By the time Alan Sharp arrived in Hollywood to begin his screenwriting career at the age of thirty-six, he had already lived a dozen lives. Born in Alyth, Perthshire, only a few miles from the Highlands, baby Alan was put up for adoption at six weeks old and taken into the home of a Greenock shipyard worker and his wife. Sharp left school at fourteen to follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps at the Greenock Dockyard Company, before going on to a series of menial jobs that included construction labourer, dishwasher, night switchboard operator for a burglar alarm company, packer for a carpet firm and assistant to a private detective who was primarily a debt collector with a side hustle in divorce. After completing his mandatory National Service in 1954, Sharp trained as a teacher before decamping to Germany, leaving his first wife with little more than the money from his college grant. After a spell teaching English abroad, he returned to Britain, but gave Scotland a wide berth: “I had fucked up enough and burned enough bridges not to be able to return to Greenock.”
Like many Scots with a literary bent, Sharp washed up in London. In 1963, he started an affair with novelist Beryl Bainbridge. They had a daughter together, but Sharp again refused to be tied down. The relationship ended when Sharp apparently went out to retrieve a library book from his car and never returned, an event which would pop up in Bainbridge’s 1975 novel Sweet William, which also featured a thinly-veiled portrait of Sharp as a protean playwright, “his pink face crowned with foppish curls.” In 1965, Sharp would publish his own novel, A Green Tree in Gedde, his tumid prose earning comparisons with James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, just as the subject matter – the sexual escapades of two couples, one of whom are siblings – would see the book banned from Edinburgh libraries. The follow-up novel, The Wind Shifts, appeared in 1967, but a third book in the proposed trilogy would never materialise – by this time, Sharp had found a new calling as television writer, most successfully for the BBC’s one-off television play series The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84). A Knight in Tarnished Armour (1965) would be a semi-autobiographical take on Sharp’s shipyard days, while The Long Distance Piano Player (1970) featured Kinks frontman Ray Davies embarking on a world record for non-stop piano playing. But while Sharp saw the potential in television drama – “it allows you to do more daring things” – he was painfully aware of its low-budget, ephemeral nature (Knight is missing; Piano Player is in dire shape) and had ambitions beyond the small screen.
Some critics, especially those taken with Sharp’s novels, have said that Sharp was wooed by Hollywood’s easy money, thus depriving the world of a potential titan of Scottish literature. But for a writer who once harboured fantasies that “Humphrey Bogart was my father and Katherine Hepburn was my mother” and who consistently expressed a deep and abiding love for American genre cinema, Hollywood was the next natural step. He entered as a formalist, more interested in smuggling his themes into genre work than exploring them in novels: “One of the advantages of writing generic material, I find, is that I can be fairly self-conscious about the intellectual content because I can keep the two things apart. If I were writing a book, for instance, I would find it much harder to be as intellectual about the content. I would have a harder task disguising the bare bones of the themes.” His chosen genres were the crime movie and the Western. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) had shown there was new life to be breathed into the old oater, but there was no way Sharp could get a cowboy flick produced in Britain – “it’s kind of a cul-de-sac operation” – so he decided to write his calling card: five spec scripts, two crime thrillers and three Westerns, all of which would be bought and produced within a few years, kick-starting a career that would span four decades.
“Home. Maybe there ain’t no such colour.”
The Hollywood of Bogart and Hepburn was gone when Alan Sharp started writing for the big screen. The independently-produced Easy Rider (1969) had fired a warning shot across studio bows, bringing in $60m in box office against a budget of around $400,000. It was a return on investment that none of the majors could ignore. At Universal, newly-minted VP of Production Ned Tanen was charged with encouraging young film-makers – particularly those involved with Easy Rider – to replicate the movie’s success, offering small budgets but full creative control. Tanen would be instrumental in producing Milos Forman’s first American film Taking Off (1971), former effects technician Douglas Trumbull’s directorial debut Silent Running (1972), as well as offering deals to Easy Rider’s two stars, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. While Hopper would test the limits of his final cut and the studio’s patience with his take on the inherently destructive nature of film, The Last Movie (1971), Fonda – ever the more traditional and contemplative of the pair – had something else in mind, a gentle Western by the name of The Hired Hand (1971).
