Elmore Leonard, who was one of the iconic crime-fiction genre novelists and a premiere literary storyteller during the second half of the 20th century, has passed away at age 87. Leonard had been working on his forty-sixth novel, before he suffered a stroke last month (then-believed to be non-life threatening). The prolific author/screenwriter passed away due to complications from the stroke at his home in Detroit this morning (Tuesday, August 20th, 2013, at the time of writing this), but is survived by his five children – all from his first in a line of three different marriages, to the late Beverly Cline.
Hollywood has been adapting Leonard’s many novels and short stories into movies for decades, going back to the late 1950s. However, the writer’s literature – in particular his crime tales – enjoyed an uptick in popularity in the mid-1990s, after Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction helped to re-popularize the sort of elements found in Leonard’s work (sharp and poetic dialogue, multiple narrative threads centered around blue-collar characters, etc.). Indeed, from 1995-98, no fewer than eight Leonard stories made the jump to either the small or large screen, with films like Get Shorty, Last Stand at Saber River (made for TV), Out of Sight and Jackie Brown (which is Tarantino’s adaptation of the Leonard novel “Rum Punch”).
Over the past decade, Leonard’s novels The Big Bounce, Be Cool and Freak Deaky were adapted to the big screen, while the 3:10 to Yuma remake and FX’s acclaimed TV series Justified were based upon the author’s original western short stories (note: the source material for Justified is the short story “Fire in the Hole”). The Jackie Brown/Rum Punch prequel story Life of Crime – based on the Leonard novel “The Switch” – will hit the festival circuit later this year, featuring a cast that includes Mos Def, Isla Fisher and Tim Robbins, among other name actors and actresses.
Elmore Leonard was born as Elmore John Leonard Jr. in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 11th, 1925, some nine years before his family ended up settling down in Detroit, where Leonard would spend the vast majority of the remainder of his life. During the 1930s, Leonard developed his lifelong fascination with gangsters and sports, thanks to the real-life crimes and violence committed by people like Bonnie and Clyde – in addition to the Detroit Tigers baseball team riding on a hot streak, culminating with a World Series win in 1935.
After he graduated from high school, Leonard served in the Navy for three years during WWII, before he enrolled at the University of Detroit in 1946 with the intent of pursuing a career writing about his personal interests and obsessions for a living. Leonard received degrees in English and Philosophy in 1950, which lead to him taking a job as a copy writer for the Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency while he wrote on the side.
This led to his first professional writing credit (the short story “Trail of the Apache”), followed by his first published novel “The Bounty Hunters” in 1953. Over the next forty years, Leonard would pen several novels that ended up being turned into movies, including The Tall T, Hombre, Valdez is Coming and 52 Pick-Up; in addition, he was involved with scripting films like Joe Kidd, Mr. Majestyk, Stick and The Rosary Murders. Moreover, it was during that time frame that Hollywood released the first adaptations of his Big Bounce and 3:10 to Yuma source material, decades before the stories-turned films were given a 21st Century makeover.
The storyteller – known as “the Dickens of Detroit” – famously summed up his rules for good writing (especially with respect to realistic dialogue) as “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” His artistic output was highly influential and was essential in paving the road for the numerous beloved movies and television shows – about flawed protagonists-turned criminals and working-class crooks with moral codes – that’ve been produced in recent memory (ranging from a good chunk of Tarantino’s filmography to critical darling cable TV series like Breaking Bad). Suffice it to say, his impact as an artist will be felt long after his passing.
The Screen Rant staff would like to express their sincere condolences to the friends and family of Elmore Leonard in this difficult time.
R.I.P. Elmore John Leonard Jr.: October 11th, 1925 – August 20th, 2013.