JULIE HARRIS, CELEBRATED ACTRESS OF RANGE AND INTENSITY
Julie Harris portraying Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” in London in 1977.
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: August 24, 2013
- Julie Harris, the unprepossessing anti-diva who, in the guises of Joan of Arc, Mary Todd Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and many other characters both fictional and real, became the most decorated performer in the history of Broadway, died on Saturday at her home in Chatham, Mass. She was 87.
Robert Wands/Associated Press
Ms. Harris in the role of Sally Bowles in the Broadway play “I Am a Camera,” at the Empire Theatre in New York in 1951.
Eliot Elisofon/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images
In the play “Member of the Wedding,” as her character dug a splinter from her foot.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Francesca James, a longtime friend who was with her when she died.
Ms. Harris had a lengthy, overstuffed résumé as an actress, with dozens of movie and television credits, including the 1955 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of brotherly rivalry, “East of Eden,” in which she played the girl who falls for the tormented younger sibling played by James Dean, and nearly eight years in the 1980s as an eccentric country singer on the prime time soap opera “Knots Landing.”
But perhaps more than any other performer of her era and her elevated stature, she owed her stardom and reputation to the stage.
Sometimes called the first lady of the American theater, she made her first Broadway appearance while she was still in college, and over the next half century-plus earned 10 Tony nominations, more than any other performer. The last was in 1997 for a revival of “The Gin Game,” D. L. Coburn’s mordant comedy about the contentious friendship between two isolated denizens of an old age home that emerges over a card table. She didn’t win, though she’d been there and done that five times, the first performer to be so honored so often. Angela Lansbury and Audra McDonald have since matched this total, but in 2002, Ms. Harris won for the sixth time, a special Tony for lifetime achievement, putting her in a class by herself.
She was, if such a thing is possible, born to act. As a girl she declared to a high school drama teacher, “Acting is my life,” and she was once described by the director and critic Harold Clurman as “totally designed to be a good instrument on the stage.”
Slim, red-haired, physically graceful though not especially athletic, she had the aura of delicacy but was not a mesmerizing beauty; nor was she a distinctive, public personality. In interviews, she was unremittingly humble, dwelling on what she deemed her failures far more than her successes and speaking of acting as an imperfectible craft for which the effort at rendering a character, not the finished result or the applause, is not only the challenge but the reward.
“Acting is always an adventure, and a struggle, and a quest to find the truth,” she said. On another occasion, more than 30 years after her career began, she allowed that the work of an actor still had the capacity to frighten her.
“It’s wanting to do it right, that’s where the fear comes in, but who can say what’s right?” she said, adding: “We’re very delicate creatures, aren’t we?”
Celebrated as she was, she was more artist than star, rarely associated with a long-running hit; only 6 of her more than 30 Broadway shows ran as long as six months. Renowned for her wide range and her dedication to each performance, even — or maybe especially — in plays that critics and audiences found wanting, she became a compelling figure by stepping into a role, the proverbial vessel filled by whatever character she had undertaken to play.
The playwright John van Druten, who adapted Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin” into the play “I Am a Camera,” the show that made Ms. Harris a star in 1952 (and later became the source material for the musical “Cabaret”), referred to her in a 1955 interview with The New York Times Magazine, as a glass pitcher.
“You pour in red wine, the pitcher looks red; pour in crème de menthe, it is green,” van Druten said. “When she’s by herself, Julie’s almost transparent, almost nonexistent.”
Ms. Harris made herself known in 1950 as a 24-year-old playing a 12-year-old, the loquacious, motherless, fiercely self-tormenting Frankie Addams, in Carson McCullers’s adaptation of her own novel, “The Member of the Wedding.” With her hair cut tomboy short, she spent virtually all of the play onstage, dreaming aloud, remonstrating with the sage family cook Berenice (played by Ethel Waters), hectoring her young cousin John Henry (Brandon De Wilde) and berating herself with the incessant needy bleat of loneliness. It required a huge effort, and Ms. Harris received the kind of notices that can — and in this case did — propel a career.
