“He was a complex man who was full of rage and civility, but he also played violin beautifully.”
Chris Clark, fourth wife and widow of screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman
(Clark also co-wrote the script for Lady Sings the Blues.)
“Words are a licensed weapon and I never pull them out on people who aren’t good adversaries.”
Ernest R. Tidyman
This is how organic writing the blog is; yesterday in a fleeting moment I thought of a scene from High Plaines Drifter. Then I realized I had no idea who wrote that memorable Clint Eastwood film. Checked IMDB and the name Ernest R. Tidyman came up. What an interesting person. In fact, he was an Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Tidyman didn’t become a screenwriter until he was over 40 years old. He was born (1928) and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Dropped out of school at age 13, began working as a reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland as a teenager, and eventually worked for The New York Times.
“He was a legendary drinker and gambler. Legendary too, because he’d been fired from the newspaper for stealing a wrist watch from a jewelry store where he’d gone to cover a hold-up.”
(Also a former journalist with The Plain Dealer turned screenwriter)
So how did Tidyman end up a Hollywood screenwriter? He wrote a pulp fiction novel that became according to Michael A. Gonzales, “one of the most popular Black detectives in crime fiction”—he wrote Shaft. Then he wrote the screenplay (credited with John D.F. Black) for Shaft (1971).
Yes—”Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt”—as the movie poster proclaimed. Yes, a white guy from Cleveland wrote the classic black New York City detective John Shaft—played by Richard Roundtree in the movie. The film that was at the center of the blaxploitation film movement.
“The idea came out of my awareness of both social and literary situations in a changing city. There are winners, survivors and losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician.”
Ernest R. Tidyman
In the article Shafted: On Ernest R. Tidyman and the Making of Shaft, Gonzales mentions that Tidyman was not happy with the film because his character had become politicized. Tidyman went on to write six more Shaft novels. And while the movie was remade in 2000 starring Samuel Jackson as Shaft, the books by Tidyman have been unpublished for years.
Now about that Oscar.
The year 1971 was a big year for Tidyman as his follow-up script for Shaft was The French Connection based on the novel by Robin Moore. The film won a total of five Oscars including best picture, best actor (Gene Hackman), best director (William Friedkin), along with Tidyman’s script.
Tidyman continued to write book, films, and Tv shows until he died in 1984 at age 56. But to place a cap on Tidyman’s career I’d like to mention one last project of his, Guyana Tragedy; The Story of Jim Jones (1980). That is one gripping TV movie, and I’ve never forgotten Powers Booth’s Emmy-winning portrayal of cult leader Jim Jones. Tidyman is single credited on the script based on a book by Charles A. Krause.
Ernest R. Tidyman may not be the most recognized (even remembered) screenwriter in screenwriting circles, but to have written Shaft, The French Connection and High Plaines Drifter (films all released in a just two year window) was one heck of an accomplishment.
P.S. Just found this link to the 44th Academy Awards in 1972 where Tidyman’s Oscar is handed to him by Tennessee Williams. A mountaintop experience for sure.