The Lonely Silver Screen Cinematic Travis McGee By Mike White. Hollywood culture vultures hunt for accomplished works to pour into standard molds rather than create something from scratch...
Hollywood culture vultures hunt for accomplished works to pour into standard molds rather than create something from scratch. Apart from revamping popular television shows, the modus operandi of too many shortsighted visionaries is to capitalize on a popular novel: the characters are there, the audience built in, and there’s even a plot to go with all of this! Who could ask for a tastier morsel?
Author John D. MacDonald presents a feast for the scavengers of stories. MacDonald’s prolific pen produced hundreds of short stories and over sixty novels in his lifetime. Several of MacDonald’s tales made their way to the screen-large and small. The best-known MacDonald adaptations remain the two Cape Fear films, based on his book, The Executioners. J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear left MacDonald unimpressed, referring to it as a "dreary moving, I mean unmoving picture."
Six years after The Executioners, MacDonald introduced the character for which he would become best know, Travis McGee. Over two decades MacDonald’s character starred in twenty-one novels. Here, more than a good bit of fiction to plunder was the Hollywood dream... a franchise! McGee’s adventures could last for decades on screen!
Who Is Travis McGee?
Taking his retirement in chunks from monies earned doing "salvage consultation," Travis McGee is the Robin Hood of the Florida peninsula. Tanned, toned, and virile, McGee makes his living by retrieving ill-gotten gains and splitting them with the rightful owners when going through legal channels isn’t an option. McGee’s credo for his work: "half is better than none."
These daring quests provide the plotlines for the McGee books. However, the real pleasure of McGee’s colorful world comes from his inner monologue. Over the span of his adventures, McGee observes and comments on nearly every aspect of an ever-changing America. He also provides insight on the wonderfully fleshed-out characters he meets. More than simply finding the key to a mystery, McGee takes readers on a journey of human emotion and interaction. And, more than McGee’s ability to bed down women, or beat down foes, the pleasure in reading a McGee tale stems from his pilgrimage of self-awareness.
McGee’s faithful companion on this sojourn is his neighbor at the Bahia Mar, Meyer. A swarthy, larger-than-life economist, Meyer acts as McGee’s counsel, sounding board, confidant, and dearest friend. Most often, the appearance of Meyer framed McGee’s crusades though several times Meyer accompanied McGee and would put himself in harm’s way.
As with all long-running characters, McGee comes with an assortment of accoutrements. Like better recurring characters, McGee amounted to more than his trappings. As it takes more than a cigar, raincoat, bloodhound, and Pugot to be Columbo, it takes more than a houseboat (The Busted Flush), converted Rolls Royce (Miss Agnes), Meyer, and glass of Plymouth gin over ice to be McGee. When trying to bring McGee to Hollywood, screenwriters have yet to capture, or notice, the complexity of McGee as the modern day white knight.
It took three rewrites of The Deep Blue Good-by for MacDonald to accept Travis McGee. To be sure that this character had what it took to stick around, the author had his publisher hold off on releasing the first McGee book until he penned two more books. Confident that he and McGee would get along, MacDonald gave the go-ahead for the three novels to be released in a six month span.
The disparity between the "novel McGee" and "movie McGee" wasn’t for lack of trying. Almost immediately after the series began, the scribe started receiving offers to transport the McGee character from books to television. In 1965 MacDonald had his first meeting with a quartet of Hollywood types who wanted to buy the television rights. They were so confident about the match between McGee and TV that they had forged on: scripting episodes, signing contracts with sponsors, and casting Chuck Connors in the lead role. The chaps found that "it was extraordinarily difficult to find the right approach to a writer who doesn’t believe in television," MacDonald wrote to friend Dan Rowan. "[They were] wrong. I believe in it. One percent of it is very very good....and 99 percent of everything is and always has been schlock. I don’t want Trav to [be simplified as] the series tube requires, nor do I want the angle of approach wrenched this way and that when the ratings don’t move and everybody...starts trying this and trying that."