Fonda and producer Bill Hayward came across Sharp’s spec script while in post-production on Easy Rider. According to Fonda, the story of “a man who had deserted his wife and infant daughter, leaving them to fend for themselves while he wanders the western lands with a friend and no purpose” hit home. The Easy Rider shoot had put considerable strain on his first marriage to Susan Brewer (they would divorce in 1974) and the film’s unparalleled success left Fonda struggling with his new-found fame and the creeping suspicion that he had embarrassed his father. With The Hired Hand, he saw the opportunity to define himself as something other than a joint-smoking biker dropout, as well as tell a story that would make Henry Fonda proud.
Sharp once described The Hired Hand as a “perfectly straightforward little story about a guy who fucked off and came back”, which is a brusque, if basically accurate, summary of the narrative: Harry Collings (Fonda) has spent the last seven years roaming the west with his pal Arch Harris (Warren Oates) after abandoning his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and their daughter. Now weary of his peripatetic existence, Harry decides to return and make amends. He and Arch agree to work as hired hands on the Collings farm to prove Harry’s commitment to the straight life, but their old lives come back to haunt them with tragic consequences. Though Sharp later complained that Fonda’s “languorous” style “never really matched the tale”, the opposite is actually true: Fonda’s directorial style actively complements the material, turning Sharp’s laconism into lyricism, embellishing and expanding upon themes that Sharp would later detail in Bill Forsyth’s 1978 profile The Odd Man: “The bigger themes are all the same things. There’s the journey, there’s – if T.S. Eliot and sundry others are to be trusted – there’s a return … And in that journey, there’s the relationships you have with the other people around you. And they can be broken down into two basic categories: them affairs what you have with women, and them affairs what you have with men. The men that you love and the women that you love, and the problems therein, and that keeps bringing you back to why you keep fucking them up – because you always do. And the reason you fuck them up is because of your ego, of you, of your person, the wish to be recognised for more than you are.”
These themes are at the very heart of The Hired Hand: Harry’s seven-year odyssey began with the selfish act of a twenty-year-old married to a woman ten years his senior and ends with the acceptance that life with her at least had some purpose. Like Easy Rider’s Wyatt, Harry can’t seem to shake the idea that he “blew it”. In Sharp’s 1971 novelisation, Harry’s reason for return is framed as a full-blown existential crisis, but Fonda – never an actor prone to hysteria – is more ambiguous in his performance. Instead, Fonda’s Harry is a man sluggish with ennui, and he’s not the only one: the gang’s plan to settle in California has become so unlikely their talk of it is almost sarcastic, and the roughshod optimism in Arch’s toothy grin never reaches his eyes. Fonda, together with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Frank Mazzola, present the wild western landscape in a dream-like shimmer of liquid image. Harry’s direction is never clear; like any man without a reference point, he wanders in ever decreasing circles until he’s brought back to where it all began. His return is fated, just as his inability to make things right is foreshadowed by the floating corpse that he’s forced to cut loose at the beginning of the films: “She’d have come to pieces in your hands the moment you started to pull her in.”
The inevitability of death hangs over The Hired Hand, but does not stifle it. Unlike many revisionist Westerns, the film is not obsessed with the decline of civilisation or meaningless stoic sacrifice. The prerequisite shoot-outs are handsomely shot but quickly ended – no Peckinpah slow-motion bloodbaths here – and Fonda is too much of a humanist to allow the darkness to overwhelm. Instead the film dwells on the second major Sharp theme: “them affairs what you have with women, and them affairs what you have with men.” Because while Fonda is the nominal lead of The Hired Hand, it really is a story about three people and the fragile hope that comes with relationships. And at the centre of that trio is Hannah Collings.
