There was a writer who worked in Hollywood from 1955 to 1996 who was something of a living legend. He wrote over 40 feature films, several novels, hundreds of hours of critically acclaimed television drama, and received the Oscar and the Golden Globe. He died in 1996 at age 78 in Bangkok, Thailand, where he’d expatriated, far from his birthplace of Detroit, Mich. He said he believed he’d once lived in Thailand in a past lifetime and was going home. Nowadays, except for a few devoted fans and pros inside the Hollywood movie-making business, he’s basically a forgotten man. That hopefully may change next year when a new biography of his life will be published.
Biographer Nat Segaloff, who has authored bios of other Hollywood luminaries, including directors William Friedkin and Arthur Penn, has written the first serious attempt to capture the life of a man whose career was so long and covered so much territory, that I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into putting it all together. It seems to have been a labor of love. Segaloff was not only a Silliphant fan, he was a friend of the writer. It will be published next year by Bear Manor Media.
“It’s easy to write about someone you respect,” he told me in an email, “but hard to write about a friend. Stirling was both.”
In 1993 Nat wrote a monograph and interview with Silliphant that was conducted via fax machine between Hollywood and Thailand. That monograph, “STIRLING SILLIPHANT: The Finger of God,” appeared in a book called Backstory 3, a collection of articles and interviews of movie writers. Nat says that will be also be the title of the new book. The “finger of god” comes from a Time magazine article about Silliphant that appeared in the 1960s when he was already making $1 million a year, the highest paid writer of that time. He made so much not because he got high amounts for each script (writers weren’t paid that well back then) he got that much because he wrote so much. For example, of the 114 hours of Route 66, he wrote 73 of them. At the same time he was penning stories for NakedCity, Alcoa Theater, Mr. Lucky, Markham and other shows. Another TV writer remarked of Silliphant, that he was like “the Finger of God, that having written moves on.”
He wrote dozens of TV movies and miniseries, including “Pearl” and “Mussolini the Untold Story.” But of all that amazing outpouring of ideas, characters, themes, feeling, and images, the stories that he wrote for a television series that ran from 1960-64, “Route 66,” stand out as his greatest achievement—one which to this day has never been fully recognized for what it was. For one thing it was filmed entirely on location across the United Sates, something that couldn’t be done now because of the expense. Silliphant traveled all over soaking up the atmosphere of the locations where the stories would take place, doing research. It boggles the mind to think of him flying from one place to another and then back to his LA office, typing up scripts to meet production deadlines. The scripts usually had to be changed once they got set up with crew and actors, and Silliphant would fly in and write the new pages. He was a work horse with a mind that was on fire. I can’t imagine anyone remotely capable of doing that today.
It’s hard to put into words exactly what made the show so great. Michael Ventura, an author, and columnist for the Austin Chronicle upon release of the all four seasons of the series on DVD said that the series was almost a documentary of one of America’s greatest periods. As I remember that period, it was a time when the country was young and optimistic and had enough energy and guts to try to aim for the moon. And yet there was something under the surface, something troubling.
Tod Stiles and Buz Murdoch, the two protagonists of Route 66, played by Martin Milner and George Maharis, were young guys who perfectly mirrored that concept. Tod a student at Yale, was the son of a wealthy business owner who had life by the tail until his father died suddenly and left nothing but a bankrupt company. All that was left was a Corvette his father had given him. Tod found himself with no identity, no place to call home. He’d worked on summer vacations on a barge that had belonged to his dad’s company. There he met Buz Murdoch, who had been raised as an orphan in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Another man with no home. The two of them decide to leave it all behind them, go out on the road and find somewhere new to belong to. Along the way they meet some fascinating characters with compelling stories of their own.
One of them, for instance, was Vicky Russell. Julie Newmar played Vicky a girl on a Harley traveling with the wind, a “pilgrim, letting life take her where it will.” She lost her family in a shipwreck. “There wasn’t even an oil slick,” she tells a psychiatrist after she’s hauled into jail for tearing up the town on her bike. “They say you’re entitled to an oil slick.” In the kind of poetic-speak dialogue that only Silliphant could turn out, she tells the shrink she’s neither repressed or depressed or obsessed and has decided to let grief ride outside on a motorcycle of its own. “I’ve left a trail of buried albatross from coast to coast,” she says. “How much a pound is albatross?” the psychiatrist asks. That line is the title of the episode, which also contains the first reference to Zen Buddhism I had ever heard of. She asks Buz if he’s a Zen. He replies “If you’re a Martian, then I’m a Martian. If you’re a Zen, zen I’m a Zen.” It didn’t go over too well. But next day I was in the La SalleCollege library in Philadelphia, looking for books on Zen. That’s the kind of show it was.
In addition to documenting that bright era of the early sixties, the show went on to chronicle how America changed. Co-star George Maharis had to leave in Season Three after recurring hepatitis. He was replaced by Glenn Corbett, who played a different kind of character. As much a man with no home, as the other two men, Case was a disillusioned Vietnam Vet– an Army Ranger who can’t go home again. His entrance into the series just a few short months before the JFK assassination and our further involvement in Vietnam, brought a somber tone to the series. There was a moment in the “Albatross” episode only a season earlier, when Vicky, is being questioned by Sheriff Ray Teal at the Tucson police station, where we see a picture of JFK on the wall behind his desk—emblematic of the upbeat spirit of the time. Just a year and several months later, that optimistic, hopeful period was gone. Kennedy was dead and with Lincoln Case, symbolic of the quagmire the US was sinking into, the stories on Route 66 got darker. Even stiff upper lip Yalie Tod Stiles became more cynical, thus heralding in the beginning of the grim era we’re still living in now.
I could go on and on and have done so in the past in an article I wrote for the Washington Post in 2000, four years after Silliphant passed away from prostate cancer. Other Route 66 articles appear on Rick Dailey’s Ohio66.com web site. In an earlier blog I discuss the Route 66 influences that can be found in my Jack Brand novel.
Nat Segaloff says his book will focus on both Silliphant’s life and his creative process. From what he’s told me it sounds like he’s done a pretty thorough job of covering all the bases. At long last the tribute that is so long overdue to Stirling Silliphant is forthcoming and I for one cannot wait. In the words of Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid to such a person!”