GREGORY MCDONALD AND THE FLETCH NOVELS, by Lee Goldberg
“Has anyone read THE BRAVE, a novel about the making of a snuff film, written by Gregory Mcdonald? From what I understand, it’s a far cry from his Fletch books. There’s actually a film adaptation. It was Johnny Depp’s directorial debut, and Depp stars alongside Marlon Brando. After a disastrous screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, it was shelved. In the United States at least, the movie has never seen the light of day.”
Vince Keenan posted that on the DorothyL newsgroup – which intrigued me, because I am a big fan of Mcdonald’s Fletch novels, particularly the first two: Fletch and Confess, Fletch. As a kid, I must have read those books a dozen times each, marveling at the wit and rythmn of the dialogue, as well as the clever plotting. (The two lousy Chevy Chase movies did not do the character or the books justice). The dialogue in those books was so strong, excerpts were used on the covers as selling-points. The books had an almost screenplay-like quality in their reliance on dialogue over prose... but not that much more so than an early Spenser novel. The later Fletch books declined in quality with each new tome... but I still recommend those first two. Come to think of it, it’s time I re-read them again...
But back in the early 80s, I interviewed Mcdonald and the makers of then in-production FLETCH movie. Here’s an excerpt from that article:
Fletch became a smash best-seller in 1974, copped the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award and led to one prequel, five sequels, and three “Flynn” spin-offs. It also sparked a wave of stylistic imitators that continues today.
Gregory Mcdonald’s hero, a wise-cracking and slobbish reporter, was a reaction against the unrealities of the conventional gumshoe’s macho altruism. Fletch shirks responsibility in general and heroics in particular. His interest is himself, and he is only pressed reluctantly into heroics if it serves his libido, his longevitity, his ego, or his wallet.
He was also a reaction to the ponderous writing that characterized the genre. Mcdonald’s sparse style embraces the attention-getting techniques of television and the economic plotting of the original genre masters. Prose is downplayed, and the emphasis is on crisp, fast-moving dialogue and vividly choreographed sex and bloodshed. It’s almost like a screenplay, which is what Fletch has finally, and inevitably, become.
“Everyone between the ages of 17 to 70 has approached me about doing Fletch,” says Mcdonald. “It's been so long coming the reality of finally being made hasn’t caught up with me yet.”
The reality is that Chevy Chase will portray Fletch for Director Michael (THE CANDIDATE) Ritchie and producers Peter (FINAL COUNTDOWN) Douglas and Alan (MODERN PROBLEMS) Greisman from a screenplay written by Alan (THE IN-LAWS) Bergman with some help from Phil Alden Robinson (RHINESTONE) and Jerry (SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT III) Belson. Joe Don Baker (WALKING TALL), Tim (ANIMAL HOUSE) Matheson and George (“Cheers”) Wendt are along for the ride.
Fletch may read like a good movie, but does that mean it can be one? If the movie history of the production staff is any indication, FLETCH could easily become a parody of itself, a mad-cap comedy of dubious quality. But the fact that FLETCH is even being made at all is a testament to Douglas’s dogged determination and, perhaps, an indication of how much pressure he will exert to keep the movie true to the book.
He picked up the book in 1974 at LAX and had it read by the time his plane touched down in New York. In the book, Fletch is lazing around as a beach bum to crack a seaside drug ring. Along the way, Fletch is ensnared in a plot by a rich aviation executive to embezzle several million dollars from the man's company.
“Mr. Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars just for listening to it,” said millionaire aviation exec Alan Stanwyk. “If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars and go away and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?”
“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”
“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to murder me.”
Fletch said. “Sure.”
It was “a great four hour read,” and although he was only “a second assistant director with dreams of granduer,” he began to chase after it. He tracked it down to Columbia Pictures, where comedian Alan King owned the rights but “didn't appear to be doing anything with it.”
