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‘Roots’ and ‘Purple Rain’ screenwriter William Blinn dies at 83

William Blinn holding an awards trophy
Writer William Blinn, accepting the WGA’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award in 2009, has died at 83.
(Jean Baptiste Lacroix / WireImage)

In 1983, William Blinn, a successful screenwriter, sat down at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood with a young recording artist from Minneapolis who was being pitched as the subject of a scripted film. The artist was Prince, and at first Blinn wasn’t fully convinced on the idea. Then the screenwriter went to Prince’s car and listened to a recording of the track “When Doves Cry.”

“He had the speaker system from heaven. Who knows how many speakers were in that car?” Blinn recalled in a 2004 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “[The song] was melodic, and played with great intensity. I said, ‘Man, you’ve certainly got a foundation. This can pay off at the end.’”

He agreed to write the screenplay for “Purple Rain,” with director Albert Magnoli. Released in 1984, the film helped launch Prince to superstardom and became a cultural touchstone for generations.

Blinn died on Thursday at the age of 83 at an assisted-living community in Burbank, his daughter Anneliese “AJ” Johnson confirmed.

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Long before “Purple Rain,” Blinn established himself as one of TV’s premier writers with the 1971 made-for-television film “Brian’s Song,” about an interracial friendship between football players Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. The script won him a Peabody award and the first of two Emmys.

Blinn’s second Emmy came for the blockbuster 1977 miniseries “Roots,” based on the Alex Haley novel, which also earned him a Humanitas Prize. He created numerous series, including the 1970s cops and cars drama “Starsky and Hutch.” In 2009, the Writers Guild of America presented Blinn its Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement.

Gale Sayers’ death reminds us of the beauty, power and longevity of the film “Brian’s Song,” which was based on a deep and unexpected friendship he cherished. Want to see a grown man of a certain age cry? Just hum a few bars.

Blinn was born July 21,1937, in Toledo, Ohio, where his father owned a small cement manufacturing company that provided supplies to home builders. According to Johnson, Blinn worked for the company and loved the strong, macho nature of lifting heavy things. But when her grandfather put him in the office, he said, “This isn’t for me,” and left to attend the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts.

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He discovered he preferred being backstage, behind the scenes, to being onstage. After reading a lot of bad scripts, he decided he was better off writing and telling stories, so he moved to L.A. with his writing partner, Michael Gleason (“McCloud,” “Remington Steele”).

Beginning in the early 1960s, Blinn wrote for numerous series including westerns such as “Rawhide,” “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke,” as well as “The Interns” and “The Rookies.”

His work as an executive producer and writer on the television adaptation of “Fame,” based on the film by Alan Parker, inspired constant letters from fans and admirers of the series, some of whom said it inspired them to start their own performing arts programs in their local schools, Blinn recalled in a soul-searching 2001 op-ed for The Times. The addition of music and choreography in the “Fame” franchise brought Blinn new terrain to write upon.

“When we did it right, we managed to put together the script and storytelling and the music in such a way that they just went together,” he said in an oral history recorded by the Television Academy. “And when you have Debbie Allen on camera, you got the energy and the drive and professionalism you don’t get in many places.”

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Blinn also spoke about his love of entertainment overall.

“I can get as much a kick out of a stage play where the joke works and there are 30 people in the house, as I can about doing a television show that 60 million people are watching. You’re still putting on a show,” he said. “I love the mechanics of it. I love the process. I love going to the set. I even love some of the bitching and whining that goes on, too.”

When he began working on “Purple Rain,” Blinn didn’t know anything about Prince and never mentioned it to his family. Johnson, who was a huge fan of the musician, remembers him calling the house one day asking for her dad. “I said, ‘Who?’ And he said, ‘Prince; I’m calling for Bill Blinn’ and I said, ‘Daaaad! It’s Prince!’”

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"[Recently] my dad said, ‘Prince was a small-statured man with incredible presence — between his talent and his few words, he was someone to listen to’ — kind of like my dad,” Johnson said. “He really appreciated Prince’s perfectionism. He appreciated his gift beyond the ordinary.”

For more than fifty years, Blinn hammered away at his manual typewriter in his two-index-finger style. He didn’t delete or backspace. If he didn’t like it, he would simply cross it out, according to his daughter. He was just a guy from Toledo, Ohio, who loved to write stories.

“My dad’s best friends in the industry all passed away before he did,” Johnson said. “I truly believe they greeted him in heaven with a martini and said, ‘What took you so f—ing long?’”

Times staff writer Michael Ordoña contributed to this report.


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