‘The Executioner’s Song’ Made True Crime History In 1982 – The Hollywood Reporter
The executioner’s song — both Norman Mailer’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the Emmy Award-winning NBC adaptation for Tommy Lee Jones in 1983 — are now considered classics of the true-crime genre. But that’s not always the case.
The song depicts the final months of torture in the life of Gary Gilmore, who dominated headlines in 1976 for asking the courts to deal with him after he admitted to killing two robbery victims – one gas station staff and motel managers. (Gilmore’s execution by firing squad in January 1977 was the first in a decade, after the Supreme Court overturned a decision that the death penalty was unconstitutional.) Documentary director Lawrence Schiller accompanied Mailer to Gilmore’s trial, where they recorded 120 interviews related to the case. . That became the raw material from which Mailer created his masterpiece.
But Germaine Greer dismissed the attempt as cunning and pointless, calling Schiller a “superghoul” within her. CHEAP reviews the book and describes that Mailer’s story “collapses into chaos.” Schiller and Mailer teamed up again in 1982 on the two-part, four-hour television series, directed by Schiller and written by Mailer, and was slightly more critically acclaimed. CHEAP.
“[It] has as much entertainment value as a trip to the dentist,” critic Gail Williams grumbled before admitting that Jones’ performance had “quality performance value”.
This story first appeared in the June issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.