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Richard Sylbert

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Also Known As: Dick Sylbert Died: March 23, 2002
Born: April 16, 1928 Cause of Death: cancer
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA Profession: production designer, executive, art director, scenery painter, actor, producer, set designer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Formally trained as a painter at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Richard Sylbert gave up his dreams of becoming a great artist to become instead one of the best American art directors, in the same league as his mentor, the legendary William Cameron Menzies. The Brooklyn native began during TV's 'Golden Age', painting scenery at NBC, and did his first significant feature work for Elia Kazan on films such as "Baby Doll" (1956), "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) and "Splendor in the Grass" (1961). By the time he worked with Sidney Lumet on "The Fugitive Kind" (1960), he was borrowing from music and moving beyond character-based design, using patterns and repetition to tie his films together. Sylbert had met John Frankenheimer when both were working in TV, and the director hired him to design the masterful cold war thriller, "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). His ingenious decision to move the set as the camera turned produced the brilliant 360-degree pan of the memorable brainwash scene, and its 1988 re-release demonstrated how well the picture as a whole had withstood the test of time.In his third teaming with Lumet and his eighth and last collaboration with director of photography Boris Kaufman,...

Formally trained as a painter at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Richard Sylbert gave up his dreams of becoming a great artist to become instead one of the best American art directors, in the same league as his mentor, the legendary William Cameron Menzies. The Brooklyn native began during TV's 'Golden Age', painting scenery at NBC, and did his first significant feature work for Elia Kazan on films such as "Baby Doll" (1956), "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) and "Splendor in the Grass" (1961). By the time he worked with Sidney Lumet on "The Fugitive Kind" (1960), he was borrowing from music and moving beyond character-based design, using patterns and repetition to tie his films together. Sylbert had met John Frankenheimer when both were working in TV, and the director hired him to design the masterful cold war thriller, "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). His ingenious decision to move the set as the camera turned produced the brilliant 360-degree pan of the memorable brainwash scene, and its 1988 re-release demonstrated how well the picture as a whole had withstood the test of time.

In his third teaming with Lumet and his eighth and last collaboration with director of photography Boris Kaufman, Sylbert, working entirely within the studio, created the poetic backdrop for "The Pawnbroker" (1965), a strikingly photographed black-and-white journey through the mind of a Holocaust survivor living in Harlem. Building both the concentration camp and the pawnshop, he carried the grill wire as a prison metaphor from one to the other throughout the film and approximated the look of Italian neorealism to the point where people believed the picture had been made on the street. The following year he earned his first Oscar win for his claustrophobic sets (a roadside bar and the home of a college professor) on Mike Nichols' feature directing debut, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", another super black-and-white movie (shot by Haskell Wexler) inaugurating a seven-picture association with that director. For Nichols' "The Graduate" (1967), he installed an elevator shaft in order to capture Dustin Hoffman walking down a flight of stairs without cutting. Perhaps the best of his other films with Nichols was the very symmetrical "Carnal Knowledge" (1971), designed like chamber music for four voices.

Sylbert copied apartments from NYC's Dakota to scale on sound stages for "Rosemary's Baby" (1969), his first film with director Roman Polanski. Using bolts instead of nails to fasten the sets enabled the production team to pull the walls in and out as often as necessary (without destroying them), thereby facilitating shooting. He scored an even bigger hit with Polanski's "Chinatown" (1974), a story revolving around water rights in the Los Angeles area, set during a 1937 draught. There are no clouds in Sylbert's sky, the buildings are bleached-out bone white and the color green becomes almost a symbol of power and corruption. He also raised all the buildings slightly above the eye level of private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who literally has an uphill climb to solve the case. In "Shampoo" (1975), his first picture with Warren Beatty as writer and producer, he repeated the latticework from Beatty's beauty parlor and Goldie Hawn's apartment in the rich person's house and then the tennis scene in an effort to unify the totally artificial world. Lots of mirrors emphasized the narcissism in the film, and to get the picture's soft and dreamy feel, cameraman Laszlo Kovacs exposed 10 percent of the negative before shooting.

In a totally unprecedented move, Sylbert replaced Robert Evans as head of production at Paramount in the mid-70s and showed he had a good eye for off-beat material, making a hit of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (1977) and optioning books like "A River Runs Through It" and "Interview with a Vampire" that would not see the silver screen for more than a decade. Hollywood was changing fast, however, and he was out of place among the new generation of execs with their fast food approach to manufacturing product. According to his assistant Don Simpson, Sylbert's attitude of "I'm the best art director alive. If it doesn't work out, so what" (Premiere, December 1993) didn't sit well with the suits, and he vacated the executive suite in 1978. After the undistinguished "Players" (1979), he reteamed with Beatty on the monumental "Reds" (1981), Beatty's directorial debut more than a decade in development. Two years in the making and shot on four continents, it was just the tonic Sylbert needed, earning him a fourth Oscar nomination for his detailed period work spanning the Pacific Northwest, Cape Cod, New York City and revolutionary Russia. By all rights he should have won the Oscar (Beatty did as director), but when his design lost out to "Raiders of the Lost Ark", he resolved to persevere in the presence of what he called "the stupidest generation in living memory."

