Elliot Silverstein, ‘Cat Ballou’ and ‘Twilight Zone’ Director, Dies at 96

The prolific television director, with a few key features to his credit, was instrumental in crafting the 1964 Bill of Creative Rights

Elliot Silverstein
Elliot Silverstein

Elliot Silverstein, acclaimed television director of shows like “The Twilight Zone,” “Naked City” and “Route 66,” died on Friday in Los Angeles at the age of 96, his family has confirmed. While best known for a long resume of episodic television, Silverstein directed “Cat Ballou” in 1965 for which Lee Marvin won a Best Actor Oscar.

Silverstein, the son of a doctor, was born on Aug 3, 1927, in Boston. He was raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He attended Roxbury Memorial High School for Boys; Boston College. There, he changed his major from biology to drama. He then attended Yale University to pursue directing. 

Beyond his artistic accomplishments, including episodes of “The Defenders,” “Dr. Kildare,” The U.S. Steel Hour” and “Have Gun Will Travel” among many others, he also was a key force in the formation of the Bill of Creative Rights for directors.

He experienced behind-the-scenes battles while helming the “Twilight Zone” episode “The Obsolete Man” (starring Burgess Meredith as a librarian put on trial for being obsolete in a world that has banned books) and realized that his rights as a television director were limited. At his urging, DGA president Goerge Sidney authorized the creation of a committee in November of 1963. The group, including Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack and chaired by Silverstein, eventually released a Bill of Creative Rights in 1964.  

Among the provisions, related to the director’s cut of a given piece of art, it declared that “It is the Director’s creative right and obligation to prepare this cut, and he must be given the time he deems necessary to fulfill this function.” For this milestone, Silverstein received the Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award from the DGA in 1985. He was then named an honorary life member of the guild in 1990. 

“Every director today owes a debt of gratitude to Elliot Silverstein,” Directors Guild President Lesli Linka Glatter said in a statement. “No one ever worked harder or was more passionate about protecting artists from having their work and vision altered than Elliot. He knew how deeply intertwined the end product was with a director’s authority to execute their vision, and that these rights were essential for their best work to shine through.

“Almost sixty years ago, Elliot successfully led the charge to secure the right to a director’s cut – something that had been a DGA goal for years. And through his work and determination he helped codify and negotiate a list of creative necessities with producers through the development of the Bill of Creative Rights – something which governs the rights of DGA members to this day.

“Elliott’s commitment to the needs of directors knew no bounds. He once purposely made a spectacle in the middle of the Universal Studios lot, dragging a chair into the street as his ‘office’ to draw attention to the fact that producers refused to provide workspaces for directors. Thanks to him, that changed in the next round of negotiations.”

After listing more of his accomplishments, her statement concludes, “His legacy endures in every director’s chair today. He will be deeply missed.”

Silverstein also helmed “A Man Called Horse,” starring Richard Harris. The 1970 feature, about an English aristocrat who becomes the leader of a Native tribe, spawned “The Return of a Man Called Horse” in 1976 and “Triumphs of a Man Called Horse” in 1983. 

He retired from the industry in the mid-1990s and spent his final decades teaching at USC.

Silverstein later founded the Artists Rights Foundation specifically to advocate the concept of filmmakers’ moral rights. Under Silverstein’s leadership, the Foundation secured two major legal victories in Europe setting a precedent to protect a director’s work globally.

In 2002, the Artists Rights Foundation consolidated into The Film Foundation under the DGA. Silverstein remained active in defending directors’ rights as chair of The Film Foundation’s Artists Rights Education and Legal Defense Fund Council.

Film Foundation Founder and Chair Martin Scorsese stated that “Elliot Silverstein was a tireless champion of the creative rights of filmmakers—he fought valiantly to preserve the vision and original intent of all artists. Every American filmmaker has benefited from his fierce dedication.”

He is survived by his brother Jason. The filmmaker was married three times, including (from 1962 to 1968) to actress Evelyn Ward who was the mother of performer David Cassidy.  

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