A key figure in creating the look of some of Hollywood's greatest "New Wave" films, production designer Richard Sylbert collaborated with several of the period's most notable filmmakers, earning a brief, unprecedented tenure as Paramount's head of production in the process. Equally adept at period and contemporary styles, urban and rural milieus, and designs for black-and-white and color cinematography, Sylbert earned six Oscar nominations over the course of his five-decade career, winning for the distinctly different Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Dick Tracy (1990).
Born in Brooklyn, Sylbert and his identical twin brother, Paul Sylbert, fought together in the Korean War and attended Temple University's Tyler School of Art together. Returning to New York after school, both Sylberts landed TV jobs, with Richard painting scenery at NBC. After two years as the art director for TV's The Inner Sanctum, Sylbert earned his first feature-film credit with Patterns (1956). He subsequently helped create the stark, gritty feel of Elia Kazan's sexually daring drama Baby Doll (1956) and scathing TV critique A Face in the Crowd (1957). Continuing to make his name with forward-thinking directors as the studio system waned, Sylbert teamed up with independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke on her tough, innovative examination of urban junkies, The Connection (1961). Sylbert's creative range was confirmed that same year when he and Kazan envisioned the sultry Technicolor passions roiling beneath the repressed Midwestern small-town surface (via Staten Island) in Splendor in the Grass (1961). Though Splendor was his last film with Kazan, Sylbert eventually forged an equally fertile relationship with Splendor's neophyte star Warren Beatty.