When I was a kid I associated the name Sidney Sheldon (Sidney Schechtel, 1917-2007) exclusively with cheesy paperback novels my mother read, and the soapy TV movies they made out of them. At the very same time, it somehow managed to evade my notice that I was actually a big fan of a lot of his work — his earlier writing in other media. For Sheldon was the rare writer who managed to be a success in four realms: fiction, film, television and the Broadway stage. And his productions were so diverse in character that it’s rather amazing that it was all done by the same hand.
So we’ll start with what stuff of his I’d long known without knowing it was by him. Sheldon created and wrote nearly every episode of the sit-coms The Patty Duke Show (1963-67) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70), and created the series Hart to Hart (1979-84, 1993-96). As we learned in Charlton Chandler’s book, he was a pal of Groucho Marx. He wrote the screen adaptations of Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962), Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and the 1956 version of Anything Goes. Other screenplay credits include the Oscar-winning The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947, his first success), Easter Parade (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the penultimate Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle Pardners (1956), The Birds and the Bees (1956), and the justly unpopular The Buster Keaton Story (1957), among others. So he possessed genuine street cred as a comedy and musicals scribe. But he also worked in other genres. His first screenplay credit was on the thriller South of Panama (1941), directed by Jean Yarbrough and featuring Roger Pryor and Virginia Vale. Prior to this he was a scriptreader for David Selznick.
In 1943 Sheldon co-wrote the book to a new version of The Merry Widow, establishing him on Broadway. Most of his Broadway shows were short-lived. They included Jackpot (1944) with Allan Jones, Betty Garrett, Nanette Fabray, Wendell Corey, and Jerry Lester; Dream with Music (1944) with Vera Zorina; Alice in Arms (1945), which is notable for the stage debut of Kirk Douglas; and Roman Candle (1960) with Inger Stevens. Sheldon’s biggest stage success (written with others) for Redhead (1959), with Gwen Verdon (and choreography by Bob Fosse), which ran for over a year.
In 1970 Sheldon shifted gears with the novel The Naked Face, the success of which changed the focus of his career. His 1973 book The Other Side of Midnight (adapted into a 1977 film) may be be his best known. Bloodline (1977) became a 1979 film; Master of the Game (1982) a 1984 mini-series, and several more like that. These potboilers were extremely popular, but I have never been the audience for them! But any friend of Groucho‘s is a friend of Travalanche!
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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