Eventually, MacDonald signed with Jack Reeves and Walter Seltzer of independent production company Major Pictures. They intended to have McGee appear in a new motion picture every eighteen months a la James Bond. Naturally, The Deep Blue Good-by would be a good place to start a McGee movie series, yet the first movie slated for the screen was the 7th McGee book, Darker Than Amber. MacDonald received the script on June 14, 1968 and was unimpressed to say the least. In a letter to Jack Reeves, MacDonald prophetically stated that, "I am as sure of the sun rising tomorrow that you will make just one McGee movie."
"Aside from basic structure and some good visuals, you have a dog. It has a coarse and amateurish stamp, with less class and taste and insight than many a good television script...You have got something for the third feature at Kentucky drive-ins during the mating season....If you bomb with this, you are going to put me out of business insofar as the cinematic McGee is concerned. If you go with what you sent me, you bomb. It is that easy. I did not think that you would manage to lose McGee in the very first script, and turn him into some kind of hunk of dull, swinging, ass-chasing brutality, with no humor, no lift, and no awareness."
Reeves took MacDonald’s comments and rewrites of the first 40 pages of the script in stride. He responded to the exasperated author writing, "My enthusiasm, based on the script we have, still runs high and my judgment was reassured by the professionals who have read itsome of whom run the studio and are committing the company’s money into the making of the film. The consensus is we have an outstanding script which will transform into a hell of a good, commercially successful picture."
It took a few weeks for MacDonald to cool down. When he wrote back to Reeves, he expressed concern about the effort in remaining true to his work. "I recommend that the script be scrapped, and that a new script be prepared which would use many of the action ingredients, but would provide more room for meaningful character-development and adult entertainment." MacDonald also provided a six-page outline of an alternate take on Darker Than Amber.
In the weeks after that, MacDonald’s letters became less frequent and less pressing, as if he knew that his battle had been lost. He managed to throw a good "I told you so" barb at Reeves with a letter dated September 5, 1968 in which he gloats about Reeves losing Robert Culp for the lead due to the incompetence of screenwriter Ed Waters.
In retrospect, Reeves should have taken MacDonald’s advice. The 1970 release of Robert Clouse’s Darker Than Amber did nothing to kick off a McGee film series. Rather, it sounded the death knell of a film franchise.
"Travis McGee Is Rod Taylor"
As unfathomable as it may sound, the final version of Darker Than Amber that hit theaters was even more dismal than Ed Waters’s justly derided screenplay. If Waters had taken the flesh from McGee, the miscast Rod Taylor and unskilled Robert Clouse succeeded in sucking the marrow right out of his bones.
Definitely one of the bleaker McGee tales, the opening of Darker Than Amber is undoubtedly what captured the imagination of the Hollywood honchos involved. The pitch probably went something like this: "We open on a bridge. It’s night and two fishermen are under the bridge-McGee (Rod Taylor) and Meyer (Theodore Bikel). Suddenly, a body falls into the water right by their skiff. It’s a girl! She’s been thrown off the bridge by two former associates who are ending their partnership. Of course, McGee jumps in and saves her from drowning as she’s been weighed down and has sunk like a stone-a very attractive stone."
"The girl is Vangie (Suzy Kendall); a conning call girl who captures McGee’s heart. She’s been mixed up in some bad business involving bilking rich men out of their life savings and throwing them overboard on luxury cruises. After Vangie is killed (again), McGee makes it his business to avenge her death and bring down the ring of killer cons. Now, get this, McGee does that in part via the work of an actress, Merrimay (Suzy Kendall again), who dresses up just like Vangie to throw off the bad guys. She, McGee, and Meyer go aboard the ship where tough guy Terry (a blonde William Smith) and deadly dame Del (Ahna Capri) are putting their hooks into their next victim. When Terry sees ‘Vangie’ (Merrimay), all hell breaks loose!"