Sylbert has bridged the gap between theatrical directors like Kazan, Lumet and Frankenheimer who favored a stationary camera to explore the emotional dynamics of the narrative and film school acolytes embracing the showier "Look at me" style advanced by boy genius Orson Welles. "The first film school director I ever ran across was Francis Coppola. We were standing on a set, and he said to me, 'This is going to be the Kurosawa shot.' I had never heard anybody say that in my life." (Premiere, December 1993). Despite his preference for directors who do not call attention to themselves, he garnered an Oscar nomination for Coppola's period gangster musical drama "The Cotton Club" (1984) and subsequently collaborated with Brian De Palma on the more contemporary "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990) and "Carlito's Way" (1993). Winning a second Oscar for the cartoon strip primary colors of Beatty's "Dick Tracy" (1990), he proved he could keep pace with his changing profession, designing 45 mattes when he had only done one matte before in his life. Sylbert reasserted the importance of the production design in the era after the studio system fell apart, showing that a true artist needed more than a real-estate license and a facility for fluffing pillows. Taking time from his busy fishing schedule, he continued to work crafting the detailed and appropriate settings for the noirish "Mulholland Falls" (1996, in which he had a cameo as a coroner) and the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997). That same year, Sylbert recreated several blocks of Beijing, China in astonishing detail on seven acres near Los Angeles' airport for Jon Avnet's drama "Red Corner". Still active at a time when others might think of retiring, he crafted the meticulous settings for "In the Boom Boom Room" (lensed 2000), adapted from David Rabe's play about a go-go dancer in the late 1960s.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Mulholland Falls (1996) Coroner
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Grew up in Brooklyn, New York; used to read on the roof of his building by the lights of Ebbets Field
:
Served with the US Army in the same infantry unit as his twin brother Paul
:
After leaving art school, moved with Paul to NYC, eventually living in the same building on Riverside Drive
:
Got a job painting scenery at NBC; Paul worked at CBS
:
Mentored under art director William Cameron Menzies, who encouraged Sylbert to move to Hollywood
1954:
Served as art director on syndicated TV series, "Inner Sanctum"
1956:
First feature film as art director, "Patterns"; also first collaboration with director of photography Boris Kaufman
1956:
Shared duties as art director with twin brother Paul (credited as assistant) on Elia Kazan's "Baby Doll"
1957:
Again teamed with brother Paul on art direction of Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd"
1960:
First film with director Sidney Lumet, "The Fugitive Kind"; served as production designer
1960:
Credited as Dick Sylbert for art direction of "Murder, Inc."
1961:
Third collaboration with Kazan as the production designer of "Splendor in the Grass"
1962:
Lured to Hollywood by producer Charles K Feldman to work on Edward Dmytryk's "Walk on the Wild Side"
1962:
Re-teamed with Lumet as art director on "Long Day's Journey into Night"
1962:
First collaboration with director John Frankenheimer, "The Manchurian Candidate"
1964:
Was production designer on Robert Rossen's "Lilith"
1965:
Re-teamed with Lumet, providing the art direction for "The Pawnbroker"; final collaboration with Kaufman
1965:
Asssociate produced "What's New, Pussycat?"
1966:
Won first Best Art Direction Academy Award for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; first collaboration with director Mike Nichols
1966:
Re-teamed with Frankenheimer as art director on "Grand Prix"
1967:
Re-teamed with Mike Nichols for "The Graduate"
1968:
First film with director Roman Polanski, "Rosemary's Baby"
1970:
Again re-teamed with Nichols on "Catch-22"
1971:
Fourth film with Mike Nichols, "Carnal Knowledge"
1972:
Provided the art direction for Elaine May's "The Heartbreak Kid"
1972:
Set designer for Neil Simon's Broadway production, "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"
1973:
Fifth film with Nichols, "The Day of the Dolphin"
1974:
Re-teamed with Polanski for "Chinatown"; first collaboration with screenwriter Robert Towne; earned Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Art Direction
1975:
Received a Best Art Direction Academy Award nomination for Hal Ashby's "Shampoo"; co-scripted by Towne and Beatty
1975:
Named as Robert Evans' successor as vice president in charge of production at Paramount
1981:
First picture with Beatty as director, "Reds"; garnered fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction
1983:
Received an Emmy nomination for "Give Me a Ring Sometime" episode of "Cheers" (NBC); shared nomination with Gaines; also designed and built the set of the long running TV series
1984:
Received fifth Academy Award nomination for "The Cotton Club"; sixth and last collaboration with Gaines
1988:
Served as production designer of Towne's "Tequila Sunrise"
1990:
Won second Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the comic book stylings of Beatty's "Dick Tracy"
1990:
Created the good-looking design for director Brian De Palma's "Bonfire of the Vanities"
1993:
Re-teamed with De Palma for "Carlito's Way"
1996:
Appeared in "Mulholland Falls" as the coroner; also served as production designer
1997:
Provided production design for PJ Hogan's "My Best Friend's Wedding"
1997:
Re-created several blocks of Beijing, China on seven acres near the Los Angeles airport for Jon Avnet's "Red Corner"
2002:
Reteamed with PJ Hogan as production designer of "Who Shot Victor Fox?"
2002:
Was working with PJ Hogan on "Peter Pan" at the time of his death
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Temple University: Elkins Park , Pennsylvania -

