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The bestseller they couldn't sell

Robert Redford and son James spent years trying to turn Tony Hillerman's Navajo mysteries into movies. Then along came PBS.

November 17, 2002|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Even a major player like Robert Redford runs into problems getting films made. Never mind the Oscar, the Sundance Festival, the hits: For 14 years, he's owned the rights to the majority of the 15 mystery novels penned by Tony Hillerman revolving around the exploits of two New Mexican Navajo police detectives: Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police and Lt. Joe Leaphorn.

Since "Skinwalkers" was published in 1986, Hillerman's books have consistently hit bestseller lists and sold millions of copies. But Hollywood didn't share Redford's passion for the police thrillers.

The actor-producer-director finally found a home for this pet project, however, thanks to his friendship with PBS President Pat Mitchell, who sits on the board of directors of Redford's Sundance Institute. While Redford was looking for an appropriate home for the Hillerman books, PBS was in the process of radically changing its long-running series "Mystery!," which has showcased only British-produced thrillers for the past 20 years.

Mitchell pushed the series out of its regular, Thursday-evening time slot last year, turned it into a limited series last summer and issued an edict that she wanted to introduce American programming on the franchise. American writers' work have been adapted for the series -- Elizabeth George lives in Huntington Beach -- but the stories have been set outside the U.S. At this time, no other American authors whose work is set in America are in line to be adapted.

Next Sunday, PBS is premiering Hillerman's murder-mystery "Skinwalkers" as an "American Mystery! Special."

The 90-minute whodunit features a Native American cast including Wes Studi as Leaphorn and Adam Beach as Chee, and was directed by Native American Chris Eyre ("Smoke Signals"). James Redford, son of executive producer Redford, adapted the screenplay.

"They [Hillerman's books] were so complexly difficult to mount," Robert Redford says. "There was no support for it. I had initially seen it as a series of films like the old Charlie Chan mysteries. Every 18 months this little movie would come out. They would not be big or pretentious. They would be humble little efforts that would deliver something diverse and new to an audience, but it would have to have humor and characters. So that's how it was conceived."

Redford did get Hillerman's "A Dark Wind" made as a feature film in 1991. He was executive producer, it was directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and starred Lou Diamond Phillips and Fred Ward as the American Indian policemen. The film, says Redford, wasn't any good and wasn't released.

"That was a false start," Redford says. "It was miscast. It was ill-conceived and I didn't think it was the right beginning for the series. It wasn't distributed."

Hillerman never saw that film but recalls that Redford asked if he wanted his name taken off the credits. "I didn't care really," the author says. "That book was very difficult to make a movie out of. It had a very complicated plot. So did 'Skinwalkers.' "

Redford acknowledges he was taken aback by how difficult it was to bring Hillerman's tales to the big screen "because of the perception of Native Americans not being commercial territory. Second, one couldn't see the larger picture of value of introducing two new characters who are fresh and audiences could adopt. They couldn't see that idea. It was very hard to convince people, so we lost a lot of years."

A few years ago, Redford did get a director interested in "Skinwalkers." Although he won't mention the director's name, Redford says, "He was very neurotic and was afraid of dry territory and wouldn't go down to the reservation because something about it made it uneasy to him. So it was pretty clear that the handwriting was on the wall and it was never going to happen."

Hillerman respects Redford's passion for his novels and never-say-die attitude. The author recalls that before Redford approached him, an independent producer had optioned one of his books.

"He didn't do anything with it, but he renewed the option and ended up owning the television rights to Leaphorn and Chee, so that meant no one was going to option the books," Hillerman says. "When Redford came along, he wanted to option them. So in effect, I had to buy the TV rights for those two guys, which he put up the money for. He optioned them and he kept trying, and so there we stood."

Passion for the culture

Over the years, Hillerman says, other movie producers approached his agent about obtaining the rights to his novels.

"I am not much of a movie buff and I thought if anybody makes a film, I'd rather it be Redford. Redford has a long-standing interest in the Southwestern tribes. He has a lot of good friends among the Hopis and other tribes too."

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