Of course, the characters have been re-sculpted to a much more morally polar mold. Vangie’s only been party to one murder (rather than over a dozen) before she’s killed and her partner in crime is so mean that he kicks a dog. There’s little grey in these characters-just black or white. The "fallen" woman’s punishment could even be considered "deserved" in this clean cut world where McGee appears to be the lone source of justice.
Darker Than Amber suffers from a horrible score by John Parker, overacting by Taylor, and cornball dialogue that left me dumbfounded. The film showcases McGee as a swaggering lothario (with a wee bit of Irish brogue) who’s only a hair smarter than his musclebound antagonist, Ans Terry (named here Terry Bartell).
Nearly all of the promotional material for Amber features images of McGee’s knockdown dragout fight with Terry, properly reducing the film to its most base element of brutality. McGee may know how to throw a punch but more often, he relies on his wits. An expert in chicanery, there are few situations that McGee can’t talk himself into or out of. By contrast, Taylor’s McGee appears to think only with his fists. While MacDonald’s Darker Than Amber may have been the most dreary McGee tale (at the time), the film adaptation boils away any of the adventure leaving only a grisly murder mystery punctuated with fisticuffs and looking like a rejected pilot for a TV detective show.
The Deep Blue Good-By
Undeterred by MacDonald’s augury, Seltzer and Reeves commissioned another adaptation of McGee’s adventures. Ed Waters would go on to bigger and better things like penning a few Jake & The Fat Man episodes. For this second attempt, Seltzer and Reeves tapped Wojeck writer Sandy Stern for the job.
Regretfully, Stern’s adaptation of The Deep Blue Good-by proved to be both engrossing and faithful. Following the more tested and true McGee formula, Blue pits McGee against the dangerous, animalistic Junior Allen. Along the way, McGee nurses a damaged woman, Lois Atkinson, back to health while aiding and saving two other women of different stripes.
It wasn’t until the later McGee adventures and on rare occasion (like Darker than Amber) that Meyer would play an integral part of the story. Meyer doesn’t even make an appearance in Blue and Stern does well to not force him into the narrative. McGee acts as his own counsel, aided only a bit by his long time female friend Chookie McCall.
With proper casting and direction, this could have been the movie that put McGee on the map. It would be another thirteen years until Travis McGee tried to come ashore again and, once again, he would founder.
The Bloodshot Rainbow
Rather than being the new James Bond, McGee would have been lucky to be the new Banacek. Transplanted to California and robbed of his houseboat ("The Busted Flush" here is a sailboat), McGee was downsized for the ABC TV movie of the week on May 18, 1983.
Adapted by Sterling Silliphant and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, this adaptation of The Empty Copper Sea bore the title "THE BLOODSHOT RAINBOW" until being changed to simply Travis McGee. Published in 1978, The Empty Copper Sea-the 17th McGee tale-signaled a shift in the McGee series in that each book from then on depended heavily on the one before (where pervious novels could be read out of order). The choice of utilizing this book would help bring an air of continuity to the storyline that random McGee adaptations may have lacked.
Without the mustache (and southern accent), Sam Elliot would have made a great Travis McGee-almost a dead ringer for the sketch of McGee that adorned the early Gold Medal-published paperbacks-capturing the spirit of the rough and tumble intellectual. Elliot was well cast in Travis McGee. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Meyer. Looking old enough to be Elliot’s grandfather, Gene Evans does his best Lionel Stander impersonation as the intrepid economist. Luckily, the rest of the star-studded cast was a better fit
Travis McGee has the titular character being asked not to retrieve money or treasure from someone who’s been bilked, but to reinstate the good name of a disgraced boat captain, Van Harder (Richard Farnsworth), who lost his license after losing Hub Lawless overboard. Of course, Van Harder was not to blame as Hub’s disappearance was part of a plan between him and his partner John Tuckerman (Geoffrey Lewis). McGee and Meyer travel to the community that Lawless built where they glean information from the local sheriff (Barry Corbin), piano bar floozy (Amy Madigan), and Tuckerman’s sister (Elliot’s future wife, Katherine Ross).
