Obituaries

Stephen M. Silverman, Biographer of Stage and Screen, Is Dead at 71

Stephen M. Silverman, a longtime entertainment reporter and author who wrote a critically admired biography of the notoriously reticent British director David Lean and a forthcoming book about the Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim, died on July 6 in Manhattan. He was 71.

His death, at a hospital, was caused by renal disease, his executor, Diane Reid, said.

Mr. Silverman was once asked what he felt was the most common misperception about his beat. “That it’s fluff,” he told the website Muck Rack.

As a journalist, he wrote about Broadway and Hollywood for The New York Post from 1977 to 1988. He joined People magazine in 1995 as a founder of its website, originally called People Daily (now people.com), and was its news editor for 20 years. He also detailed celebrity doings for the site — Mickey Rourke being arrested, Betty White hosting “Saturday Night Live,” Halle Berry’s after-baby workout — and wrote many stars’ obituaries.

He idolized Mr. Lean, a meticulous filmmaker known for directing intimate films like “Brief Encounter” (1945) and “Great Expectations” (1946) and epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “Doctor Zhivago” (1965). Indeed, Mr. Silverman kept a large poster of “Lawrence” hanging on a wall in his Manhattan apartment.

He spent time with the director in London, interviewing him several times during the 1980s for the book “David Lean” (1989), which had an introduction by Katharine Hepburn.

“I guess I just got him at the right time,” he told United Press International, explaining why the publicity-shy Mr. Lean had agreed to speak to him. The stars of some of his films, including Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness and Julie Christie, also talked to Mr. Silverman.

“They all have such admiration for him,” he said, “but Omar Sharif said — as did a few others, ‘I can’t believe David has permitted a book.’ He has been approached for two decades, mostly by British journalists, and has said no.”

The actor Omar Sharif, a star in David Lean’s epic films, was surprised that the notoriously reticent director consented to be interviewed by Mr. Silverman for this 1989 biography.

The film critic Jay Carr, reviewing “David Lean” in The Boston Globe, wrote that the “pleasure” of Mr. Silverman’s “chatty, cant-free survey of Lean and his films, apart from the fact that it’s the first, and probably last, to get the notoriously taciturn Lean to talk for the record, lies in the behind-the-camera images that become so effortlessly a part of Silverman’s diligent reporting and interviewing.”

Mr. Silverman had also written a biography of the movie mogul Darryl Zanuck by then and went on to publish several other books in the 1990s — about Los Angeles movie palaces, female comedians and Stanley Donen, a master of the Hollywood musical who directed, among others, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954) and “Funny Face” (1957).

In “Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies” (1996), Mr. Silverman’s authorized biography of the director, Mr. Donen was critical of Gene Kelly, with whom he shared the director’s chair in “On the Town” (1949) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) — Mr. Kelly also starred in both — saying Mr. Kelly was given more credit than he deserved in their collaborations.

“If you substitute the word ‘fight’ for ‘co-direct,’ then you have it,” Mr. Donen said in the book. “It wasn’t always like that with Gene, but it gradually came to be that and eventually it came to be impossible.”

Stephen Meredith Silverman was born on Nov. 22, 1951, in West Covina, Calif. His father, Raymond, owned a grocery store and later a liquor store. His mother, Shirley (Garfine) Silverman, was a homemaker.

Stephen edited his high school newspaper and graduated in 1969. Four years later, he earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of California, Irvine, then received a master’s from the Columbia Journalism School in 1975.

In the 1980s, Mr. Silverman tried to produce a musical based on “Amos ’n’ Andy,” the slapstick comedy about a pair of Black characters that began on radio and moved to television before CBS withdrew it from syndication in 1966 amid protests by civil rights groups, who found it demeaning. His hopes were dashed when a federal judge, ruling in 1987 on a lawsuit filed by Mr. Silverman against CBS, barred him from using the names of the show’s characters and other trademarked materials.

Some of Mr. Silverman’s books were detours from his entertainment specialty. In 2015, he and Raphael D. Silver, a film producer, published “The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America.” Mr. Silverman also wrote “The Amusement Park: 900 Years of Thrills and Spills, and the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them” (2019).

When interviewed by “CBS This Morning” at Luna Park in Coney Island, he described the appeal of a quintessential amusement park ride: “Even just a single roller coaster, when you’re at the top, you’re not thinking of paying the mortgage.”

He left no immediate survivors.

After Mr. Sondheim’s death in late 2021, Mr. Silverman was asked by the publishing house Black Dog & Leventhal, part of the Hachette Book Group, to write a book about Mr. Sondheim — a mixture of biography, analysis and opinion. Titled “Sondheim: His Life, His Shows, His Legacy,” the book is to be published in September.

“He really dove into everything written about and by Sondheim and by his friends, and talked to his friends and co-workers,” Joe Davidson, his editor at Black Dog (which had published his amusement parks book), said in a phone interview.

In the book, Mr. Silverman describes Mr. Sondheim’s conflicts with Leonard Bernstein when they were composing “West Side Story,” which opened on Broadway in 1957. Mr. Sondheim, who was 27, wrote the lyrics; Mr. Bernstein, then 39, wrote the music.

“What Sondheim didn’t appreciate was Bernstein’s fancying himself a lyricist,” Mr. Silverman wrote. “He ‘would sketch out something that was purple prose, not poetry. It screamed, ‘Look at me, I’m being poetic!’ said Sondheim.”

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