Richard Sylbert

Production designer, Executive, Art director
Formally trained as a painter at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Richard Sylbert gave up his dreams of becoming a great artist to become instead one of the best American art directors, in the same league as his ... Read more »
Born: 04/16/1928 in Brooklyn, New York, USA

Filmography

Art Department (56)

Unconditional Love (New Line) 2002 - 2003 (TV Show)

Production Designer

Trapped 2002 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Blood & Wine 1997 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

My Best Friend's Wedding 1997 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Red Corner 1997 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Mulholland Falls 1996 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Carlito's Way 1993 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Deception 1993 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Mobsters 1991 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Dick Tracy 1990 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Bonfire of the Vanities 1990 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Shoot to Kill 1988 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Tequila Sunrise 1988 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Don Johnson's Music Video Feature Heartbeat 1986 - 1987 (TV Show)

Scenic Artist

Under the Cherry Moon 1986 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Cotton Club 1984 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Breathless 1983 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Cheers 1982 (Tv Show)

Production Designer

Frances 1982 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Partners 1981 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Reds 1981 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Players 1979 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Shampoo 1975 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Fortune 1975 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Chinatown 1974 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Day of the Dolphin 1973 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Fat City 1972 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Heartbreak Kid 1972 (Movie)

(Art Director)

Carnal Knowledge 1971 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Catch-22 1970 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The April Fools 1969 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Rosemary's Baby 1968 (Movie)

production design (Production Designer)

The Graduate 1967 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Grand Prix 1966 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? 1966 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

How to Murder Your Wife 1965 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Pawnbroker 1965 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Lilith 1964 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

All the Way Home 1963 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

All the Way Home 1963 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Long Day's Journey Into Night 1962 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Connection 1962 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Manchurian Candidate 1962 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

Walk on the Wild Side 1962 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Mad Dog Coll 1961 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Splendor in the Grass 1961 (Movie)

(Production Designer)

The Young Doctors 1961 (Movie)

production design (Production Designer)

Murder, Inc. 1960 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

The Fugitive Kind 1960 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Wind Across the Everglades 1958 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

A Face in the Crowd 1957 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Baby Doll 1956 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Crowded Paradise 1956 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Edge of the City 1956 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Patterns 1956 (Movie)

art direction (Art Director)

Last Hours Before Morning (TV Show)

Production Designer
Actor (2)

Mulholland Falls 1996 (Movie)

coroner (Actor)

American Cinema 1994 - 1995 (TV Show)

Actor

Biography

Formally trained as a painter at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Richard Sylbert gave up his dreams of becoming a great artist to become instead one of the best American art directors, in the same league as his mentor, the legendary William Cameron Menzies. The Brooklyn native began during TV's 'Golden Age', painting scenery at NBC, and did his first significant feature work for Elia Kazan on films such as "Baby Doll" (1956), "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) and "Splendor in the Grass" (1961). By the time he worked with Sidney Lumet on "The Fugitive Kind" (1960), he was borrowing from music and moving beyond character-based design, using patterns and repetition to tie his films together. Sylbert had met John Frankenheimer when both were working in TV, and the director hired him to design the masterful cold war thriller, "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). His ingenious decision to move the set as the camera turned produced the brilliant 360-degree pan of the memorable brainwash scene, and its 1988 re-release demonstrated how well the picture as a whole had withstood the test of time.

In his third teaming with Lumet and his eighth and last collaboration with director of photography Boris Kaufman, Sylbert, working entirely within the studio, created the poetic backdrop for "The Pawnbroker" (1965), a strikingly photographed black-and-white journey through the mind of a Holocaust survivor living in Harlem. Building both the concentration camp and the pawnshop, he carried the grill wire as a prison metaphor from one to the other throughout the film and approximated the look of Italian neorealism to the point where people believed the picture had been made on the street. The following year he earned his first Oscar win for his claustrophobic sets (a roadside bar and the home of a college professor) on Mike Nichols' feature directing debut, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", another super black-and-white movie (shot by Haskell Wexler) inaugurating a seven-picture association with that director. For Nichols' "The Graduate" (1967), he installed an elevator shaft in order to capture Dustin Hoffman walking down a flight of stairs without cutting. Perhaps the best of his other films with Nichols was the very symmetrical "Carnal Knowledge" (1971), designed like chamber music for four voices.