“In the long, immensely complicated part of the adolescent girl, Julie Harris, a very gifted young actress, gives an extraordinary performance — vibrant, full of anguish and elation by turns, rumpled, unstable, egotistic and unconsciously cruel,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times.
She reprised the role of Frankie in the 1952 film, directed by Fred Zinneman, before returning to Broadway that year in a role that couldn’t be more different, in “I Am a Camera, ” as the first Broadway incarnation of Isherwood’s bawdy, bohemian nightclub singer Sally Bowles. She won exultant reviews, and after 50 performances, the producers affixed a seven-foot cutout of her to the theater marquee and placed ads in the newspaper declaring that “Gertrude Macy and Walter Starcke have the pleasure to announce the stardom of Miss Julie Harris.” For her performance, she won her first Tony, and once again she recreated the role in the movies.
“Miss Harris,” Isherwood later wrote, “was more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book.”
Over the next 25 years, Ms. Harris essayed a remarkable variety of roles on stage. In the 1950s, she appeared in Jean Anouilh’s “Mademoiselle Colombe,” the tale of an independent-minded woman in turn of the century France who leaves her husband to become an actress. She played a lusty young adulteress in the Restoration comedy “The Country Wife,” followed by a small-town Minnesota girl who moves to Miami and falls for a gigolo in “The Warm Peninsula,” a play by Joe Masteroff.
On television, in one of many dramas she appeared in that was produced by the Hallmark Hal of Fame, she gave an Emmy-winning performance as a young Irishwoman whose lover dies fighting the British and who subsequently falls for the man who killed him in James Costigan’s “Little Moon of Alban,” and then played the role again on Broadway in 1960 (with Robert Redford as her doomed first love) when Costigan adapted his work for the stage.
Later in the 1960s, she played a loose woman who is also a murder suspect in a stylized French farce, “A Shot in the Dark.” She also starred in her first musical, “Skyscraper,” as a stubborn city girl who refuses to sell her little house to make room for an office tower, singing and dancing with aplomb if not distinction. (“You would not mistake her voice for Merman’s,” one critic wrote; “it is small and dry but can carry a tune satisfactorily.”) And she opened in the comedy “Forty Carats,” a show that turned out to be her biggest hit, running for nearly two years (though not the whole time with Ms. Harris in it), and winning her a Tony — her third — for her portrayal of a 40-something woman who marries a much younger man.
Away from Broadway, she played Juliet at the Stratford Festival in Canada, Ophelia in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s “Hamlet” in Central Park and Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Cape Cod. Her other major roles included Nora in “A Doll’s House” and Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion,” both on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and, in her next to last appearance on Broadway, in 1994, Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”
In 1955, she won her second Tony in “The Lark,” an adaptation by Lillian Hellman of Anouilh’s retelling of the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, leading a cast that included Christopher Plummer, Boris Karloff and Joseph Wiseman. In fact she won three of her Tonys for portraying characters from real life. In December 1972, she opened in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,” a play by James Prideaux in which she played Mary Todd Lincoln at the end of her life, long after the assassination of her husband, and won the Tony for best actress in spite of the play’s having been critically excoriated and closing after only six weeks. Her portrayal, notable for its high emotion, had the effect of humanizing a woman whom history had been unkind to as a chilly, erratic spendthrift.
“Some people asked me, ‘Why do you have to cry so much in ‘The Last of Mrs. Lincoln?’ ” she said, in 1979. My answer was that she was always crying. She couldn’t speak of her children who died, without crying. And after the assassination, her whole life was gone. She clung to the pain. As actors, that’s what we deal with. My mother used to say to me, ‘But you’re so dramatic.’ Yes, I’d say, that’s what I’m supposed to be. Life is dramatic, all the time, much more than on stage.”
Most famously, Ms. Harris portrayed the poet Emily Dickinson at home as a fiercely observant, proudly literary and deeply self-conscious near-agoraphobe in “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman show written by William Luce that appeared on Broadway in 1976 and was filmed for public television.
