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Mr. Blockbuster

Times Staff Writer

To heck with high art. It’s time to check in on Sidney Sheldon, the prince of potboilers, a man ignored by the literati for almost 40 years and none the worse for it.

Sheldon has sold 300 million books. He is the most translated author in the world, according to Guinness’ book of records. And he’s a Southern California icon, like the Hollywood sign, and just as taken for granted.

And now, at 87, Sheldon’s become a kind of geriatric phenomenon. His 18th novel, just out, received an initial first printing of 750,000 copies. In publishing, that’s blockbuster territory -- the same print run, for example, given to Kitty Kelley’s new tell-all on the Bush clan. His book will hit No. 3 on next week’s New York Times bestseller list.

A visit might be instructive for all the aging boomers who plan to keep on ticking well into their own octogenarian years. Besides which, Sheldon’s long been reported to live the same extraordinary lifestyle as the characters in his feverish fiction.

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Drive west on Sunset Boulevard past Beverly Hills, to a perilous curve in the road. Turn left onto a blind, uphill slope that ends at Sheldon’s 3-acre hilltop estate. There, where only birdsong and the flap of butterfly wings can be heard, sits the whitewashed, pillared, two-story house (11 bedrooms, 22 baths) that has been Sheldon’s L.A. home for the last 30 years. He has just put it on the market at $23 million.

It is late afternoon. A housekeeper (one of four) along with Sheldon’s personal assistant, Mary Langford, usher guests into the large center hall. The place is apparently bustling with unseen minions. Sheldon’s French chef is in the kitchen whipping up dinner; assorted gardeners and a houseman tend to their chores. A Realtor in the foyer awaits Dole Chief Executive David Murdock, who wants a look at the property.

Sheldon, however, is nowhere in view. Langford leads the way past a warren of high-ceilinged rooms (filled with gilt-trimmed furniture upholstered in pale silk) to a back staircase. There’s no elevator. “Mr. Sheldon likes to use the stairs,” Langford says during the steep climb. He also still drives, she adds, although the houseman sometimes doubles as a chauffeur.

Upstairs, double doors open silently to reveal -- and it is a moment of high drama -- a snowy-haired figure seated behind a huge desk at the far end of a sunlit room about the size of a soccer field. Sheldon’s head is bent, pen poised over paper, as if composing his next bestseller. In reality, Sheldon never physically writes his passion-pumped tales; he dictates them to Langford, a former court reporter, who transcribes the words exactly as they spill from his imagination.

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Sheldon is imposingly tall, but now gaunt and pale. Is he in good health? “Absolutely. In February, I’ll be 88. But my mind is young. I have trouble remembering things, except when I’m writing. Then everything is crystal clear.”

Indeed, his new book, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” has the same zip as his others. A roller-coaster mystery with surprisingly clever twists and turns whisked in with plenty of glamour, international intrigue and heavy breathing. It will undoubtedly be read just as popcorn is eaten at the movies: compulsively, unstoppably. Until there is no more left.

“Sidney’s at the top of his game,” says Sheldon’s literary agent, Mort Janklow, who also represents such folks as Tom Wolfe, Michael Crichton and the pope. “This new novel is as good as he’s written in 20 years. Reading it, you have no idea this wasn’t written by a younger man.”

Yes, but how does an 87-year-old maintain currency in an era when trends seem to shift with each wind and emphasis is so much on the young and the new?

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“Sidney’s longevity secret is that he is a great storyteller, a master of the narrative tale. Readers care about his characters, many of whom are women under threat. He has an instinctive ability to read women’s emotions.”

Those basic emotions -- love, lust, fear -- have not changed since Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt. And because Sheldon wastes no space describing places and things that might date him, his narratives are rather timeless in a fantastic, James Bondian way.

“He amazes me,” says Sheldon’s editor at HarperCollins, Maureen O’Brien. She “inherited” the author a few years ago, when his previous editor retired. “I was uncertain. I considered myself a fairly hip young woman” and feared he might not be her cup of literary brew. “But his work blew me away. It’s the perfect tone for today.”

So no, Sheldon is not selling his house because of age or infirmity or a wish to downsize in his platinum years. “It’s because of my wife. She has a very bad case of ... uh, no smog. I want to get her out of here. I’ll buy something similar out at the beach,” he says.

