May 24, 1946 – June 3, 2021
John Sacret Young ’69’s office at his home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles is as cluttered as he left it, the walls crammed with photographs, the desk still brimming with papers, the shelves full of journals he kept and the books he read for pleasure or research — as well as a few he wrote himself. His widow, Claudia Sloan, says she still finds briefcases stuffed with notes for Young’s unfinished projects.
“He absolutely was not prepared to die,” Sloan says. “In an odd way, he felt he was just hitting his stride.”
Best known as the executive producer of several successful TV shows, most notably China Beach, Young also produced, directed, and wrote for numerous other shows and movies, including The West Wing and, most recently, Firefly Lane, which follows two young women from their teenage years in the 1970s through adulthood. More than anything, though, Young was a writer: of scripts, screenplays, essays, novels, art catalogs, and two — going on three — memoirs. They helped him win two Writers Guild awards and earn seven Emmy nominations.
Young “was always writing,” recalls his son, John V.W. “Jake” Young ’02, and that could be anywhere. On a plane, at a party, or at an industry event, Young could often be found off to the side, jotting down bits of dialogue he overheard or a description of how the light reflected off someone’s shirt. If he didn’t have a notebook handy, a cocktail napkin or any other scrap of paper would serve.
The son, brother, and nephew of alumni, Young played football, hockey, and rugby and majored in religion, Sloan says, because it was the only department at the time that would let him write a novel for his senior thesis. He later established the John Sacret Young ’69 Fund for Visiting Filmmakers at Princeton.
Moving to Los Angeles after graduation, Young took whatever jobs he could find, including managing an apartment building, while trying to break into the entertainment industry. Lacking a car at first, he would ride his bicycle to the library to do his research. He got his break in the mid-’70s as a researcher on the show Police Story, riding around with Los Angeles cops to learn their lingo and the details of their jobs. He used that knowledge to begin writing scripts for the show.
China Beach, which ran from 1988 to 1991, addressed the still-sensitive trauma of Vietnam through the experience of young Army nurses. The show was unusual for viewing the war through the eyes of women, and Young stood out for making sure that four of the show’s six writers were women. “The show is about women,” he explained in a 1988 interview. “I needed a woman’s voice.”
In all of his projects, Young’s powers of observation were legendary. “He did more research than anyone I know,” Sloan adds. “He made sure he knew everything he needed to know about whatever he was writing.” Young’s mantra: “Dig deeper. There’s more there.”
A disciplined worker who fueled himself with strong coffee every morning and rewarded himself with a carefully crafted martini in the evening, Young wrote a novel, The Weather Tomorrow, while working on Police Story. His 2005 memoir, Remains: Non-Viewable, focused on the death of his cousin in Vietnam. A second memoir, Pieces of Glass — an Artoire, published in 2016, examined the influence that art, including pieces from his own extensive collection, had on his writing.
After nearly five decades in the entertainment industry, Young was also full of show-business anecdotes — he would often remark, after seeing some star on screen, “Oh, I spent a little time with [so-and-so].” Sloan will publish Pieces of Tinsel, Young’s memoir of his Hollywood years, later this year.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.
In 2019, John Sacret Young ’69 discussed his film Romero at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York City: