In my book The World of Shaft, I included a chapter on the proposed Shaft comic strip Ernest Tidyman had been developing with respected comic book artist Don Rico. The strip was taken as far as 28 test panels between June and December 1972. Tidyman was unable to sell the strip to the major newspapers and the idea was eventually abandoned. I featured some samples of the strip artwork in my book along with earlier tests by artist David Russell, now a storyboard artist working on major Hollywood movies.
Well, whilst browsing the internet I came across a completed auction on 9 June 2017 through Profiles in History (based in Calabasas, California). In their Animation and Disneyana Auctionwas Lot 398: Don Rico and Ernest Tidyman signed original art for an unpublished comic strip entitled, Shaft. The guide price for the 11 finished and 6 unfinished strip panels was between $1,000 and $1,500. The lot was sold.
As it was preceded by a similar lot for a strip featuring The Six Million Dollar Man – also drawn by Don Rico – so, it is a possibility these signed panels have been listed for auction by the artist’s estate or a collector.
This is interesting because as far as I am aware the panels have not been widely available to view previously. I obtained copies of the full proposed strip from Ernest Tidyman’s papers as part of my research work along with earlier tests by other artists. David Russell also very kindly restored his initial test artwork, which was by far the most impressive, for inclusion in my book.
The Shaft comic strip idea was an interesting one, but the Newspaper Enterprise Association’s response at the time was: “The continuity-type strip has fallen on lean days, and the episodic panel or strip is the “in” thing, comics-page wise.” In fairness the story quality of the proposed Tidyman/Rico strip was relatively weak and did not come close to matching that of stronger episodic strips of the day.
It would be 2015 before John Shaft finally appeared in published comic form, via David F. Walker’s excellent series of comic books. Trade paperbacks of Shaft: A Complication Man and Shaft: Imitation of Lifehave been published by Dynamite Entertainment and are highly recommended.
Gordon Parks’ 1971 adaptation of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft was released on Blu-Ray in the UK on 2 October via HMV’s “premium Collection”. The release has led to modern viewers and critics re-appraising a film that these days is seemingly better remembered for its theme song.
Casimir Harlow at AVForums had this to say on 19 October: “…a surprisingly low budget, straightforward affair that doesn’t appear anywhere near as flashy and funky as it’s theme song would have you believe, instead riding high not only on Hayes’ lyrics but also on the swagger and sheer screen presence of Richard Roundtree, an underrated star.”
Chris Hick at FilmWerk : “Despite his lack of real acting ability, Roundtree dominates every scene with his sculpted afro, big moustache and cool clothes including raincoat length leather jackets. The action is violent and in your face and shot in a seedy New York virtually unrecognisable today which has an obvious parallel with the superior The French Connection, that was coincidentally made the same year; the pair of films having many similarities with the snowy dirty and cold mean streets of the Big Apple.”
Rob Simpson, writing for TheGeekShow says, “More so than any film, this can be credited for the popularisation of 1970s black cinema with its mix of street culture, social commentary, phenomenal music, action, and crime jam-packed into a massively entertaining and punchy bundle.”
I am hoping Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa will follow onto Blu-Ray soon. But the likelihood is if at all the trilogy will be re-released to coincide with New Line’s cinema release of the latest Shaft sequel next year.
Well, after months of silence on this project, director Tim Story has given some clues as to the tone of the upcoming Shaft reboot. Story was interviewed at Showtime’s Television Critics Association party (reported by SlashFilm.com) where he said, “My Shaft movie is going to be definitely not straight action. We’re going action-comedy or comedy-action, I’m not exactly sure which one comes first. We’re going to definitely make sure the stakes in the world are real, and then you’ve got these characters who are dealing with kind of a father/son situation, we’re going to see them put a family back together.”
Story goes on to say, “We’re still paying an homage to the original, so [Shaft] still means what it means. At the end of the day though, it does mean just a strong figure. We also have Shaft’s son’s mom in it as well. She’s a strong figure as well. It’s not even specific to the male. It’s specific to just strong people.”
This news is not what fans of Ernest Tidyman’s creation were wanting to hear. David F Walker showed how the character could be made relevant again to a modern audience with his comic book series, Shaft: A Complicated Man, which in my view would have made for a great movie adaptation to re-introduce a cultural icon. What it seems like we’re going to get instead is something that is perceived to be more acceptable to an undemanding movie-going public, trading off a brand name.
Whatever it turns out to be, I hold no confidence it will be add anything positive to the Shaft legacy.
SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE by DAVID F. WALKER/DIETRICH SMITH (2017, Dynamite, 104pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: After a high-profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.
