Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Silver Screen

By Kevin Comer

Before I began my metamorphosis into a world-class John D. MacDonald scholar, I wasn’t aware of Travis McGee having appeared on the silver screen. Although I’m still merely a scholarly pupa, I’ve learned two movies have been based on McGee novels. Darker than Amber was made into a theatrical film released in 1970. And The Empty Copper Sea was the basis for a 1983 TV movie. I also know why I was unaware of the existence of either film.

The 1970 film adaptation of Darker than Amber was intended to be the first in a series bringing the McGee novels to the big screen. The hope was to build a franchise like Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had done with Ian Fleming’s James Bond canon. A new film was to be released every eighteen months. The only problem was Darker than Amber, the film, was a complete flop. As a result, a second film was never made and, to his relief, the movie rights reverted to JDM.

Although JDM had been cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the film version of Darker than Amber, he said of the final product: “[it] was feral, cheap, rotten, gratuitously meretricious, shallow, and embarrassing.” I watched Darker than Amber on YouTube. I’m not sure it was cheap. If you’d like to judge for yourself, click here.

The film stars Rod Taylor as McGee and Theodore Bikel as Meyer. JDM was pleased with the casting. He said of Rod Taylor: “I like the guy. He has a face that looks lived in, and he projects a masculinity that can glaze the young female eye at seventy paces. But what matters to me is that he understands what McGee is all about—the anti-hero, tender and tough, with many chinks in the armor.” And he declared: “…Bikel is Meyer, a large hairy gentle watchful thoughtful man.”

JDM wasn’t as keen on the script. After reading the initial version presented to him, he rewrote the first 40 pages and sent it back. One of the problems was the depiction of Meyer. JDM, critiquing the script in a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, complained: “For example, they turned Meyer into a fat clown, clumsy and dumb. Degrade a man’s closest friend and you do not enhance him by comparison—you only degrade him too.” After some effort, JDM was able to get the script revised more or less to his satisfaction. Any lingering concerns he may have harbored were reportedly met with assurances that film is a director’s medium and everything would be fine.

JDM did get excited, especially after spending some time on set. He was impressed with how effectively the furious activity swirling around him was being managed. He compared it to watching a crack battalion in operation.

He particularly delighted in seeing the Busted Flush. He commented in a letter to his publisher: “It is very very weird to invent a big houseboat in your mind, write about it in eleven books, and suddenly walk onto a dock and come upon it in the flesh, so to speak. Big and solid and fast. And that bathtub aboard is exactly what you think it would be …”

So JDM was chagrined and bitterly disappointed when Darker than Amber hit the screen. He told an interviewer: “If I had it to do over again I would never let Mr. McGee out of my hand. Not for a movie, not for television. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t even sell stereopticon rights to McGee.” Unfortunately, JDM had to do it over again.

In 1979, JDM was informed his estate contained a time bomb in the form of an inheritance tax liability. Due to the previous sale, he was told, if he didn’t sell the movie rights to the McGee novels, the IRS would assign a value of $8 million to the rights for each and every book when it came time to pay his death duties. JDM protested, but as they say, nothing is as certain as death and taxes. So he quickly sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. and the studio eventually decided to make a TV movie based on The Empty Copper Sea, starring Sam Elliot as McGee.

However, some minor changes were necessary: The studio thought Travis McGee would make a better title than The Empty Copper Sea; Los Angeles would make a better home base than Fort Lauderdale; a sailboat called Bequia would make a better floating home than a houseboat called the Busted Flush; and, most shocking to me, McGee would sport a mustache that would be at home on a walrus, a creature unknown in the tropics.

Despite this unthinkable degree of sacrilege, the 1983 movie apparently got decent ratings and could have been the basis for a series of TV movies if Sam Elliot hadn’t had other commitments by the time the studio made up its mind to move forward. JDM commented about the whole business: “I have never met or talked to any studio people, but they must really be congenital incompetents. I should never have peddled McGee ….”

I’ve searched high and low for Travis McGee. At this time, it is not on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or Warner Archive Instant. It’s not even on YouTube. It does not appear to be available on DVD either. I’m sure it would only upset me, so it is probably just as well.

The movie rights to McGee are still out there. Recently, there’ve been reports that Deep Blue Good-by is in pre-production. Leonardo DiCaprio was slated to star as McGee, but dropped out. Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, has written the latest draft script. James Mangold (Wolverine) “is in negotiations” to direct. DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, Chernin Entertainment, and Amy Robinson are involved in producing.

In many things I practice what I call “expectation management.” In regard to the possibility of Blue becoming a (possibly good) movie, I’m managing my expectations, despite the big names attached.

In my opinion, even good film adaptations are very rarely as good as the books they’re based upon. It could be argued that satisfactorily translating a complex first person protagonist like Travis McGee to celluloid is impossible given the story-telling limitations of film. As a reader, you always know what McGee is thinking. Even in a fight, you see the world through his eyes, you’re never observing him from afar. And then there’s those studio people.



7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Silver Screen

  1. Kevin: Great job and so glad that you included the quote from “A Friendship…” the letters between JDM and Dan Rowan. I read the book and it was excellent. I loved it.

    I’m in a hurry but don’t recall mention of a TV series. Seems I recall there was one but not sure.

    Great entry…mostly new and quite interesting information. (But damn, I thought Leonardo D would have done Travis justice.)

    While I love (as he knows) D. R.’s writing, you certainly are keeping the boat afloat…although The Busted Flush wasn’t sinking, not at all. Keep up the great work!


  2. Meyer is gone, that is Theodor Meir Bikel. He played Meyer in the theatrical release “Darker than Amber.” He did a good job too, probably thanks to JDM’s rewrite. Bikel was a good actor, certainly better known for parts other than Meyer.

    I liked this story, especially the opening scene, but thought it was, as others have said, darker than some. It probably wasn’t the best choice to start a Bond-like franchise.
    As for Copper, Sam Elliott was playing Sam Elliott. JDM is there, but you have to look for him. I did like the quote about being the King of the World lopping so many heads that it looked like a bizarre bowling alley.

    • Bikel was wickedly talented—not just a very prolific & successful actor, but one of the top folk singers of the post-WWII era. I particularly remember him for two roles. He played Zoltan Karparthy in My Fair Lady, the language expert who was to determine if Eliza really was a princess. (She fooled him.) And as the captain of the Russian sub that went aground in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. I adore that flick, packed to the gills with great comedic actors.

      Back in the day, Bikel was the perfect choice for Meyer. I’m still OK with Peter Dinklage, if and when the McGee film reboots. But a far better Meyer is out there—Saul Rubinek.

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