Thursday, February 25, 2010

JDM on Television: Sam Elliott meets Travis McGee

I was rummaging through a pile of old magazines recently and came across this March/April 1983 edition of Prevue magazine. For a second I was wondering why I had held on to this particular issue, since it was a magazine I rarely read, when I saw the name "Travis McGee" on the cover. Inside was a fairly interesting background story on the filming of the 1983 TV movie-pilot Travis McGee, which I have written about in a previous post. Since I was not too kind to that production, I thought I would quote a few passages from this article, which primarily consists of an interview with Elliott and executive producer George Eckstein. Since the finished product was so disappointing, it was encouraging to read that at least these two men approached the project with the proper respect.

"I'd never read a Travis McGee book until three years ago," confesses Elliott... "That's when Warner Bros. -- they've offered me pilot situations for almost 15 years -- presented the project. I'd always avoided series work because there weren't many actors making the transition from television to motion picture. That's not the case now... [Travis McGee is] very realistic and likeable, and someone I may have to live with for five years, the extent of my contractual commitment. The ideal situation, of course, is to be myself rather than creating a character who isn't really me every day for years.

"Travis has a sense of humor, certain values and feelings with which I identify. He's cynical, but he has the saving grace of knowing himself well, so he can laugh at his own cynicism. He's an honorable man, but it's his honor that gets him into trouble.

"On a fantasy level, there's a lot of Travis McGee in all of us. He speaks very well for mankind. MacDonald uses McGee and his economist friend Meyer to comment on society and its ills. They're usually right on the button about life today. The opportunity to take those comments -- instead of just talking and saying nothing -- attracted me to the project."

Elliott signed on to the proposed project in 1979 after reading The Empty Copper Sea, and Sterling Silliphant then wrote an adaptation of that novel. The production team wanted a "more colorful" title and hired other writers to work on adaptations of Darker Than Amber and The Green Ripper (which would have made little sense to anyone who hadn't read The Empty Copper Sea). Ultimately George Eckstein became involved, an old hand in Hollywood whose credits included the television series The Fugitive and Banacek, as well as the highly-praised mini-series Masada.

"I was a McGee fan," Eckstein says, "and had read all the books. The studio asked me into the project because they were fighting a deadline in terms of developing a producible script. I accepted because of my fondness for the character, and because Sam Elliott took the part.

"The TV character is different from the book version because of what Sam brings to the role. Travis McGee has a macho attitude tempered by world weariness and a slight streak of cynicism. Left to his own devices, he'd probably be out on his boat or at the beach, but, reluctantly, he gets involved whenever he feels society in general is victimizing people. When he's angry, just like the rest of us, he tries to change things.

"The problem was that the books were very difficult to translate into another media. If and when Travis McGee goes to series, it'll be easier to develop original stories, rather than trying to adapt the novels with their labyrinthine plotting, complexity of characterization and action, and violence and sexual quotient.

"There's more violence in MacDonald's books than you'd think. It happens in a sort of laidback style, but if you count corpses, the numbers get pretty high.

"It was almost impossible to fit all the elements of a novel into a two-hour period, and reducing an entire story to a one-hour episode would definitely not be the most pragmatic or satisfying approach. That's the reason the script took so long to complete."

Eckstein decided to go back to The Empty Copper Sea and had Silliphant do a rewrite of his original adaptation. He hired Gene Evans to play Meyer, Andrew McLaglen to direct, and began shooting on April 1, 1982. (That date should have been a warning!) The setting was changed from Florida to Southern California and the locations included Ventura Marina, Marina Del Rey and Pismo Beach. Although no explanation is offered for this change of scene, it was used as an excuse for dumping The Busted Flush houseboat and replacing it with a sailboat. "A houseboat is alright inside a bay," Elliott explained, "but the open ocean is no place to take one. That's why we used a sailboat instead." Of course the fact that Elliott was an avid sailboat enthusiast is mentioned only obliquely.

According to Elliott, he believed that John D MacDonald was "pleased with the script," and goes on to say "There is a need for action-adventure shows beyond the usual mindless stories and beefcake, especially if they encompass the intelligent values and commentary found in the John D. MacDonald novels. We actually used some passages from his books as voiceovers."

Actually?! Gosh!

I can certainly sympathize with the difficulty of translating McGee, with all his interior monologues and detailed idiosyncrasies to the screen, and perhaps it's something that simply can't be done effectively. But for the creators of this movie to misunderstand the importance of both Florida and The Busted Flush to the character of MacDonald's novels indicates to me a major lapse in comprehending what makes these books work. Just following a plotline and using a few sentences of the author's original words in voiceover is not going to convey the totality of this unique character. McGee in Southern California is no more McGee than Marlowe was Marlowe in London.

I'm glad that so much work went into this attempt and that the creative forces behind the film were JDM fans, but the result has to be viewed as a failure. The author sensed the futility of a TV series back in 1967 when he wrote to his friend Dan Rowan:

"I believe in [television]. One percent of it is very very good. And one percent of all writing, painting, sculpture, dance, acting, comedy, circus, basket-weaving etc is also good. And 99 percent of everything is and always has been schlock. I just don't want Trav to undergo that simplistifying (new word!) change which 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 to get frightened and they start trying this and trying that."

Rowan, who knew a bit about television, responded:

"TV. Not for Trav. Not now. Maybe in a special or two a year from now with a big budget and tight control, and foreign rights... they -- TV -- must by their nature corrupt good work. The one percent you mentioned gets produced despite TV people, not because of them. The success of Travis McGee is an honest success, and your own integrity and purpose must never be aborted to fit the smaller minds and limited imaginations that run this industry."

1 comment:

  1. AFter becoming a huge JDM and Trav fan around 14, I was pleased to discover there were two films featuring Trav. They were impossible to find (this was about late 80's early 90's. Eventually I actually contacted Walter and Jean Shine and they were incredibly nice folks who dubbed the two films and sent them to me.

    I think Amber was the more successful adaptation. Taylor, even though he was much shorter than the literary McGee, was a better choice than Elliott. That said, Elliott's performance grew on me after repeated viewings and I could accept the loss of the Flush and Bahia Mar, FLA. I think there's a possibility it could have turned into an interesting series.

    People have to remember these films are interpretations. The literary McGee is just that. No doubt, it's the superior medium to encounter trav and his world. But you have to realize that different people view the character in different ways. I actually like the diversity.

    Di Caprio is not the ideal choice to play McGee. Too soft-looking and boyish. But, again, if you can accept that it's his and the screenwriter/director's interpretation of Trav, it'll lessen the chasm between the book McGee and the movie one, and will allow you to enjoy it in it's own singular context.