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Thornton, Coens snag WGA nods

Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade,” and Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s “Fargo,” two pictures strongly influenced by the regional backgrounds of their writers, won top honors Sunday at the Writers Guild of America Awards.

The awards came as a surprise, given that “The English Patient” has been collecting the lion’s share of the top film awards in the buildup to the Oscars.

‘Blue,’ ‘Seinfeld’ take honors

In the television arena, ABC’s “NYPD Blue” and “NBC’s “Seinfeld” took top honors for episodic drama and comedy, respectively. “Blue” won for Theresa Rebeck’s teleplay “Girl Talk” (Bill Clark and Rebeck shared story credit), and “Seinfeld” won for David Mandel’s script “The Pool Guy.”

Thornton won for screenplay based on material previously produced or published, having adapted “Sling Blade” from one of his stage plays. The pic — about a furloughed mental patient set in Thornton’s native Arkansas — competed against Anthony Minghella for “Patient,” Elaine May for “The Birdcage,” Douglas McGrath for “Emma” and John Hodge for “Trainspotting.”

‘Fargo’ award unexpected

The award for “Fargo” also is somewhat unexpected, if only because the movie was released more than a year ago. The Coens, who won for best screenplay written directly for the screen, drew heavily on their Minnesota upbringing in capturing the dialect and characters in “Fargo,” a quirky story about a kidnapping gone awry. It competed against Cameron Crowe for “Jerry Maguire,” John Sayles for “Lone Star,” Mike Leigh for “Secrets & Lies” and Jan Sardi (screenplay) and Scott Hicks (story) for “Shine.”

Oscar indicator

The scribe’s fete has been an indicator of the screenplay Oscar. In each of the past 11 years, at least one of the two WGA feature winners has gone on to win an Oscar. And eight times in the past 11 years, an Oscar-winning writer’s film has gone on to win best picture.

Last year, Emma Thompson won the WGA award for her adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility.” And Randall Wallace won for his original script “Braveheart.” “Braveheart” went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards, although Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar for his original screenplay “The Usual Suspects.”

Original longform tie

In other TV awards, the CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame “Harvest of Fire” and the Lifetime movie “Hidden in Silence” tied in the original longform category. Adapted longform went to another Hallmark production, CBS’ “The Boys Next Door.”

Separate ceremonies were held in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hilton and in New York at the Tavern on the Green.

Among the special honorees was the guild’s Paul Selvin Award to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for “The People Vs. Larry Flynt.” The scribes — who won a Golden Globe for “Flynt” — had been passed over in the WGA’s nominations. There has been somewhat of a backlash against the film, although the writers and its director, Milos Forman, have defended it as a picture about First Amendment rights, not Larry Flynt. The guild decided to give the duo the special award, which is given to the script that “best embodies the spirit of constitutional and civil rights and liberties.”

TV honors

Other TV honors went to NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” for comedy/variety (including talk) series, “HBO Comedy Hour: Dennis Miller Citizen Arcane” for comedy/variety (music, awards, tribute or special event); ABC’s “All My Children” for daytime serial, and PBS’ “Frontline” and “Paving the Way” for documentary. Fox’s “Goosebumps” episode “The Cuckoo Clock of Doom” won for children’s script.

News awards went to the “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather” for the coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800, and to ABC’s “20/20.” CBS’s Carolyn Davis won for on-air promotions.

