Bel Kaufman's autobiographical 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase
spent 64 weeks on The New York Times
' bestseller list (five months of that at number one) and when published in paperback sold 1.5 million copies in only thirty days. Written in epistolary form as a series of letters, journal entries, and official memoranda, the novel depicted the Kafkaesque absurdities of teaching in the American educational system of the mid-1960s and was closer in spirit to Catch 22
than To Sir with Love
. Adapted for the big screen by the writer-producer team of Robert Mulligan and Alan Pakula (whose 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
had been a big hit), Up the Down Staircase
(1967) was a star vehicle for Sandy Dennis. Fresh from an Oscar win as Best Supporting Actress in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(1966), Dennis brought her trademark fragility to bear as an idealistic young teacher who accepts a teaching position at a troubled inner city school. Filming on location in Manhattan (midtown's Haaren High School stood in for the interior of the fictive Calvin Coolidge High, while the playgrounds of Harlem's Benjamin Franklin High School did for the exteriors) allowed Mulligan to avail himself of a wealth of Broadway talent, including such busy New York actors as Eileen Heckart, Jean Stapleton, Roy Poole, and Sorrell Booke; look for Esther Rolle, Bud Cort (in his feature film debut as a student), and Bel Kaufman herself in small, uncredited roles.
By Richard Harland Smith
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