Friday, March 28, 2014

The Late, Great Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. died today, 28 March 2014, at the age of 91. He was perhaps best known for developing the Sixties TV show Batman. He also wrote several screenplays, including Pretty Poison (1968) and Flash Gordon (1980).

Lorenzo Semple Jr. was born Lorenzo Semple III in New Rochelle, New York on 27 March 1923. Playwright Philip Barry (who wrote Holiday and The Philadelphia Story) was his uncle by marriage (he was married to Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s aunt Ellen Semple).  It was largely Philip Barry's life of wealth and ease that convinced young Mr. Semple that he wanted to be a writer.

Lorenzo Semple Jr. attended Yale before leaving the university in 1941 to drive an ambulance for the Free French Forces. He was later drafted into the United States Army and earned the Bronze Star. Following World War II Mr. Semple studied at Columbia University. His first writing sale was a story in The Saturday Evening Post. He also contributed stories to Collier's Weekly.

The year 1955 saw Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s first play to be produced on Broadway, Tonight in Samarkand. In 1956 his first work on television aired, an episode of The Alcoa Hour entitled "The Archangel Harrigan". In the Fifties he also wrote episodes of Buckskin, Target, and Pursuit. The year 1959 saw another play by Lorenzo Semple Jr. produced on Broadway, Golden Fleecing. In 1961 it was adapted as the motion picture The Honeymoon Machine with a screenplay by George Wells.

The Sixties saw Lorenzo Semple Jr. continue working in television. He wrote episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre, Breaking Point, The Rogues, Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre, Summer Fun, and The Rat Patrol. He wrote four episodes of Burke's Law. It was around 1964 or 1965 that Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote a pilot for producer William Dozier entitled Number One Son. The prospective series would have featured Bruce Lee as Charlie Chan's "Number One Son" having James Bond-type adventures around the world. Unfortunately ABC rejected the pitch for the show, stating that they didn't want to do a show with an ethnic lead.

While Lorenzo Semple Jr. and William Dozier did not get to make Number One Son, they would soon find themselves responsible for another television show. ABC had taken an interest in airing a television show based on the comic book character Batman. The network turned to 20th Century Fox, who in turn approached William Dozier and his company Greenway Productions to produce the show. William Dozier thought it was unlikely adults would take a show about a man dressed up as a bat seriously and decided the best approach to take was to treat it as a comedy. He then asked Lorenzo Semple Jr. to develop the series.

In keeping with William Dozier's thought that the show should be played as a comedy, Lorenzo Semple Jr. shaped the format of Batman so that it would operate as a parody of superhero conventions for adults and an adventure show for children. While he would only write the first two 2-part episodes and the 1966 feature film, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was largely responsible for establishing the flavour of the show. He served as the show's script consultant and wrote its writers' bible as well. Batman proved to be an outright phenomenon, television's biggest fad since the "Davy Crockett" mini-series had aired on Disneyland in 1954. It not only received phenomenal ratings, but also produced an extraordinarily large amount of merchandise.

With the success of Batman Lorenzo Semple Jr. did not remain in television for long. He wrote a two-part episode of The Green Hornet (another show produced by William Dozier) before moving into writing motion picture screenplays. In the late Sixties he wrote the screenplays for the 1967 spy comedy Fathom, the 1968 black comedy Pretty Poison,  and, with Larry Cohen, the 1969 thriller Daddy's Gone A-Hunting.

The Seventies saw Lorenzo Semple Jr. write the screenplays for The Sporting Club (1971) and The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971). He wrote a screenplay based on Loren Singer's novel The Parallax View, but left the project when the plot was changed significantly. David Giler  finished the screenplay and The Parallax View was released in 1974. Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote much of the screenplay for Papillon (1973), but was replaced by Dalton Trumbo. He also worked on Three Days of the Condor (1975), but was eventually released from the project. He wrote The Drowning Pool (1975) with Walter Hill and Tracy Keenan Wynn, The Super Cops (1974), the 1976 remake of King Kong, and Hurricane (1979). With 1980's Flash Gordon he returned to material similar to Batman. The film was based on the famous comic strip character of the same name and done in an exaggerated style similar to Batman. Since its release the film has amassed a considerable cult following.

In the Eighties Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote the screenplay for Never Say Never Again, the James Bond film not produced by Eon Productions that saw Sean Connery return to the role one last time. He returned to comic books and camp when he wrote the screenplay for Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1984), based on the comic book character of the same name. He also wrote the teleplay for the TV movie Rearview Mirror, which aired in 1984. He wrote the teleplay for the television movie Rapture, which aired in 1993, with Vera Appleyard.

In more recent years Lorenzo Semple Jr. was one of the film critics (alongside former producer and agent Marcia Nasatir) on the YouTube series Reel Geezers.

Mr. Semple also served on the Writers Guild of America's Board of Directors for years and as the guild's Secretary-Treasurer for a time. From 1984-90 he taught screen writing at New York University’s NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

While Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s career was inconsistent, there can be little doubt that he was a great talent. His writing at its best could be absolutely fantastic. The teleplays he wrote for Batman were sheer genius, some of the greatest television episodes written in the Sixties. Pretty Poison was a brilliantly wicked film that walked the fine line between crime thriller and black comedy. Flash Gordon was a wonderfully loyal adaptation of the comic strip that successfully recaptured the camp of Mr. Semple's earlier Batman. Of course, Mr. Semple was capable of writing serious films. The Drowning Pool was a very well done detective film.  He made significant contributions to such films as The Parallax View, Papillon, and  Three Days of the Condor.

Of course, not all of Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s work was of the same quality as Batman, Pretty Poison, or Flash Gordon. King Kong and Hurricane are not exactly good films. If Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s work was not always the best, it was perhaps because he was not afraid to take chances. As a writer he was fearless. Let's face it, not every writer would have thought of using the then 25 year old character Batman in a pop art parody of superheroes. Indeed, Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (a highly underrated film in my humble opinion), which he co-wrote with Larry Cohen, proved downright controversial as it touched upon the topic of abortion at a time when it was still illegal in much of the United States. Not every writer would have dared gone near the subject at the time. Lorenzo Semple Jr. was not afraid to gamble with the material that he wrote. When he was successful, the results could be wonderful. When he wasn't successful, well, we got Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

Beyond being a talented (and daring) writer, Lorenzo Semple Jr. also made a fine film critic. On Reel Geezers he was funny, well spoken, and a touch curmudgeonly (or as Mr. Semple probably would have described it, "a real geezer"). He was adept at dissecting films and expressing his opinion, to the point that even when one disagreef with him one could still understand and appreciate his point of view.

Ultimately, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was a genuinely talented man who seemed to actually enjoy what he was doing. He infused his work with such love and such fun that even when it was not always well done there could still be much about it that could be enjoyed. Mr. Semple would have left a mark on television and film history if the only thing he had done was Batman. As it was he gave us so much more.

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