Sylbert copied apartments from NYC's Dakota to scale on sound stages for "Rosemary's Baby" (1969), his first film with director Roman Polanski. Using bolts instead of nails to fasten the sets enabled the production team to pull the walls in and out as often as necessary (without destroying them), thereby facilitating shooting. He scored an even bigger hit with Polanski's "Chinatown" (1974), a story revolving around water rights in the Los Angeles area, set during a 1937 draught. There are no clouds in Sylbert's sky, the buildings are bleached-out bone white and the color green becomes almost a symbol of power and corruption. He also raised all the buildings slightly above the eye level of private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who literally has an uphill climb to solve the case. In "Shampoo" (1975), his first picture with Warren Beatty as writer and producer, he repeated the latticework from Beatty's beauty parlor and Goldie Hawn's apartment in the rich person's house and then the tennis scene in an effort to unify the totally artificial world. Lots of mirrors emphasized the narcissism in the film, and to get the picture's soft and dreamy feel, cameraman Laszlo Kovacs exposed 10 percent of the negative before shooting.

In a totally unprecedented move, Sylbert replaced Robert Evans as head of production at Paramount in the mid-70s and showed he had a good eye for off-beat material, making a hit of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (1977) and optioning books like "A River Runs Through It" and "Interview with a Vampire" that would not see the silver screen for more than a decade. Hollywood was changing fast, however, and he was out of place among the new generation of execs with their fast food approach to manufacturing product. According to his assistant Don Simpson, Sylbert's attitude of "I'm the best art director alive. If it doesn't work out, so what" (Premiere, December 1993) didn't sit well with the suits, and he vacated the executive suite in 1978. After the undistinguished "Players" (1979), he reteamed with Beatty on the monumental "Reds" (1981), Beatty's directorial debut more than a decade in development. Two years in the making and shot on four continents, it was just the tonic Sylbert needed, earning him a fourth Oscar nomination for his detailed period work spanning the Pacific Northwest, Cape Cod, New York City and revolutionary Russia. By all rights he should have won the Oscar (Beatty did as director), but when his design lost out to "Raiders of the Lost Ark", he resolved to persevere in the presence of what he called "the stupidest generation in living memory."

Sylbert has bridged the gap between theatrical directors like Kazan, Lumet and Frankenheimer who favored a stationary camera to explore the emotional dynamics of the narrative and film school acolytes embracing the showier "Look at me" style advanced by boy genius Orson Welles. "The first film school director I ever ran across was Francis Coppola. We were standing on a set, and he said to me, 'This is going to be the Kurosawa shot.' I had never heard anybody say that in my life." (Premiere, December 1993). Despite his preference for directors who do not call attention to themselves, he garnered an Oscar nomination for Coppola's period gangster musical drama "The Cotton Club" (1984) and subsequently collaborated with Brian De Palma on the more contemporary "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990) and "Carlito's Way" (1993). Winning a second Oscar for the cartoon strip primary colors of Beatty's "Dick Tracy" (1990), he proved he could keep pace with his changing profession, designing 45 mattes when he had only done one matte before in his life. Sylbert reasserted the importance of the production design in the era after the studio system fell apart, showing that a true artist needed more than a real-estate license and a facility for fluffing pillows. Taking time from his busy fishing schedule, he continued to work crafting the detailed and appropriate settings for the noirish "Mulholland Falls" (1996, in which he had a cameo as a coroner) and the romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997). That same year, Sylbert recreated several blocks of Beijing, China in astonishing detail on seven acres near Los Angeles' airport for Jon Avnet's drama "Red Corner". Still active at a time when others might think of retiring, he crafted the meticulous settings for "In the Boom Boom Room" (lensed 2000), adapted from David Rabe's play about a go-go dancer in the late 1960s.

Relationships

Douglas Sylbert

Son

Jon Sylbert

Son

Mark Sylbert

Son

Carol Godshalk

Wife

Brooke Hayward

Companion
Together from 1960-1961 daughter of agent Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan

Sharmagne Leland-St John Actor

Wife
Met Sylbert prior to his marriage to Susanna Moore (c.1964) began on-again, off-again romance married in 1991 until his death in 2002

Susanna Moore Actor

Wife

Daisy Sylbert

Daughter
Born May 24, 1984 mother, Sharmagne Sylbert godfather is Warren Beatty and godmother is Oscar Winning costume designer Milena Canonero

Lulu Sylbert

Daughter
Acted in "Strange Invaders" (1983), on which her mother, Susanna Moore, served as production designer and costume designer

Paul Sylbert

Brother
Identical twin Paul was formerly married to Anthea Sylbert, who worked for nearly a decade as a costume designer with Richard

Anthea Sylbert

Sister-In-Law
Married to his twin brother Paul worked as a costume designer with Richard

EDUCATION

Temple University

Elkins Park , Pennsylvania
Receiving formal training as a painter at the University's Tyler School of Art; attended with his twin brother Paul

Milestones

2002

Reteamed with PJ Hogan as production designer of "Who Shot Victor Fox?"

