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Stirling Silliphant; Oscar-Winning Writer

April 27, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stirling Silliphant, the prolific compulsive writer who won an Academy Award for his 1967 screenplay "In the Heat of the Night" and critical praise for his television detective series "Naked City," died Friday. He was 78.

Silliphant died of prostate cancer in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had lived since 1988.

In addition to the Oscar-winning racial thriller starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, Silliphant penned such films as "The Towering Inferno," "The Poseidon Adventure," "The New Centurions" and Sylvester Stallone's "Over the Top."

His gentler "Charly" starring Cliff Robertson in 1968 won a Golden Globe Award, as did his screenplay for "In the Heat of the Night."

Tiring of Hollywood power plays about seven years ago, Silliphant sold two houses, six cars and a yacht and moved to his favorite vacation spot--Thailand--with the idea of creating a production center for English-language feature films and television programs. He also became a fervent Buddhist.

"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," Silliphant told The Times in Bangkok in 1994. "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."

Born in Detroit, Silliphant grew up near San Diego and majored in journalism at USC. He began his career as publicist for Walt Disney Studios, a job that was interrupted by service in the Navy during World War II.

After the war, he moved east as a New York-based publicist for 20th Century Fox. In the early 1950s, he did odd writing chores, including some work for "The Mickey Mouse Club," and spent time in Cuba, where he wrote his first novel, "Maracaibo."

Silliphant wrote and produced his first film, "The Joe Louis Story," in 1953.

Although he was known for his crime and action films, Silliphant also wrote the classic science fiction thriller "Village of the Damned" about eerie alien children, "Shaft," and last year the comedy of Truman Capote's autobiographical novel "The Grass Harp."

He started writing for television on such popular series as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Perry Mason" and "Alcoa/Goodyear Theater" before creating, writing and producing "Naked City" in 1958.

The writer continued his steady output for television, writing the pilot and many episodes of "Route 66" in the 1960s and segments of "Longstreet" in the 1970s. He also wrote television movies including "Salem's Lot" in 1979, "Fly Away Home" in 1981, "Mussolini: The Untold Story" in 1985 and "Day of Reckoning" in 1994.

His other books included "The Steel Tiger," "Bronze Bell," "Pearl" and "The Slender Thread."

Kidded by former Times arts editor Charles Champlin about being a compulsive writer, Silliphant once said: "I couldn't do anything else, can't do anything else, but it's a joy."

Silliphant is survived by his wife, Vietnamese American actress Tiana Alexandra Du Long, and three children.

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