By all accounts, 1971 was a great year for former newspaperman- turned-pulp novelist Ernest R. Tidyman. Along with the paperback release of his hardboiled debut Shaft, the Cleveland, Ohio native co-wrote the film version for MGM as well as the screenplay for The French Connection. The year before, French Connection producer Philip D’Antoni and director William Friedkin read Shaft in galley form and was impressed with Tidyman’s gritty gumshoe story.
“I was shocked when he (Tidyman) walked into my office, because I was expecting a black person, because Shaft was about African-Americans,” D’Antoni recalls in the documentary Making the Connection: The Untold Stories. “Not only was he white, but a very WASP-y person from Ohio.”
At the time, Tidyman was a 42-year-old former New York Times reporter who began his career as a teenaged journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. After Tidyman’s stint at the Times, he started thinking about writing Shaft. “The idea came out of my awareness of both social and literary situations in a changing city,” Tidyman told a writer in 1973. “There are winners, survivors and losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician.”
Three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, “the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks,” as soulful composer Isaac Hayes described him on the Oscar-winning Theme from Shaft, became a cinematic symbol of Black power and a mainstream household name. The seminal film also helped birth the 1970s blaxploitation film movement that includes Super Fly and The Mack.
Ironically, the same night Hayes accepted the Academy Award for best song, Tidyman also won a gold statue for The French Connection screenplay. Yet, in Shaft’s forty-year history as a movie icon, most fans of the film know little about Tidyman’s pulp fiction series. Between 1971 and 1975, Tidyman wrote seven Shaft novels with titles that include Shaft Among the Jews (1972) and Shaft Has a Ball (1973).
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