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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,314


This is the grave of Ernest Tidyman.

Born in 1928 in Cleveland, Tidyman grew up pretty well off. His father was the crime reporter for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and this would influence his son deeply. He sure wasn’t much of a student though. Despite his father, he was a total roustabout as a young man. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade, floated around, worked as a copyboy on the paper for awhile, and eventually joined the military. That latter move was in 1946 and the military quickly realized he was a smart guy, using him on public relations issues.

After Tidyman got out of the military, he decided on a career in journalism like his father. He was also interested in crime. Moreover, as time went on, he became quite interested in the counterculture. He did quite well for himself and was a reporter for the New York Post from 1957 to 1960, before moving to the New York Times, where he stayed until 1966. He also wrote a lot for both the masculine magazines copying the Playboy style. And even though he was white, he was published frequently in magazines dedicated to Black male audiences too.

All this led to Tidyman starting to write popular crime novels. He wrote a hippie novel called Flower Power in 1968. But that’s not why Tidyman became famous. Nope, that had to do with his 1970 novel Shaft. The tale of John Shaft became central to the Black film experience of that decade. The term “blaxploitation” is not a favorite of mine. It denigrates the importance of these films. This was part of the backlash to the pretty awful William Styron and his terrible The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was roundly rejected by Black Americans as racist. Among those whites who loved Styron’s book was Norman Jewison, director of In the Heat of the Night and who wanted to direct the film version of it before Black Hollywood and the civil rights establishment basically forced the picture to be cancelled.

Well, Tidyman loathed The Confessions of Nat Turner, with its Black superhero/supervictim dichotomy. So, actually knowing Black people, Tidyman wrote Shaft and it became a huge hit, immediately converted to a film where he wrote the screenplay. Tidyman may have been white, but it was Gordon Parks directing, Richard Roundtree starring, and Isaac Hayes doing the music.

Now, Tidyman thought the movie was kind of trashy, plus he was pissed that William Friedkin was brought in to doctor his script. He also wanted his work to be made into better films. Well, that didn’t take long. He was hired to write the screenplay for The French Connection. Yeah, that worked out. What a great film. He started his own production company at this point and was involved in the making of films in a number of different ways. He wrote the script for the Shaft followup, 1972’s Shaft’s Big Score. He also wrote the screenplay for Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, from 1973. “We’re painting the whole town red.” “You can’t mean the church.” “I mean especially the church.” Not a great film there, but a fun one.

Tidyman also continued to work in non-fiction writing, writing a successful true crime book in 1974 about the killing of a deaf man, with the unfortunate title of Dummy. LeVar Burton starred in the 1979 TV adaptation, of course also written by Tidyman. He also kept writing Shaft books, a total of 7 in the end, including Shaft among the Jews, which….wow. Huh. I dunno about that one.

Tidyman worked on writing and film pretty much to the end of his life. He co-wrote the early Chuck Norris vehicle A Force of One and the screenplay for the TV miniseries on Jim Jones.

The NAACP presented Tidyman with the NAACP Image Award for the Shaft books.

But Tidyman wouldn’t work long. He was a massive, unbelievable drunk and he drank himself into the ground in 1984. He was 56 years old.

Ernest Tidyman is buried in Washington Cemetery on the Green, Washington, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with the Black film renaissance of the 1970s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gordon Parks is in Fort Scott, Kansas and Isaac Hayes is in Memphis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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