Peter Douglas, son of actor Kirk Douglas, tried to get the project moving by arranging financing “but it always fell apart.” King lost interest and sold the rights to producer Jonathon Burrows.
“He was a young kid totally out of his element trying very hard to get FLETCH made,” recalls Douglas. “I was in a position where I could offer him a deal to do it.”
But the deal never materialized. The two clashed, and Burrows ended up selling the rights to an English record company ... where dastardly plans were afoot.
“They were talking about having Mick Jagger play Fletch,” Douglas says. “David Bowie was even mentioned.”
“It’s true, Mick expressed interest in playing Fletch.” Mcdonald says. “The situation existed for a long time and, thankfully, the man who ran the record company turned out to be one of the most decent men I have ever known. He considered the property first and his needs second.”
Douglas contacted the record company and “got a sense that they were interested in selling the rights. The movie business was too expensive for them.” But not for Douglas. In the 10 years since he first read Fletch, he had established himself as a talented producer, having brought The Final Countdown and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes to the screen.
Douglas met with William Morris agent Stan Kamen, who represented all Richie, Chase and much of the talent involved, and was able to package a sweet deal for Universal Studios. The studio bought Fletch.
And then asked for a whole new story.
“They didn't think the plot was very interesting. The studio was loaded up on drug movies at that moment, and selling drugs in Santa Monica just didn't have any umph. They, for some reason I could not fathom, wanted to set the movie in Miami,” says Jerry Belson, who was brought in by producer Alan Greisman to fashion the fresh screenplay. “We went to Miami and concoted a brand new story not based on any Fletch book. It was almost like an “Evita” story, the wife of a Latin American dictator uses her feminine wiles to get Fletch to help her. I guess it was kind of like BODY HEAT, too.”
When Belson and Greisman returned, the “group of Universal execs who told us to go were thrown out and so was my script,” Belson says. “I guess it was darker than they had wanted.”
Douglas and Greisman went looking for a screenwriter to adapt the book. They settled on Andrew Bergman, who had written two detective novels in addition to his screenwriting work.
“I had never done an adaptation before, and that really appealed to me,” Bergman says. “The book had a lot of energy and fun, and I thought it would be a good vehicle for Chevy Chase.”
Adapting means changing, and Bergman did. “The main problem was that most of the book takes place over the telephone which is something that won't work on the screen,” he says. “I had to throw all that out and open it up, push Fletch out into the field, as it were. I also thought he was consistently nasty to women in the book, he brutalized his wives, so I got rid of that.”
“Mrs. Fletcher told me a great deal about you ... she has told me you are a vicious, violent man, a liar and a cheat, and that she left your bed and board because she absolutely couldn’t stand you anymore. She did not abandon you. She escaped with her life.”
“Vicious and violent. Bullshit. One night I stepped on the cat’s tail.”
“You pitched the cat through the window of your seventh floor apartment.”
“The whole place smelled of cat.”
“Mrs. Fletcher, thinking reasonably that she might be the next one through the window, packed and left.”
“Nonsense. She didn’t smell. She was always in the shower. She washed her hair every half hour.”
Adapting means adding, and Bergman did that as well. “I gave him ticks which I thought would help define his character, like making him a Laker fan, and would create a certain short-hand history and texture,” he says. “I also combined the two seperate plot lines. Very little of Mcdonald’s dialogue made the transition. Everyone’s rhythmn is different; mine is different than his. He was writing something to be read, I was writing a performance piece.”
Shortly after Bergman turned in his script, he was called away to direct his screenplay for BIG TROUBLE, a comedy starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. So when rewrites were needed, the producers were forced to find someone else.
They went to Belson first, who did some retouching, and then to Phil Alden Robinson, who had just written the Steve Martin comedy ALL OF ME for Universal.
“The screenplay is different from the book,” Robinson agrees. “The studio felt strongly about making a good Chevy Chase movie. Fans expect a certain style from his movies.
