Six of the first seven top-rated 1958 TV shows were westerns, Elmore Leonard is told. The top three being Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Have Gun Will Travel. Justified, a critically acclaimed new series based on Leonard's work, developed by Canadian producer, Graham Yost, is the only western on the tube today. What happened? Why did the western go west?
"People got tired of them," the 84-year-old author says over the phone. Leonard certainly did. "There were 32 westerns on the air back then and I didn't like any of them. Every one ended with a gunfight; two guys out on the street. I did 32 western stories and eight novels and none ended that way."
Bang-bang! With that the Dickens of Detroit, a pulp-fiction mill for more than 50 years, shoots down the TV western tradition. And the Get Shorty author still has a bullet left for crime fiction. "I tried that book by the Swedish fellow - [Stieg Larsson's] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Kept waiting for something to happen."
The trick to storytelling, Leonard believes, "is leaving out the parts readers skip." That's something Justified, which airs in Canada on Super Channel Monday nights, manages with economy and wit, he says. The story of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a Stetson-wearing lawman who returns to Harlan County to deal with a messy past, manages to pass Leonard's creative checklist.
"Last night's show was terrific," the writer says. "Action all the way, good story, suspense .... The funny stuff was funny."
Funny stuff in a recent episode has Marshal Givens (Timothy Olyphant), hero of Leonard's novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, teasing an acquaintance with the joke, "Know why Pentecostals don't like sex standing up? Could lead to dancing." There's a reason Justified feels like a sexy Elmore Leonard road trip to the south. Producer Yost captures the overheated torpor of the region with overexposed photography and a sweaty down-home soundtrack that gives off the kerosene reek of moonshine. TV hasn't been this studiously groomed since Michael Mann: The series could be called Kentucky Vice. Leonard's deadpan comic delivery was also achieved in a purposeful manner.
"I got a whole bunch of his paperbacks and handed them out to writers," Toronto-born Yost says. "We wanted everyone to get the rhythm and feel of Elmore Leonard."
Yost literally handcuffed writers to Leonard by having inspirational bracelets made up that read WWED - "What would Elmore do?"
"I gave 'em to my kids and grandkids," Leonard laughs, adding that whatever Yost did, his actors captured Leonard's sound.
"There are not many actors who deliver the words the way I wrote them," he says. "George Clooney, he was good [in Out of Sight] The Tarantino people [from Jackie Brown]were faithful. My favourite guy though is still Richard Boone, from two of my early pictures [ Hombre and The Tall T]"
Yost wears another WWED bracelet. Except the E is different. "What would Elwy do?" Graham Yost says. "I wear that bracelet symbolically wherever I go." His father is Elwy Yost, retired host of Canadian movie shows, including Passport to Adventure (CBC, 1965-67) and TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies (1974-99). Yost has been throwing secret tributes his father's way for years. McMurran, the air-force base mentioned in the Yost's 1996 film, Broken Arrow, is actually Elwy Yost's middle name.
"I grew up talking about movies with my father and brother," Graham Yost says. "What made movies work - what scenes we liked."
One of Elwy Yost's Saturday Night moviesprovided the title for Graham Yost's new series. "Originally we were going to call it Lawman," Yost says. "Finally, someone came up with Justified. That word comes up in the first episode, but it also shows up in my favourite western, Ride the High Country, where Joel McRae says, 'A man wants to walk into his father's house, justified.'
Leonard likes the series so much he's now thinking up another Marshal Raylan Givens novel. Right now, however, he's just working as an executive producer and helping out with publicity on Justified.
Fans shouldn't be surprised that Leonard is busying himself with promotion work. He's always seen publicity as part of the job. Besides, the author of more than 50 novels and screenplays often finds inspiration for his work while out hustling his wares. In fact, that's where he came up with the name Raylan Givens.
"I remember I was doing a bookseller's luncheon," Leonard says. "And the man introducing me was named Raylan. Soon as I heard it, I thought, Raylan, man, that's a great name. I've got to find a story for him."
Special to The Globe and Mail