Without question, one of the 20th century's premier writers of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard's fascinatingly seedy characters and penchant for snappy, natural dialogue found the longtime writer climbing from pulp Western author to one of the most sought after scribes of the Hollywood scene. Though it would take nearly two decades for filmmakers to accurately capture the gritty, but humorous, tone that he had mastered through his many years putting pen to paper, the runaway success of director Barry Sonnenfeld's spot-on adaptation of Leonard's novel Get Shorty in 1995 prompted a slew of films in which the author's unique tone was accurately translated to celluloid.
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Born the son of a General Motors location scout in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved frequently during Elmore's early years. His imagination fueled by newspaper headlines detailing the exploits of such desperadoes as Bonnie and Clyde, a permanent move to Detroit during the 1934 World Series also spurred an interest in sports that would find young Leonard (nicknamed "Dutch" by his friends) running the gridiron at the University of Detroit High School after receiving his primary education at Catholic school. Leonard often credited his early, Jesuit education as a prime factor in his learning how to "think," and following his high school graduation in 1944, he joined the Seabees and shipped out for the Admiralty Islands. Returning from the South Seas to major in English at the University of Detroit, Leonard became enamored with the writings of Ernest Hemingway and Richard Bissell. The seed had been planted. After graduating from college, Leonard married and landed a job as a copy boy at the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency, and though he would soon be penning ads for Chevrolet, the prospect of writing commercial fiction proved too tempting to resist. Initially penning Westerns due to market demand, Leonard's story Trail of the Apache was published in Argosy Magazine in December 1951 -- marking the author's first published work.
Frequently rising two hours before work to begin writing, this period yielded 30 pulp Western stories and five novels, two of which (3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T) would be made into successful Hollywood films in the 1950s. When the Western market dried up in the early '60s due to the encroachment of television, the burgeoning author quit his job in advertising and take up writing full time, a decision that Leonard ultimately went back on in order to support his growing family. A turning point of sorts came when Leonard's novel Hombre was turned into a successful Hollywood feature staring a young Paul Newman. Soon thereafter, he was writing his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, and honing his screenwriting skills. Adapting many of his novels into screenplays, the practice proved essential in funding Leonard's fiction writing in the ensuing years, and it was this windfall that found Leonard penning crime novels (often set in Detroit) that would gain him a loyal cult following thanks to his sharp eye for street detail and keen dialogue instincts. After the publication of his best-selling novels La Bravo and Glitz, Leonard landed on the cover of Newsweek in 1984 and was christened the "Dickens of Detroit." Soon, Hollywood producers were clamoring to adapt the works of this "overnight success."
Although subsequent high-profile releases such as Stick (1985) and 52 Pick-Up (1986) managed to capture the grittiness of Leonard's writings, they failed to accurately translate his somewhat quirky sense of humor and proved only moderately successful -- not that that stopped eager producers from trying. In 1995, Sonnenfeld finally struck the right tone with Get Shorty. An infectiously fun journey into the mind of a criminal with Hollywood aspirations, the film proved an enormous success due, in no small part, to star John Travolta's show-stealing performance as protagonist Chili Palmer. Followed in 1997 and 1998 by Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, respectively, both films also succeeded in accurately bringing Leonard's unique style to the screen fully in tact. As the millennium turned and Leonard's Out of Sight character Karen Sisco received her own eponymous television series, Hollywood kept plugging away with such adaptations as The Big Bounce, and, of course, the Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool. Meanwhile, the tireless author kept releasing novels at a pace that suggested he rarely slept, and in 2007 filmgoers would find the prolific scribe venturing back into the old west as the second screen incarnation of his short story 3:10 to Yuma found Russell Crowe and Christain Bale priming their pisols.
In 2010, Leonard signed on as executive producer of the acclaimed FX series Justified, which was based on a character (Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant) from his short story Fire in the Hole, and his novel Switch was picked up for adaptation for the projected 2013 release Life of Crime. While busy at work on his 46th novel at his home in Detroit, he suffered a stroke and died three weeks later at the age of 87. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi