Daredevil : Author Martyn Burke, a self-styled swashbuckler, is always ready for a good fight--whether it’s tracking down Idi Amin or helping a down-on-her-luck blues singer.
Martyn Burke has cozied up to the Mafia, the KGB and Idi Amin. He has tap-danced with death in Afghanistan, where he fought with the rebels against the Russians. He has joined combat missions in Vietnam, navigated the Nile, the Arctic and the Amazon.
Now 44, he has learned to survive after eight years in Hollywood--a feat he considers at least as challenging as the rest.
Burke earns a handsome living by turning his exploits into documentary films, which he then converts into novels written so cinematically that they cause Hollywood bidding wars.
Before his third novel, “Ivory Joe,” was published this month, the screen rights sold for $950,000. The man can’t help it: He just naturally thinks, writes and lives like a fast-action film. It’s what brought him to Hollywood in the first place.
Consider this scenario, narrated recently by the swashbuckler himself as he lounged in his glass-wall condo overlooking the Pacific:
Burke is just out of college in Canada when he decides to visit the Vietnam War. (Don’t ask why; even he doesn’t know.) He wangles press credentials from a local newspaper, goes into battle as a reporter, flies on hair-raising combat missions and writes a novel about the experience when he returns home. The book, “Laughing War,” features a comedian in Vietnam and is published in Canada to decent reviews.
Time passes. Burke becomes a death-defying documentary film director at Canadian Broadcasting Co. and travels the world to penetrate the Mafia, KGB and other tight groups.
His Idi Amin caper is among the best, he recalls with a chuckle: First Burke dares himself “to get next to Idi” when no other journalists can. He flies to Africa, finds the lunatic leader at a reception and tells him that he is Pierre Trudeau’s close friend (a lie). They become pals and zoom around Kampala in a red Maserati, which is machine-gunned to nothingness by would-be Idi assassins right after Burke leaves--with his film.
His documentaries win awards and Burke marries an actress; his life in Canada seems complete.
One day he’s sitting in his Toronto office when a man named Hoffman phones. Dustin Hoffman, it turns out, has read “Laughing War” and invites Burke to Hollywood to write a script, in which the actor plans to star.
Burke is amazed, enthralled, intrigued. He hits town only to find that Cinema City is not unlike the war zone in his book.
“I quickly realized the big similarity between Hollywood and (wartime) Vietnam,” Burke says. “I looked at all the infighting, at all the bodies strewn around, at all the people trying to survive for just one more day.” He flashed back to his battle days: “It occurred to me that in both places, you never really know where danger lurks.”
In fact, he says, “anyone who wants to write, direct or produce in Hollywood should be shipped to a war zone first. That’s a perfect crash course.”
The deal with Hoffman never worked out, Burke explains, but they parted amicably.
Now, however, he is suing Disney Studios for what he calls the theft of his material. He says it eventually turned up on screen as “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
“You’ve read the book; now see the lawsuit,” Burke laughs.
Any visitor can see it in a corner of his den--stacks and stacks of “Laughing War” files dating back to 1983, documenting with whom he met and where. Anyone taking legal action like this has to “really study his files, go back over things and remember. It actually takes more energy and effort to sue than it takes to shoot an entire movie,” Burke says, “but I’m prepared to do it.”
Filed two years ago, the suit won’t come to trial for another two, he says, and there probably will be appeals. “It’s a good thing I had that Vietnam experience, yes? Because it’s just the same sort of thing. I mean, you learn to survive.”
The lawsuit could be viewed, figuratively, as yet another death-defying act. Burke says “all kinds of people” told him not to file, that he could be dead in Hollywood, blackballed in the movie industry. “But I love what I do; I take my work very seriously. And at the time it was--the way I see it--stolen, I decided to go ahead.
“I felt they’re not going to blackball me because I’m going to keep coming up with stuff they want. And lo and behold, I had a bidding war on ‘Ivory Joe’ and lots of studios wanted it” in spite of the lawsuit, he says. “I trust myself.” I don’t care what others think. If I viewed my entire existence as being wrapped up in Hollywood, then I might be in trouble. But I don’t.”
(A Disney spokesperson said the studio does not comment on pending litigation.)
Burke seems to view himself as a sort of free-floating object in the universe, a person rooted in strong values rather than any particular time or space.
His priorities, he says, are adventure and writing, and he has known since childhood that he “didn’t want to lead his life in one spot.”