The awards:

SCREEN

SCREENPLAY WRITTEN

DIRECTLY FOR THE SCREEN

Joel Coen & Ethan Coen — “Fargo,” Gramercy Pictures

SCREENPLAY BASED

ON MATERIAL PREVIOUSLY

PRODUCED OR PUBLISHED

Billy Bob Thornton — “Sling Blade,” screenplay based on his stage play, Miramax Films

TELEVISION

ORIGINAL LONGFORM

Richard Alfieri, Susan Nanus, teleplay, Nanus, story — “Harvest of Fire,” Hallmark Hall of Fame Prods Inc., CBS

Stephanie Liss, writer — “Hidden in Silence,” Hearst Entertainment Inc., Lifetime

ADAPTED LONGFORM

William Blinn, teleplay — “The Boys Next Door,” based on the play by Tom Griffin, Hallmark Hall of Fame Prods. Inc., CBS

EPISODIC DRAMA

Theresa Rebeck, teleplay, Bill Clark & Rebeck, story — “NYPD Blue: Girl Talk,” Steven Bochco Prods., ABC

EPISODIC COMEDY

David Mandel — “Seinfeld: The Pool Guy,” Castle Rock TV, NBC

COMEDY/VARIETY

(including talk) — series

Jonathan Groff, Brian Kiley, Janine Di Tullio, Tom Agna, Chris Albers, Tommy Blacha, Brian McCann, Brian Reich, Michael Gordon, Mike Sweeney, Greg Cohen, Andy Richter, Conan O’Brien, Ned Goldreyer, Dino Stamatopoulos — “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” NBC

COMEDY/VARIETY

(music, awards, tribute) — special event

Dennis Miller — “HBO Comedy Hour: Dennis Miller Citizen Arcane,” HBO

DAYTIME SERIALS

Agnes Nixon, Lorraine Broderick, Hal Corley, Frederick Johnson, Gail Lawrence, Jeffrey Beldner, Christina Covino, Courtney Simon, Millee Taggart, Karen Lewis, Elizabeth Smith, Michelle Patrick, Bettina Bradbury, Judith Donato, Kathleen Klein, Jane Owen Murphy — “All My Children,” ABC

DOCUMENTARY — CURRENT EVENTS

Marshall Frady, Mark Zwonitzer, Lennon Documentary Group — “Frontline: The Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson,” PBS.

DOCUMENTARY — OTHER THAN CURRENT EVENTS

Susan Kim, JVD Prods. — “Paving the Way,” PBS

NEWS — REGULARLY SCHEDULED,

BULLETIN OR BREAKING REPORT

Jerry Cipriano, Hugh Heckman, Paul Fischer, Laura Palmer — “CBS Evening News With Dan Rather: The Crash of TWA Flight 800,” CBS.

NEWS — ANALYSIS, FEATURE

OR COMMENTARY

Patricia K. Dauer — “20/20,” ABC.

CHILDREN’S SCRIPT

Dan Angel, Billy Brown, Scholastic Prods. Inc. — “Goosebumps: The Cuckoo Clock of Doom,” Fox.

RADIO

RADIO DOCUMENTARY

Jim Benes — “Christmas Past,” CBS/WBBM-AM

RADIO NEWS — REGULARLY SCHEDULED

Stuart H. Chamberlain Jr. — “World News This Week,” ABC Network Radio

RADIO — ANALYSIS, FEATURE

OR COMMENTARY

Mike Silverstein — “Perspective: Much Ado About the Bard,” ABC Network Radio

ON-AIR PROMOTION

Carolyn E. Davis — CBS Promotion, CBS.

SPECIAL AWARDS (WEST)

SCREEN LAUREL AWARD

Robert Towne

VALENTINE DAVIES AWARD

Jonathan Estrin, Shelley List

PADDY CHAYEFSKY

LAUREL AWARD FOR TELEVISION

David W. Rintels

MORGAN COX AWARD

Allan Manings

WGAW Property Planning Committee: Katherine Coker, Oliver Crawford, Phil Fehrle (chair), D.C. (Dorothy) Fontana, Michael A. Hoey, Rick Mittleman (co-chair) and John Riley

PAUL SELVIN AWARD

Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

SPECIAL AWARDS (EAST)

EVELYN F. BURKEY AWARD

Sidney Lumet

IAN MCLELLAN HUNTER AWARD

Jay Presson Allen

RICHARD B. JABLOW AWARD

Bruce R. Campbell

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