He wrote some of the greatest crime novels of the last 50 years. His books were, depending on how he felt about them, butchered or done right by Hollywood. He gave us Get Shorty, 52 Pick Up, Hombre, Killshot, and Valdez is Coming, to name but a few.
Elmore Leonard began his career in the Navy straight after graduating from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School in 1943. After serving for 3 years, he enrolled in the University of Detroit where, a year before graduating, he got a job as a copy writer with Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency.
In 1951 he had his first short story published, a western called Trail of the Apaches. He continued to write short story westerns, publishing more than 30. Among his first novels was the great 3:10 to Yuma. The novel was made into a movie, remade recently with Russell Crowe. And there began a relationship with Hollywood that has lasted posthumously with his novel The Switch being in production as Life on Crime, an adaptation starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins.
There is an excellent little interview between Leonard and the great writer, Martin Amis. It encapsulates everything that Leonard was about. He didn’t take himself too seriously and he stuck to his guns when it came to his approach to his craft. Leonard says:
I had a desire to write very early on but I didn’t. I wrote just what I had to write in school compositions and things like that. It wasn’t until I was in college after World War II that I wrote a couple of short stories. The first one because the English instructor said, “If you enter this contest “–it was a local writers’ club within the University of Detroit– “I’ll give you a B. ” I’ve always been inspired in this somewhat commercial approach toward writing. Which is why I chose westerns to begin with. In 1951, I decided to look at the field. I looked at the market, and I saw westerns in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, almost everything from the Ladies Home Journal down through men’s magazines and pulps. There were then at least a dozen pulps still in business, the better ones paying two cents a word. So I decided this was a market. What with all of these magazines buying short stories, this was the place to start–and because I liked western movies a lot, and I wanted to sell to Hollywood right away and make some money. I approached this with a desire to write but also to make as much money as I could doing it. I didn’t see anything wrong with that at all. I think the third one sold, and that was it. After that, they’ve all sold since then. But then the market dried up, and I had to switch to crime.
While there have been some other critically lauded film adaptations of Leonard’s work, we prefer Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk. A highly underrated adaptation of his work, but the screenplay and the book were both done simultaneously by Leonard. And, it has Bronson, who was the kind of cool character that Leonard loved in his books.
RIP Elmore Leonard (1925-2013).