Richard Benjamin as Tom Parkman, spaghetti western screenwriter
French Riviera, Late summer 1972
Film: The Last of Sheila
Release Date: June 14, 1973
Director: Herbert Ross
Costume Designer: Joel Schumacher
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
I’ll bet you haven’t seen the last of Sheila! (Okay, so maybe you have seen this movie, but I can’t resist a pun.)
Released 50 years ago today on Flag Day 1973, The Last of Sheila was penned by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, inspired by the real-life scavenger hunts and murder parties that they used to organize for fellow friends in show business, from actors to agents like Sue Mengers. Director Herbert Ross had been part of the festivities at one point, telling Sondheim and Perkins to collaborate on a screenplay based on their parlor games, and it was Ross who ended up helming The Last of Sheila.
(It’s been reported that Mengers was actually offered a role in The Last of Sheila, but she turned it down as she wasn’t a professional actress and wanted to avoid taking work she felt her clients deserved, and she talked a characteristically effervescent Dyan Cannon into playing the part she inspired.)
The Last of Sheila has been the subject of renewed attention in recent years, thanks in part to Rian Johnson citing it as inspiration for Knives Out and its sequel, Glass Onion, both of which clearly share Sheila‘s DNA with their star-studded casts, plot complexity, and the balance of comic light-heartedness and deadly suspense, as well as specific plot elements like misinterpreted manners of death, a Mediterranean Sea full of red herrings, and an eccentric host welcoming a coterie of famous friends for a mystery party.
The film begins after colorful producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) lost his wife Sheila in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. To commemorate the one-year anniversary of Sheila’s death, Clinton invites his friends—”six hungry failures”—to spend a week in the Ligurian Sea on the yacht he had named for her, including vivacious talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon), washed-up director Philip Dexter (James Mason), in-demand actress Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her shady husband and promoter Anthony (Ian McShane), and desperate screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and his cautious, witty wife Lee (Joan Hackett).
After Clinton insists on taking the group’s photo posed in front of the yacht’s nameplate, he assembles them on deck to hand out cards that secretly assign each a gossipy “secret” that will be the subject of each evening’s game ashore. As the frenemies work to solve each evening’s puzzle, they begin to realize there’s something somewhat darker than a simple game at the heart of Clinton’s gathering.
“You can figure this out if you played the game,” Richard Benjamin explained to Susan King when he and Dyan Cannon were reunited for a 2020 interview for the Los Angeles Times. “The answer to all of it is in the title, like a crossword thing.”
Unlike Benoit Blanc in Knives Out, there’s no detective among the showbiz types gathered aboard Sheila, leaving natural leaders like screenwriter Tom—whom the writers may have seen as their own counterpart—and the veteran director Philip to step up and try to decode what’s happening.
What’d He Wear?
Tom arrives for their first day aboard Sheila wearing a safari-style jacket over a sea-ready blue chambray shirt. By this point in the early 1970s, safari clothing had evolved from its function-driven origins int he 1930s to become a fashionable mainstream menswear staple, thanks in part to designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Ted Lapidus, and as illustrated on screen by Roger Moore’s James Bond (as explored in last week’s Octopussy post.)
As it was designed for more stylish than sporting purposes, Tom’s jacket foregoes the more military-inspired, function-driven elements of traditional safari jackets, like the epaulets or the belted waist, though it should be noted that Philip’s safari jacket is rigged with a fully belted waist. The jacket otherwise retains the adventurous spirit of classic safari-wear, characterized by its color, cloth, cut, and ample pockets.
Made from a tan cotton gabardine, Tom’s single-vented safari jacket has a shirt-style collar that he invariably wears flipped up in the back for a touch of rakish insouciance that coordinates with the unbuttoned cuffs. Six brown plastic buttons fasten up the front placket, matching those on the squared single-button cuffs and pockets, with the top buttonhole at the neck slanted. The jacket has a horizontal yoke across the back and a single vent. The four box-pleated pockets are all covered by squared flaps, each with a single button to close.
Tom boards Sheila wearing a rich blue chambray cotton work shirt, affecting an appropriately seagoing aesthetic given the shirt’s historical association with naval workwear. Plain-woven in a blue-and-white twill, the shirt has a then-fashionably large point collar, seven-button front placket, and single-button barrel cuffs that he often wears undone and folded back over the self-cuffed sleeves of his jacket. The two squared chest pockets are box-pleated and each covered with a gently pointed flap that closes through a single button.
Epaulets (shoulder straps) were commonly seen on ’70s sport shirts, a byproduct of the decade’s fascination with safari clothing which was itself inspired by military functionality. Tom’s chambray shirt has epaulets that follow the traditional martial design, sewn to the shoulder seam and buttoned to the body of the shirt closer to the neck. All of the shirt’s buttons are white plastic, coordinated to white-threaded buttonholes that match the white contrast threading along the shirt’s edges and seams.
The second day aboard Sheila, Tom wears a navy knitted T-shirt with a banded neck and short sleeves, worn both on its own and briefly layered under his unbuttoned chambray shirt while discussing the game topside with Clinton and Philip.
His tan cotton gabardine flat-front trousers almost match his jacket, creating a slapdash safari suit effect. The trousers have curved side pockets, a set-in back-right pocket that closes through a single-button flap, and slightly flared plain-hemmed bottoms. Through the belt loops, he wears a wide surcingle belt, a preppy style defined by its web body connected to leather fittings. Tom’s belt has tan cotton twill webbing that matches his trousers, with brown leather fittings on the ends that fasten through a gold-toned squared single-prong buckle.
