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Ready for his screen test

Back in the 1960s, two hugely popular literary characters ruled the pages of more than 10 novels each. Though it was a famously transformative decade, both were old-school men’s men who loved risk, adventure, liquor and attractive women. Both protagonists became touchstones of their eras.

They differed in significant ways -- one was English, suave, favored bone-dry martinis, and worked for a large government organization. The other was Floridian, raw-boned, drank gin, and remained fiercely independent, avoiding entanglements of all kinds.

But perhaps the biggest difference between James Bond and Travis McGee is cinematic: The Bond films that began with “Dr. No” in 1962 became so popular that they’re vastly better known than Ian Fleming’s slim, taut books. McGee, by contrast, exists almost entirely on the pages of John D. MacDonald’s 21-novel series, which has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

That a nonseries MacDonald novel originally titled “The Executioners” became not one but two successful films -- J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear” (1962) starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro -- suggest that the author’s work can move smoothly to the screen.

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Why such a naturally cinematic character -- a tough former Marine who operates under his own code of relative morality and knows how to use both his wits and his fists to help others in need -- has not made a successful transition to film has caused head-scratching for decades now.

But it looks as if McGee may finally get his place in the sun: New York-based producer Amy Robinson is in the late stages of developing the first McGee novel, “The Deep Blue Good-By,” for production by Fox. Robinson calls McGee “the man every woman wants to be with and every man wants to be.”

Though the project, which puts McGee on the trail of a seductive and dangerous ex-con who’s left a trail of broken women in his wake, is not greenlighted and there is no director or talent attached, supporters are hopeful for the first time in decades. Sources close to the project say the studio is bullish on McGee.

“There have been a lot of twists and turns,” said Robinson, who produced Scorsese’s 1985 paranoid comedy “After Hours.” “But I still have a lot of optimism that the movie will be made, and I hope it will be several movies.”

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“I think we’re in a good position now,” said literary agent George Diskant, who has represented MacDonald’s estate since the author’s 1986 death. “We’re getting very close.”

McGee himself -- who narrates these 21 novels, which ran from 1964’s “Blue” to 1985’s “The Lonely Silver Rain” -- sometimes called himself a knight in rusty armor, and the books frame him as a kind of humanistic and noble throwback in an increasingly corrupt world.

“He’s an adventurer,” said crime-fiction historian Otto Penzler. “He doesn’t need any motivation other than ‘Here’s a woman in jeopardy, I can make some money and do some good.’ This is a common figure in the 19th century, where people just went out and did stuff because they were adventurous souls. He’s out of Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King.’ ”

Less adventurous is McGee’s foil and drinking partner known simply as Meyer, a hirsute and brainy chess-playing economist whose boat is called the John Maynard Keynes.

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And while the novels are defined by their plot and action -- there’s always a fistfight with a swamp rat or daring escape from a deranged grifter -- they also include observations and asides by McGee, channeling his author: He’ll champion the sanctity of women (one is “not trivial enough for purely recreational sex”), criticize organized religion (“like being marched in formation to look at a sunset”), knock hunting (ideal for “the fellow with such a hollow sense of inadequacy”). Off and on, he’ll dismiss middle-class consumption and ambition -- “plastic credit cards, payroll, deductions, retirement benefits . . . junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny.”

One abiding concern for McGee -- a dropout from society who seems more libertarian than liberal despite the ‘60s and ‘70s settings -- was the environment. Years before a full-fledged environmental movement, he was describing Florida’s Mangrove Islands as “one of the few strange places left which man has not been able to mess up.” In 1973, McGee talked about “instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores.”

“He was a great American character,” Robinson says of McGee, who described himself as a “salvage consultant” and lived on a Fort Lauderdale houseboat. “And MacDonald was prescient about ecology, about the economy, about people not trusting the government and living off the grid.”

MacDonald’s work doesn’t have the literary or scholarly respect of his forebears Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett or even of the similarly surnamed California hard-boiled writer Ross Macdonald.

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His work was driven by the market, and he cranked these books out -- four Travis novels in 1964, three in ’65 -- with little regard for literary fashion. Many of the novels are barely in print, on cheap paper, and MacDonald has never been published by the prestigious Black Lizard vintage crime fiction imprint.

Still, the respected critic Jonathan Yardley wrote a 2003 Washington Post piece arguing that McGee was “one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period” and calling his author “a far more accomplished and important novelist than is generally recognized.” Carl Hiaasen calls him “the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center.”

