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Expatriate Games : Fed up with Hollywood, Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant moved to Thailand to escape the posturing and power plays. But the very things he fled followed him there when he wrote a movie for TV

March 06, 1994|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — Stirling Silliphant, a fixture in the entertainment industry for three decades, disappeared from Hollywood six years ago. He was one of the industry's most prolific screenwriters, winning an Academy Award for 1967's "In the Heat of the Night," the racial thriller starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

But in the service of profit-hungry studio executives, he also churned out lots of commercial action films--from the so-called blaxploitation movie "Shaft in Africa" to director Sam Peckinpah's violent "The Killer Elite"--and campy Irwin Allen disaster epics such as "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno."

Through it all, Silliphant grew tired of the power plays, the egos, the hypocrisy and the dictum that homage must be paid to the box office. In 1987, a dispute with Sylvester Stallone over screen credit for the championship arm-wrestling saga "Over the Top" finally pushed Silliphant himself over the top. He sold two houses, six cars and a yacht and moved to his favorite vacation spot, Thailand, where the culture and Buddhism held a fascination for him.

"I didn't come here on a fling but to change my whole existence, my personality, my understanding of life, and to leave what I call the eel pit of Hollywood behind," the graying expatriate said last spring, sitting in a Trader Vic's here on the bank of the massive Chao Phraya River and gazing outward at the low-slung boats and barges passing by.

"And it feels so good to be part of the human stream, and not some Hollywood big shot who worries about what table he gets at Jimmy's and won't let the parking attendant touch his $80,000 Mercedes. That seems so far away now. That's not the way we're supposed to live."

In Thailand, where the American dollar is strong, the people are gracious and the land is largely unspoiled, Silliphant had a vision. Using local crew and talent, he wanted to turn Bangkok, along with the rest of Southeast Asia, into a burgeoning production center for English-language TV projects and feature films that would be distributed internationally.

Little did he suspect that with his first effort, the problems he associated with working in Hollywood would track him down, 8,271 miles away: A star, Fred Dryer, got involved, rewrote the script and, in Silliphant's view, ruined his vision. The resulting TV movie, "Day of Reckoning," airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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"I have seen a video of the final version," Silliphant, 76, said in another interview last week. "I do not like it. My distaste stems not from whether the work is good, bad or indifferent. The critics and viewers will soon enough make their own decisions.

"It is simply that it is not the film I envisioned, the film about which I felt a driving passion and a long-held visionary hope--finally to capture something, even a hint, of what it is like to be an American expatriate living in Thailand. The final result, to me, is a film assembled by committee, a script hammered flat by executive fiat."

Dryer disagrees. The action-filled NBC series "Hunter" turned the onetime Los Angeles Ram into a star with worldwide clout after it was syndicated in 90 or so countries, becoming the most-watched TV program in China at one point. The changes Dryer made in "Day of Reckoning" were to give his fans what he believes they expect in his first acting assignment since "Hunter" ended production three years ago.

"The project couldn't have turned out better," he said of "Day of Reckoning," in a recent telephone interview from Colorado while on vacation with his daughter. "We think we have a real good piece."

"Day of Reckoning," produced as a potential TV-movie franchise for NBC, tells the tale of an American Special Forces captain who moves to Bangkok after the Vietnam War. He becomes a Buddhist and a rogue travel guide, specializing in expeditions to remote and dangerous locations in Southeast Asia.

Silliphant and his Los Angeles partner, actor Robert Ginty, spent a year trying to raise $1.5 million to produce "Day of Reckoning" themselves. But the two farongs , or foreigners, couldn't entice Thai investors. Ginty was going to star as Jack O'Brien, the lead character, but wasn't a big enough name.

Perhaps more significant, the once-buzzing film industry has grown anemic in Thailand, where a big-budget movie might cost $400,000, compared to $25 million or more for an American film. Flashy products from Hollywood and nearby Hong Kong have almost killed the industry, keeping smaller, local Thai productions out of the few theater chains.

"Most Thai investors would still rather fill a swamp and put up buildings than back a film," said Silliphant, who began writing in the late 1950s on such acclaimed TV series as the police drama "Naked City" and the road show "Route 66."

So Ginty took the project to Paramount in Hollywood. As Silliphant tells it, Ginty signed the rights away before Silliphant could object.

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