The trade paperback publication of this four-part comic book arrives a year after similar treatement for Shaft: A Complicated Man. David F. Walker returns as writer and is partnered with Dietrich Smith as artist. The book demonstrates the confidence Walker took from his critically acclaimed debut as the literary heir to Ernest Tidyman’s creation. The story stretches itself around social issues of a decaying New York and the expoitation of young gays through pornography. Walker also finds time to seemingly take a satirical swipe at some of the excesses of Blaxploitation cinema, by having Shaft work as a consultant on a film based on his own exploits, only here exaggerated to comical effect. In reality, however, this is a dig at the makers of the proposed new Shaft movie, which is reported to have a comedic slant. Smith’s artwork is more bold and colourful than the more sensitive tones applied by Bilquis Evely. His work is very effective and at times sublime – notably in the use of light and shade at the start of Part 3, where Shaft is interviewed by detectives in his office. Ultimately, whilst the story lacks the dramatic and emotional bite of Walker’s debut, it is an entertaining read lifting the lid on the sleazier aspects of early 1970s New York. Unlike the TP publication of Shaft: A Complicated Man, this book comes without any extras, such as an introduction, script extracts and character profiles, which is a shame. It is also a shame that Dynamite seem to have stalled on any new Shaft output – with as yet no commissioned third comic book or follow-up novel to Walker’s excellent Shaft’s Revenge. There is also no news of the continuation of the reprints of Tidyman’s originals. I hope the publisher has not lost interest in the series and that we see more Shaft output very soon.
After over a year of seeming inactivity, there is finally some forward momentum on New Line’s reboot of the Shaft franchise. Tim Story has been assigned as director to the production, which will be based on a script by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow. Barris is also co-producer with John Davis and Ira Napoliello for Davis Entertainment. As well as directing two Fantastic Four movies, Story has had recent success as a director of comedies including Ride Along 2 and Kevin Hart: What Now? – adding fuel to the fire that this Shaft may be less than faithful to Ernest Tidyman’s creation.
Mike Fleming Jr., writing for Deadline , reports on rumours that the plot may centre on Shaft’s son – thereby taking a similar track to 2000’s Shaft, where Samuel L Jackson played the private detective’s nephew. He says: “I’ve heard the idea is to reinvigorate the franchise with a focus on the son of the cool private eye who always finds himself navigating the gray terrain between the law and organized crime in New York City.”
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1973, Corgi, 150pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: They whipped the last sheriff to death in the middle of the Main Street. Now a year of breaking rocks had made them hungry for revenge on the whole town. But first they had to deal with the stranger, a man with a lot of lean lightning on his hip – and a gut-urge to use it!
In the 1960s and 70s, before the advent of home video, paperback novelisations were the only way you could revisit a movie without waiting 5 years for a TV premiere or a re-release. They pretty much faded away once movies became readily available, firstly through the rental market and ultimately through retail. Tidyman’s High Plains Drifter is a solid example of how a novelisation could flesh out a screenplay, but could not always recapture the elements that made a movie special.
The novelisation of Tidyman’s screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Western was published in May 1973 – a month after the release of the film. Tidyman had written the original screenplay during the early summer of 1972 and assigned Phillip Rock (uncredited here) to adapt the screenplay into a novel manuscript, which Tidyman would then edit. The book, therefore stays very close to Tidyman’s original draft. Eastwood saw the opportunity to add some mystical elements – suggesting the stranger was a re-incarnation of the murdered town marshal. Dean Reisner had been hired to add these elements into a final draft screenplay – although Tidyman retained sole credit on screen following a WGA ruling. It is these additional elements and Eastwood’s persona that made the film stand out from other westerns. The novel is, therefore, a much more straight forward tale. Most of the elements of Tidyman’s screenplay were used in the final version of the film, but in the novel there is no real suggestion of a link between the stranger and the marshal. The reader is left to ponder on the stranger’s motives. As a result, the novel – though well written and never less than engaging – does not stand out from the crowd in the same way as the movie.
Note: Phillip Rock wrote the novelisation of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in 1971.
BIG BUCKS: THE TRUE, OUTRAGEOUS STORY OF THE PLYMOUTH MAIL ROBBERY AND HOW THEY GOT AWAY WITH IT by ERNEST TIDYMAN (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982, 317pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: They came out of the mist on a Cape Cod highway one rainy August evening to write a chapter in the history of spectacular American crimes. They stole more money – over $1.5 million in cash – than anyone had ever stolen. Although three suspects went to trial for the robbery, the charges were dismissed, and the case of the Plymouth Mail Robbery has never been solved.
