Hollywood Flashback: ‘The Executioner’s Song’ Made True-Crime History in 1982

Hollywood Flashback: ‘The Executioner’s Song’ Made True-Crime History in 1982 thumbnail

The Executioner’s Song — both Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1979 novel and the NBC adaptation that won Tommy Lee Jones an Emmy in 1983 — are now considered classics of the true-crime genre. But that wasn’t always the case.

Song depicts the tortured final months in the life of Gary Gilmore, who dominated headlines in 1976 for petitioning the courts to follow through with his execution after he admitted to killing two robbery victims — a gas station employee and motel manager. (Gilmore’s execution by firing squad in January 1977 was the first in a decade, after the Supreme Court reversed a decision that had found capital punishment unconstitutional.) Documentary director Lawrence Schiller accompanied Mailer to Gilmore’s trial, where they recorded 120 interviews relating to the case. That became the raw material from which Mailer crafted his masterpiece.

But Germaine Greer dismissed the endeavor as crass and unseemly, calling Schiller a “superghoul” in her THR book review and carping that Mailer’s tale “collapses into chaotic pathos.” Schiller and Mailer collaborated again in 1982 on the two-part, four-hour TV movie, which Schiller directed and Mailer wrote, and that got slightly higher marks from THR.

“[It] has about as much entertainment value as a trip to the dentist,” critic Gail Williams grumbled before conceding there was “quality performance value” in Jones’ acting.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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