Elmore Leonard dies: The crime writer’s TV hits and misses

Elmore Leonard, the revered crime author who died Tuesday at age 87, was well known in Hollywood circles, either for his books that got adapted into films or for his own screenplays. But Leonard’s most recent success had been on the small screen with the FX series “Justified.”

The drama, adapted from Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” has aired for four seasons, with a fifth expected to air in January. It is, by far, the most popular and well received adaptation of Leonard’s work for the small screen. Leonard himself served as one of the show’s executive producers.

But though he’d had a long big-screen career, the very first adaptation of Leonard’s work also appeared on the small screen. In 1956, “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars,” a dramatic anthology series, aired an adaptation of Leonard’s western short story “Moment of Vengeance,” which was first published in the Saturday Evening Post.

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When Leonard returned to TV, it was with an original teleplay for the TV movie “Desperado.” Alex McArthur starred as nomadic cowboy Duell McCall, who finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly feud in a frontier mining town. Though the script was originally intended to be the pilot of a weekly series, it ended up being successful enough to kick off a series of five TV movies that aired from 1987 to 1989.


Leonard’s novel “Glitz” became the basis of a TV movie adaptation in 1988. Jimmy Smits, a rising star from his role on NBC’s “L.A. Law,” starred as a Miami cop working to take down a serial rapist. Markie Post, another star from NBC, was a costar. While Leonard had written a screenplay for director Sidney Lumet to do a big-screen adaptation, the TV version was rewritten and was not considered a success.

Another of Leonard’s novels, “Split Images,” was adapted as a TV movie in 1992. The story involved a wealthy and bored killer and his cop partner-in-crime, along with police officer and his reporter girlfriend who try to stop them. The TV movie recieved mediocre reviews, despite a teleplay by novelist and newspaperman Pete Hamill.

One of Leonard’s earliest western novels, “Last Stand at Saber River,” became a TV movie in 1997, with Tom Selleck starring as a Confederate Civil War veteran who teams with a former Union soldier to take on rebel pioneers who threaten his family. The film, which aired on TNT, received so-so reviews but did land a nomination at the YoungStar Awards for its then-unknown performer Haley Joel Osment.

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“Pronto,” based on Leonard’s 1993 novel, became a TV movie in 1997 with Peter Falk, Glenne Headly and James Le Gros. Le Gros played Leonard’s U.S. marshal character Raylan Givens, the role that Timothy Olyphant would eventually play on the series “Justified.” However, this version of the character never caught on with audiences or Leonard himself, who expressed his displeasure at Le Gros and the film in general to TV writer Alan Sepinwall.

Based on the success of director Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 big-screen adaptation of Leonard’s “Get Shorty,” ABC brought Sonnenfeld and Leonard together again for the 1998 series “Maximum Bob.” Beau Bridges starred as a cartoonish ultraconservative judge, and the series featured the cast of wacky Florida characters in his life. Despite a high-profile launch to the series, it did not do well in the ratings and was canceled after seven episodes.

Another attempt by ABC to bring Leonard’s work to series, “Karen Sisco,” fared only slightly better in 2003. It lasted 10 episodes before getting canceled. Carla Gugino played the role of Sisco, a U.S. marshal in Miami dedicated to bringing down bad guys. Jennifer Lopez had played the role in the big-screen version, “Out of Sight.”

“Justified” has been Leonard’s biggest TV success, earning multiple Emmy nominations and even winning one for supporting actress Margo Martindale. (Guest actor Jeremy Davies also won one.)

While it’s too soon to know if Leonard’s death with have an effect on the series, it’s a sure bet that the fifth season premiere will be dedicated to the man who created their world.


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Elmore Leonard dies at 87; master of the hard-boiled crime novel