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'Dirty Dozen': Fountainhead of Funds

June 25, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

As E.M. (Mick) Nathanson laughingly observes, his credit on "The Dirty Dozen" TV series flashes by in about half a second. If you blink, you've missed it: "Based on characters from a novel by E.M. Nathanson."

But the Laguna Niguel author of "The Dirty Dozen" couldn't be happier.

Twenty-three years after the novel was published, Nathanson is earning handsome royalty checks from his World War II tale in which OSS Capt. John Reisman leads a group of 12 misfit former U.S. Army prisoners on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.

"For me, it's income totally unexpected," said the "deliriously happy" Nathanson. "I'm totally unaccustomed to having an income like this."

Nathanson didn't even know MGM-UA was going to make a series based on his popular novel until a friend read about it in a newspaper last fall.

Although MGM had an option on the motion picture rights to "The Dirty Dozen" before Nathanson had even finished writing it back in the mid-'60s, the idea that it may one day be turned into a TV series struck the author at the time as being downright "silly."

But that was before "The Dirty Dozen" became a hit 1967 motion picture starring Lee Marvin as Reisman and before three TV-movie sequels--one starring Marvin and two starring Telly Savalas--were made in the 1970s.

When Nathanson renegotiated the television clause in his contract with MGM in 1976, the idea of "The Dirty Dozen" being turned into a TV series no longer seemed so silly. In fact, MGM planned to do just that at the time.

But a series based on Nathanson's novel didn't make it to the little screen until last April when "The Dirty Dozen" series was launched with a two-hour special. The hourlong series airs on the Fox TV network Saturday nights at 9 on Channel 11.

"Overall, as the author of the novel, I'm absolutely delighted it's on TV," said Nathanson. "No. 1, it provides an income for the wretch of an author and, two, it keeps, if not my name, the name of my work in the public eye. And I hope it has some effect on people buying 'A Dirty Distant War.' "

"A Dirty Distant War" is Nathanson's sequel to "The Dirty Dozen." Published last fall by Viking, it picks up Reisman three months after "The Dirty Dozen" ends. This time around, Reisman is assigned to the Far East where Americans, Chinese, French, Japanese and the indigenous people of Indochina are all jockeying for position in the last days of World War II.

Muses Nathanson: "My expectation is that somebody in Hollywoodland would have a light bulb go off in his head: 'My God, 23 years after publication of "The Dirty Dozen," there's yet another filming of it in this series. Maybe what the guy has written in 'A Dirty Distant War' has a possibility for a motion picture.' "

So far, Nathanson has received a few nibbles from Hollywood for "A Dirty Distant War," but no bite.

That's not to say Mick Nathanson hasn't been having a few adventures in "Hollywoodland" as a result of the TV series.

The author not only receives a royalty check for each episode--"and they have been very good royalty checks"--but his renegotiated MGM contract stipulated that he write one of the first six episodes of the series.

Earlier this year, Nathanson submitted five episode ideas to MGM, one of which was approved. Nathanson sat down at his typewriter--a gray Olympia portable he bought in 1958--and wrote a plot outline. The Writers Guild strike intervened before he could actually write the script, but because of his contract with MGM, he already has received payment for a full script.

"Here's what I discovered: That doing this was a lot easier than writing my novels, and I got paid for it!" Nathanson said. "To me, it was extraordinary: to actually get paid for work. As a novelist, you work on speculation for many months to present an outline or a couple of chapters--at least the way I work--and you may never earn a penny on it. Take that versus five days of work to do my first outline for this television series, for which I was paid a very handsome sum of money."

And how does the creator rate "The Dirty Dozen" TV series?

About the same as he does the novel's previous small-screen incarnations.

"None of those stories had any relationship to my novel except the structure, although some of the exact lines and scenes were carried to each of the TV-movie sequels. Which was gratifying in a way: They could not get away from my novel.

"But this TV show is totally different. The only relationship it has to my novel is the good, tough, knowledgeable officer and the 12 baddies, some of whom are repeated each week and some of whom are knocked off, and they go off on a mission."

Nathanson said he doesn't want to comment on the quality of the TV series. "It's not my business to comment," he said, nevertheless adding: "There's some fun in it; there's some nonsense in it, and there's some anachronisms in it that nobody seems to care about. . . . But I don't want to knock the show."

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