Tidyman’s telling of the Plymouth Mail Robbery is the book equivalent of the docu-drama. The result is a fascinating and in-depth realisation of the masterminding of one of the greatest heists ever. Tidyman largely presents the story as if it were a novel and this gives depth to the main protagonists on both sides of the law. The gang’s ring leader – here given the name Dan Murphy – is presented as a meticulous organiser of criminal activity. He works with a small group he trusts, which keeps his plans tight. he evades the law through his ingenuity right to the end. The book would have made for a great film adaptation – and indeed the author had prepared a screenplay co-written with his wife, Chris Clark-Tidyman in 1983 – but the story is yet to be filmed. This was to be Tidyman’s final book – he died two years later.
FLOWER POWERby ERNEST TIDYMAN (1968, The Paperback Library, 160pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: Phyllis Greenfield was sweet sixteen – and never been stoned. Life was passing her by. So she ran away from her comfortable home in Cleveland, Ohio, and went to Haight-Ashbury to make the Underground Scene. There she met Furman, a young Black acid-head who wanted to be a FBI agent – or at least a member of the Hell’s Angels. Furman rechristened her “Flower” and brought her to his crash pad where she settled down to making the protest rallies with Me, a mystic love-child who took her to a swinging guru. And Signal, who caught special vibrations by making sex a mixed-media happening. And Tripper, who convinced her that LSD was the only ticket to visiting Inner Space. Flower was grooving in the switched-on life until one day the straight and the hippie worlds clashed in a battle that taught her the true meaning of FLOWER POWER!
Ernest Tidyman’s debut novel was published six months before he signed a contract with Macmillan to write Shaft. At the time, Tidyman was working as a freelance writer and magazine editor. He wanted to write a novel that would connect with the fashion of the time and so he came up with this story of a young girl exploring free-spirited communal living in the hippy culture of San Francisco.
Tidyman invests time in his characters and adds touches of humour throughout, but the story is slight at best. The book was very much of its time and many of the situations and characters will seem stereotypical today – the experimentation with drugs and sex; the Indian karma influences; the garden of home grown marijuana and the open-house approach to living. The first half of the book concentrates on Phyllis and her transformation to Flower whilst living with her small group of new friends. Once this is established the book opens up to bring in a wider group of characters including a motorbike gang, FBI agents and corrupt cops. The whole thing culminates at a party hosted by Flower and her friends where all these elements collide in true crazy sixties fashion.
Tidyman prefers an observational approach to his writing here, without getting too deeply engrossed in the politics of what these youngsters are about. indeed they all seem lost in one way or another and none of them really find their answers – they merely move on to the next adventure. Whilst this may be an accurate portrayal of the hippy movement in its free-spirited mentality of living for the now – it leaves the book’s character stories incomplete. Like the characters, the reader is left to feel they have spent time in a strange new world but then simply moved on feeling unfulfilled.
DUMMYby ERNEST TIDYMAN (1974, W.H. Allen, 210pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: First there was Ernestine Williams, a prostitute found murdered in a Chicago alleyway on November 12, 1965. She had last been seen leaving a bar with a young black mute. Donald Lang, “The Dummy” was arrested. It was the beginning of one of the most bizarre murder cases in American History. From Chicago’s South Side Donald Lang was twenty years old, poor, black, totally illiterate – and deaf and dumb. He could not talk, write, read lips, or understand sign language. It was an unprecedented legal problem: How could the accused defend himself when he could not even communicate? In bewilderment the court appointed the only man who might be able to defend the boy – a tough, determined, resourceful lawyer named Lowell Myers. Myers was also deaf. Dummy is a story of the legal process as an enormous “Catch 22”, a nightmare that ends only to begin when Lang is implicated in a second murder.
Ernest Tidyman uses all his journalistic skills in the telling of the story of Donald Lang – the deaf, dumb and illiterate young black man who was subject of two murder charges during the mid-late 1960s. Tidyman deftly works his way through the court transcripts to highlight the key components on the case focusing on Lang’s predicament and treatment and the efforts of his deaf attorney – Lowell J. Myers. Tidyman offers no opinion on Lang, preferring to let the facts speak for themselves as the story unfolds. He allows opinions from some of the key people working on the case – but only once the story is complete – via interviews with the detectives and prosecutors, This means the reader has the opportunity to form their own views as the story unfolds. Tidyman’s voice comes through in some of the early passages where he sets the scene and introduces us to Lang and Myers before the courtroom battles commence.
Tidyman was in heavy demand at the time of writing this book following his Oscar win for The French Connection and his ongoing work on the Shaft books and films. Like many of his books, Dummy started out life as a screenplay as early as 1971. Tidyman would eventually complete the project as a well-received TV Movie in 1979. For the book he enlisted the research help of fellow journalist Dorothy Storek, of the Chicago Daily News, and manuscript support of regular collaborator Phillip Rock.
Dummy then is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in legal history or the rights of the handicapped to be fairly represented in court. It is also a book that doesn’t get bogged down in legal talk and is also accessible to the general reader.