A lesson in writer's bio: how to survive Hollywood

DOUGLASS K. DANIEL Associated Press Published:

"Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God" (BearManor Media), by Nat Segaloff

The young press agent asked the famously cynical Oscar-winning actor what he thought was the key to success in Hollywood. "Survival," replied Humphrey Bogart. "Stick around long enough and everybody else will die or retire."

That young press agent, Stirling Silliphant, became a screenwriter. Not only did he survive the ups and downs of a Hollywood career, he also had a hand in writing several of the memorable films and television shows that entertained the baby boomer generation. He ended up with his own Academy Award, for the screenplay for 1967's "In the Heat of the Night," which won the best-picture Oscar.

"Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God" is that rare book about the movies and television that focuses on a person who writes the scripts. Author Nat Segaloff fills the pages of Silliphant's biography with entertaining recollections from the natural-born storyteller. There are lots of lessons, too, about writing for the screen.

God-like fingers were needed to maintain Silliphant's pace. In the last four years of the 1950s, he wrote 68 TV episodes for series such as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Perry Mason," and found time for five movies.

Silliphant met with Hitchcock only once. In that hour, however, the master of suspense described shot after shot, providing camera movements and everything else a particular episode required except the lines the characters would speak. For that, Hitchcock would hold his thumb and forefinger an inch or two apart and say, "Give me about this much."

Silliphant's endurance and creativity were tested when he wrote 70 of the 116 episodes of the early '60s series "Route 66." With the edgy drama shooting on location across the country, he often churned out pages from a motel room.

While he preferred original stories that drew from his own experience and viewpoint, Silliphant could reimagine another writer's work for the unique needs of the big screen. For "In the Heat of the Night," he retooled the story to focus on the tense relationship between a big-city black detective (Sidney Poitier) and a small-town white police chief (Oscar winner Rod Steiger). For "Charly" (1968) he played down the science in favor of the humanity inherent in the story of a mentally disabled man (Oscar winner Cliff Robertson) who becomes intelligent through experimental surgery.

Silliphant (1918-1996) contributed to pop culture again by kick-starting the '70s trend of star-laden disaster films with screenplays for "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) and "The Towering Inferno" (1974). His successful formula might be found in this description of leading characters: "In their conflict they exposed their own fears, and therefore their humanity. And as this impacted on the several other characters, we inevitably had to see them as facets of ourselves."

His own disasters -- failed projects, failed marriages, a murdered son, terminal cancer -- suggest one reason why writers like to write: They exercise a degree of control over their make-believe worlds that they may never enjoy in real life. The successful ones, like Silliphant, present an overall truth that all of us can ponder.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).