Verna Bloom was already an accomplished stage actress, replacing Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday in the Broadway revival of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, before Studs Terkel recommended her to Haskell Wexler for Medium Cool (1969), where she played an Appalachian mother caught up in the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Her Hannah is a weather-beaten, farmer-tanned extension of that character, the kind of woman who carries herself like someone who has had to be self-sufficient in the face of overwhelming odds and is now rightly proud of the fact. She is one of only two female characters in The Hired Hand, and the only one whose name isn’t hurled like an insult. Bloom makes the most of it, able to suggest a deep inner life with a minute change in expression – Fonda’s director’s commentary frequently falls into hushed orders to “watch her face” – as she portrays a betrayed, complex woman with no hint of victimhood. When confronted by Harry about her rumoured dalliances with previous hired hands, she explains her reasoning as a principled, sexually mature woman of thirty-seven. Despite her abiding affection for her errant husband – she let no man into her bed but him – she needs to put him straight: “I walked about this room at nights like this going crazy for a man, any man, didn’t matter. And sometimes when there was a man out there, he knew about it, and he’d come in. Sometimes I’d have him or he’d have me, whatever suits you. But not all of them. And not every time I wanted to. And when the season’s work was over I’d pay him, no matter how well he worked or how well he pleased me. ‘Cause a man in a woman’s bedroom thinks he’s her boss. And sooner or later they’d start to move their tackle out of the shed and in here, and I didn’t want that. ‘Cause I already had one man in here, and I didn’t want another.” It is a beautifully underplayed scene, a contrast between Hannah’s maturity and Harry’s petulant egotism, reminding us that Harry might be acting like a dutiful husband, but he still has a way to go before he becomes the man she needs.
Just as the tragedy of The Hired Hand lies in Harry’s inability to truly recognise his immaturity, the hope lies in Arch’s potential to step up in his absence. Fonda and Hayward both agreed to forgo their fees in order to afford Warren Oates. According to Fonda: “I’d always watched him being misused, you know? I thought: this guy, there’s something very touching in his heart, and he’s perfect to play Arch, because Arch is really the romantic lead. And I just thought Warren Oates would be the least likely for the role as far as the audience was concerned – but the most likely as far as I had it in my mind.” Oates brings an intermittent melancholy to an otherwise typically grizzled and charming performance. Arch not only understands Harry’s yearning to return home, but also actively tries to protect his young friend from his self-destructive tendencies – in a deleted scene (present in the novelisation), Arch tries to persuade Harry from taking revenge on the gang who murdered their partner Dan. Fonda is also careful to cut a scene from Sharp’s script featuring a shoot-out in a saloon that gives Arch a reason – beyond his growing attachment to Hannah – to leave the farm. While this edit does deprive us of a fine turn by Larry Hagman as the town sheriff, it also allows Arch’s departure to carry more dramatic weight. Arch knows that Harry will never grow with him around – as Hannah says, Arch is what Harry went looking for – and if him leaving the only comfort he’s ever known means Harry can find peace, then so be it. As per the Gospel of Thomas verse read at Dan’s burial, “the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.” Unlike Harry, who is driven by guilt and a misguided, childish sense of principle, Arch does see it; he has experienced it with Hannah. And after Harry’s death, as Arch comes riding back to the Collings farm only to be greeted by silent grief from Hannah, we hope that he can experience it again. As critic Stanley Kaufmann observed: “The Hired Hand is about … civilisation, which, if it still means anything, means increase through loss. In its small, imperfect, moving way, that’s what this film celebrates.”
Henry Fonda was proud of his son’s film – “that’s my kind of Western” – but Universal balked and saddled it with ridiculous marketing. According to Fonda: “I remember Universal was going to put up a billboard on Sunset Boulevard, showing me without a shirt, wearing a cowboy hat and a pistol stuffed in my pants. The billboard was going to say something like ‘THAT EASY RIDER RIDES AGAIN!’ I went to Universal and said you take that down or I’ll take it down. I was prepared to take it down with explosives … Those assholes were trying to put my film in the fuckin’ toilet.” And they succeeded. The Hired Hand lasted less than three weeks in cinemas before it was pulled, whereupon it disappeared for the next thirty years.
With a reception like that, it’s no wonder that Sharp wasn’t much of a fan of the film either, thinking it clouded by Fonda and Co.’s drug use and convinced the ending didn’t make narrative sense. He would produce his own version of the story as a 1971 novelisation, which reinstated cut scenes and stripped the lush visuals back to simple statements of observation. While the novelisation does build upon the characters’ inner lives – the point of view skips between the central trio – it does also remove some of the mystery and interest: the decisions made may be narratively stronger, but they lose something in their description. The book is a fine work, but the film is a masterpiece.
“What bothers you, Lieutenant, is that you don’t like to think of white men behaving like Apache. It confuses the issue.”