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He lives to write

Sheldon’s voice is weak and raspy at first, almost feeble. His words form slowly, as if it’s an effort to talk. Or maybe he just hates questions about his past, which have been asked by interviewers for dozens of years. Mention his new book or his upcoming projects and vigor arises like lava from a volcano. His eyes sparkle, his voice becomes strong. It is a remarkable transformation.

His autobiography is almost finished, he says. He has a Broadway play he is trying to get produced. His first nonfiction book, “about miracles and other mysteries,” is in the final stages of writing. And right there, on top of his desk, is a treatment for something called “Troubleshooter.” “It’s a TV series on which I’m working.”

What’s the secret to his productivity at an advanced age? He hasn’t the foggiest notion, he says. Later, it turns out that the work is what keeps him going. He doesn’t play golf or tennis. He literally lives to write, he says. He works seven days a week, even writes in the wee hours if he has trouble sleeping. “I come in here, make notes for a few hours, then I can sleep again.”

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The characters and the suspenseful, convoluted plots “just come into my head,” he says. He knows he is blessed to have such a gift, and to have had it so long. “It could end tomorrow, next week or next year. I’ve had it since I was 10, when I wrote my first poem.” He has told this same story -- and most of his others -- dozens of times in interviews over the years. But it would be wrong to mistake repetition for encroaching senility. It is simply that the most important moments in his life continue to be the most important, no matter how old he gets.

Like the time he met his first wife, Jorja -- the woman to whom he remained married for 33 years until she died in 1985 of a heart attack. “I was a producer at MGM. I walked into the commissary and my friend Zsa Zsa was there with this beautiful woman. I asked for her phone number and she refused. Zsa Zsa said, ‘Darling, don’t be crazy. He’s a producer.’ ” Jorja wouldn’t give in “because she knew I had a big reputation as a ladies’ man.” When she finally relented, Sheldon says, his eyes growing misty, they realized quickly that they were meant for each other. They had one daughter, Mary, who is also a novelist.

He has been married to his second wife, Alexandra, for about 15 years. She, too, draws sighs of wonderment from Sheldon, who turns out to be the exact opposite of the love ‘em and leave ‘em cads that populate so many of his books. Is he still good friends with Ms. Gabor? “I can’t find her,” Sheldon says. “It’s very sad. She seems to have disappeared. We’ve all tried, but no one can reach her.”

The “we” he refers to is the now quickly thinning group of old-time Hollywood stars and moguls who used to populate Sheldon’s social life. “I had a lot of friends in the picture business. And comedians in particular I loved. We used to have dinners here every week. Sid [Caesar], Carl [Reiner], Steve [Allen], Shecky [Greene], Jan [Murray]. These are bright guys and we had fun. Then Sid became ill, Steve died....” Sheldon’s conversation is also peppered with names such as Kirk, Fergie, Fred, Ginger, Judy.

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“I was at the Annenbergs’ for dinner when Fergie and Andrew were there. It turns out she knew who I was, and she said she reads my books,” he says, adding that means “more to me than anything, because she’s one more person to whom I’ve brought some enjoyment. The critics have never liked me, but I don’t write for critics. I write for readers. And I can’t count the number of people who’ve written and told me they love my work.”

This is demonstrably true. Just last week, at a Barnes & Noble in the west Valley, a 22-year-old sales assistant was asked for a copy of “The Other Side of Midnight,” written in 1974 and still in print. “Oh, that’s Sidney Sheldon,” she said. “I loved reading it when I was young.”

Asked to name some highlights of his career, he stops, flummoxed.

“It’s such a tough question. Was it more exciting for me to get an Oscar for a film I wrote, or to get nominated for an Emmy, or to have a book on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year? Or to sit down and have lunch at the commissary with Judy and Fred on the ‘Easter Parade?’ I can’t pick one above another.”

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Few people realize that Sheldon didn’t make his first fortune from the printed word. Before he ever wrote his first novel, at 52, he wrote 200 TV scripts, 25 major films, six Broadway plays. He won an Academy Award for original screenplay in 1948 for the film “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” starring Cary Grant. He wrote “Easter Parade” (Fred Astaire, Judy Garland) and “Annie Get Your Gun,” for which he won Screen Writers Guild awards.

On Broadway, he won the Antoinette Perry award (the Tony) for “The Redhead,” which starred Gwen Verdun (1959). In the ‘60s through the early ‘80s, he created, produced and wrote some of TV’s biggest shows, including “The Patty Duke Show,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Hart to Hart.”

