On the night of April 16, 1928, Sam Sylbert, a pant's cutter in New York's Garment District and inveterate gambler, trudged down the long sterile corridor of the Swedish Hospital on Manhattan's Lower East Side to call home to Brooklyn. He called home to relay the news that his wife, Lily, had just given birth, to not just one baby, but to identical twin boys.
Sam's mother, Minna Semack, the grandmother who answered the call, without missing a beat replied in her thick Russian accent,
–"Don't vorry, maybe vone of them shall die!"
Both babies survived. Richard loved to tell that story.
Well Minna, now one of them has died! The one who was nominated 6 times for an Oscar and who won, twice. It was the twin who was nominated for two BAFTA awards and took one home. It was the one who was nominated for an Emmy and who for a short time served as vice president in charge of production for Paramount Pictures. It was the one who was awarded an honourary doctorate by the American Film Institute for his "great contribution to the motion picture film industry". It was the twin who was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from his own Art Director's Guild. It was the one who changed the face of Hollywood pictures. The one who was often referred to as "the most important production designer of the talkie era".
Yes Minna, he's gone, but the work he did and the honours he achieved in his 73 years on this earth live after him. Richard always excused you. He explained that he was born during the depression, and it had to be a shock that Sam was now faced with two more mouths to feed. He also said you were the same grandmother who referred to his beloved classical music as, "The bang-ging and the bang-ging". Yes Minna, he's gone. The one who gave you six grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He was also the one who, with just one smile became my whole world.
The first time my eyes rested on Richard Sylbert, I was around 19 years old. It was the sixties...and I was a flower child. I used to have dinner every night with a writer friend at Cyrano's, a coffee house on the Sunset Strip. One night I looked up from my London Broil and noticed this drop-dead gorgeous guy sitting alone at the table right next to the kitchen door. He was smoking a Dunhill pipe. He was wearing a safari jacket, which I later learned was his signature. He had a red and white polka-dot kerchief tied jauntily around his neck...and he was staring at me. His stare became a steady gaze, the gaze became a flirt, and so I flirted back. Outrageously! Now it was dinner every night at Cyrano's, and I discovered he was now a regular too. Every night we flirted...with our eyes! Then the magic began. One night I deliberately got up and crossed to the ladies room so he could see my new dress. What there was of it. It was a little flap of a thing I called my "Freudian Slip". It had a matching paisley purse.
I crossed the space between us, one long leg at a time, and disappeared into the ladies' room. When I came out, he was "posing" with one elbow on the fake fireplace mantle, puffing for all he was worth on that Dunhill. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I just wanted to get a look at it up close!" "A look at it? A look at what?" I asked. He titled his head, squinted his eyes, as only an artist would. "Your nose. It's a Klimt!" What a pick-up line: "Your nose. It's a Klimt!" Luckily I knew who Gustave Klimt was , so I didn't hit him over the head with my matching Freudian purse. It was one of those Cinderella moments shattered by the parking attendant interjecting, "Señor, jew Mustang ess here". Great imagery...This guy galloping down Sunset on a Mustang! Richard smiled his Kukla, Fran, and Ollie smile. You know, the one that looked like Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent with that one tooth jutting out...But with just one smile he became my whole world.
The next day in ballet class I discovered I had come down with measles. I took to bed for three weeks. I almost died. Three weeks dreaming of him, fantacising about him. I couldn't wait to get back to Cyrano's for some more serious flirting, but alas, he was gone! I was distraught. I was in love with a man whose name I didn't even know.
A couple of months later my friend James Poe, the popular screenwriter, rang up to ask me if I knew how to clean a kilo of grass. Duh! Am I not a flower child? Is this not the sixties?
–"Do you have a strainer and a shoebox lid? Put down the phone and don't call another soul, I'll be right there".
So I walked up Larrabee Street to Jimmie's house. We got down to the task at hand. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. I told Jimmie not to open it because I knew it was the "narcs", but he opened the door anyway, and my heart stopped! There was Richard, a silhouette framed in the doorway with the sun behind his hair like a halo. And with just one smile he re-entered my world.
He drove me home at about three in the morning. We sat in his car, the Mustang, in front of my little two-story house, in a courtyard which was a perfect replica of an English Village, and we chatted until almost 5 a.m. Later that day he called Jimmie to ask for permission to ring me. I was very proper in those days and wouldn't go out with anyone to whom I had not been properly introduced. (Well we had been properly introduced while in the commission of what was probably a felony!) That night we went out for dinner at The Aware Inn, and from that moment on he became the most important man in my life. I had traveled the world before I met Richard, but he took me to places I never dreamed existed. In all senses of that word.
