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William Blinn, the two-time Emmy winner who penned the Prince-starring Purple Rain, created Starsky & Hutch and wrote for such landmark TV projects as Roots, Fame and Brian’s Song, has died. He was 83.
Blinn died Thursday of natural causes at an assisted living community in Burbank, his daughter, Anneliese Johnson, told The Hollywood Reporter.
A writer, producer and drama specialist who received the prestigious Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award from the WGA in 2009, Blinn also served as a staff writer on Bonanza, developed Eight Is Enough and created The Interns, The Rookies and Pensacola: Wings of Gold.
In his busy four-decade career, Blinn had just one feature screenplay credit, but it came as co-writer (with director Albert Magnoli) on Purple Rain (1984). The Ohio native was offered the gig, he said, because of his experience as a writer and executive producer on the energetic, youthful Fame.
“One of the things we took some pride in [with that show] was integrating the musical numbers in with the story,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2004.
Blinn sat down with Prince — hardly a traditional Hollywood leading man — at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood but still wasn’t certain how he was going to pull off a film about a young, flamboyant frontman of a Minneapolis band called The Revolution. That is, until he went for a drive in the musician’s car and heard “When Doves Cry,” which Prince had written for the movie.
“He played the song for me, and he had the speaker system from heaven. Who knows how many speakers were in that car?” Blinn recalled. “For someone my age, I like rock music, but I don’t like a lot of it. Nevertheless, [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.'”
Earlier, Blinn was a staff writer for Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems when he was randomly selected to adapt a chapter of the 1970 autobiography I Am Third, written by Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, for an ABC telefilm.
“I just got assigned Brian’s Song,” Blinn said in a 2005 chat for the TV Academy Foundation website The Interviews. “I was one of the guys, I had done The Interns, and Len [producer Leonard Goldberg] liked my writing. Another terrific writer … got some sorority-house horror premise, and I got Brian’s Song. Go figure.” (It was Blinn who came up with the picture’s title.)
Brian’s Song, filmed over 12 days in Indiana, centers on the strong relationship between Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) and his Bears teammate Brian Piccolo (James Caan), who was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after turning pro.
Seen by 55 million people — half of those in the U.S. who owned a TV at the time — when it aired on Nov. 30, 1971, Brian’s Song was then the fourth most-watched film ever to air on television (behind only Ben-Hur, The Birds and The Bridge on the River Kwai).
“I can’t tell you how many times guys have said to me, ‘It’s the first time I cried around other guys,'” Blinn said. “Manipulative? Yes, sure it is. Sentimental? Yes, sure it is. So what.” Blinn received an Emmy and a Peabody Award for his efforts.
He won another Emmy five years later for Roots. He was hired as head writer before Alex Haley had finished the book on which the seminal 1977 ABC miniseries was based, then accompanied the author on a tour of colleges before beginning work on it.
Eighty-five percent of the U.S. population tuned in for at least a part of Roots, and the eighth and final episode drew more than 100 million viewers in January 1977. “It was either going to be huge or awful; no one thought it was going to be in between and ignored,” he said.
“There are two stories as to why it went on the air for eight nights straight. One was to bathe this country in this story that we all needed to see, etc., etc. The other was, get rid of this goddamn thing that’s gonna kill the network, just get rid of it as soon as you can. … I buy the second version more than the first. I think they wanted to get rid of it, they thought it was going to be a disaster.”
The younger of two kids, William Frederick Blinn was born on July 21, 1937, in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Claire, owned a building supply business, and his mother, Pearl, was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse and then a homemaker.
After graduating in 1955 from DeVilbiss High School, where he acted in plays, he auditioned for and was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He soon realized he didn’t want to be an actor and worked as the school’s stage manager.
“If you’re doing 30 or 40 plays a year, you’re reading of a lot of plays, and I think by a certain osmosis stuff kind of sunk in,” he said. “And if you’re reading a lot of plays, you’re reading a lot of bad plays. It’s not a small step to say, ‘I can do better than that.'”
He and classmate Michael Gleason (future co-creator of Remington Steele) came to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and sold story ideas and/or scripts to such shows as Maverick, Rawhide, Laramie and My Favorite Martian.
On his own, Blinn wrote spec scripts for NBC’s Bonanza before being asked to join the writing staff in 1965 just as Pernell Roberts was leaving the show. He then served as a story editor for the two seasons (1968-70) of ABC’s Here Comes the Brides, starring Bobby Sherman and David Soul, at Screen Gems.
Amid Brian’s Song and Roots, Blinn wrote the pilot for the hospital drama The Interns, starring Broderick Crawford and Mike Farrell and based on a 1962 movie; created The Rookies, a cop show starring Georg Stanford Brown and Kate Jackson (he made his producing debut on the Aaron Spelling series); and created and produced The New Land, which starred Kurt Russell and Bonnie Bedelia before being canceled after six episodes.
Blinn had written a two-hour movie based on a newspaper article about two New York cops who only work at night before he adjusted that for a 90-minute TV movie that aired in April 1975 and would serve as the pilot for Starsky & Hutch.
When the show — starring Soul and Paul Michael Glaser as undercover detectives — was picked up by ABC, he was hired as a creative consultant, but “it pretty quickly became apparent to me that what I had in mind for the series and what Aaron and Len [Goldberg] had in mind were two different things. … I wanted more humanity, less car-chasing.” He left after about three months.
He developed Eight Is Enough, a 1977-81 ABC family drama that originally starred Dick Van Patten and Diana Hyland as parents in Sacramento with eight kids. (Hyland died of breast cancer during the first season.)
In 1977, Blinn and Jerry Thorpe, once head of production at Desilu, formed a production company in a deal with ABC. He wrote and Thorpe directed the admired 1978 movie A Question of Love, starring Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander in one of the first TV dramas with a lesbian theme.
The Dramatic Arts alum joined Fame after the pilot had been shot and made adjustments to the show, which was then picked up by NBC. He wrote for and produced that for three seasons and landed three Emmy noms, all for best drama series.
Later, he wrote for the Wilford Brimley-starring Our House and created and was the showrunner for the 1997-2000 syndicated action series Pensacola: Wings of Gold.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his son, Chris, and his grandchildren, Mackenzie, Eden, Zachary and Zoe.
Blinn talked about his goal as a screenwriter in a 2009 interview with his hometown Toledo Blade.
“Whatever you’re doing, you’re trying to tell the truth in an interesting way,” he said. “Whether it’s comedic or it’s dramatic, that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s not enough just to tell the truth, and it’s not enough to just be interesting. You tell the truth in an interesting way, and you’ve accomplished something.”
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