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Travis McGee heading for long-awaited screen test

The late novelist John D. MacDonald's most famous character never made the leap to movies with anywhere near the success of Ian Fleming's James Bond, but that finally may change.

July 12, 2009|Scott Timberg

Back in the 1960s, two hugely popular literary characters ruled the pages of more than 10 novels each. Though it was a famously transformative decade, both were old-school men's men who loved risk, adventure, liquor and attractive women. Both protagonists became touchstones of their eras.

They differed in significant ways -- one was English, suave, favored bone-dry martinis, and worked for a large government organization. The other was Floridian, raw-boned, drank gin, and remained fiercely independent, avoiding entanglements of all kinds.

But perhaps the biggest difference between James Bond and Travis McGee is cinematic: The Bond films that began with "Dr. No" in 1962 became so popular that they're vastly better known than Ian Fleming's slim, taut books. McGee, by contrast, exists almost entirely on the pages of John D. MacDonald's 21-novel series, which has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

That a nonseries MacDonald novel originally titled "The Executioners" became not one but two successful films -- J. Lee Thompson's "Cape Fear" (1962) starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro -- suggest that the author's work can move smoothly to the screen.

Why such a naturally cinematic character -- a tough former Marine who operates under his own code of relative morality and knows how to use both his wits and his fists to help others in need -- has not made a successful transition to film has caused head-scratching for decades now.

But it looks as if McGee may finally get his place in the sun: New York-based producer Amy Robinson is in the late stages of developing the first McGee novel, "The Deep Blue Good-By," for production by Fox. Robinson calls McGee "the man every woman wants to be with and every man wants to be."

Though the project, which puts McGee on the trail of a seductive and dangerous ex-con who's left a trail of broken women in his wake, is not greenlighted and there is no director or talent attached, supporters are hopeful for the first time in decades. Sources close to the project say the studio is bullish on McGee.

"There have been a lot of twists and turns," said Robinson, who produced Scorsese's 1985 paranoid comedy "After Hours." "But I still have a lot of optimism that the movie will be made, and I hope it will be several movies."

"I think we're in a good position now," said literary agent George Diskant, who has represented MacDonald's estate since the author's 1986 death. "We're getting very close."

McGee himself -- who narrates these 21 novels, which ran from 1964's "Blue" to 1985's "The Lonely Silver Rain" -- sometimes called himself a knight in rusty armor, and the books frame him as a kind of humanistic and noble throwback in an increasingly corrupt world.

"He's an adventurer," said crime-fiction historian Otto Penzler. "He doesn't need any motivation other than 'Here's a woman in jeopardy, I can make some money and do some good.' This is a common figure in the 19th century, where people just went out and did stuff because they were adventurous souls. He's out of Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be King.' "

Less adventurous is McGee's foil and drinking partner known simply as Meyer, a hirsute and brainy chess-playing economist whose boat is called the John Maynard Keynes.

And while the novels are defined by their plot and action -- there's always a fistfight with a swamp rat or daring escape from a deranged grifter -- they also include observations and asides by McGee, channeling his author: He'll champion the sanctity of women (one is "not trivial enough for purely recreational sex"), criticize organized religion ("like being marched in formation to look at a sunset"), knock hunting (ideal for "the fellow with such a hollow sense of inadequacy"). Off and on, he'll dismiss middle-class consumption and ambition -- "plastic credit cards, payroll, deductions, retirement benefits . . . junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny."

One abiding concern for McGee -- a dropout from society who seems more libertarian than liberal despite the '60s and '70s settings -- was the environment. Years before a full-fledged environmental movement, he was describing Florida's Mangrove Islands as "one of the few strange places left which man has not been able to mess up." In 1973, McGee talked about "instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores."

"He was a great American character," Robinson says of McGee, who described himself as a "salvage consultant" and lived on a Fort Lauderdale houseboat. "And MacDonald was prescient about ecology, about the economy, about people not trusting the government and living off the grid."

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