William Blinn has died. A prolific screenwriter whose credits ran the gamut from his creation of ’70s detective duo Starsky & Hutch, to doing much of the work in translating Alex Haley’s generation-spanning drama of American slavery, Roots, for television audiences, Blinn contributed scripts to some of the most iconic TV works of the ’70s and ’80s. Per The Hollywood Reporter, he died this week, of natural causes, at the age of 83.
Originally from Ohio, Blinn got his start in Hollywood the way so many members of his generation did, both in front of and behind the camera: knocking out episodes on the endless prairies of the TV Western. Rawhide, Bonanza, Shane, Gunsmoke, and more all carried his scripts at least once, interspersed with more modern fare. But Blinn didn’t get his big break until 1971, when he wrote the screenplay for the hit TV movie Brian’s Song. Starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams as mildly fictionalized versions of NFL players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, the film was an immediate hit, and remains high on the lists of both the best TV movies ever made, as well as cheap ways to make your dad immediately start crying.
After Brian’s Song, Blinn had the juice to begin developing his own projects; medical drama The Interns lasted only a single season, but he struck gold with a collaboration with Aaron Spelling in 1975, introducing the world to L.A. detectives Starsky & Hutch. Drawn in by car chases, the open camraderie between its leads, and the flashy, over-the-top charms of Antonio Fargas’ Huggy Bear, the series was a ratings hit, and helped establish Blinn as a major name in ’70s TV
In 1977, Blinn took that added prestige with him when he moved on to Roots, working with a team of other writers to transform Haley’s 700-page novel into 12 hours of widely celebrated TV. (Among other things, it earned Blinn his second Emmy; the first was for Brian’s Song, which also netted him a Peabody.) Blinn parlayed the success into even more TV writing and development gigs, getting Hunters on the air in 1977, and penning scripts for Fame, Eight Is Enough, and other high profile shows.
And that’s one of the things that’s most interesting about Blinn’s career: He was a TV guy, through and through. In fact, he penned exactly one theatrical screenplay during his entire career: Prince’s Purple Rain. Blinn worked extensively with Prince on the initial draft of the screenplay, translating the artist’s broad story ideas into a specific script. And although said screenplay was eventually re-written by director Albert Magnoli, Blinn’s work on the film did produce this anecdote, which we found oddly charming:
I went to Hollywood, where Prince was putting together final touches on a video. Met him at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood. What I remember more than anything was that he was the only person I had ever seen in my life who had pasta and orange drink. I didn’t get it then, I don’t get it now, but what the hell.
Blinn continued to work throughout the 1990s, producing shows like Pensacola: Wings Of Gold. His last credits were for remakes of his work; the Brian’s Song remake in 2001, and Ben Stiller’s Starsky & Hutch movie in 2004.