In one of the hundreds of scripts Stirling Silliphant wrote in his lifetime, one of his characters used the famous story about an elephant in a room with three blind men. Each man had a different idea what it was. To the one holding the elephant’s trunk it was like a long snake. To the one holding the elephant’s leg it was like a pillar. And to the third one holding touching the elephant’s side it seemed like a wall. The point the character was making was that it’s almost impossible to know anyone or anything completely, as it really is.
And that seems to be case with Stirling Silliphant, the man himself. Nat Segaloff’s biography, Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God has made an admirable attempt to capture the man in his entirety, but like the elephant, Silliphant’s life and his work are too large, of larger than life proportions in fact, that all we can do is applaud his biographer’s heroic effort. That Segaloff succeeds as well as he does is due mostly to his affection for the man he was privileged to call a friend, and his rare access to words written by Silliphant himself before he died in 1996 and faxed back to the U.S., after he had expatriated to Thailand.
It is through these words written in response to Segaloff’s questions, that we learn so much about a man who wrote almost the 8 million stories of the NakedCity, and yet, curiously, seems never to have written much about himself. Aside from the revelations, mostly of a professional nature, contained in these faxed letters, Silliphant wrote very little about himself. There are no memoirs, no autobiographical works, but Segaloff points out that a lot of autobiographical material is contained in the scripts he wrote, especially the 73 hours of television he wrote for “Route 66,” the 1960s TV series starring George Maharis, Martin Milner, and Glenn Corbett.
Those scripts included mentions of things like Zen, Pirandello, and existential psychology, all subjects that interested him. But there were deeper personal things, buried in subtext. A script about a Bernie Madoff-type character played by Douglas Fairbanks, who risks sneaking back in the US to talk his daughter out of becoming a nun, was based on his own experience with his own daughter who joined a convent. Another about a philandering Vietnam vet trapped in a mine cave in with another woman, while his own wife is in labor, was based on his own failing marriage, at least in metaphor.
Segaloff recounts the history of four marriages, three of which ended because Silliphant more or less wanted them to, and the wreckage left behind as a result.
After Route 66 Silliphant went on to films and won the Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. The glory lasted into the seventies, but soon a new marriage, high divorce settlement costs to his third wife, found him needing money and thus began his cycle of disaster films with producer Irwin Allen. They started well, but by the time “When Time Ran Out” and “The Swarm” appeared he had reached a creative nadir. He frankly admitted he took the jobs because he wanted to buy things, like a yacht that he sailed with his new wife to the South Pacific.
But a truer reason was that he took those jobs because there was nothing else. Hollywood had changed. Scripts written on a human scale, that probe deep into the humanity of their characters became passé about the time Star Wars came out. Silliphant had dozens, no hundreds, of ideas for scripts he wanted to write. But Hollywood was no longer interested. The most devastating part of Segaloff’s book is the long, long list of projects, complete scripts, treatments, step outlines that are listed in the appendix of the book. How anybody, even a writer with as many produced scripts made into movies as he had, could persist on without being discouraged by so much rejection is the true measure of the man’s apparently indomitable spirit. In that sense, Stirling Silliphant truly was larger than life. And thanks to Nat Segaloff for showing him to us.
Get this book. Highly recommended.