Sept. 1, 2013
Remembering Elmore “Dutch” Leonard
In the summer of 1974, when I was just about to turn 16, I was talking to my dad’s friend, Larry, explaining what it was that I wanted to do with my life, which was to be a film director-writer. Larry said, “You need to talk to my buddy, ‘Dutch’ Leonard, he’s a screenwriter.” I said, “You know Elmore Leonard?” Larry said, “Sure. You know who he is?” I said, “Of course I do, he’s written a bunch of films I really like.” Larry said, “Then I’ll set it up.”
Elmore “Dutch” Leonard was not world-famous at that point, but he was certainly the most successful screenwriter in Michigan. He wrote a movie that had just come out, Mr. Majestyk, with Charles Bronson, that was still in the theaters. He had also written a number of other films that I liked, such as: Hombre with Paul Newman, Joe Kidd with Clint Eastwood, 3:10 to Yuma with Glenn Ford, The Tall T with Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher, and particularly, Valdez is Coming with Burt Lancaster, that I’d seen several times.
So, one pretty summer day my dad drove me over to “Dutch” Leonard’s little house in Birmingham, Michigan, just a few miles from where we lived, dropped me off and said he’d be back in a few hours.
I knocked on the door and Dutch answered. He asked me in and we stood awkwardly in his living room attempting small talk. He said, “So, you want to be a screenwriter, eh?” and I said, “Yeah, and a director, too.” He said, “Have you made any films?” and I said, “Yeah, some Super-8 films.” He said, “How’d that go?” and I said, “Pretty good, though I haven’t made any good films yet.” We stood there awkwardly for another minute, then he said, “Hey, wanna see where I write?” and I said, “Sure.”
Dutch led me down into the basement where his desk and typewriter were located. He pointed at the desk and typewriter and said, “This is where I write.” Then to prove it he rolled a piece of paper into the typewriter. I said, “Wow.” Thus ended the writing lesson. Dutch then smiled and asked, “Want some wine? I make it myself. It’s apple wine.” I said, “Sure,” and just assumed that he thought I was older than nearly 16 because of my beard. Dutch got us both big glasses of apple wine, which was very good, and we sat down and lit cigarettes. I then grilled him about his films, saying that I really liked Valdez is Coming. He said, “Yeah, that was a good one. I just wrote the book, not the script.” I asked what Burt Lancaster, one of my very favorite actors, was like? Dutch said, “I never met him. They don’t invite the guy who wrote the book to the set.” I asked, “What was Paul Newman like on Hombre?” Once again he said, “Never met him, I just wrote the book.” I asked, “What was Charles Bronson like on Mr. Majestyk?” He shook his head, “I never met him, either, although I did write the script for that one.” Having exhausted my knowledge of his films, and feeling a bit tipsy, we moved on to movies in general, my favorite topic. Dutch had seen a lot of films, as had I for a nearly 16-year-old, and we then had a spirited film discussion. We each had another glass of wine, smoked more cigarettes, and the time just flew past.
My dad showed up to get me. I thanked Dutch for his time and the wine, then left. In the car my dad asked, “Did you learn anything about writing scripts?” I said, “Yeah, a lot.” My dad lit a cigarette and said, “Then it was worth it.” I too lit a cigarette and said, “It sure was.”
A couple of years later, I was up at Strike & Spare bowling alley where my buddy, John, was the bartender and gave me free drinks. I was there with John’s best buddy, Mike. I saw my gorgeous former girlfriend, Chiara Sherwood, come in with Bill Leonard, Elmore’s son, whom I’d met a couple of times before. I became breathless. I said, “I have to talk to Chiara.” Mike said, “She’s with Bill Leonard.” I said, “I don’t care, I have to talk to her.” So I went up to the alley where Chiara and Bill were about to start bowling. I said hi to Bill and shook his hand, then turned to Chiara and stammered some indecipherable bullshit. Chiara smiled sweetly and after a minute or two more of me spouting pure gibberish I retreated back to the bar. I was giddy at having just laid eyes on the beautiful Chiara.
I said to Mike, “How do you think I did?”
Mike replied in his patented dry tone, pointing down toward my waist, “I’m sure you did great since your fly is open.”
And indeed it was. I became horribly embarrassed, zipped up and ordered another drink.