Guest Post: Travis McGee & the TV Series

By Kevin Comer

Okay, I admit the title of this essay is somewhat deceptive. There never was a TV series based on Travis McGee. And T. McGee’s absence from the small screen was no accident.

JDM rebuffed several proposals—and the money attached—to create a Travis McGee television series. In a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, JDM recounts how one frustrated producer had spoken to his agent about “the difficulty of finding the right approach to a writer who doesn’t believe in television.”

JDM begged to differ. He believes in television, just not for McGee, he explains to Rowan: “I believe in it. One per cent of it is very very good …. And 99 per cent …is schlock. I just don’t want Trav to undergo that simplistifying (new word!!) change which the series tube requires, nor do I want the angle of approach wrenched this way and that when the ratings don’t move and everybody starts to get frightened and they start trying this and trying that.”

Even when the proposal for a series included serious money, JDM wouldn’t budge. In a letter to Harry Ackerman, a VP at Screen Gems—and “a rare bird [in Hollywood] …who actually reads books” according to JDM—he wrote: “I said [to a producer] that I would not sell [the television rights] for $10 million on a ten year spread. He looked at me as if I had turned into a Thing from the Great Swamp. Maybe it is quaint in these times not to give a damn about the big money. I just never have and never will.”

JDM didn’t dismiss every TV series as schlock. He enjoyed the Rockford Files (1974-1980). The series featured James Garner playing Jim Rockford, a private eye living in a rusty house trailer perched on blocks in a parking lot adjacent to a Malibu beach. JDM wrote in TV Guide: “…good tight dialogue, good pictorials, and a strong emotional evolvement keep the story afloat. And it is heartening to a book writer to note the success of the series that most nearly fulfills our scriveners’ standards.”

So JDM didn’t believe it would be impossible to build an acceptable TV series around McGee. He was primarily concerned with maintaining the value of Travis McGee in book form. His letter to Dan Rowan continues: “The McGee books are to keep me in boats and baubles during my declining years, and I have said to those who would have him on the TV screen that it isn’t very likely right now that any huge swarm of people would run to their favorite newsstand and snap up new novels featuring Ben Casey. Or Sgt. Bilko.”

There never was a TV series because JDM was determined to keep Travis McGee off the tube, not because Hollywood didn’t try. That’s okay with me. I just finished a two year project of watching all 123 Rockford episodes on Netflix and I’d never even be tempted to buy a Rockford book, if such a thing exists, while I would absolutely run to my local newsstand to snap up a new novel featuring Travis McGee.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & the TV Series

  1. Thanks for the great post, Kevin.

    There would have been a time when the idea of a McGee TV show would not have been a good idea. And I think JDM lived in one of those times. His reaction to that money waved in his face was the correct one.

    And as much as I love James Garner’s Rockford, the quality of the scripts and everything else about the show was pretty uneven. Typical of that era. Garner is the only reason to watch the show, IMO–a pretty big reason, though. I’m making my way through the series, as well.

    I think, however, that TV (broadcast & cable & streaming) has raised its game so high these days that it would do total justice to McGee now. From The Sopranos and The Wire, to House of Cards and The Good Wife, the quality can be as great as great film.

    Of course, there can be no McGee TV show in 2014, even if some big production company wanted to do it. It would require lots of new McGee stories. And if the JDM estate won’t allow new novels, why would they allow new TV stories?

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