Night falls on the San Carlos Indian Reservation. A half-blind old woman watches as an Apache warlord and his men escape with horses. The next afternoon, a cavalry baseball games is interrupted by the arrival of a desperate messenger: “Ulzana is out on a raid! All hell’s going to break loose!” The commanding officer charges young Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison) – the naïve son of a Philadelphia preacher – with heading up the troop that will pursue and capture Ulzana and his men. Along for the ride are two trackers, the grizzled McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and his Apache partner Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), both of whom know exactly what Ulzana is capable of. Over the course of the film, DeBuin will learn the true horror of the Apache warlord as well as his own limitations and McIntosh’s tactical prowess will be tested to the limit.
Ulzana’s Raid (1972) was Sharp’s second spec western and the one closest to his heart. In an article written for the Los Angeles Times around the time of the film’s release, Sharp was given ample space to sing the praises of the genre (“It has the scale of the symphony and the rigorous style of the sonnet.”) and outline his themes in more detail. He starts by saying he is not “intent on presenting a reasoned analysis of the relationship between the aborigine and the colonizer. The events described in the film are accurate in the sense that they have factual equivalents, but the final consideration was to present an allegory in whose enlarged features we might perceive the lineaments of our own drama, caricatured, but not falsified … So the Ulzana of Ulzana’s Raid is not the Chiricahua Apache of history, whose raid was more ruthless and protracted and daring than the one I have written about. He is the expression of my idea of the Apache as the spirit of the land, the manifestation of its hostility and harshness. I believe that people are like the place that they inhabit, that ‘the man of the mountains has a mountainous mind,’ and that as he has been formed by the land, so he is the true expression of its nature.” He goes on to liken the Apache archetype to the eponymous Moby Dick, The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards to Ahab. Indeed, Ulzana’s Raid is meant as Sharp’s “sincere homage to Ford”, with McIntosh his version of Edwards, albeit “a more stoical, more pessimistic, yet more human figure, whose rage against the gods has cooled into a weary antagonism. He has seen the worst and expects to see more and yet he will not judge, nor presume to be right. Yet he is still a man who can act, can make choices. His is the spirit of the liberal but not yet reduced to impotence by introspection.”
Looming over all this talk of allegory and archetype is Vietnam. In the early 1970s, it was difficult to see a Western that didn’t offer some kind of Vietnam allegory – Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch had already shown the perils of blundering into another country’s war, and both Little Big Man (1970) and Soldier Blue (1970) drew obvious parallels between the cavalry slaughter of the Cheyenne at Sand Creek in 1864 and the My Lai massacre of 1968. Ulzana’s Raid continues this tradition, but eschews black-and-white polemic for a palette of murky grey, a new twist on a new cliché. As Sharp put it: “Ulzana’s Raid was a Western constructed after an absolutely classic Western formula – the Indians go out on the warpath, the cavalry chase them, they catch up with them, there’s a fight, and the cavalry win. And along those particular tram tracks I tried to put different stops – the tram didn’t stop where you thought it would stop. For instance, there’s a scene in which the cavalry guy is bringing in a woman and her son from the outlying homestead. The Indians attack them, the cavalry guy rides away to save himself, right? First unexpected stop. Right? The woman gets up and screams at him, “Soldier, soldier, don’t leave me.” Cavalry guy, stricken with conscience, turns around and rides back. When he rides up to her, he shoots her. Then he rides away. Then they shoot his horse and he falls off his horse and then he shoots himself. Right? And in that situation, I thought that I had achieved a remarkable ninety-degree turn on the scene. I had told the audience it was bad, well, it’s much worse.”
In Sharp’s script, everyone is fundamentally compromised. McIntosh might be a more human take on Ethan Edwards and Sharp’s “ideal historical hero”, but he’s little more than a morally denuded mercenary. His fellow scout Ke-Ni-Tay has joined the cavalry – “Ke-Ni-Tay sign paper. Ke-Ni-Tay soldier.” – to wage war against his own kind (and family – Ulzana is his brother-in-law). The cavalry officers are careerist fops like Captain Gates, who volunteers a junior officer for what amounts to a suicide mission, or spiritually weak like Lieutenant DeBuin, whose Christian values crumble the moment he decides to use a traumatised survivor as bait to flush out Ulzana and his men, and whose basic lack of experience means he can’t even roll a cigarette for the dying McIntosh. The cavalry troops are too mired in horror to think straight – the unnamed Sergeant (Richard Jaekel) tells DeBuin the story of having to retrieve the corpse of a two-year-old boy from a cactus in order to bury it – and follow the cavalry line of annihilation as the only practical recourse. The Apaches are – McIntosh’s mute wife notwithstanding – irrationally primal. While Ke-Ni-Tay explains Ulzana’s bloodlust as a direct result of oppression, it is never justified as such, and there is no hint of noble suffering. Instead, Ulzana and his crew are seen as a force of nature, but a nature so utterly red in tooth and claw that it appears insane to the so-called civilised settlers. DeBuin may insist that the Apache is made “in God’s image”, but it’s not DeBuin’s God. And McIntosh cannot hate the Apache, “because it would be like hating the desert because there’s no water in it.”