Throughout her career, on television and in the movies as well as on the stage, she was drawn to historical figures, among them Florence Nightingale, Charlotte Brontë, Isak Dineson, Queen Victoria, and Nora (wife of James) Joyce, and she often spoke in interviews of her fondness for — and the usefulness of — research.
“I love biographies,” she once said. “I get very excited by the truth that comes out of what people have left behind, like letters. I first fell in love with Emily Dickinson when I read her letters. It’s like listening to someone’s heart.”
“The Belle of Amherst” was widely admired as a tour de force by Ms. Harris. A performance that wrested astonishing clarity and variety of mood from a portrait of a brilliant, introverted recluse, it struck at least one critic, Walter Kerr of The New York Times, as the pinnacle of Ms. Harris’s career.
“As I look back, I find ‘The Belle of Amherst’ the most stimulating event of the season, and not only because I’ve long since been persuaded that Emily Dickinson is our finest poet,” Mr. Kerr wrote. “It may seem a form of magic to make her most casual lines live so intensely on the stage. But for magic read craft. And for craft — painfully, stubbornly, at last stunningly acquired — read Julie Harris.”
Julie Ann Harris was born on Dec. 2, 1925 in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., an affluent suburb just east of Detroit. Her father, William, was an investment banker who was also an expert on squirrels and a curator of mammals at the museum of zoology of the University of Michigan. Her mother, who had trained as a nurse, was a socialite whose aspirations for her daughter to become a debutante contributed to young Julie’s career path. In an interview in 1965, Manning Gurian, then Ms. Harris’s husband, her second, said his wife’s youthful interest in performing had been a way of rebelling against her mother.
“Julie was a great disappointment to her,” Mr. Gurian said. “She wasn’t pretty, didn’t wear the right clothes, couldn’t find dates; and she had no intention of becoming a debutante — which was the dream of Mrs. Harris’s life. As a defense, Julie escaped into acting. As an actress she could be anyone she wanted to and her mother couldn’t stop her.”
Ms. Harris was married and divorced three times. She is survived by a son, Peter Gurian.
As a girl, she devoured movies — she claimed she’d seen “Gone with the Wind” 13 times — read biographies of great actresses and performed in school plays. She was sent to a finishing school in Providence, R.I., but she persuaded her parents to enroll her instead in Miss Hewitt’s Classes, a girl’s prep school in Manhattan (now known as the Hewitt School) that offered drama classes. In summers she trained at an acting camp in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where her mentor, Charlotte Perry, encouraged her to apply to the Yale School of Drama.
During the year she spent at Yale, she got her first Broadway role in a short-lived comedy “It’s a Gift,” playing a professor’s daughter who stands to inherit some money but only under morally compromising circumstances. In the late 1940s, she appeared in small roles in a series of shows, including British productions of “King Henry IV, Part 2” and “Oedipus,” both with Laurence Olivier, and “The Playboy of the Western World,” with Burgess Meredith and Maureen Stapleton; in a 1948 production of “Macbeth,” which starred Michael Redgrave, she was a witch.
In 2001, Ms. Harris suffered a stroke, which impeded her speech and curtailed her ability to perform, though she has since appeared in a handful of films, including “The Way Back Home” (2006), in which she played a stroke victim. In 2005, she was a Kennedy Center honoree.
For decades, Ms. Harris worked almost constantly — she took the job in “Knots Landing” as she was recuperating from a mastectomy after a bout with breast cancer — a dedication she sometimes spoke of as having a high cost, regretting that she did not have more children.
Her film credits include “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), a boxing melodrama with Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason, in which she played a sympathetic but manipulative social worker; “The Haunting” (1963), as a spinster beset by evil spirits; “Harper,” a detective story starring Paul Newman, in which she played a nightclub entertainer and addict; “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), an adaptation of a McCullers novel set on an army base in which she played the sickly wife of an officer, played by Brian Keith, who was cheating on her with another officer’s wife (Elizabeth Taylor); “The Bell Jar” (1979), an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s novel, in which she played the mother of a suicidal young woman; “Gorillas in the Mist” (1984) in which played Roz Carr, a friend to the murdered zoologist Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver), and “HouseSitter” (1992) a romantic comedy with Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin — she played his mother.