Sticking well to MacDonald’s story, Travis McGee stands out as one of the better TV mysteries I’ve seen. Surprisingly, Travis McGee didn’t spawn a follow-up, though that doesn’t mean that such a plan wasn’t in the works.
Back to Amber
The date on Silliphant’s draft of "a pilot script for Travis McGee " is April 9, 1981. A second Warner Brothers Television script by Kenneth Johnson had its first draft completed on January 5, 1982. Despite the conjecture of any second TV movie/series jumping off from The Empty Copper Sea and diving into The Green Ripper, Johnson’s work was another adaptation of Darker Than Amber! Sadly, Johnson’s script never made it to production as this version of the same material Waters covered was far superior to the 1970 film.
Also named Travis McGee, Johnson’s script appears to be something of a sequel to Silliphant’s script except that Travis’s love interest, Gretel, has been renamed Shannon. Keeping a woman in the picture at all is a break from Darker Than Amber and more of a nod to The Green Ripper, especially when Shannon’s demise on page 46 gives Travis a "now it’s personal" gravitas that was missing from Darker Than Amber and such a strong motivator in The Green Ripper.
The McGee in Johnson’s script should be considered diametrically opposed to Waters’s. This isn’t a swaggering mass that’s looking for a fight and regularly packs a pistol. Johnson allows McGee to keep his wit during his repartee with Meyer and even allows him to confess his distaste for firearms when the use of a gun is necessary. Meanwhile, Johnson explores McGee’s independent streak via his identification with the gulls of his (California) marina. Though there is an embarrassing bit of sappiness in the "mental songs" being sung by Travis and Shannon as they frolic together-"She’s like breathing mountain air, So clean and fresh and rarified"-one would hope that these cloying bits would be eliminated in subsequent drafts.
Like Stern’s earlier take on The Deep Blue Good-by, Johnson’s work was doomed to obscurity most likely due to the perceived lack of success of their predecessors.
A Letter Etched in Black
With a cash cow like McGee roaming around there are still plenty of people hoping to lead it to slaughter. Frank Marshall over at Amblin Entertainment had screenwriting duo Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot pen a McGee script. On their website, wordplayer.com, Rossio writes, "We set about the project very logically: we re-read all 18 or so novels , from The Deep Blue Good-bye (sic) to The Lonely Silver Train (sic). We identified all the key elements that made up the Travis McGee seriesthe friendship with Meyer, the Busted Flush, helping a friend out of a jam, the action sequences, the sex, the inevitable ‘wounded bird’ woman, the con games, the philosophical asides. In the end we fashioned a story out of two of the books, Bright Orange for the Shroud and Pale Gray for Guilt. McGee got to foil a land scheme, battle a ruthless villain, and pull off an investment con. He excelled on both an intellectual and physical level. Our script hit all the key elements of the seriesand when we turned it in, it was received with a gut-wrenching thud.
"We probably tried to do too much. Given that we were working from an entire series of novels, we weren’t willing enough to pare it all back, and lose some key elements. With too many elements, we failed in fashioning them into a proper movie experience. Maybe, given time, those elements we chose could have been re-worked into something quite effective, but Amblin wasn’t willing to wait. Key elements must be refined into film language in order to be effective."
For every known adaptation of MacDonald’s McGee books there are doubtless countless others moldering somewhere in Hollywood. Having had two disappointing adaptations already, there’s hope that these mistakes can provide guidance for future attempts at bringing McGee to the lonely silver screen.
McGee’s relationship with Hollywood has been more of a one-night stand than a long marriage. Afterwards, both parties came to their senses and went their separate ways, appropriately ashamed at themselves and each other for such behavior. McGee may have seemed a natural match for Tinsel Town but his real home was 2,700 miles away, safely nestled in Slip 18 of the Bahia Mar marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection
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