This moral ambiguity found advocates in Burt Lancaster and Robert Aldrich. Lancaster pronounced Sharp’s script one of the two best he’d ever read – the other was Stuart Millar and Guy Trosper’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – and wasn’t afraid to tarnish his star status with insidious character roles like J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Nazi war criminal Dr. Ernst Janning in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and the treasonous General James Mattoon Scott in Seven Days in May (1964). In Robert Aldrich, Sharp found a director with more war films than Westerns on his résumé and no real love for the genre, which meant he wouldn’t fall prey to (what Sharp considered) Peckinpah’s sentimentality. Both star and director fought for the Vietnam allegory. According to Aldrich: “We had constant fights with the producer [Carter DeHaven] over it. Sharp, Lancaster and I totally believed in the parallel with Vietnam. The producer thought the public would see it immediately and if they did that would lessen the film’s chances of economic survival. We tried to do it all the same.” DeHaven was right: though critically acclaimed, Ulzana’s Raid was not a commercial success, the last in a string of flops for Aldrich that forced him to shutter his production company Associates & Aldrich, and which saw him return to work-for-hire that yielded a few more gems in Emperor of the North Pole (1973) The Longest Yard (1974) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) before his death in 1983.
“You’re old enough to be half as stupid.”
Billy Two Hats (1974) was the first Western spec script Sharp wrote, and the last to be made. Robert Aldrich had optioned it prior to making Ulzana’s Raid, but had struggled to bring it to the screen: “I hadn’t met the writer Alan Sharp then, but I loved the script. I thought it was one of the best Western scripts I’d read. We optioned it originally for six months, then for a further nine, but I couldn’t get anyone to take it … I had such high hopes for that film and I couldn’t get anyone behind it.”
Like Ulzana’s Raid, Billy Two Hats is a simple story of hunter and hunted, of old and young, with the roles reversed. The hunter here is Sheriff Henry Gifford (Jack Warden), hot on the trail of Arch Deans (Peck) and his gang, who inadvertently killed a man in a hold-up for the sake of $420. Gifford ambushes the gang in the opening minutes of the film, prompting Arch to flee. In his place, Gifford takes Arch’s young pal Billy Two Hats (Desi Arnaz Jr.) with a view to seeing him hang for Arch’s crime. Arch tracks them down and retrieves Billy, citing the Book of Ecclesiastes as reason enough: “Two are better than one because they have good reward for their labour. And if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up. And if one shall prevail against him, two shall withstand him.” This becomes the overbearing motif of the rest of the film, as Billy escorts a gravely injured Arch across the desert to some promise of safety with the sheriff in pursuit.
Billy Two Hats suffers in comparison to Sharp’s previously produced scripts, and very often resembles a dry run for both Ulzana’s Raid and The Hired Hand. Unlike those films, Billy Two Hats is saddled with an uninspiring landscape, a troubled shoot, and a lead who, according to Aldrich, was “terrible casting.” With a tiny budget of $1.1m, the United States proved too expensive a location, but original director (and soon-to-be producer) Norman Jewison had a solution: “The Israeli Government is very eager to get film production going there and they’re subsidising about twenty percent of Billy Two Hats. Besides, they’ve built a Western set in Tel Aviv that’s as good as anything that could be done in a Hollywood studio, and they’ve got all those locations that look just like Arizona.” So Billy Two Hats became the first (and possibly last) Hollywood Western to be filmed in Israel. But not by Jewison, who had already committed to shooting Jesus Christ Superstar (1973); directorial duties instead fell to Ted Kotcheff, who had just unnerved the world with his uncompromising feature debut Wake in Fright (1971).