Notes

"The definition I have of production designing comes from [William Cameron] Menzies, which was, 'If I draw every shot, then all the parts connect. And they are related to one another, to make a given whole.' In other words, you cannot write a book without structuring it. You cannot write music without structuring it. You cannot write a play without structuring it. Why should you be able to design a movie without structuring it?" --Richard Sylbert at AFI seminar

On meeting director Elia Kazan: "I went into his office. It was above the Astor Theater on 44th and Broadway. Little dump. Couch had holes in it. Kazan said, 'Read the script; come back tomorrow.' It was the script for "Baby Doll". So I read it and I came back the next day and he said, 'Draw me some things.' So I drew a porch in an old southern house with a rocking chair next to it. And a tube of ointment that was sort of twisted up. He said to me, 'What kind of ointment is that?' And I said, 'I have no idea.' He said, 'It's pile ointment. I'll see you in Mississippi.' That was my first lesson in specifics." --Sylbert to Peter Biskind in Premiere, December 1993

About forcing director Roman Polanski to shoot a scene a certain way by leaving the backing off a wall: "Roman comes in in the morning, and he says, 'Deek! Deek! There's no back!' I tricked him. There was no way he could shoot it. I know what directors want better than they do. I'm the medicine they're going to have to take. Some people don't like to take medicine. So you have to get them in a position where they're happy to take it. They get better." --Sylbert in Premiere, December 1993

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Carol Godshalk. First wife; worked in wardrobe at NBC; mother of three sons.
companion:
Brooke Hayward. Author. Together c.1960-61; daughter of agent Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan.
wife:
Susanna Moore. Production designer, costumer. Second wife; an island girl from Hawaii who bore a strong resemblance to Ali MacGraw; met in 1969; divorced in 1978; mother of daughter Lulu.
wife:
Sharmagne Sylbert. Former Playboy Bunny; mother of daughter Daisy; actually met Sylbert prior to his marriage to Moore (c.1964); began on-again, off-again romance; married c. 1991; has served as his assistant on various shoots.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

brother:
Paul Sylbert. Production designer. Identical twin; Paul was formerly married to Anthea Sylbert, who worked for nearly a decade as a costume designer with Richard.
son:
Douglas Sylbert.
son:
Jon Sylbert.
son:
Mark Sylbert.
daughter:
Lulu Sylbert. Acted in "Strange Invaders" (1983), on which her mother, Susanna Moore, served as production designer and costume designer.
daughter:
Daisy Sylbert. Mother, Sharmagne Sylbert; godfather is Warren Beatty.
sister-in-law:
Anthea Sylbert. Costume designer. Married to his twin brother Paul; worked as a costume designer with Richard.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Contributions

papillion ( 2009-02-05 )

Source: not available

Corrections:

WIFE: Susanna Moore. Production designer, costumer. Second wife; born in Philadelphia moved to Hawaii who bore a strong resemblance to Ali MacGraw; met in 1969; divorced in 1978; mother of daughter Lulu.

WIFE/WIDOW: Sharmagne Leland-St. John-Sylbert Former Playboy Bunny; Pushcart Prize nominee, poet, concert performer, author, lyricist, production designer, director, screen writer, actress;mother of daughter Daisy; actually met Sylbert prior to his marriage to Moore (c.1964); began on-again, off-again romance; married c. 1979; has served as his assistant on various shoots.

DAUGHTER: Daisy Sylbert. child actress; costumer; Mother, Sharmagne Leland-St. John- Sylbert; godfather is Warren Beatty. Godmother is Milena Canonero.

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