Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (1970s)

When Stirling Silliphant died in 1996 at the age of 78, he left behind an extraordinary oeuvre of genre stories, including some of the best-loved and most iconic American film and television of the 60s and 70s. A sophisticated writer and a master of craft, Silliphant brought bravura and weight to popular fare in his series Route 66, The Naked City, and Longstreet. Silliphant wrote or co-wrote 47 feature films, over 700 hours of prime-time television, and several original novels in addition to novelizations of his films—and it is no exaggeration to say that he practically defined populist genre storytelling on both the small and large screen. He eschewed the highbrow throughout his career, preferring to pull hard-hitting and socially relevant drama from out of the way genre novels; diverse stories which he formatted into a precise—and commercially successful—cinematic formula. Silliphant was the force responsible for bringing all three of the Shaft films to the screen, as well as The Killer Elite, The Towering Inferno, Murphy’s War, and In The Heat of the Night.

Taken as a whole, Silliphant’s catalogue is an anthem for the young American male. It is a canon of the dispossessed, filled with iconoclasts and outsiders, written by a man who knew first-hand just how hollow the American Dream could feel. He spoke directly to the disappointment and disillusionment of a generation, and he began from an admission that many of the foundational myths of American life were nothing more than empty promises. He wrote for all those young men who had been promised a starring role, but found real life came up a bit short. What remains striking is the anger and resolve in his storytelling. Silliphant never shied away from controversial topics—he included a brief subplot about consensual female genital mutilation in Shaft in Africa—and often took the opportunity to speak his mind on social issues via his storytelling choices. Surprisingly, he received very little pushback from the industry.

If the writing is good enough, the story is powerful enough. Hollywood will make anything if it promises to return a profit.

The writing was more than good enough, and that was partly because Silliphant was truly a bleeding heart: he spilled his feelings and experiences all over the page. He readily admitted to mining his own life and experiences for material. Route 66”’s ““Kiss the Girls, All Forlorn” was written as a way of dealing with his feelings as he watched his daughter Dayle quit the world for a nunnery. That genuine emotion is what grounds his work and makes his stories not only compelling, but authentic; and authenticity was crucial to engaging Silliphant’s audience. He spoke to a demographic whose primary unifying trait was that they felt altogether left behind, and he spoke to them with an eloquence and an understanding that is rare even today.

Route 66 (1960-1964), created by Stirling Silliphant and Herbert B. Leonard.

While it’s tempting to assert that Silliphant was just a cynic, and he certainly admitted to his fair share of bitterness, his ethos was one of hope. A born storyteller, Silliphant had both style and a sense of the mythic right from the start, and while he wrote like a man possessed—13 hours a day, five pages, seven days a week—he began his career in Hollywood as a press agent for Disney. Silliphant’s first foray into film was as producer on The Joe Louis Story. He said it simply didn’t occur to him to write the films he was making until a bit later. Shooting on The Joe Louis Story began before the project was even fully funded, and Silliphant learned how to produce much the way he later learned to write a script -- * “I just jumped into the water and swam.”*

At the height of his career, in addition to running his own production company, writing for Route 66 and The Naked City, he also signed a three-picture deal with Warners for $1 million; guild rate at the time was around $30,000 per feature. Silliphant married three times; once happily. He named two of his sons after himself, though he admitted he wasn’t much of a father to his children from his first marriage. Silliphant had seen both the highs and lows of life. He was an all-American hustler, a serial philanderer and—somewhat unexpectedly—a spiritual seeker.

Stirling Silliphant wanted to save the world, and through his stories he set out to tell a generation of young men how to find their own true worth. His heroes are all searching for a way out, a way through, and as such they are cast in the mold of a reliable archetype, albeit with vastly different veneers. It is only in the aggregate that Silliphant gets philosophical, and only when we look at the common threads between his stories that we begin to see Silliphant himself, the echt Silliphant, on screen. He consciously wrote from his heart as to the fears, motivations, and desires of his heroes, and so there are some remarkable similarities to be found between even his most dissimilar characters.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant

Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman, The Poseidon Adventure) and Murphy (Peter O’Toole, Murphy’s War) are as far from one another as to reside on entirely different moral planes, but both are cut from the same cloth. They are men who find themselves adrift from their allegiances; Murphy a shipwrecked sole survivor, Scott exiled to a distant post by church superiors. Neither wants to be a hero, but being unable to sit and quietly wait for death or rescue, they both go to incredible lengths to set their worlds back to rights, Scott fighting to save any souls he still may, Murphy hellbent on revenge to even the scales. It is their alienation and literal physical distance from everything they once valued that gives them the space to do the extraordinary. Where Scott is the more sympathetic character, sacrificing himself so that others might live, Murphy is no less committed to his cause and no less accepting of his fate, greeting his demise with the same vexed surprise as he might an uninvited guest for tea. In broad strokes, Murphy and Scott are two sides of the same character: one is motivated by hope, and one by bitter grief. It’s also no coincidence that both stories take place on travels interrupted, far from home and the watchful eye of civilization. The Silliphant hero is a man without place—but we’ll get back to that.

Murphy, Reverend Scott, John Shaft; Silliphant’s heroes are all examples of the highwayman, a character uniquely crucial to the American mythos. The highwayman is a character who has transcended the ties that bind; he has few, if any, lasting affiliations, and yet he also endures a frustrated yearning for tribe, he still has a deep need for relationships forged by blood and strife. The archetype serves as both fear and aspiration, for the highwayman is not Odysseus: he does not return to home and wife; his freedom often requires that he have no home.

The Silliphant hero’s morality is based not on what society finds acceptable—often he is in conflict with prevailing opinion about what is right—but on what he himself believes to be morally justifiable. With no master, the highwayman is ultimately accountable only to himself and history. And in this he serves as antidote to American nihilism: the breakdown of social rituals and group cohesion that is so emblematic of modern American life. In guise of Silliphant’s various heroes, the highwayman became the very model of all the best—and worst—parts of American exceptionalism. He is the wandering seeker who stands as witness to the world’s hurts and injustices, a seemingly sui generis hero who dreams himself into existence. His masculinity is traditional in guise and also, to quote Silliphant -- “sans bullshit.” Before toxic masculinity was even a phase, Silliphant was writing emotionally-engaged heroes with broad emotional palettes.

Murphy's War (1971), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant

The highwayman retains every freedom for himself, except the freedom to remain uninvolved when faced with injustice. That inability to simply walk away, to turn a blind eye to suffering or leave justice unserved, is what gives Silliphant’s heroes their heart. To see the true measure of a man who answers to no one, we need only look at how he behaves towards other people. When crafting a story Silliphant said --

“I think only and solely of character… The interaction between and among human beings is the only story worth telling.”

This focus on the interpersonal allowed him to take what were admittedly simple pulp stories and put them on screen with the same potency, sophistication, and earnestness as other writers brought to more serious drama. In the Heat of the Night is elegant in its simplicity, trimmed of all excess. It is the pinnacle of Silliphant’s willingness to allow the larger action to take place off screen, and rings all the more truthful for what is left unsaid. Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is effectively an island of a man; we see nothing of his personal life, his family and job exist only as pretense to bring him into the story. Both characters are outsiders—Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is from Texas, and while he doesn’t know the half of it, he has some idea what it’s like to be unwanted. Both find themselves in a hostile place, with only themselves to rely upon. Silliphant’s heroes are often hijacked, waylaid into other people’s problems by their own moral core, and Tibbs is trapped by his own inability to leave a case he knows will otherwise go unsolved.

In the Heat of the Night (1967), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant

During shooting, Poitier insisted that Tibbs, in true highwayman fashion, could not allow an insult to his dignity to go unremarked; Endicott’s (Larry Gates) slap was not returned in the original, but it serves as the foundation for the genuine respect that grows between Tibbs and Gillespie. It’s a common thread in Silliphant’s stories that no man is wholly above the law. Silliphant felt that it wasn’t simply a matter of a man’s being willing to stand apart from the judgement of others, nor was it enough merely for that man to act in accordance with his values.

Silliphant’s villains were extraordinary in that they were written as failed heroes, their actions imbued with the same depth of motivation he assigned his do-gooders. He often used people he knew as inspiration for his fictional characters, and he treated historical figures in much the same way. Despite their vague historicity, Silliphant’s biopics are best viewed as creative retellings—history may have written the plot, but Silliphant framed story to suit his purposes. Mussolini: The Untold Story is one of his better morality plays, and with George C. Scott in the lead, it too is a masterclass in the unspoken. Silliphant wrote the role specifically for Scott, tailoring it to his strengths as he did for most of his leads. Even so, Scott dropped many lines in favor of a glance or a nod, and his restraint gave his performance an heroic and almost tragic air. It was Scott’s awareness of the character’s essentially flawed soul that made the film work, and Silliphant’s villains were always burdened with a key sense of the existential wound.

(Briefly, the existential wound is the pain we feel in recognizing ourselves as finite, flawed and imperfect as we are. We are able to recognize that same pain in others, and that recognition creates a moral obligation to respect the essential human dignity of one’s fellow man. This is an asset for a hero, but it is a burden to the would-be villain.)

The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Jesse Hill Ford

More succinctly: Silliphant believed that we must never treat people as things. Carelessness with the lives of others is the downfall of many of his villains, but merely refraining from immoral action also is not enough. With his white-collar savagery, Oman Hedgepath (Lee J. Cobb, The Liberation of LB Jones) is one of the quieter villains of cinema, and all the more chilling for it. Silliphant wrote the film out of his own sense of fury “about the inhumanity of races, of classes, or religions opposed to each other.” That fury carried through to the film, and the audience itself—a pipe bomb went off in a Bronx theatre during the film’s run there, among several other smaller disturbances. “It offered no solutions, no hope—it simply said this is what happens when two sides hate each other.” The film truly aims to drive home the depths of Hedgepath’s corruption, but it also stresses just how reprehensible his inaction is, and how much more loathsome that inaction is made by his innate capacity for heroism. His final line is an admission of culpability:

If I’ve ceased to be your hero, maybe I’ve ceased to be my hero, too.

Hedgepath could have been a hero. Silliphant spared no sympathy for the character, and nor should we: a man must live with the consequences of his actions, and his inactions. Villainy is sometimes a matter of things left undone.

Only justified moral action can carry the day for the Silliphant hero—which, if you were wondering, is why Murphy also had to die. Suddenly stripped of its nationalistic justifications, his fatal heroism was little more than murder. A man who would bring his war home has no place at home.

The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Jesse Hill Ford

Silliphant’s heroes trended towards the ordinary. He painted the disenfranchised American male as a flawed but ultimately laudable figure, and so his heroes were mostly workaday fellows thrust into situations that demanded heroic effort. Death Scream, Silliphant’s made-for-TV movie vaguely based on the Kitty Genovese case, was a direct call to action. Though many writers made the transition to film and never looked back, Silliphant continued to write for TV throughout his career, recognizing that the small screen had its own advantages. Death Scream was a story Silliphant wanted to tell—it’s a small film, but it aired the same year The Killer Elite was in theaters—and it was likely one of his more personal efforts.

The Genovese case would have outraged him. His daughter was long since grown, but he remembered the fear he felt on her behalf, and he poured that feeling into the dialog. Detective Nick Rodriguez’ (Raul Julia) interaction with his daughter (Helen Hunt) feels real. Hot on the heels of a serial rapist, Rodriguez comes home to find his daughter has left the front door unlocked. He is terrified and furious, and means to scold his daughter. Silliphant wrote the scene with her scolding him for not directing his anger at the appropriate target—the climax is that nothing happens. He apologizes, and hugs her. Rodriguez isn’t much of a highwayman, in fact he’s defined by his connections within the neighborhood, but he’s an excellent example of how Silliphant modeled heroism for young men. All a man needed to do was heed the call of that innate goodness within him. It did not matter if that call was on the smallest scale: something as small a man apologizing for misdirecting his anger at his daughter, perhaps. Silliphant was just as much an intersectional feminist as he was an anti-racist.

The Enforcer (1976), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner

When pitching Clint Eastwood on Dirty Harry’s female partner in The Enforcer, he described women as “the world’s primary underclass” and he had a particular bone to pick with men who might judge women too harshly, especially when it came to sex. Silliphant’s women, even his virginal ingenues, were sexually-aware individuals, with desires and histories that weren’t always so pristine. Silliphant was a man with desires and jealousies just like any other, and he did well for himself in that respect. His second wife was a cover girl, though he found being married to a model wasn’t all it was cracked up to be—seeing the way men looked at her weighed on him.Of course, it probably also weighed on her to watch him traipsing across town in his Rolls Royce to visit his many mistresses, too. Silliphant never claimed to be perfect, but he wrote men who were touched by the better angels of his nature. Detective Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine, The Poseidon Adventure) is remarkably unbothered by the idea of sitting down to dinner with a man who might recognize his wife from her former career as a sex worker, and dismisses Linda’s (Stella Stevens) concerns. She rudely reminds him of the unvarnished truth, but Rogo’s no fool. He settles the matter immediately, saying -- If it bothered me I wouldn’t have married you.

He knows who he is, he knows who he’s married to. And he’s content with that. It’s notable that Rogo, rather than Reverend Scott, is the one to the group through the last dark passage of the propeller shaft before they reach the sun, and rescue. Rogo shows many of Silliphant’s heroic characteristics, and the character is a sort of highwayman-made-good; a man who saw the world in all its ugliness, and embraced it anyway.

It’s fair to say that Silliphant’s women are often in the story primarily to serve their purpose in the hero’s character development, and many fail the Bechdel test, but every last one of Silliphant’s women show motivation and personal agency. The short-lived heroine of Circle of Iron—Silliphant’s joint passion-project with Bruce Lee—Tara (Erica Creer) isn’t given much screen time, but even she is in control of her fate. Originally titled The Silent Flute, Circle of Iron is peak kung-fu fantasy, a fairytale for the martial arts set, set in a world without particular time or place.