“Chevy came up with a lot of great dialogue people are going to love hearing him say. I think Hollywood vaults are loaded with bad, loyal adaptations. No one wants to do something counter to what made the Fletch book so wonderful. We’re staying true to the spirit of the book. This won’t be NATIONAL LAMPOON’S FLETCH.”
Robinson read the Bergman/Belson draft, met with the cast and production staff and wrote a draft. Then, in consultation with Chase, he wrote another. “He is not some Hollywood guy doing a star turn. He has thought very carefully about Fletch and the story,” Robinson says. “An actor will always make changes with you or without you. The smart actors will tell the writer their suggestions and together, you figure out how to make them work. That’s how it was with Chevy and it was wonderful.”
Complications arose on the BIG TROUBLE set and Bergman stepped down as director, thereby becoming available again for any FLETCH rewrites needed once the film began shooting.
“Now that the film is shooting, it’s sort of been like dial-a-joke,” says Bergman. “I hope Mcdonald likes the script.”
He does. “They are being quite faithful,” Mcdonald says. “Of course there are changes. There have to be changes. They seem very respectful of the book, and Chevy absolutely fits my vision of Fletch. I think if you were to hold a national election, Chevy Chase would be the one Fletch readers would chose as Fletch.”
“We’ve carefully maintained the spirit and humor of Fletch, Douglas adds. “Greg is pleased with the integrity that is there. I know I wouldn’t tolerate a slapstick, goofy Fletch.”
Chase is signed for a sequel, so if the film turns out to be a hit, the adventures of the wise-cracking, irrevernt reporter could continue as a motion picture series. Mcdonald, meanwhile, intends to do some tinkering with his creation.
“There will be nine Fletch books total, with Fletch and the Widow Bradley at one end and Fletch and the Man Who on the other,” he says. “That will chart Fletch as he grows from a rather naive anti-authoritatian to where he is suddenly protecting the establishment and joining it.”
Mcdonald smiles. “But with a jaundiced eye.”
This article got me thinking about the author, Gregory Mcdonald ... and I unearthed this interview I did with him back in the early 80s when I was a UCLA student. Since I haven’t seen him interviewed much, I thought I’d share it with you in its entirety.
THE MAN BEHIND FLETCH
Irwin Maurice Fletcher isn’t what you would call a dashing hero. A slob maybe, unorthodox to be sure, but certainly not your average suave and debonair type.
Fletch, as his fans know him, is a reporter and perhaps the most down to earth hero in detective fiction today. If anything, he’s at least one of the best-selling.
Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch will be back in a new adventure this summer entitled Fletch’s Moxie, which takes the smooth talking scribe to Hollywood to uncover the grime behind the tinsel.
Fletch arose from Mcdonald’s own experiences in journalism his father was a reporter and Mcdonald worked for seven years at the Boston Globe before writing Fletch in 1974.
Since that time, Fletch has sold one million copies a year domestically, spawned three successful sequels and two “Flynn” spin offs, and has earned Mcdonald the coveted Edgar award, the mystery fiction equivalent of an Oscar.
Fletch’s Moxie, like last winter’s Fletch and the Widow Bradley, is a prequel, a story which takes place before the adventures chronicled in Fletch and the novels which followed it.
If that sound unusual, it’ s no more unusual than the peculiar way Fletch became a novel in the first place. Mcdonald finished up the last chapter of Fletch while his family waited for him in a car all packed up for a trip to Vermont. After hurriedly wrapping things up, he called his old copy boy at the Globe and asked him to read the book while Mcdonald was out of town. “If you like it,” he told the boy, “do something with it.”
“It had no chance of succeeding,” Mcdonald recalled, “so I was pretty casual about it.” The copy boy liked it, and so did one of three publishers he sent it to while Mcdonald was away.
The book became a huge success and readers demanded more. “I had had no intention of following Fletch up. But, I got tons of mail asking me to do another one. So, I sat under a tree for six months and talked with my dog about it.”
