Remembering William Blinn: From Academy to Writing Icon
On Thursday, October 22, 2020, The Academy learned the sad news of the passing of alumnus and award-winning television writer and producer, William Blinn. A graduate of the Class of 1957 and member of the Board of Directors for The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Blinn was instrumental in the creation of some of television’s most iconic shows including “Starsky & Hutch” and “Remington Steele”, while also writer and screenwriter for several other classic TV movies.
While attending The Academy in New York, Blinn realized that acting wasn’t his calling and focused on stage direction. After graduation, Blinn and his fellow alum, Michael Gleason headed out west to Hollywood where they began creating ideas for shows and pitching concepts. Blinn also began writing for the classic westerns “Rawhide”, “Gunsmoke”, and “Bonanza”, and dramas “Here Come the Brides” and later developed the shows “The Interns” and “Eight is Enough”. Blinn’s writing style led to tackling more human-interest themes and the interpersonal relationships of his characters. He wanted audiences to connect to his work on a level deeper than simple entertainment.
Moving from more melodramatic TV, Blinn began to work on projects that were socially-minded and spoke to the rapidly changing times of the late 70s and 80s. He adapted stories and created screenplays for emotionally moving films like “Brian’s Song”, for which he won an Emmy and a Peabody Award in 1972, and contributed as writer the epic mini-series “Roots”, for which he won an Emmy and a Humanitas Prize in 1977. Later that year, he produced one of the first TV dramas with a lesbian theme, starring Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander titled, “A Question of Love”, and in the early 80s he served as producer and writer on the critically-acclaimed show, “Fame”. Being an Academy alum, “Fame” was a project close to his heart, as it integrated musical numbers within the story of the show. He was again nominated for an Emmy three times for the series. In the late 80s and into the 90s, he wrote for touching family dramas like “Our House” and the TV movie, “The Boys Next Door”, for which he won a WGA Award and was nominated for another Humanitas Prize in 1996.
With a highly successful television writing career that spanned over 40 years, Blinn only had one feature screenplay in his body of work, but this feature was and continues to be one of pop-culture’s best: “Purple Rain.” Co-written with Director Albert Magnoli, “Purple Rain” was a story created by Prince based on his life experiences. Seeing Blinn’s work on “Fame,” Prince felt he was the perfect writer to help his vision come to life. Blinn was apprehensive at first as to how he would make the world engage in a film about the challenges of a struggling frontman of a Minneapolis band. However, it was after hearing the song “When Doves Cry” that Blinn realized the full impact of Prince and his story. Within the song, he heard the intensity and drive that served as the inspiration and base for the film’s classic screenplay.
Blinn’s television movies and mini-series made some of the biggest impacts in entertainment. A touching story of friendship and courage, “Brian’s Story” focuses on the friendship of NFL greats Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after turning pro. The film was seen by over 55 million viewers and was the fourth most-watched film to ever air on television. Which is a huge accomplishment in 1971, as only about half of the US population had televisions at the time. He made history again with the mini-series, “Roots” in 1977. Besides its heavy racial themes and historical revelations, the mini-series was viewed by eighty-five percent of U.S. households with the final episode netting a record 100 million viewers.
When asked to provide his reflections for this article, actor David Soul (‘Hutch’ in Starsky and Hutch) provided his reflection on his relationship with William Blinn; “Bill Blinn was the kind of man I most admire; confident of his own craft and gentle at the same time. I happily spent hours with him talking about ’things’, ideas and just life. Bill was humble in a way that he would always listen first and consider your idea whether it was total nonsense or whether it had value. He never made you think you were a fool and when you walked away, you always felt better about yourself. That was his magic. I loved Bill Blinn. Not many around like him anymore. Too much competition out there… people vying to be successful. I never felt that he competed. He didn’t have to. He was himself; calm and clear, confident and one of the most supportive men I ever knew in Hollywood. So sorry he’s gone.”
William Blinn’s legacy as a writer is one filled with vibrant stories of the Wild West, gripping police dramas from the bustling city, and heartfelt dramatic stories of loss and love. His style of storytelling was unique, and set a standard for the shows and television movies we watch today. His truthful and organic focus on family dynamic, appreciation for the arts, and revealing the truth to life is what makes him an icon and beloved Academy alumnus. He is survived by his daughter, son, and four grandchildren.
“Whatever you’re doing, you’re trying to tell the truth in an interesting way. 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." - William Blinn