Sheldon, Sidney (1917—)

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Sheldon, Sidney (1917—)

By the time he wrote his first book at age fifty-three, Sidney Sheldon had already had a substantial impact on popular culture via the creation of successful screenplays and television series, but his subsequent career as a novelist has far eclipsed everything that preceded it. Along with such rivals as Irving Wallace, Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, and Judith Krantz, Sheldon has dominated the bestseller lists by producing fast-moving tales of sex and power among the jet set, such as Bloodline, The Other Side of Midnight, and A Stranger in the Mirror. And, like these other authors, Sheldon's popularity with the public has been in inverse proportion to his standing with literary critics. Unfazed by the critics' disapproval of his efforts, Sheldon continues to create tales that enthrall readers and--bringing his career full circle—often find a second life dramatized as feature films or television miniseries.

Born in Chicago in 1917, Sheldon entered Northwestern University on a scholarship in 1935, but was soon forced to drop out by the economic hardships of the Depression. He journeyed to Manhattan in hopes of becoming a songwriter, and when that didn't pan out he tried the other coast, where he had better luck. On the strength of the story-sense displayed in his sample précis of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Sheldon was hired as a reader by Universal Studios. He had managed to break into screenwriting on a modest basis when World War IIbroke out, but Sheldon's service proved only a brief interruption, as the Army Air Force quickly discharged him for medical reasons. After some ventures into writing musicals and comedies for the New York stage, Sheldon returned to Hollywood. His acclaim as a scriptwriter was capped by the Oscar he won for the screenplay of The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (RKO, 1947), a romantic comedy starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Shirley Temple. The following year, Sheldon collaborated with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett on the script for the highly successful MGM musical, Irving Berlin's Easter Parade, the only film to unite Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. That script earned the Screen Writers Guild award for best musical of the year, as did Sheldon's adaptation of Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun in 1950.

Other frothy Hollywood vehicles in which Sheldon was involved as writer or producer include You're Never Too Young and Pardners (1955 and 1956 respectively, both starring Martin and Lewis), Cole Porter's Anything Goes (1956, with Bing Crosby), and Dream Wife (1953, Sheldon's debut as a director, starring Cary Grant). In the late 1950s, Sheldon made a second assault on Broadway, which proved more successful than his first. He collaborated with Herbert and Dorothy Fields and David Shaw on the 1959 Gwen Verdon vehicle, Redhead, which earned four Tony Awards, including best musical.

Following less than stellar work on other shows and movies, Sheldon transferred to the medium of television, where he created and produced two memorable situation comedies for two different networks. ABC premiered Sheldon's The Patty Duke Show in 1963. The young actress, most famed for portraying Helen Keller in the serious drama The Miracle Worker, played identical cousins, one from America and one from Scotland, who often exchanged identities in Sheldon's frivolous plots. That series ran for three seasons. Even more successful for Sheldon was his NBC series, I Dream of Jeannie, starring Barbara Eden as a sweet natured but naive genie and Larry Hagman as the befuddled astronaut for whom she performs her magic. Debuting in 1965, the show ran for five years initially and has been re-running ever since, spawning further Jeannie TV movies and commercials. A generation of Americans can probably, if asked, sing the entire lyrics of these two sitcoms' theme songs as readily, if not more so, than they could sing Mr. Berlin's aforementioned "Easter Parade." Sheldon's 1970s ABC series, Hart to Hart, was another ratings winner, starring Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers as wealthy married sleuths in the romantic/comedic tradition of Nick and Nora Charles.

Looking for new worlds to conquer, and anxious to create characterizations with more depth than that afforded by most TV or film scripts, Sheldon tried his hand at writing a novel. His first effort, The Naked Face (1970), was a suspense tale about a psychoanalyst who discovers that someone wants him dead. Although it was not a great success in its first printing, Naked Face was followed by Sheldon's first blockbuster success, The Other Side of Midnight (1974). This rags-to-riches story of a woman's vengeance catapulted Sheldon to the bestseller lists, where he has remained ever since with each successive book. (Thanks to his later volumes, Sheldon's initially moribund Naked Face has remained a steady seller in reprints.) Midnight brought Sheldon a movie sale, but not, unfortunately, a successful movie. The same pattern was repeated with other Sheldon bestsellers, such as Bloodline (1978). Consequently, he elected to write and produce his own adaptation of Rage of Angels (1980), among others. Whatever the outcome of these adaptations, however, the hard-working Sheldon takes pride in the success of the novels themselves. At the age of eighty, on the eve of the publication of his fifteenth novel, The Best Laid Plans (1997), the author described his working methods to the Los Angeles Times : "I dictate everything to a secretary and she transcribes it. I'll do up to 50 pages a day, but when I get those pages, I'll do a dozen to 15 total rewrites before I ever let my publisher see them." And that, apparently, is when the publisher gets busy: At last count, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sheldon is the most translated author in the world, with books in 51 languages in 180 countries.

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

Sheldon, Sidney. Master of the Game. New York, Wm. Morrow, 1982.

——. The Other Side of Midnight. New York, Wm. Morrow, 1973.

——. A Stranger in the Mirror. New York, Wm. Morrow, 1976.

——. Three Complete Novels (Bloodline; A Stranger in the Mirror; The Naked Face). New York, Wings Books, 1992.

——. Windmills of the Gods. New York, Wm. Morrow, 1987.