2002

Was working with PJ Hogan on "Peter Pan" at the time of his death

1997

Re-created several blocks of Beijing, China on seven acres near the Los Angeles airport for Jon Avnet's "Red Corner"

1997

Provided production design for PJ Hogan's "My Best Friend's Wedding"

1996

Appeared in "Mulholland Falls" as the coroner; also served as production designer

1993

Re-teamed with De Palma for "Carlito's Way"

1990

Won second Academy Award for Best Art Direction for the comic book stylings of Beatty's "Dick Tracy"

1990

Created the good-looking design for director Brian De Palma's "Bonfire of the Vanities"

1988

Served as production designer of Towne's "Tequila Sunrise"

1984

Received fifth Academy Award nomination for "The Cotton Club"; sixth and last collaboration with Gaines

1983

Received an Emmy nomination for "Give Me a Ring Sometime" episode of "Cheers" (NBC); shared nomination with Gaines; also designed and built the set of the long running TV series

1981

First picture with Beatty as director, "Reds"; garnered fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction

1975

Named as Robert Evans' successor as vice president in charge of production at Paramount

1975

Received a Best Art Direction Academy Award nomination for Hal Ashby's "Shampoo"; co-scripted by Towne and Beatty

1974

Re-teamed with Polanski for "Chinatown"; first collaboration with screenwriter Robert Towne; earned Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Art Direction

1973

Fifth film with Nichols, "The Day of the Dolphin"

1972

Set designer for Neil Simon's Broadway production, "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"

1972

Provided the art direction for Elaine May's "The Heartbreak Kid"

1970

Fourth film with Mike Nichols, "Carnal Knowledge"

1969

Again re-teamed with Nichols on "Catch-22"

1968

First film with director Roman Polanski, "Rosemary's Baby"

1967

Re-teamed with Mike Nichols for "The Graduate"

1966

Re-teamed with Frankenheimer as art director on "Grand Prix"

1966

Won first Best Art Direction Academy Award for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; first collaboration with director Mike Nichols

1965

Asssociate produced "What's New, Pussycat?"

1965

Re-teamed with Lumet, providing the art direction for "The Pawnbroker"; final collaboration with Kaufman

1964

Was production designer on Robert Rossen's "Lilith"

1962

First collaboration with director John Frankenheimer, "The Manchurian Candidate"

1962

Lured to Hollywood by producer Charles K Feldman to work on Edward Dmytryk's "Walk on the Wild Side"

1962

Re-teamed with Lumet as art director on "Long Day's Journey into Night"

1961

Third collaboration with Kazan as the production designer of "Splendor in the Grass"

1960

First film with director Sidney Lumet, "The Fugitive Kind"; served as production designer

1960

Credited as Dick Sylbert for art direction of "Murder, Inc."

1957

Again teamed with brother Paul on art direction of Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd"

1956

Shared duties as art director with twin brother Paul (credited as assistant) on Elia Kazan's "Baby Doll"

1956

First feature film as art director, "Patterns"; also first collaboration with director of photography Boris Kaufman

1954

Served as art director on syndicated TV series, "Inner Sanctum"

After leaving art school, moved with Paul to NYC, eventually living in the same building on Riverside Drive

Grew up in Brooklyn, New York; used to read on the roof of his building by the lights of Ebbets Field

Mentored under art director William Cameron Menzies, who encouraged Sylbert to move to Hollywood

Served with the US Army in the same infantry unit as his twin brother Paul

Got a job painting scenery at NBC; Paul worked at CBS

Bonus Trivia

.

On meeting director Elia Kazan: "I went into his office. It was above the Astor Theater on 44th and Broadway. Little dump. Couch had holes in it. Kazan said, 'Read the script; come back tomorrow.' It was the script for 'Baby Doll.' So I read it and I came back the next day and he said, 'Draw me some things.' So I drew a porch in an old southern house with a rocking chair next to it. And a tube of ointment that was sort of twisted up. He said to me, 'What kind of ointment is that?' And I said, 'I have no idea.' He said, 'It's pile ointment. I'll see you in Mississippi.' That was my first lesson in specifics." - Sylbert to Peter Biskind in Premiere magazine, December 1993

.

About forcing director Roman Polanski to shoot a scene a certain way by leaving the backing off a wall: "Roman comes in and he says, 'Deek! Deek! There's no back!' I tricked him. There was no way he could shoot it. I know what directors want better than they do. I'm the medicine they're going to have to take. Some people don't like to take medicine. So you have to get them in a position where they're happy to take it. They get better." - Sylbert in Premiere magazine, December 1993

.

Mr. Sylbert was to receive the Hollywood Film Festival Life Achievement award in the year of his death. His widow granted permission to give the award to Harold Michaelson and to name the waward after Mr. Sylbert in perpetuity.

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