Everyone seems to agree on the novels’ long-ignored cinematic possibilities. “It absolutely has baffled me,” said Penzler. “It’s such a movie, it’s so cinematic, they’re linear, they’re clean and simple. When you look at the enormous success of something like Indiana Jones -- why wouldn’t Travis travel the same way?”

In fact, the books have been held by one studio or the other at least since the late ‘60s. They were first owned by CBS’ theatrical arm, Cinema Center Film, which resulted in 1970’s “Darker Than Amber,” a long-forgotten film, starring Rod Taylor, of the seventh McGee novel.

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Warner Bros. owned the rights for roughly 20 years, starting in the mid-'70s; the only fruit of this union was “Travis McGee,” a 1983, Sam Elliott-starring television movie based on “The Empty Copper Sea” and widely despised by fans.

In the mid-'90s, when Robinson, a longtime enthusiast of MacDonald’s work, found that Warners no longer owned the books, she jumped at the chance to bring them to Fox. The studio now owns the rights to most of the McGee novels.

“Getting it to the right place with the right people is sometimes a juggling act,” she says, though she attests she now has firm support from Fox. “I think everybody there really likes it. I’m hoping we’ll be able to move forward in the next year.”

Lovers of the books are most concerned, of course, with who will play McGee himself. The Internet has included speculation that Robert Downey Jr., fresh off his portrayal of the upcoming “Sherlock Holmes,” might take on the role. Ideally, the actor would have to be young enough to hold on for a franchise that could run for close to a decade.

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“I’d like to see someone like Daniel Craig,” said Penzler. “A real man, macho, someone with swagger, or a young Russell Crowe. A young Harrison Ford. Not Tom Cruise or someone like that. If they get the right guy, there’ll be five or six of them.”

Robinson, who herself played Teresa in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” won’t name any actor, past or present, who reminds her of the burly Floridian. “You want someone who’s masculine and intelligent,” she says. “A man’s man, a man who loves women but doesn’t mind being by himself. He’s kind of a classic movie character.”

Selling the movie version of McGee could be a challenge because the young male audience that drives box-office numbers was mostly unborn at the time of the final novel’s publication, and adult-oriented material, even if it’s suffused with action, has struggled to connect with audiences in recent times.

McGee creator MacDonald was reportedly wary of the film business and might not have been surprised by the winding road to the multiplex.

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A Pennsylvania native born in 1916, he earned a Harvard M.B.A., served in China, India and Burma while in the army, pursued what he called a failed business career, and wrote stories for pulp magazines like Dime Detective and Doc Savage -- all before discovering the natural beauties of Florida’s east coast in his early 30s.

Penzler recalls the author as conservative, private, “almost reclusive.” He remembers having to almost force MacDonald to attend a New York mystery convention in the early ‘80s, where he was guest of honor: The author spent the luncheon “taking Valiums like they were breath mints.”

Though his most famous character is one of literature’s great playboys, MacDonald was married to the same woman for almost half a century. The author wrote in a letter that, “I am, at the heart of it all, a moralist.”

But he saw himself as an entertainer, and it seems only fair that the books would get another shot at the big-screen treatment. And just as Bond was able to modernize and translate to 21st century movie goers, so can McGee, says Robinson, who intends to set the film in the present.

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“I would just say, ‘It’s the movie business,’” says agent Diskant. “Even with material like this, it’s difficult to get it made. A lot of things have to come together.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

BOOK EXCERPT

Travis McGee, at home

It was to have been a quiet evening at home.

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Home is the Busted Flush, 52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.

Home is where the privacy is. Draw all the opaque curtains, button the hatches, and with the whispering drone of the air conditioning masking all the sounds of the outside world, you are no longer cheek to jowl with the random activities aboard the neighbor craft. You could be in a rocket beyond Venus, or under the icecap.

Because it is a room aboard, I call it the lounge, and because that is one of the primary activities.

I was sprawled on a deep curve of the corner couch, studying charts of the keys, trying to work up enough enthusiasm and energy to plan to move the Busted Flush to a new mooring for a while. She has a pair of Hercules diesels, 58 HP each, that will chug her along at a stately six knots. I didn’t want to move her. I like Lauderdale. But it had been so long I was wondering if I should.

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-- The opening of “The Deep Blue Good-by,” 1964.


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