Circle of Iron (1978), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Stanley Mann

At first glance, Tara seems like little more than a tasty snack set out to bewitch and defile hero Cord (Jeff Cooper). Though she is found dead the next morning, slain for her infidelity by the villainous Chang Sha (David Carradine), it is clear that Tara died for love. Like a Silliphant hero, she went to her fate knowingly. It is no coincidence that Circle of Iron follows Joseph Campbell’s archetypes almost perfectly, Silliphant became interested in his work around the same time as he and Lee were writing the story. Cord is the idealized initiate-seeker, “he who knows” in Campbell’s description. Tara is both the virgin and the world-mother, she represents everything which can be known of the material world. When Cord leaves her behind with nary a second thought, off to follow the silent flute which only he can hear, it is a metaphor for the way a man who has freed himself might turn from the opinions of the world, to seek out that truth which only he may find. It’s a little hokey, but it’s good fun.

Whether they were following a silent flute or just trying to get to where they were going, Silliphant’s heroes were all searching for something. They say it’s not the destination—not the truth we find at the end—but the journey that really matters. Silliphant was on a lifetime-long quest for enlightenment.

The oldest son of an immigrant, born in Detroit but raised on the road, Silliphant didn’t know a settled life until he was 7, when the family briefly took up residence in Glendale. Looking out the window of the family car on those long stretches of highway—perhaps there is no better vantage point from which to understand America—he developed a lasting sympathy for the heartland and the people who inhabited it, which carried over into every episode of Route 66, his swan song small-screen ballad to and for the heartland of America. Originally titled The Seekers, “Route 66 was not a television show, it was a promise. A weekly training film. A way out and through and over. [Tod and Buz were] looking not for adventure, but—and they were quite explicit about this—for meaning.” The show shot entirely on location across the nation, and many of Silliphant’s episodes were written in the towns where they were set, although location is only half the story. The highwayman is rarely a character at rest: he always moves on, sooner or later. Tod said as much in “A Cage in Search of a Bird”:

It comes to me now that, with all the places I’ve been, I still haven’t found a place where I’d like to wake up every morning for the rest of my life.

Silliphant had an affinity for the journey itself. He knew that when home and safety felt like motion, anyplace could be home, but never for long.

Silliphant was a master of using the journey itself to give context to his heroes’ search for themselves, but he also readily used motion and relative position as metaphor for psyche. The Poseidon Adventure was positively Jungian in its upside down, belly of the whale, no way out but through symbolism. The characters’ survival depends upon an ascending-descent into the heart (engine room) of the matter, and Reverend Scott serves as Christlike sacrifice just before the survivors see the sun. Disasters make excellent metaphors for emotional conflict, and Silliphant loved to pit his heroes against forces much bigger than they, unthinking and indifferent forces that couldn’t be reasoned with or even directly approached.

The Towering Inferno (1974), screenplay by Stirling Silliphant

When it came to The Towering Inferno, Silliphant said the fire was his favorite character; he gave it a name, and was rooting for it to succeed. He was onto something. The fire is the most essential piece of the story: it is the bridge between youth and wisdom. Surviving the collision with the world is how a Rodriguez becomes a Rogo. Before Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) moves away from the city and turns away from the world, he must confront all of the ways his ideals, in the form of his original blueprints, have been corrupted by the world, or in this case, Roger Simmons’ (Richard Chamberlain) cost-cutting. He sheds that outlook as he ascends the tower, and by the time Roberts and Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) make a last-ditch effort to save the structure, Roberts has become a true Silliphant hero. During the ascent to the roof—a lawless place far removed from civilization below—Roberts is essentially fearless in his resolve.

The luckiest of Silliphant’s heroes realize that they’re not looking for a thing to be found out in the world. They discover what they were searching for was within them all along. Their destination was always an internal state of moral grace.

Stirling Silliphant was a man who lived each day to its fullest, who experienced everything he could of the world. He loved life, and had little fear of death when he saw it approach. He knew that life is what we make of it—and Yuen Chung (Mako, The Killer Elite) said as much, when accused of not caring if he dies: Of course we do. It’s the manner of living and dying one finds relevance. Stirling Silliphant died in Bangkok on April 26, 1996. He was cremated following a Buddhist service in Thailand, but his final adventure was posthumous. A mixup led to his ashes being held for ransom—for over a decade.

Stirling Silliphant and wife Tiana Alexandra Du Long (1970's)

Silliphant’s widow and son spent over a decade searching, and were able to retrieve the urn from a grave in North Vietnam, in 2009, and scattered his ashes to the seas from the deck of his yacht. A fitting end for a man who understood that there’s nothing more tantalizing than the idea of driving off into the night, and nothing more frightening than actually doing it. Of course, he also understood that, no matter what a man might choose to do, life was just a little bit sweeter with the keys to a ’62 Corvette in his pocket.

SPARROW MORGAN is a writer and film historian. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their four dogs.