Paul Sylbert, who shared an Oscar for production design for Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait” and worked on notable films including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” died Nov. 19. He was 88.
Producer Hawk Koch, who worked with him on five films, said “Paul was one of a kind. He was as smart and well-read as anyone I have ever come in contact with, and he was respected by all that knew him. Aside from the work, he loved music, literature, opera, and friends.”
Sylbert shared shared a second nomination for the 1991 Barbra Streisand film “The Prince of Tides.”
He was the identical twin brother of fellow production designer Richard Sylbert, who died in 2002.
Paul Sylbert’s career began with a production designer credit on an early TV show, CBS’ “Premiere,” in 1951 and work as a set decorator on the CBS series “Suspense” the following year and stretched through the decades to encompass the Mel Gibson action film “Conspiracy Theory” in 1997, David Cunningham’s highly regarded feature “To End All Wars” in 2001 and, finally, Daniel Kremer’s little seen “A Trip to Swadades” in 2008.
Sylbert was married for a time to costume designer Althea Sylbert. They collaborated on Arthur Hiller’s 1967 contemporary comedy “The Tiger Makes Out,” starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson; on 1971 comedic road movie “The Steagle,” which he wrote and directed; and on 1972’s “Bad Company,” a Western directed by Robert Benton.
Interestingly, Althea worked with Paul’s brother Richard on some eight films, starting with “Rosemary’s Baby” and including “Chinatown.”
Paul Sylbert worked on a wide range of projects as a production designer, but the stories were usually in a contemporary, realistic setting: Buzz Kulik’s grim prison drama “Riot” (1969); the private eye story “The Drowning Pool,” starring Paul Newman (1975); Milos Forman’s classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; Elaine May’s intense two-hander “Mikey and Nicky” (1976), starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes; Paul Schrader’s 1979 drama “Hardcore,” about a man, played by George C. Scott, who searches the porn world for his missing daughter; Robert Benton’s Oscar-winning Manhattan-set divorce drama “Kramer vs. Kramer”; Brian De Palma’s thriller “Blowout,” starring John Travolta; Michael Apted’s Moscow-set crime drama “Gorky Park”; ethnic crime drama “The Pope of Greenwich Village”; Elaine May’s disastrous desert-set action adventure “Ishtar”; Barbra Streisand’s “The Prince of Tides” (also 1991); and Phillip Noyce’s sleek thriller “Sliver,” starring Sharon Stone.
There were a few period pieces or fantastical works along the way: Benton’s Western “Bad Company” and his comedy “Nadine,” starring Kim Basinger and set in 1950s Texas; Beatty’s effervescent fantasy “Heaven Can Wait”; werewolf-themed horror movie “Wolfen,” starring Albert Finney; and Mike Nichols’ 1988 Neil Simon comedy “Biloxi Blues,” set in Mississippi during WWII.
Sylbert also received a story credit on the 1981 Sylvester Stallone-Billy Dee Williams crime drama “Nighthawks.”
Sylbert was born on in Brooklyn and fought in the Korean War. He and brother Richard attended Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania. Sylbert also attended the Hans Hoffman School of Art and the Actors Studio. Many decades later, in 2004, Paul Sylbert returned to Temple, where he joined the faculty at the Film and Media Arts department, teaching courses in film studies. He also taught a course called “Film: The Creative Process” at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2014.
Sylbert started out as an apprentice scenic artist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, then became a set designer at CBS. However, he was blacklisted in 1952, and returned to the Met.
The brothers collaborated early in their careers on the films “Baby Doll” and “A Face in the Crowd.”
Sylbert designed two Off Broadway productions in the 1950s: “The Agon of Gross” in 1952 and “The Making of Moo” in 1956. He had a relationship with the New York City Opera Company that saw him direct a production of “Oedipus Rex” and design six productions for the company from 1957 to 1960. During the same period he did some stage direction and design for a theater in Athens, Greece.
Paul Sylbert received a lifetime achievement award from the Art Directors Guild in 2009.
He is survived by third wife Jenny, who was credited as Sylbert’s assistant on a number of films, and two children.
(Pictured: “Heaven Can Wait”)