Later on the first night aboard Sheila when Tom has trouble sleeping, he pulls the chambray shirt on over the white cotton flat-front trousers that he had worn earlier with his cream turtleneck while exploring Nice. These trousers follow the four-pocket naval dungaree design, with two patch pockets on the front, two on the back, tall belt loops, and dramatically flared bell-bottoms.
Tom brings a few pairs of casual shoes for the expedition, beginning with a pair of elegant brown suede horsebit loafers. Italian fashion house Gucci pioneered this style in 1953 by streamlining the profile of existing slip-on shoes and affixing a gold metal strap to the vamp designed to resemble a horse’s snaffle bit. As the style caught on across both sides of the Atlantic, they were alternately known as “Gucci loafers” or the more generic “horsebit loafers” as scores of companies copied the increasingly popular design.
Tom, Anthony, and Clinton all cycle through their own pairs of Adidas sneakers while aboard Sheila. Tom’s trainers appear to be the Adidas Antelope, an all-purpose track shoe intended for any distance, weather condition, and running surface, thanks to the serrated rubber “ripple soles” that it shared with the Adidas Rom. The low-profile uppers are made of white elk leather with blue-accented collars along the back of the heel and Adidas’ signature triple stripes running red, blue, and red diagonally down each side. He wears them with white ribbed crew socks.
Tom dresses his wrists with pieces that were likely Richard Benjamin’s own personal items. On his right wrist, he wears a silver POW/MIA bracelet honoring the memory of Charles Bifolchi, a Massachusetts-born Major in the U.S. Air Force who was killed when serving as a navigator aboard an RF-4C Phantom II that crashed on January 6, 1968. Due to the enemy activity and topography of the area in southern Vietnam where Major Bifolchi crashed, recovery efforts were unfeasible until the 1990s, when his remains were finally recovered, officially identified, and ultimately buried at Arlington Cemetery in October 2006.
The POW/MIA bracelet program was launched on Veterans Day 1970 to encourage Americans to remember service members who were prisoners of war or missing in action by issuing these simple cuff bracelets inscribed with a service member’s name, rank, and the date they were taken prisoner or listed as missing.
Tom wears a stainless steel cushion-cased watch on a matching “Jubilee”-style five-piece link bracelet around his left wrist, featuring a round dark blue dial detailed with silver-toned non-numeric hour indices and a white date window at the 3 o’clock position. (We unfortunately don’t get as good a look at Tom’s watch as we do of Clinton’s Omega Speedmaster Professional, but the design, era, and the possibility of a watchmaker that starts with a “C” inscribed on the dial suggests to me that he may be wearing a Caravelle.)
Rian Johnson has specifically cited The Last of Sheila as a major influence on both Knives Out and especially its summery sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. In the latter, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) dresses for a night of mystery-solving in a tan four-pocket safari-inspired jacket with matching trousers and a light blue shirt… which may or may not have been costume designer Jenny Eagen’s sartorial tribute to how Richard Benjamin was initially dressed as Tom Parkman in The Last of Sheila.
What to Imbibe
Rather than the “second-rate brandy” that Philip refers to or Lee’s lone preference for bourbon, Tom enjoys plenty of the Johnnie Walker Red Label blended Scotch whisky that Clinton keeps stocked in Sheila‘s bar. Tom’s penchant for drinking it on the rocks later draws attention to the missing ice pick… which may or may not be a clue to solving the mystery.
The Johnnie Walker story dates back to 1820, when the Kilmarnock-born teen John Walker founded a grocery and liquor shop with the proceeds he was entrusted after his father’s death. Though Walker himself was a teetotaler, he narrowed his business focus to spirits—ultimately just whisky, blending malt and grain whiskies per customer requests and appending them with the label “Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky”.
After John Walker’s death in 1857, his son and grandson continued building the brand. The signature squared bottle with its angular label was introduced in 1860, five years before the company actually began producing its own product: “Old Highland Whisky”. This original blend became known as Johnnie Walker Black Label when the brand was reconfigured in the early 1900s, a time that also saw the introduction of the now-discontinued White Label and the venerable Red Label blends.
Johnnie Walker has maintained its color-labeled system since 1909, the same year that cartoonist Tom Browne conceptualized the “Walker” logo. Blended from whiskies of unstated ages, Johnnie Walker Red Label is the base-level tier, typically used as an ingredient for mixing Scotch cocktails. Since 1945, it has been the best-selling Scotch whisky in the world.
How to Get the Look
Tom Parkman blends adventure with fashionable leisure as he joins his friends for a week aboard a luxury yacht in the Ligurian Sea, from his safari jacket and chambray work shirt to his Gucci loafers and preppy surcingle belt.
- Tan cotton gabardine safari jacket with shirt-style collar, 6-button placket, four box-pleated pockets (with button-down flaps), squared single-button flaps, and single vent
- Blue chambray cotton twill work shirt with large point collar, epaulets, front placket, two box-pleated chest pockets (with pointed button-down flaps), and squared button cuffs
- Tan cotton gabardine flat-front trousers with belt loops, curved side pockets, set-in back-right pocket (with button-down flap), and slightly flared plain-hemmed bottoms
- Tan cotton twill webbed surcingle belt with brown leather fittings and gold-toned squared single-prong buckle
- Brown suede Gucci loafers with gold horsebit detail
- Silver POW/MIA bracelet
- Stainless steel cushion-cased watch with dark blue round dial (with silver non-numeric hour indices and 3:00 date window) on stainless
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
There’s something going on… I’m getting some strange vibes.