Unsung Auteurs: Ernest Tidyman

August 23, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, who penned Shaft and High Plains Drifter.

With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’re showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. With shifting societal and cultural norms, it is now justifiably and thankfully the common line of thought that those from minority groups are the ones best equipped to tell their own stories. Movies that track the African-American experience, for instance, will now for the large part be either written or directed by African-Americans, and the same goes for other cultural and gender groups. This is, of course, how it should rightfully be, but this occasionally makes it somewhat difficult to duly celebrate those that worked in an earlier, far different time. When talking about Blaxploitation Cinema, for example, it’s far more comfortable to sing the praises of that movement’s African-American players (Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Isaac Hayes, Ron O’Neal, Fred Williamson, Gordon Parks Jr. and so on) than it is the white figures (Foxy Brown and Coffy director Jack Hill, Black Caesar director Larry Cohen et al) who also played a major role.

All of which brings us to Ernest Tidyman. While 1971’s Shaft is justifiably seen as a seminal, epochal piece of Blaxploitation filmmaking, the film’s big heroes are charismatic leading man Richard Roundtree and the film’s director Gordon Parks, famous as a photo-journalist and renowned for his 1969 film The Learning Tree. The character of tough guy African-American private eye John Shaft, however, was created by Ernest Tidyman, a white novelist and screenwriter who remains somewhat under-celebrated despite being the man behind this great literary and cinematic figure.

Ernest Tidyman

Ernest Tidyman was born in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio. Tidyman’s father was a crime reporter, and he followed suit, moving into the world of journalism at the age of just fourteen after dropping out of high school. Tidyman served in the army, and worked as a crime reporter and journalist at various publications, mainly in New York, before trying his hand at fiction. Though Tidyman’s first novel, the hippie-themed Flower Power, didn’t make much of an impact, his follow-up book fared much better. Tough and street literate, with an authenticity born of Tidyman’s years of crime reportage, the black crime novel Shaft was not only a hit, it also launched Tidyman into the world of cinema.

With the film option purchased, producer Philip d’Antoni read Tidyman’s novel, and promptly hired the writer to work on adapting Robin More’s book The French Connection for the big screen. Economically pulling all the threads of this complicated crime procedural together, Tidyman crafted a tight, hard-driving script out of the material, which director William Friedkin (who claimed to have rewritten much of Tidyman’s work, much to the scribe’s chagrin) fashioned into a contemporary crime masterpiece of high-wire tension and documentary-style realism. From there, Tidyman moved onto the adaptation of his own novel, Shaft, for the big screen, and his career was well and truly rolling, with both films becoming enormously successful.

Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter.

After penning the 1972 sequel Shaft’s Big Score!, Tidyman wrote the screenplay for one of Clint Eastwood’s most unusual and arresting westerns with 1973’s High Plains Drifter, a bizarre, wonderfully florid (Eastwood directs brilliantly) morality play in which Eastwood’s mysterious stranger may or may not be an avenging angel or the ghost of a cruelly murdered lawman. It’s a great film filled with great ideas, and while Eastwood is its master, Tidyman’s ingenious contribution can’t be overlooked. Though Tidyman would pen a few more features (Milton Katselas’ excellent 1975 police drama Report To The Commissioner; the 1979 Chuck Norris actioner A Force Of One; the 1983 Jan-Michael Vincent political thriller Last Plane Out), he would become more heavily involved with television for the rest of his career.

Working principally with the themes of crime, corruption, politics and the legal system, Tidyman was behind some very important small screen work in the 1970s and 1980s, penning the terse 1978 Joe Don Baker-starring drama To Kill A Cop and its follow-up TV series Eischied; 1979’s groundbreaking, Frank Perry-directed telemovie Dummy (in which deaf-mute LeVar Burton is defended by deaf lawyer Paul Sorvino in a murder trial); 1980’s Jimmy Hoffa-inspired mini-series Power, again starring Joe Don Baker; 1980’s Guyana Tragedy: The Story Of Jim Jones, with Powers Boothe as the notorious cult leader; and 1980’s Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story.

Ernest Tidyman sadly passed away in 1984 at the age of just 56 in London following complications due to alcoholism, but left behind a brilliantly edgy collection of works that quietly resound with the rugged poetry of the streets.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Shauna Cross, Troy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.

Ernest Tidyman