Elmore Leonard took a personal interest in bringing his character to life on the small screen.
By the time Justified premiered in 2010, Elmore Leonard was accustomed to watching characters he created on the printed page come to life in movies and on television. In fact, it was the movies and not book sales that first allowed Leonard to leave his day job at Encyclopedia Britannica and focus on writing full time. That was back in 1966, when 20th Century Fox optioned the rights to his western novel Hombre, which became a 1967 film starring Paul Newman.
For the next 45 years, Leonard watched as his novels and short stories were transformed into works for the screen, both big and small. Some became classics (The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma) and some cult favorites ( Jackie Brown), while others sank without a trace (anyone remember Ryan O’Neal in The Big Bounce or Beau Bridges in the short-lived TV series Maximum Bob?). He also penned a few screenplays, including those for the Clint Eastwood film Joe Kidd and the Charles Bronson vehicle Mr. Majestyk (which he later turned into a novel).
As with most authors fortunate enough to cash Hollywood paychecks, Leonard was generally content to turn over his work and stay out of the way. But with Justified, he seemed to take a greater interest in the project and those who made it happen. “I think it’s a terrific show,” he said at a 2012 Television Critics Association press tour. “I’m amazed sometimes that they’ve got the characters better than I put them on paper. They are doing a good job, really a good job.”
What was so special about this adaptation, after he had repeatedly been through that same book-to-script rodeo for nearly half a century? Perhaps it was a return to the world of the western, the genre that launched his career. Leonard’s first published work was the short story “Trail of the Apache,” which appeared in the men’s magazine Argosy in 1951. Or perhaps it was the unique character at the heart of the series, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.
Leonard introduced him as a supporting character in the 1993 novel Pronto, revived him two years later in Riding the Rap, and brought him home to Kentucky in the 2001 novella Fire in the Hole (upon which Justified is based). When series star Timothy Olyphant asked Leonard for more Givens stories, the author delivered Raylan (2012), his 45th novel. Parts of the book were later incorporated into the series, and Leonard was working on yet another Raylan Givens story when he passed away at the age of 87 in 2013.
But perhaps Leonard’s affection for Justified is best explained by the crusade of series creator Graham Yost to get the FX show right. Yost devised his game plan early. He distributed Leonard novels among his writing team so they could capture the writer’s rhythm and tone. He then gave each of them a bracelet inscribed with the letters WWED (“What would Elmore do?”). As writer Tim Goodman observed in The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s not every day, in a medium like television that is absolutely a writer’s medium, where you find such abiding love for the person who wrote the source material.”
Leonard, in turn, was generous with his feedback. “You might want to keep Boyd around,” he told Yost after watching the pilot episode. The author had killed the character on paper but recognized his potential as a nemesis for Raylan, especially as played by Walton Goggins.
“Once he saw what we were doing on Justified — that with every breath and every episode we were trying our best to pay tribute to him and do a show the way he would do it — he enjoyed that,” Yost said in a phone interview. “The best reviews we’ve ever gotten were people in the Marshals Service got a kick out of it and people in Harlan County got a kick out of it, but most important, Elmore Leonard got a kick out of it.”
From the January 2015 issue.
Photography: Courtesy FX Networks