Richard “Dick” Sylbert, a two-time Academy Award-winning production designer who evoked 1930s Los Angeles in “Chinatown,” the cartoon world of “Dick Tracy” and the looks of more than 40 other memorable films in a five-decade career, has died. He was 73.
Sylbert died Saturday of cancer at the Motion Picture & Television Fund hospital in Woodland Hills.
Known for his devotion to historical accuracy as well as his inventiveness, he earned six Academy Award nominations and won his two best art direction Oscars for Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1966 and Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” in 1990.
Last year, Sylbert received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors for his illustrious body of work.
Among the films that received the Sylbert touch: “Baby Doll” (1956), “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962), “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), “The Graduate” (1967), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “Chinatown” (1974), “Shampoo” (1975), “Reds” (1981), “The Cotton Club” (1984) and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997).
“He was the production designer of the last Golden Age of Hollywood, the ‘70s,” said Peter Biskind, author of a book on the era, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.”
“Richard more than any production designer I’ve worked with gave a definitive look and feel to a movie,” said director John Frankenheimer. “He was a true collaborator in every sense of the word.”
Frankenheimer said the famous 360-degree shot in “The Manchurian Candidate” from “the hotel lobby in New Jersey with the ladies talking about the garden club to the amphitheater in Manchuria with the psychiatrist talking about the garden club--that was all Richard, his design. I told him what I wanted and he figured out how to do it. His production design was total production design.”
As a production designer, Sylbert was responsible for the overall look of a movie: sets, locations and props--details that create the atmosphere of a film.
“No one has any trouble understanding what a costume designer does,” Sylbert told The Times in 1990. “But ‘production design’ is a title without any definition. I tell people that, just as a painter organizes pigment and a musician organizes noise, a production designer organizes visual material.”
For a production designer, the art is in the details.
For a single shot of a home library in “Without a Trace,” Sylbert instructed the set decorator to purchase 300 books, from Harvard classics to feminist Georgian poets, so the audience would believe the bookshelves belonged to an English teacher.
Biskind wrote that one of Sylbert’s strengths was to “boil down a script into one or two visual metaphors that express the essence of the movie.”
In “Chinatown,” for example, all the buildings are white to reflect heat and underscore the film’s plot about drought.
As Sylbert once said: “Our craft is not about pointing at a building and saying, ‘That will do.’”
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Sylbert and his twin, Paul--an Oscar-winning production designer for “Heaven Can Wait"--were inseparable. They served in the same Army infantry unit in Korea and attended Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia.
After returning to New York, Sylbert, who had received formal training as a painter, landed a job painting scenery at NBC; Paul worked at CBS.
In 1954, Sylbert became art director on the syndicated TV series “The Inner Sanctum.” In 1956, he served as art director on his first feature film, “Patterns.” The same year, he teamed with his brother as art director on Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll.” Together they developed techniques for making movies look more realistic.
In 1975, Sylbert, who had been associate producer on the 1965 romantic farce “What’s New Pussycat?” replaced Robert Evans as vice president in charge of production at Paramount, the first and only time a production designer ever became head of production at a major studio.
“I was as impressed with Richard’s brilliant literary mind as his production design mind, [so] I made him head of production of the studio when I resigned,” Evans said. “It was because of his knowledge of material and the people he’d worked with and knew who respected him.”
The pipe-smoking Sylbert, who had a penchant for wearing khaki pants and a khaki jacket with a belt, is described by his friends as having been brutally honest, scathingly funny and extremely well-read.
“Dick was always logical, he was unpretentious, he was no-nonsense,” recalled Beatty. “I was interested in his opinion on everything to do with the movie.”
During his three years on the job at Paramount, Sylbert was responsible for making “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Bad News Bears,” “Bugsy Malone,” “The Tenant” and other hits.
But his heart was in production design. He left Paramount in 1978 and a few years later earned his fourth Oscar nomination, for Warren Beatty’s 1981 movie “Reds.”
Sylbert also worked occasionally in television. He designed the barroom set for the TV series “Cheers” and earned an Emmy nomination for an episode.
He also designed the set for the Broadway production of Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”
In addition to his brother, Sylbert is survived by his wife of 17 years, Sharmagne; sons Douglas, Jon and Mark; daughters Lulu and Daisy; and one grandchild.
Staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.