On television, she appeared in guest spots on a variety of popular dramas, comedies and romances, including “Family Ties, “The Love Boat, “Columbo, “The Name of the Game,” “Tarzan” and “Medical Center”) and a remarkable number of westerns (“Rawhide,” “Laredo,” “Daniel Boone,” “The Big Valley,” “Bonanza,” “The Virginian”).
She starred in a couple of series of her own, though both were short-lived. In one, “Thicker Than Water” (1973) she was a spinster whose father asked her to help run his pickle factory; in the other, “The Family Holvak,” (1975) she starred with Glenn Ford as the wife of a Depression-era preacher. She did voiceovers in several of the documentaries by Ken Burns, including the voice of a southern diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut, in “The Civil War.”
But it was clear that the stage was where she was most at home. Unusual among performers of her stature, she was not averse to taking shows on the road, and she toured in, among other plays, “The Belle of Amherst,” “Lettice and Lovage,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Gin Game.”
Sometime after she turned 70, Ms. Harris was asked what she’d do today if she learned the world would end tomorrow.
“I’d go to the theater,” she said.
LEE THOMPSON YOUNG, DETECTIVE ON TV’S ‘RIZZOLI & ISLES’
Lee Thompson Young with Angie Harmon on the hit TNT series “Rizzoli & Isles,” which made its debut in 2010.
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published: August 19, 2013
- Lee Thompson Young, an actor who played a child star on the Disney Channel show “The Famous Jett Jackson” and a detective on the hit TNT series “Rizzoli & Isles,” was found dead on Monday at his home in Los Angeles after he failed to show up for work. He was 29.
The cause was suicide, a statement from his manager said.
Mr. Young had appeared on “Rizzoli & Isles,” a police procedural set in Boston and based on novels by Tess Gerritsen, since its debut in 2010. He played Barry Frost, a computer-savvy homicide detective who can’t stand the sight of blood, who is the partner of Jane Rizzoli, played by Angie Harmon.
TNT announced on Monday that “Rizzoli & Isles” had been renewed for another season.
Mr. Young’s first major role came in 1998, when he played the title character on “The Famous Jett Jackson.” The show followed the child star of an action show who decides to move production back to suburban North Carolina from Hollywood so he can resume life with his family.
“ ‘The Famous Jett Jackson’ makes instructive drama out of the sentimental truism that family and friends trump fame and wealth,” Marc Weingarten wrote in an article about diversity on television in The New York Times. “But Jett, a hip-hop-loving kid played with guileless charm by Lee Thompson Young, is never sitcom-bland.”
Mr. Young, who grew up in South Carolina, said he sympathized with the character. “I get out of L.A. as often as I can,” he said.
Lee Thompson Young was born on Feb. 1, 1984, in Columbia, S.C. He played the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a school production when he was 10. Two years later he accompanied his mother to New York so she could attend Union Theological Seminary, and once there he found an agent.
He earned a film production degree from the University of Southern California long after he began acting professionally.
Mr. Young had recurring roles on the NBC comedy “Scrubs” and the WB superhero drama “Smallville.” He also acted in films, appearing alongside Billy Bob Thornton in the high school football drama “Friday Night Lights” (2004) and with Laurence Fishburne in “Akeelah and the Bee” (2006).
Survivors include his mother and a sister.
ALBERT MURRAY, SCHOLAR WHO SAW A MULTICOLORED AMERICAN CULTURE
Albert Murray in his home in Harlem in 1998.
By MEL WATKINS
Published: August 19, 2013
- Albert Murray, an essayist, critic and novelist who influenced the national discussion about race by challenging black separatism, insisting that the black experience was essential to American culture and inextricably tied to it, died on Sunday at his home in Harlem. He was 97.
Lewis P. Jones, a family spokesman and executor of Mr. Murray’s estate, confirmed the death.
Mr. Murray was one of the last surviving links to a period of flowering creativity and spreading ferment among the black intelligentsia in postwar America, when the growing force of the civil rights movement gave rise to new bodies of thought about black identity, black political power and the prospects for equality in a society with a history of racism.
