Elmore Leonard, like many writers, fashioned a method of self-preservation when it came to dealing with Hollywood. When he sold his novels — and he sold many — he cashed the paycheck and then let them go.
But with the FX drama “Justified,” Leonard didn’t let go. The show’s pilot sprang from Leonard’s 2001 story “Fire in the Hole,” which returned U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a supporting character in Miami-based novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap,” back to his home state of Kentucky.
Before tackling the adaptation, the show’s creator Graham Yost gave each member of his “Justified” writing staff various novels that the prolific Leonard had written so they could understand the rhythm and tone of his work. Yost also gave them each a bracelet inscribed with the letters WWED (What Would Elmore Do), an accessory Yost still wears.
Leonard, who died Tuesday at age 87, didn’t interfere with the adapation, but he did offer a suggestion after he saw the pilot. “You might want to keep Boyd around,” Leonard told Yost, referring to the Kentucky career criminal who worked with Raylan in the Harlan County coal mines before becoming his primary antagonist — and whom Leonard had killed off in his story.
“His other line about Boyd,” Yost remembers, referrring to actor Walton Goggins’ performance, “was, ‘I don’t believe a word he says, but I love to hear him say it.’ ”
Yost, in a phone interview Tuesday, said it will be difficult to move ahead with the show, now entering its fifth season, without Leonard.
“Once he saw what we were doing on ‘Justified,’ that with every breath and every episode we were trying our best to pay tribute to him and do a show the way he would do it, he enjoyed that,” Yost said. “The best reviews we’ve ever gotten were people in the Marshal Service got a kick out of it and people in Harlan County got a kick out of it, but most importantly, Elmore Leonard got a kick out of it.”
And the admiration was mutual. After Timothy Olyphant, who plays the cool Kentucky lawman Givens on the show, casually asked Leonard to fashion another story centered on the character, Leonard wrote three, intertwined in the 2012 book “Raylan.” And, in a nod to the series, Leonard included characters that Yost and his writers had created independently and even brought back Boyd Crowder, even though, technically he had died in Harlan County’s literary world.
“We got a big kick out of that,” Yost said. “It was really sweet.”
After he wrote “Raylan,” Leonard told Yost to “hang it up and strip it for parts,” giving them his blessing to incorporate anything they wanted into the TV series. The “Justified” writing team did just that, creating a couple of Season 4 subplots from the book’s material. Yost said that the process is ongoing and that there will be elements from the novel in the show’s upcoming season.
Leonard, in fact, was still taken enough with the Raylan character to include him in the story he was working on before he died.
“It’s about a bull rider who gets into trouble in the Imperial Valley and spends some time in prison and is trying to make a new life for himself. But, of course, things don’t go well,” Yost said. “He had gone back and forth as to whether Raylan was going to appear in it, and he had finally decided, ‘Yeah. I’m going to bring Raylan in. He’ll come to the Imperial Valley.’”
The appeal of the lawman, to the writer and the actor who plays him on the TV series, comes from a sense that he was born maybe 100 years too late.
“He seems to operate as though he’s been hired to uphold the law in a different time,” Olyphant told The Times in a 2011 interview. “In one of Elmore’s books, there was this great passage about Raylan standing in front of one of these old pictures of Old West marshals, wondering how he’d size up against a guy like that. That old sensibility, contrasted with what modern law enforcement is today, is part of the fun of it.”
“I’m not that cool, I tell you that,” Olyphant added. “We wear a hat about as well. That’s about it.”
Leonard, on the other hand, Yost says, embodied that calm, collected sense of self-assurance.
“When he signed a book for someone, he would always write, ‘Take it easy, Elmore Leonard,’ ” Yost says. “That was his motto. He was a very cool guy. I didn’t see him ever upset. I’m sure that happened. He’s a human being. But he had an ease about him. His best characters were all like that. Chili Palmer. Raylan. Jack Foley. They all had that kind of no-fuss, no-muss element. And that was Elmore all the way.”