The result was Confess, Fletch, and another Edgar for Mcdonald. One of the peripheral characters in that novel became so popular he warranted a book of his own. It was called Flynn, which met with enough success to prompt a sequel called The Buck Passes Flynn in April.
The one rule of novel writing, Mcdonald has learned, is “a novel to be novel must really have something novel about it.”
Each of his novels have a tantalizing gimmick, he said, citing the “real don’t reveal the ending ending” of Fletch and the Widow Bradley.
Why is Fletch so popular?
“I think everyone wants to be a reporter – they want to have the right to ask questions," Mcdonald explained. “A journalist is a person with a license to ask questions.”
Even Mcdonald misses the pleasures of being a news hound.
“I can remember sitting around the city room at 3 am listening to the reporters tell stories. There’s a real spirit there. I miss reporting, and I still get up and want to see what I have in the paper in the morning. I miss the excitement. Reporting is such marvelously seductive fun.”
The pleasurable mix of breezy sarcasm and tightly woven mystery in the Fletch tales make the books – and Mcdonald hard to classify. “I don't know whether I’m a mystery writer or a humorist; it seems I’m billed as both. In New York, I’m seen as a mystery writer. To everyone else, I’m a humorist who writes mysteries.”
Hollywood hasn’t let Fletch slip by unnoticed. The first book was optioned for the big screen by Columbia Pictures five years ago. However, Fletch has yet to be captured on a single frame of celluloid.
“At this moment, I don’t know what the condition of the movie is. It’s been a long, sad trail,” Mcdonald said. “People from the ages of 17 to 77 have been on the phone to me wanting to do it (the screen adaptation). I prefer my own image of Fletch, without some actor becoming Fletch, at least right now.”
He added he’s not really “enamored” by the movie industry, a view which may surface in Fletch’s Moxie.
Of his books, he skirted the issue of which one is his favorite. “That’s like asking which of your kids do you like best.”
Mcdonald is pleased, and a little surprised, with his popularity. “I’ve very pleased people are reading (my work). Sometimes I have trouble sleeping at night. It’s like making love to a million people at the same time.”
Lee Goldberg first posted these interviews on his blog in September, 2004.
Update: Vince Keenan’s opinion of the two Fletch movies can be found in the Readers Forum.
BIBLIOGRAPHY - compiled by Steve Lewis
GREGORY MCDONALD - The Fletch (IF) and Flynn (FXF) stories
Books: Fletch. Bobbs-Merrill, hc, 1974; Avon, pb, 1976. IF
Confess, Fletch. Avon, pb, Nov 1976. IF, FXF
Flynn. Avon, pb, Oct 1977. FXF
Fletch’s Fortune. Avon, pb, July 1978. IF
Fletch and the Widow Bradley. Warner, pb, Nov 1981 IF
The Buck Passes Flynn. Ballantine, pb, Dec 1981. FXF
Fletch’s Moxie. Warner, pb, Oct 1982 IF
Fletch and the Man Who. Warner, pb, Aug 1983 IF
Carioca Fletch. Warner, pb, Apr 1984 IF
Flynn’s In. Mysterious Press, hc, 1984; Popular Library, pb, July 1985. FXF
Fletch Won. Warner, hc, 1985; Warner, pb, Apr 1986. IF
Fletch, Too. Warner, hc, Oct 1986; Warner, pb, 1987. IF
Son of Fletch. Putnam, hc, Sept 1993; Jove, pb, Oct 1994. IF
Fletch Reflected. Putnam, hc, Sept 1994; Jove, pb, Aug 1995 IF
Flynn’s World. Pantheon, hc, June 2003; Vintage, trade pb, July 2004. FXF
Films: Fletch. Universal, 1985. [Chevy Chase]
Fletch Lives. Universal, 1989. Original story. [Chevy Chase]
Fletch Won. Announced for 2006.
Sources: Allen J. Hubin, Crime Fiction IV.
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