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Carl Sagan
Archie Savage
William Schallert
Roy Scheider
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Peter Sellers
Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Rod Serling
William Shatner
M. Night Shyamalan
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SEMPLE, LORENZO, JR.
(1923– ). American writer.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, AND HORROR FILM CREDITS
Wrote: "The Archangel Harrigan" (1956), episode of The Alcoa Hour; "Knight's Gambit" (with Halsteed Welles and Jonathan Hughes) (1964), episode of Kraft Suspense Theatre; "Thompson's Ghost" (1966) (with Richard Donovan), episode of Vacation Playhouse; "Hi Diddle Diddle/Smack in the Middle," "Fine Feathered Finks/The Penguin's a Jinx," "Zelda the Great/A Death Worse Than Fate," "The Joker Goes to School/He Meets His Match, the Grisly Ghoul," "The Penguin Goes Straight/Not Yet, He Ain't" (with John Cardwell), "The Devil's Fingers/The Dead Ringers," "The Penguin's Nest/The Bird's Last Jest" (1966), "The Joker's Last Laugh/The Joker's Epitaph" (1967), episodes of Batman; Batman (Leslie H. MARTINSON 1966); "Beautiful Dreamer" (with Ken Pettus) (1966), two-part episode of The Green HornetFathom (Martinson 1967); King Kong (John GUILLERMIN 1976); Flash Gordon (Mike HODGES 1980); Never Say Never Again (Irwin KERSHNER 1983); Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (with Leslie STEVENS and David Newman) (Guillermin 1984).

Script consultant: Batman (tv series) (1966–1968).

Film based on his work: The Honeymoon Machine (Richard Thorpe 1961).

Appeared in documentary: Dino de Laurentiis: The Last Movie Mogul (Adrian Silbey 2001).

 
When I first wrote this entry, I was obliged to rely upon the few facts I could glean from various sources, along with some plausible conjectures. Since that time, I have learned at least one more thing about Lorenzo Semple, Jr.—he was apparently a fine family member who remains very well regarded by his relatives. For I have now received two e-mails from men claiming to be one of his brothers, challenging the accuracy of this fact or that conjecture, and another, more recent message from a relative who has investigated his life using the resources of Ancestry.com. Humbly acknowledging all of this assistance, I will now endeavor to bolster the truthiness of this entry in assessing the career of the elusive Mr. Semple.

Census records now appear to reveal that Semple was actually born on March 23, 1923, close to the 1922 date that I originally settled on. One assumes that he was the son of Lorenzo Semple, incorrectly described as a wealthy Southern lawyer—he was actually a graduate of the Naval Academy and a New York businessman—and one further assumes that his elder sister was the man's daughter, Ellen Semple, who married noted playwright Philip Barry and perhaps provided the connections that led to his later work on Broadway—an assumption that has not yet been challenged. Despite a mention that he was a sophomore at Yale University in 1942, another record indicates that he enlisted in the United States Army in June 1943 after one year of college, which would suggest that he actually started college in 1942. We are also told that he volunteered to serve in World War II as an ambulance driver not to avoid more dangerous military action, but rather to emulate his uncle John, who had been an ambulance driver in World War I. Furthermore, his unit suffered many casualties in Africa, and after Semple lost part of his leg, he continued to serve his country during the rest of World War II as a member of Army Intelligence. All of these grim and heroic experiences, however, did not seem to have much of an impact on Semple, since his later writings would consistently suggest to any amateur biographer that he was only the carefree scion of a rich and prominent East Coast family who never had to worry about getting anything he wanted, and hence was perfectly prepared to go through life regarding the worldly travails of others as nothing more than elaborate jokes.

Semple began his career in 1951 by contributing stories to The Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and Ladies Home Journal, but soon was focusing more on playwriting, with two lightweight Broadway shows—Tonight in Samarkand (1955) and The Golden Fleecing (1959)—to his modest credit. He also dabbled in New York television with an odd episode of The Alcoa Hour, "The Archangel Harrigan," about a man who claimed he could fly—foreshadowing his later involvement with superheroes. By the 1960s, undoubtedly after a few more phone calls on his behalf, he was well established in Hollywood, contributing to programs like Kraft Suspense Theatre, Burke's Law, The Rogues, and The Rat Patrol, and soon, he was planning to spend the 1966-1967 television season contributing scripts to a new fantasy series he had co-written the pilot for, featuring veteran clown Bert Lahr as Thompson's Ghost. However, after the pilot was unexpectedly rejected and recycled as an episode of Vacation Playhouse, Semple was available for assignments when he received a phone call from producer William DOZIER, desperately seeking someone to help him with the daunting project ABC had placed in his lap—a weekly series starring the comic-book hero Batman. And this, of course, became the work that would make him famous, or infamous, depending upon your perspective.