The shoot was not a happy one for the crew. Jesus Christ Superstar and Billy Two Hats were sharing equipment and Jesus naturally took precedent, much to Kotcheff’s chagrin. According to Jewison: “I remember the day I discovered that Ted Kotcheff had been promised our crane for a couple of days of filming an Indian attack. I needed the crane and the three Italian operators I had brought over from Rome with the crane at the same time for wide-angles shots of the crowds around Jesus. Greg Peck told me later how Ted had received the news: ‘Well, you kinda expect a bit of a temper in a guy from Bulgaria,’ he drawled, ‘but I’ve never seen anything like this.’ Apparently Ted had gone into such a rage about the crane and my movie, he found a whole new series of swear words not even Greg had heard before, and when he ran out of those, he grabbed his Australian bush hat with both hands, threw it on the ground, and began to jump up and down on it like a character in a Chaplin film. When directors lose it, watch out!” And Kotcheff had a reputation for losing it. Vic Armstrong, stunt double for three different Bonds and Harry Sweets Bradley (the first member of Arch’s gang to buy the farm), said Kotcheff was known as “Terrible Ted” on set.
The cast had a better time of it. Kotcheff had nothing but good memories of his leading man, who he described as “a lot of fun to work with, and a wonderful man, too.” This sentiment was echoed by co-star Desi Arnaz Jr., who noted how selfless Peck was as an actor, and how committed he was to getting the part right, practising his accent with a tape of a Scots actor reading his lines. But Peck was – as Aldrich rightly pointed out – “terrible casting”. Despite a game attempt at the accent – which can charitably be described as inconsistent – and a gamey attempt at growing out his hair and dirtying up his clothes, Peck never quite manages to inhabit the character the way Lancaster inhabits McIntosh. This is perhaps down to Arch’s somewhat quaint characterisation – this is an armed robber who won’t steal a wagon when he can buy one, quotes the Bible as a reason to risk his life, and who has no concept of mail-order brides. He is more knight-errant than rough-and-tumble cowboy; scratch Arch’s grimy exterior and the heroic seersucker of Atticus Finch is plainly visible. For a first Western spec (which this was), it’s serviceable, but audiences and critics were apathetic. Even the usually sanguine Peck lumped the film in with his biggest disappointments: “I made four or five turkeys in a row before I realized that all I was accomplishing was going downhill with pictures like Shootout and Billy Two Hats, Marooned and MacKenna’s Gold.”
Sharp took aim at a few more Westerns before he moved on: Jack Nicholson had him rewrite his script about an Oregon mountain man (Moon Trap), before rambling conferences with Nicholson drove Sharp out the door and The Missouri Breaks (1976) put paid to Nicholson’s idea of Marlon Brando as star. There was also a script written by Sharp and Oliver Stone based on Clifford Irving’s novel about Pancho Villa, Tom Mix & Pancho Villa (1982), which would have been directed by Dennis Hopper, fresh off the Cannes sensation Out of the Blue (1980), before Hopper brought in Bud Shrake to retool the script based on Shrake’s 1983 play Pancho Villa’s Wedding Day. Despite these setbacks, Sharp remained pragmatic about his role in Hollywood. He understood that his biggest successes were essentially pastiche, and that his reputation as a quick, reliable writer was his biggest asset. Producers wanted a man who could turn out twenty-five solid pages a day; with Sharp they had that man: “I get work because I’m a reliable craftsman. It’s like being a plumber: you come in, do a tidy job, and you’re not a prick to deal with, so people hire you again.” It was the kind of work ethic that would keep him steadily employed in film and television until his death in 2013.
Brian Pendreigh called him the “one of the greatest Scottish writers of the 20th Century, even though many people have never heard of him.” Lem Dobbs put Sharp in his “big three” screenwriting heroes alongside John Milius and Walter Hill. Sharp himself would probably have shrugged it off. He knew he was good, but he also knew it was all just entertainment, “smearing the edges so that for a while you slip into the set and you forget or you choose not to remember that it’s just bits of tissue paper and pressed cardboard. And here I am, doing it. I mean, look at it. It’s just … daft.” Daft it may be, but for a man weaned on Burt Lancaster flicks at the BB Cinema in Greenock, it was the only life to have.