He has a house in Canada but spends much of his time in the Santa Monica condominium he recently purchased. He is divorced, has no children and no pets and can “lock his door behind him and leave town at a moment’s notice.”
On paper, it sounds like a Spartan life--a macho man without a country who constantly battles the odds. But the real Burke is a soft-spoken, gently rumpled type who offers coffee and apple-cinnamon cakes to morning visitors and worries almost to excess about making them comfortable.
Perhaps because he has seen so much evil so close at hand, he seems preoccupied with its flip side.
“Ivory Joe” is a tender yet oddball love story essentially focused on good. Set in the 1950s, it features a divorced couple who can’t live with or without each other, and their two young children who constantly try to reunite them.
It is set against a backdrop of early rock ‘n’ roll, when the Mafia ran the music industry, stole black musicians’ hits and turned them into money makers with white artists. Part of the tale takes place in Mississippi, where Burke traveled while still in school.
More recent research came in L.A., where Burke met ‘50s singer Ruth Brown during her comeback at the Vine Street Bar and Grill. The two became friends, and he listened to her stories of the bad old days. He silently promised to strike a blow for her and all performers like her, who never got the royalties (or the adulation) they deserved.
Later, while still researching “Ivory Joe,” Burke was asked by CBS to help start the documentary news show, “West 57th Street.”
Burke agreed, on condition he could do segments of his own choosing. One was a story about Brown and Bo Diddley.
“When I met Ruth, she hadn’t been paid royalties in years,” Burke says. “But it was her music that helped create Atlantic Records in the ‘50s, when it was a fledging company for which she recorded. Brown’s music took it over the top. She was immensely popular.”
Burke says he phoned Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, “who told me he had no interest in talking to us” about Brown.
Undaunted, Burke “put the Brown segment on the air as soon as I could, and a few months later, Ruth began getting paid her royalties from Atlantic.” Soon afterwards, he adds, Ertegun announced he was forming a rhythm and blues hall of fame and now sponsors an annual event. And Brown again became a star, in the Broadway hit musical “Black and Blue.”
Ertegun says that when Brown left Atlantic, she had a debit balance and the catalogue of her recordings was fairly inactive. The debit was forgiven, he says, and she has since been paid royalties for all sales since 1970. He says he is proud of his firm’s $1.5-million contribution to the rhythm and blues foundation that assists old-time musicians.
Burke seems to combine the many stories spinning in his brain in books like his latest, which encompasses multiple levels: innocence versus corruption, good against evil, love versus anything.
Even Burke’s evil characters seem likable--a bizarre fact he always finds in real life, he says. He says he has become “fascinated with the charm of evil. People who are very, very evil are also among the most fascinating, warm, charming people I’ve ever met.”
Burke again remembers Idi Amin: “On the weekend I was with him, (he) had several of his cabinet ministers shot, and their bodies turned up floating on the Nile. Yet I had a wonderful time with him; he was absolutely charming.
“And the Mafia mobsters I met were real killers. But they were guys you could sit down with; they were smiling, warm, funny, wonderfully friendly people. The terrifying thing was that I knew each of these guys had coldbloodedly killed” numerous times.
So, too, the KGB operative Burke interviewed. He specialized in assassinations and destruction, “yet this guy was someone I could sit and talk to for an entire day,” Burke says. “But I know if he was ordered to kill me, he would have no problem doing it.”
Burke says he’s never met anyone who can explain this particular paradox, this extraordinary leaping spark that seems to connect great charm with great evil. But he continues to pursue the idea.
And, apparently, nothing will come between him and his explorations. “When I was 18 years old I decided I would have no hobbies,” he says. “I would make my hobbies my work.”
Burke is confident and comfortable with his priorities.
“And nobody in Hollywood can affect me on that. You see those files over there?” he asks, pointing to another big file container in his den. “Those are the next books set to go. At least 10 of them. Nobody’s going to take that away from me.” If his ideas are good enough, he says, he “has faith” that Hollywood will buy them.
Lest this guy seem just too successful, too upbeat to believe, consider the fact that despite the big bucks he’s earned from his screenplays, not one has become a Martyn Burke movie. The first became the lawsuit. The second, based on his second novel, “The Commissar’s Report,” was stifled by glasnost, which affected the film’s premise. And the third, “Ivory Joe,” has yet to start production.
As Burke laughingly explains it: “That’s Hollywood, folks.”