By writing most of the series' early episodes, Semple indelibly set the tone for the program's campy combination of exciting adventures for the kids and knowing wisecracks for their parents, and one must acknowledge that the results, at least initially, were strikingly entertaining, even brilliant. His humorous dialogue, and Frank Gorshin's frenetic overacting, transformed an obscure villain, the Riddler, into a major figure in the Batman mythology, and he significantly helped Burgess MEREDITH and Cesar ROMERO revitalize their careers by establishing distinctive personalities for their performances as the Penguin and the Joker. Still, the program's success cannot be credited entirely to Dozois and Semple, for the regular actors played key parts as well—especially Adam WEST—by imbuing the cardboard characters with their own sort of surreal conviction, making them seem like real people forced to confront absurd situations and allowing audiences to become genuinely involved in their contrived plights. This is an important point in explaining Semple's later failures in filmmaking, as actors in two-hour movies would not enjoy the same sustained opportunity to overcome the mind-numbing effects of the often incessant frivolity in his plots and dialogue.

Although Semple did help out Dozier with one episode of his next series, The Green Hornet, the success of Batman otherwise enabled Semple to move up the ladder to writing feature films, beginning (obviously) with his splashy but strangely enervated Batman movie, and soon followed by the overlooked Raquel Welsh spy thriller Fathom and what remains his most memorable work, the quirky and unsettling Pretty Poison (1968), which uncharacteristically conveyed some genuine pain amidst its jokey melodrama . In the 1970s, he first seemed to be playing it straight, churning out popular mainstream fare like Papillon (1973), The Parallax View (1974), The Drowning Pool (1975), and Three Days of the Condor (1975); but when producer Dino de LAURENTIIS hired him to update King Kong, the old fratboy silliness returned to center stage. The celluloid disaster that resulted must be attributed principally to Semple—no matter how tempting it is to instead blame its overbearing producer, shoddy special effects, unassertive director, and miscast, ineffectual actors—because Semple, utterly unable to discern anything profound or evocative in the story of King Kong, regarded it only as a pretext for a succession of lame witticisms. The moment when Jessica Lange, finding herself suddenly in the hand of a giant ape, screams out "You goddamn chauvinist pig ape!" epitomizes everything that was so irksomely miscalculated about the film.

King Kong spectacularly launched Semple's decline. Someone searching for nice things to say about subsequent efforts might argue that Never Say Never Again was tolerable enough, no doubt due to Sean CONNERY's sobering influence, and that Flash Gordon can be moderately amusing if you are in the right frame of mind and are mentally prepared to waste two hours of your precious time on brightly colored nonsense. But absolutely nothing can be said in defense of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, another colossal bomb that probably inspired whispered conversations all around Hollywood to the effect that Semple was losing his touch, the sort of feedback that can sink the career of even the most charmingly sociable and well-connected screenwriter.

For whatever reason, Semple since that time has been credited only with two television movies, Rearview Mirror (1984) and Rapture (1993), although a few journal entries in a 1997 issue of the online magazine Slate suggest that he remains very active on the Hollywood scene, still trying to peddle scripts to interested producers. Perhaps, always an inveterate prankster, he now enjoys himself at home by pretending to be his brother and sending grouchy e-mails to chroniclers of his career who aren't quite getting everything right. But one would prefer to think that he has settled into profitable semi-retirement as an anonymous script doctor, the reliable old standby one calls upon to add a few jokes to an expensive script that somehow doesn't seem to be touching every conceivable base in its quest to please every conceivable audience. I wouldn't be surprised to hear, for example, that Semple made a few uncredited contributions to the mess that was the American Godzilla, like the scene where some technicians about to confront Godzilla are observed watching Barney the Purple Dinosaur on television. It is this sort of lighthearted satirical humor, Semple's forté, that one can properly appreciate and celebrate, as long as it is only taken in small doses.

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