Richard “Dick” Sylbert, the famed Oscar-winning production designer whose feature, TV and legit credits spanned 40 years and ranged from “The Manchurian Candidate” to “Chinatown” to “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” died Saturday of cancer at the Motion Picture & Television Home in Woodland Hills. He was 73.
A noted production designer who helped influence a generation of filmmakers, he received multiple Academy Award nominations during his lengthy career and won twice: for the 1966 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and 1990’s “Dick Tracy.”
Peter Biskind, writer-editor of Premiere magazine in 1993, noted 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, and then use them to structure the film’s look.” Sylbert used this technique to great advantage in “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), “The Graduate” (1967) and “Catch-22” (1970).
A native of Brooklyn, Sylbert served in the Army and later attended the Tyler School of Art at Temple U. in Philadelphia. After leaving art school, he moved to New York City with his identical twin brother, Paul — also an art director, who won an Oscar for 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait.”
Richard Sylbert landed a job painting scenery at NBC while his brother worked at CBS. His mentor, art director William Cameron Menzies (“Gone With the Wind”), encouraged him to move to Los Angeles, where he landed a job as an art director on syndicated TV series “The Inner Sanctum.”
He made his feature film debut in 1956 as a film production designer on Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll.” During the next 40 years, he teamed with an impressive list of directors including Sidney Lumet (“The Fugitive Kind,” “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “The Pawnbroker”), Mike Nichols (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate,” “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Fortune,” “The Day of the Dolphin”) and Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown”).
Sylbert met director John Frankenheimer when both worked in television. Frankenheimer hired Sylbert to design cold war thriller “The Manchurian Candiate” (1962), and Sylbert’s decision to move the set as the camera turned produced the 360- degree pan of the brainwash scene –memorable to this day.
In spring 1975, Sylbert unexpectedly replaced Robert Evans as vice president in charge of production at Paramount — the only time a production designer became head of production at a major studio. During his three-year tenure, he was known for greenlighting offbeat material and subsequently made a hit of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” He left that executive post in 1978 and in 1981 garnered yet another Oscar nomination for his art direction of the Warren Beatty-helmed “Reds.”
He received another nom for his work on “The Cotton Club” in 1984 and collaborated with Brian De Palma on “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) and “Carlito’s Way” (1993). He received his final Oscar for “Dick Tracy” in 1990 and crafted the 1940s film noir look in “Mulholland Falls” (1996), in which he had a cameo as a coroner.
Sylbert explained his philosophy on production design at an AFI seminar several years ago: “The definition I have of production designing comes from William Cameron Menzies, which was, ‘If I draw every shot, then all the parts connect. And they are related to one another, to make a given whole.’ In other words, you cannot write a book without structuring it. You cannot write music without structuring it. You cannot write a play without structuring it. Why should you be able to design a movie without structuring it?”
In addition to his brother Paul, Sylbert is survived by his wife Sharmagne, two daughters, three sons and one grandchild.