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In memoriam: Syd Field, 77

During Master of Professional Writing classes at USC Dornsife, Syd Field passed on his encyclopedic knowledge about the craft of screenwriting. (Photo/courtesy of USC Dornsife)

Syd Field, lecturer in the Master of Professional Writing (MPW) program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, whose 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, has been the major reference tool for generations of writers, has died. He was 77.

Field died on Nov. 17 of the blood disorder hemolytic anemia at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., surrounded by his wife, family and friends.

He taught at MPW from 2001 until a few weeks before his death.

“Syd Field was an inspiration — we call him the ‘Aristotle of Hollywood’ because he had that particular kind of encyclopedic dramatic knowledge,” said MPW Director Brighde Mullins.

“Syd influenced generations of screenwriters worldwide,” Mullins added. “He was a deeply kind and generous mentor. He loved teaching, and he was always refining the famous critical and creative methods that he’d developed in his internationally bestselling books on the art and craft of writing.”

A Hollywood native, Field was born Dec. 19, 1935 and grew up immersed in the film industry. An uncle was head of the camera department at 20th Century Fox, and Field was barely walking when his next-door neighbor, an agent, got him a small role in Gone With the Wind.

Further bit parts followed. Field attended Hollywood High School, where his best friend Frank Mazzola, who later worked on Rebel Without a Cause, introduced him to James Dean and encouraged him to study acting.

But when his mother died before he finished high school, Field spent two years adrift, driving across the country on Route 66. He then enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and was cast in the world premiere of Jean Renoir’s play Carola. Field spent a year learning about the art of visual storytelling from the legendary French director.

“My relationship with Renoir literally changed my life,” he wrote.

Field then studied film at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he made a one-minute film short with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors. His career in the film industry began modestly enough with a job in the shipping department at David L. Wolper Productions. He soon found work as a writer, producer and director on television documentaries.

He wrote nine screenplays; one was made into Los Banditos, an obscure Argentinian movie.

His eight books analyzing the craft of screenwriting were all bestsellers, including the most celebrated, Screenplay: The Foundations of Film Writing (Delta, revised edition, 2005). Credited with helping establish the now traditional three-act structure for feature film scripts, it has sold more than a million copies in 42 languages and has been used as a textbook in more than 400 colleges and universities around the world.

John Singleton ’90, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Boyz n the Hood, who graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts with a degree in filmic studies, told the Los Angeles Times he was 15 when he read two of Field’s books on screenwriting. When he arrived at USC, he took Field’s class. Field’s genius, Singleton said, was that he “just broke it down … about what worked and what didn’t work.

“You can’t change the rules unless you know the fundamentals,” Singleton said.

Field was the first inductee into the American Screenwriting Association’s Screenwriting Hall of Fame. In addition to his teaching work, he also chaired the Academic Liaison Committee at the Writers Guild of America and worked as a script consultant at several studios, including 20th Century Fox, Disney and Universal.

In September, his speech “Why We Are Storytellers,” received a standing ovation from a packed audience in Los Angeles.

Field is survived by his wife, Aviva; his brother, Morton Field; and a daughter from a previous marriage, Lisa Arcos, of Atlanta.

A memorial will be held on Dec. 3 from 4 to 7 p.m. at Doheny Memorial Library.

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In memoriam: Syd Field, 77

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