Elmore Leonard, Author of ‘Get Shorty,’ ‘Out Of Sight,’ ’3:10 To Yuma,’ Dead at 87

Mark Deming
Movie Talk
Author Elmore Leonard on the set of 'Get Shorty' in 1995
Author Elmore Leonard on the set of 'Get Shorty' in 1995

Elmore Leonard, one of America's most celebrated crime writers whose work was the basis for the movies "Get Shorty," "Out Of Sight," "3:10 To Yuma," "Killshot" and "The Big Bounce," and the TV series "Justified," is dead. Leonard died in a Detroit-area hospital following a stroke he suffered early in the month. Leonard was 87.

Greg Sutter, Leonard's longtime researcher who also maintained the author's web site, made the announcement Tuesday morning. "The post I dreaded to write, and you dreaded to read," Sutter said in a Facebook post. "Elmore passed away at 7:15 this morning from complications from his stroke. He was at home surrounded by his loving family."

Nicknamed "Dutch" (after Detroit Tigers pitcher Hubert "Dutch" Leonard), Leonard was known for his sharp ear for dialogue and vivid characters, who often found themselves crossing paths unexpectedly and making uneasy alliances. Leonard started out writing Westerns, publishing his first novel "The Bounty Hunters" in 1953. However, it was in 1969 that Leonard moved into contemporary crime stories with "The Big Bounce," and he soon hit his stride as an author with his witty, cleverly plotted tales of offbeat crooks, and he also found greater commercial and critical success.

Hollywood was already aware of Leonard's work by this time; his 1961 novel "Hombre" was made into a film starring Paul Newman in 1967, and "The Big Bounce" was soon optioned for the screen, and turned into a vehicle for Ryan O'Neal (it was remade in 2004 with Owen Wilson). Leonard also worked as a screenwriter, adapting his novel "The Moonshine War" for the screen in 1970, and later penning such films as "Joe Kidd," "Mr. Majestyk" and "Stick."

But it wasn't until 1995 that Hollywood really figured out the formula of Leonard's distinct style with "Get Shorty." Inspired by Leonard's real-life Hollywood dealings with a short-statured and temperamental star (reportedly Dustin Hoffman), it's the story of a mobster who goes to California to collect a debt and discovers the machinations of the movie business agree with him. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, "Get Shorty" got the sound and feel of Leonard's novel just right, with great performances from a cast that included John Travolta, Gene Hackman, and Rene Russo, along with the recently deceased Dennis Farina and James Gandolfini.

In 1997, longtime fan Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to Leonard's work with "Jackie Brown," an adaptation of Leonard's novel "Rum Punch" that revived the career of Pam Grier and reveled in Leonard's often-eccentric characters and their dirty dealings. In the novel the lead character is a white flight attendant named Jackie Burke, but Tarantino changed her to an African-American so that he could cast '70s blaxsploitation legend Grier. The film also revived the career of Robert Forster, who earned an Academy Award nomination as the bail bondsman Max Cherry.

In 1998, Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" kick-started the film careers of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and gave the director's career as new lease on life, as well as catching the easy cool of Leonard's literary voice. Leonard wrote a follow-up novel, 2009's "Road Dogs," where he revised the character of escaped convict Jack Foley to more closely match Clooney's on-screen portrayal.

Other Leonard novels that were brought to the screen include "52 Pick Up," "Be Cool," "Freaky Deaky," "Touch," and "3:10 To Yuma." The latter was one of Leonard's first works to be made into a movie in 1957, with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in the leads; it was remake in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

Leonard's 2001 short story "Fire In The Hole" highlighted the character of Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall who is transferred from Miami to his old hometown in rural Kentucky. The story inspired the hit TV series "Justified," with Leonard serving as executive producer.

While Leonard was born in New Orleans, his family relocated to Detroit when he was nine, and he stayed in the Motor City for the rest of his life. As Leonard once wrote of his adopted hometown, "There are cities that get by on their good looks. Detroit has to work for a living."

Elmore Leonard is survived by his third wife, Christine Kent, and his five children, twelve grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.