I shall now share with you a fishing story. You cannot speak of Richard Sylbert without including a fishing story. In 1980 Richard insisted I be included in his contract, either as his assistant, researcher, or design consultant. We were in Washington State, shooting the movie Frances, our third film together. It was the second day out of six or so, and Richard and I were standing at the catering truck trying to decide what to have on our breakfast burritos, when he gave me that "Let's play hooky" look. That look I have come to know so well. I have seen that look on four continents! We slowly walked in opposite directions around the catering truck, then made a mad dash for the rental car. Richard said,"Let's go fishing. If we get back in time for dailies no one will miss us." So off we went to the Stillaguamish River for a little fly fishing. In those days we always carried a couple of fly rods in the trunk. We had a glorious day on the river. Just before twilight, as blackness inched its way onto the water, Richard called out to me, "Schnookie, let's go, we're gonna be late to dailies". As I hopped gingerly from stone to stone, crossing the river, I suddenly heard this tremendous splash behind me. Richard had slipped on a mossy rock and landed head first in the "Stilly". I hauled him out and we hurried to the car.
–"We need to get you to the hotel and dry you off".
–"No. No, there's no time. We need to drive all the way down to Seattle. We have to get to dailies. We can't be late".
Richard had a deal that he only had to go to dailies on the first screening of a new set.
We walked in the door of the darkened screening room with seconds to spare and blindly slipped into our seats in the dark–Richard hemorrhaging river water from his pockets and Docksider shoes.
When the lights went up we discovered our director, Graeme Clifford, sitting directly in front of us. He turned to Richard to comment on the film.
–Graeme: "What in the F...? What happened to you?"
–Richard: "Got caught in a downpour", was Richard's deadpan reply.
–Graeme: "Oh is it raining?
–Richard: Nope, not anymore...it stopped".
–Graeme: (Looking at me suspiciously) "how come you're not wet?"
–Me: "Oh, ummm...I had an umbrella, and I stayed in the car".
We never got caught!
Just before Richard died, I shared this story with Graeme, who called from a movie set in Canada. He told me he wished he had known back then, so he could have ribbed Dick about it down the years.
In July of 2002, I produced a memorial tribute to celebrate the life of Richard. Listening to some of the memories and eulogies I was reminded of how many people he had "put on the map", or as he used to say, "I invented him". When we had the occasion to meet Günter Grass for the first time, he thanked Richard for helping to put his novel The Tin Drum at the top of The New York Times best sellers list. Richard said to him, "I didn't design The Tin Drum, and Günter replied, "No but you placed it in the book case behind Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? and everybody wanted to see what they were reading!"
He also taught Anne Rice how to write a screenplay. In her eulogy she said, "When I think of Dick Sylbert, what stays with me more deeply and meaningfully is my first year of knowing him in 1976 when he changed the direction of my life by purchasing for Paramount Pictures the film rights to my first novel, Interview with the Vampire. Dick was head of Paramount at the time and news of the movie sale catapulted my book from first-novel obscurity to overnight sensation. It was an unbelievable break. Dick endorsed an eccentric and bizarre book in infallible American fashion".
Richard also bought the film rights to Norman Maclean's A River Runs through It, but sadly was not able to get Paramount to make it. The only other regret in his artistic life was that he never designed a western.
Many of Dick's friends were shocked to hear of his death and have asked me about his last days, last hours, last moments.
In September, six months before he succumbed to cancer, I had to ring him to tell him of the death of his dear friend Joan Axelrod. His first thought was for George.
–"I'd better call George, he must be devastated". About thirty minutes later he rang me and said, Momma, do you know how Joan died? She died in George's arms. That's how I want to go."
–"You want to die in George Axelrod's arms? Man are you weird!"
–"No, you know what I mean!"
At that time I still believed Richard would beat the cancer as he had 11 years earlier. At this point Richard had been in and out of the hospital since the previous March. He went in for the final time through the emergency room on Christmas Day 2001. I sat there, in the ambulance with him, holding his hand, and he said, "I'm sorry I screwed up your Christmas". "Are you kidding you have given me one of the greatest gifts ever! The knowledge of how much we truly mean to one another. And how much we mean to each other as a family". In February just before Valentine's Day we were very fortunate to be able to move him to the Motion Picture Country Home, in Woodland Hills. They allowed me to move in to be with him, and later Daisy joined us for sleepovers.
Dick didn't want anyone to know he was ill because he was afraid he wouldn't get that next job. In March when I realised he had only a few days left, we began to call his old pals. Jack Zajac called and I heard Dick say, "I never thought it would go so quickly. Do you realise there are rivers we've never investigated? Trout streams we've never rippled? Fish we never even thought of catching?"
A little while later he said he would like to be cremated and have his ashes scattered on the Stillaguamish, his beloved Stilly, the river that runs behind our fishing lodge in Washington near my own family's ancestral hunting grounds. It was the first we had talked of such things.