Through all that, he’s hobnobbed with some of the world’s most rich and famous, whose extravagant lifestyles he appropriated for his novels and for himself. But he’s never made a big deal of socializing for the sake of it, he says. He’s essentially a loner who made interesting friends along the way.

At his Palm Springs house, for example, he lived next door to Moss Hart, who lived next door to Kirk Douglas. When Hart’s house became available, Sheldon bought it, then purchased the house on the other side, and continued buying until he now has a five-house compound. He and his wife spend most of their time there, he says. (He purchased one of the houses just to contain Alexandra’s extensive collection of arts and crafts.) He has divested himself of about 36 other properties, which he reportedly bought along the road to success. In 1990, for example, he purchased the London townhouse of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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As the visit winds down, Sheldon’s guest admits she’d never read one of his books until this new one. And once she started, she couldn’t put it down until the end. “Aha,” he chortles. “That’s what I live to hear. That’s exactly what keeps me going.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A page turner, with heavy breathing

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Author Sidney Sheldon, known for his steamy love scenes and fantastic hair-raising plots, combines both in his new book, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” Consider the passage below -- purged for use in a family paper:

While they ate, there was so much to talk about, and every word seemed to bring them closer. There was a strong sexual tension building up between them, and they could both feel it. And in the middle of this perfect afternoon, it began to rain. In a matter of minutes, they were soaked.

Richard said ruefully, “I’m sorry about this. I should have known better -- the paper said no rain. I’m afraid it’s spoiled our picnic and -- “

Diane moved closer to him and said softly, “Has it?”

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And she was in his arms and her lips were pressed against his and she could feel the heat racing through her body. When she finally pulled back, she said, “We have to get out of these wet clothes.”

He laughed. “You’re right. We don’t want to catch --"

Diane said, “Your place or mine?”

*

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On his resume

Selected highlights of Sidney Sheldon’s career:

Novels

“The Naked Face,” 1970

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“The Other Side of Midnight,” 1974

“A Stranger in the Mirror,” 1976

“Bloodline,” 1977

“Rage of Angels,” 1980

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“Master of the Game,” 1982

“If Tomorrow Comes,” 1985

“Windmills of the Gods,” 1987

“The Sands of Time,” 1988

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“Memories of Midnight,” 1990

“The Doomsday Conspiracy,” 1991

“The Stars Shine Down,” 1992

“Nothing Lasts Forever,” 1994

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“Morning, Noon & Night,” 1995

“The Best Laid Plans,” 1997

“Tell Me Your Dreams,” 1998

“The Sky Is Falling,” 2000

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“Are You Afraid of the Dark?” 2004

Plays

“The Merry Widow,” 1943

“Jackpot,” 1944

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“Dream With Music,” 1944

“Alice in Arms,” 1945

“Redhead,” 1959

“Roman Candle,” 1960

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“Gomes” (produced in London), 1973

Screenplays

“Borrowed Hero,” 1941

“Dangerous Lady,” 1941

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“Gambling Daughters,” 1941

“South of Panama,” 1941

“Fly by Night,” 1942

“She’s in the Army,” 1942

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“The Carter Case,” 1947

“The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer,” 1947

“Easter Parade,” 1948

“Annie Get Your Gun” (adapted from the musical by Irving Berlin), 1950

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“Nancy Goes to Rio,” 1950

“Rich, Young, and Pretty,” 1951

“No Questions Asked,” 1951

“Three Guys Named Mike,” 1951

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“Just This Once,” 1952

“Dream Wife,” 1953

“Remains to Be Seen,” 1953

“You’re Never Too Young,” 1955

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“Anything Goes” (adapted from the musical by Cole Porter), 1956

“Pardners,” 1956

“The Buster Keaton Story,” 1957

“All in a Night’s Work,” 1961

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“Billy Rose’s Jumbo,” 1962

“The Birds and the Bees,” 1965

Television

Author of hundreds of scripts, occasionally under a pseudonym, for “The Patty Duke Show,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Hart to Hart.”

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Awards

Academy Award for best original screenplay, 1948, for “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer”

Screen Writers Guild Award for best musical, 1948, for “Easter Parade,” and 1950, for “Annie Get Your Gun”

Tony Award for book of “Redhead,” 1959.

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Emmy Award nomination for “I Dream of Jeannie” TV series, 1967

Edgar Award for best first mystery novel, for “The Naked Face,” 1970

Sources: www.empirezine.com and SidneySheldon.com


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