefly with the US Army Air Force during the Second World War, but was discharged on medical grounds. He and Roberts collaborated on a revised libretto for a lavish Broadway revival of The Merry Widow (1943), which starred Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura and was a great hit. The writers then joined Guy Bolton in fashioning a new stage musical, Jackpot (1944), but, despite a tuneful score by Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz, its run was brief, and a musical fantasy by Sheldon, Roberts and Dorothy Kilgallen, Dream with Music (1944), starring Vera Zorina as a writer who dreams she is Scheherazade, also failed, despite choreography by George Balanchine.

Back in Hollywood, Sheldon was to have his greatest screen triumph with his original screenplay for The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (1947, UK title Bachelor Knight), in which an art teacher, Cary Grant, is sentenced by a judge, Myrna Loy, to be a constant companion of her teenage daughter (Shirley Temple) until the girl's infatuation with him wears off. Sheldon's script found boundless humour in the zany situation, and with the benefit of sterling performances the film was a resounding success that won Sheldon an Oscar for best original screenplay.

Sheldon and Guy Bolton were then asked by MGM to work on the script of the musical Easter Parade (1948). The project had started out with a script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett for a projected cast headed by Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Kathryn Grayson, Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton. As the project evolved, Grayson, Sinatra and Skelton were replaced by Cyd Charisse, Peter Lawford and Jules Munshin, then accidents forced the replacement of Charisse by Ann Miller, and Kelly by Fred Astaire. Vincente Minnelli was replaced as director by Charles Walters, who suggested that Sheldon and Bolton adapt the screenplay and reduce the Pygmalion-like aspects of the story. The result was a witty and occasionally touching tale that was an enormous hit (1948's second highest-grossing film, after Road to Rio) and a perennial favourite.

Sheldon stayed at MGM to adapt Irving Berlin's stage hit Annie Get Your Gun (1950) for the screen, and for the producer Joe Pasternak he reworked the earlier Deanna Durbin film, It's a Date (1940), into a vehicle for Jane Powell, Nancy Goes to Rio (1950). Sheldon and Dorothy Cooper wrote one of Powell's brightest movies, Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), in which Vic Damone made his screen début, and Sheldon received sole credit for three adaptations of stage hits - the comedy thriller Remains to be Seen (1953), starring June Allyson and Van Johnson, a totally rewritten version of Anything Goes (1956), starring Bing Crosby and Donald O'Connor, and later the disappointingly lumbering Jumbo (1962).

He made two attempts at film directing, neither successful. The first was Dream Wife (1953), a limp battle-of-the-sexes comedy starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and in 1957 he produced, directed and co-wrote The Buster Keaton Story, with Donald O'Connor as the frozen-faced silent comic. The film was a complete failure, and Sheldon never directed again.

In 1959 he returned to Broadway to work on the libretto of the musical Redhead, starring Gwen Verdon, and, though its murder-mystery plot was described by one critic as "as complicated as an income-tax return", it won him a Tony award. In 1963 he started to write for television, conceiving The Patty Duke Show, about the adolescent antics of two lookalike cousins. He also conceived I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70) and in 1977 he created Hart to Hart, which starred Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as rich supersleuths who roam the glamour spots of the world in their private jet, solving crimes along the way.

The first of his 18 novels, The Naked Face, was published in 1970, causing little stir (though it later sold well as a paperback), but his second, The Other Side of Midnight, a rags-to-riches story of a woman scorned, was a resounding hit, the first of 11 of his books to make the bestseller lists - it was on the New York Times list for 53 weeks - a record for its time. He turned to novels, he said, to allow his imagination greater scope:

In a book, your imagination has no limits. There is no budget to worry about, you can have as many characters as you want, you can give them all yachts.

Sheldon was one of the world's most translated authors, selling more than 300 million books in 180 countries. His books, though, have had little success on screen. The Other Side of Midnight (1977) ran for nearly three turgid hours, and the failure of Bloodline (1979) was particularly sad, since it was one of the few films made by Audrey Hepburn after her semi-retirement.

Critics generally suggested that the intrigues, colourful characters and convoluted affairs that permeate Sheldon's literary works were palatable digested by a reader in several sessions, but indigestible when contracted into a single movie. Certainly, they seemed to work better as mini-series for television - his book Master of the Game, which followed the fortunes of a diamond merchant's dynasty over 70 years, from the mines of South Africa to the chic splendours of Paris and Manhattan, became a nine-hour series in 1984. Rage of Angels (1980) and Memories of Midnight (1990) were also dramatised, and CBS allegedly paid Sheldon a million dollars for the rights to If Tomorrow Comes (1985) before they had read it. Windmills of the Gods (1987) went straight to first place on the bestseller lists on publication. In addition to his novels, which are strictly adult fare, he wrote several popular children's books.

After a brief early marriage, Sheldon married the former actress Jorja Curtright - their daughter, Mary, is an actress and writer. Jorja died in 1985, and Sheldon married the former child actress Alexandra Kostoff in 1989.

Sheldon's aim, he said, was to make his stories exciting. "A lot of writers don't," he said:

They spend pages and pages describing something but they don't know how to pace a story. I do, from my work on movies and TV.

Tom Vallance

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