–I said, "All of them?"
–He said: "Yeah, why, what didja have in mind?"
–"Well I always thought we'd rest side side by side somewhere, someday".
And he smiled that Kukla, Fran, and Ollie smile and said, "Well, keep some for yourself then!"
Aaron Shikler and David Levine and Roy Davis, from their Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Arts days at Temple University, called. Hawk Koch came to visit and contacted Mike Nichols, and John Calley, and Dick Donner and Roman Polanski, whose last words to his old pal were, "I love you Deek". They rang from distant locations, from foreign shores. John Frankenheimer and the Benjamins, Dick and Paula, came to say goodbye. John, who was living with his own cancer at the time watched his friend slip into a coma. Paula, who held and stroked his hand for hours, begging, "Dickie, please open your eyes, it's me Paula". Marshall Bell and Milena Canonero came to offer support. Two of his 5 living children came, our daughter Daisy had moved into our room. On the last Thursday, he held his final script conference with P.J. Hogan and Jocelyn Moorhouse for Peter Pan.
On the evening of Saturday, March 23, during the last half hour of his life, with friends and family gathered round, I got up onto the bed with him and cradled him in my arms, I placed my lips next to his ear, and whispered the names of every river I could recall, every trout stream, every salmon pool, from the Snake to the Thames and beyond. The Skagit, the Klamath, the Stillaguamish, the Sauk, The Okanogan, the Tonasket, the North Fork, the Rogue, the Wenatchee, the Kern, the Hooka in New Zealand, the Columbia, Catherine's Pool, Bagma, the Lodge, and Strother in Northumberland, the Tyne and the Tay, the Tweed and the Dee, the Grande Ronde, the Nile, and when I got to the river Styxx his heart stopped beating. He went by the river. Aho mitakuye oyasin... He went by the river.
* Hamlet (1953) (TV)
* Richard II (1954) (TV)
* Baby Doll (1956)
* Patterns (1956)
* A Face in the Crowd (1957)
... aka "Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd" - USA (complete title)
* Crowded Paradise (1956)
* Edge of the City (1957)
* Wind Across the Everglades (1958)
* Murder, Inc. (1960)
* The Fugitive Kind(1960)
* The Young Doctors (1961)
* Splendor in the Grass (1961)
* Mad Dog Coll (1961)
* Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
* Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)
* The Connection (1962)
* The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
* All the Way Home (1963)
* The Pawnbroker (1964)
* Lilith (1964)
* How to Murder Your Wife (1965)
* What's New Pussycat (1965) (associate producer)
* Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) √
... aka "Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - USA (complete title)
* Grand Prix (1966)
* The Graduate (1967)
* Rosemary's Baby (1968)
* The April Fools (1969)
* Catch-22 (1970)
* Carnal Knowledge (1971)
* Fat City (1972)
* The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
... aka "Neil Simon's The Heartbreak Kid" - USA (complete title)
* The Day of the Dolphin (1973)
* Chinatown (1974) ≠ †
* Shampoo (1975) ≠
* Last Hours Before Morning (1975) (TV)
* The Fortune (1975)
* Partners (1976)
* Players (1979)
* Reds (1981) ≠
* Partners (1982/I)
* Personal Best (1982)(replaced Ron Hobbs)
* "Cheers" (Designed permanent set)≈
- Give Me a Ring Sometime (1982) TV Pilot
* Frances (1982)
* Breathless (1983)
* The Cotton Club (1984) ≠
* Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
* Heartbeat (1987) (V)
* Shoot to Kill (1988)
* Tequila Sunrise (1988)
* Dick Tracy (1990)√ ∆
* The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
... aka "Deadly Pursuit" - International (English title), UK
* Mobsters (1991)
* Ruby Cairo (1993)
... aka "Deception" - USA (video title (recut version)
* Carlito's Way (1993)
* Mulholland Falls (1996)
* Blood and Wine (1996)
* My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)
... aka "Best Friend's Wedding" - Japan (English title)
* Red Corner (1997)
* Unconditional Love (2002)
...Who Shot Victor Fox?
* Trapped (2002)
... aka "Call" - Japan (English title)
...24 Hours (USA)
≠ Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award Nominations (Oscar)
√ Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award (Oscar) won
† British Academy Film and Television Arts nomination (BAFTA)
∆ British Academy Film and Television Arts nomination (BAFTA)won
In October of 2002 (7 months after his death), Richard was to have been presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Hollywood Film Festival. These big ticket award ceremonies like to give awards to live people, so I agreed to allow them to present the award instead, to Harold Michelson, a close friend and peer of Richard's, in exchange they agreed to name the award in perpetuity in honour of Richard. It is now called the Richard Sylbert Outstanding Achievement in Production Design Award.