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In 'Shaft's' Shadow

Writer Ernest Tidyman, who created the cool tough guy, inhabited a world far different than that of his hero.


Though the new "Shaft" movie credits cite Ernest Tidyman's original novel as a source, John Singleton's adaptation bears about as much resemblance to that 1970 book as the Tom Cruise "Mission: Impossible" movies have to the original TV series that aired on CBS from 1966 to 1973. Which amplifies just how much Tidyman, of all those who had a hand in creating the "Shaft" phenomenon, arguably has become the most neglected.

Even at the time of "Shaft's" greatest visibility, there was confusion among fans as to Tidyman's background. Most of my friends who'd seen the movies and read his six "Shaft" novels (none of which are now in print) took it for granted that he was African American.

But Tidyman, who died in 1984 of complications from a perforated ulcer, was a white man who won, along with his handful of writing prizes and Oscar nominations, the NAACP Image Award for creating John Shaft. To this day, Tidyman's biographies mention the "Shaft" books and movies at least as much and often more than his screenplays for such films as "The French Connection" (1971) and "High Plains Drifter" (1973).

Born in Cleveland on New Year's Day 1928, Tidyman followed his father into the newspaper business as a reporter. Purportedly, father and son were at one time both police reporters for rival Cleveland newspapers, competing for the same stories. He moved to New York City in the late 1950s and worked for the New York Post as a reporter and an editor.

"Wonderful rewrite man. Probably the best I ever knew," recalls Tidyman's friend Don Forst, then a Post reporter and now editor of the Village Voice. "He could write it faster and better than anyone else. And he was accurate too."

In the early 1960s, Tidyman moved to the New York Times, where he held various jobs, including as assistant women's editor. By mid-decade, he'd become a full-time freelance writer-editor for various magazines.

"I remember him as this writing machine," food critic Gael Greene recalls of Tidyman during this period. "Those of us trying to crack the magazine market would struggle with our stuff, and here was this guy cranking it out by the truckload."

By 1969, Tidyman was easing his way toward screenplays. It's not known whether his first "Shaft" novel, published in 1970, was originally intended as a movie script, but it reads today as a stylish and near-cinematic exemplar of the two-fisted Spillane school of paperback detective romance. If you hadn't seen the movie before reading the book, you would imagine from Tidyman's airtight, acerbic prose a John Shaft who carried around Redd Foxx's crusty warp and woof inside Jim Brown's body.

Of the five novels that followed, only "Shaft's Big Score" ended up as a movie, which Parks directed and Tidyman co-produced. He had apparently killed off his hero in "The Last Shaft," published in 1975.

To the end of his life, Tidyman enjoyed steady success as a writer for films and television. He'd moved from New York to the tony town of Washington, Conn., and established his own production company.

"I saw him after he hit it big, walking up Fifth Avenue in this beautiful camel's hair coat," Forst recalls. "I asked him how it felt [to be a success], and he said, 'It's the same thing as the old days. You write and write. Only there are more zeros on the paycheck.' "

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