The young press agent asked an Oscar-winning actor what he considered 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 a Hollywood career, he had a hand in writing some 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. Nat Segaloff fills the pages with entertaining recollections from the natural-born storyteller. There are lots of lessons, too, about writing for the screen.
In the last four years of the 1950s, Silliphant wrote 68 TV episodes for series such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Perry Mason,” and found time for five movies. His endurance and creativity were tested when he wrote 70 of the 116 episodes of the early ’60s series “Route 66,” often churning out pages from a motel room on location.
Silliphant also could reimagine another writer’s work for 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).
Silliphant kick-started the ’70s trend of star-laden disaster films with screenplays for “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974). His own disasters – failed projects, failed marriages, a murdered son, terminal cancer – suggest 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.