The press is now reporting that Hollywood screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (1923 – 2014) has passed away of natural causes at the age of 91.
If you grew up in the late-1970s and early 1980s -- and read the genre magazines -- you probably remember Mr. Semple’s name.
Although the older generation of fans at that time remained highly critical of his work throughout his life, Mr. Semple wrote many cinematic touchstones of my generation, including King Kong (1976), Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983).
I admire all three of those films (and have written reviews of them on the blog…) but King Kong and Flash Gordon were controversial upon release, especially with purists who apparently didn’t like the films’ self-awareness or touches of humor.
The biggest source of controversy regarding Mr. Semple, of course, involved his 1966 TV adaptation of Batman (1966 – 1969), in which “camp” was a major factor.
Long-time fans of Batman comics disliked the series' jokey approach, though again, my generation grew up with that Adam West series and many folks love it to this day. I know that I still get a kick out of the Dozier series’ dynamic colors, the amazing Batcave set, the Batmobile, and the roster of celebrity “villains,” which included Julie Newmar, Vincent Price, Maurice Evans, Roddy McDowall, Fank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, and more.
Sure, the series doesn’t take Batman entire seriously, but the glorious thing about the TV series is that it worked on two levels. For kids, the series was entirely serious, because the children didn’t pick up on the campy humor. Yet adults could enjoy the series specifically for its sense of humor.
Frankly, after a decade of angst-ridden, humorless, mega-expensive superhero films, it’s nice to watch an episode or two of the 1960s these days and experience a work of pop art that actually operates intellectually on different levels. And in a sense, the Batman series was very faithful to the 1950s-early-1960s Batman comics.
Outside the genre, Mr. Semple’s work was generally far more warmly received.
Mr. Semple wrote one of my favorite films of the late 1960s, Pretty Poison (1968), as well as such highly-regarded efforts as Papillon (1973), The Parallax View (1974), and Three Days of the Condor (1978). In 1984, he wrote Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, a film which unlike King Kong or Flash Gordon hasn’t undergone a critical re-evaluation, and is not likely to, either.
At Mr. Semple’s passing, I would like to convey my condolences to his family, but also my sincerest thanks and appreciation for giving my generation so many unforgettable movies.
Mr. Semple gave the world the return of Sean Connery as 007 after more than a decade away, a version of King Kong featuring social commentary (about the Energy Crisis of the 1970s), and what remains to this day the definitive Flash Gordon adaptation.
Mr. Semple's words and ideas were a major part of my youth and will always remain a part of me. He will be greatly missed, but he lives on in those audiences his work touched.