As blacks fought in the streets for civil rights, black integrationists and black nationalists dueled in the academy and in books and essays. And Mr. Murray was in the middle of the debate, along with writers and artists including James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Romare Bearden and his good friend Ralph Ellison.
One of his boldest challenges was directed toward a new black nationalist movement that was gathering force in the late 1960s, drawing support from the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, and finding advocates on university faculties and among alienated young blacks who believed that they could never achieve true equality in the United States.
Mr. Murray insisted that integration was necessary, inescapable and the only path forward for the country. And to those — blacks and whites alike — who would have isolated “black culture” from the American mainstream, he answered that it couldn’t be done. To him the currents of the black experience — expressed in language and music and rooted in slavery — run through American culture, blending with European and American Indian traditions and helping to give it its very shape and sound.
With a freewheeling prose style influenced by jazz and the blues — Duke Ellington called him “the unsquarest man I know” — Mr. Murray challenged conventional assumptions about art, race and American identity in books like the essay collection “Stomping the Blues” and the memoir “South to a Very Old Place.” He gave further expression to those views in a series of autobiographical novels, starting with “Train Whistle Guitar” in 1974.
Mr. Murray established himself as a formidable social and literary figure in 1970 with his first book, a collection of essays titled “The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture.” The book constituted an attack on black separatism.
“The United States is not a nation of black and white people,” Mr. Murray wrote. “Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” America, he maintained, “even in its most rigidly segregated precincts,” was a “nation of multicolored people,” or Omni-Americans: “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian — and part Negro.”
Fokelore and ‘Fakelore’
The book also challenged what Mr. Murray called the “social science fiction” pronouncements of writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who he said had exaggerated racial and ethnic differences in postulating a pathology of black life. As Mr. Murray put it, they had simply countered “the folklore of white supremacy” with “the fakelore of black pathology.”
“The Omni-Americans,” the novelist Walker Percy wrote, “may be the most important book on black-white relations in the United States, indeed on American culture,” published in his generation. But it had fierce detractors. Writing in The New York Times, the black-studies scholar and author J. Saunders Redding called the essays contradictory, Mr. Murray’s theories “nonsense” and his “rhetoric” a “dense mixture of pseudo-scientific academic jargon, camp idiom and verbal play.”
For many years Mr. Murray and the novelist Ralph Ellison, who met in college, were close friends and literary kindred spirits. In “King of Cats,” a 1996 profile of Mr. Murray in The New Yorker, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that the friendship between the two men “seemed a focal point of black literary culture.”
“Both men were militant integrationists, and they shared an almost messianic view of the importance of art,” Mr. Gates wrote. “In their ardent belief that Negro culture was a constitutive part of American culture, they had defied an entrenched literary mainstream, which preferred to regard black culture as so much exotica — amusing perhaps, but eminently dispensable. Now they were also defying a new black vanguard, which regarded authentic black culture as separate from the rest of American culture — something that was created, and could be appreciated, in splendid isolation.”
Disliked the Term ‘Black’
Like Ralph Ellison, Mr. Murray proposed an inclusive theory of “the American Negro presence.” (He disdained the use of the term “black” and later spurned “African-American” — “I am not an African,” he said, “I am an American.”)
Mr. Murray contended that American identity “is best defined in terms of culture.” And for him, American culture was a “composite,” or “mulatto,” culture that owed much of its richness and diversity to blacks.
Yet Mr. Murray was not always sure that whites understood this shared legacy when they embraced black artists. He could be suspicious of whites, asking whether they, even in their applause, nonetheless continued to regard black culture “as so much exotica,” as Mr. Gates put it. Thus Mr. Murray asked whether the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Toni Morrison in 1993 was not “tainted with do-goodism,” and whether the poet Maya Angelou’s readings at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural echoed a song-and-dance tradition in which blacks entertained whites.
In Mr. Murray’s view, the essential bond between American culture and what he called Negro culture is the shared embrace of a “blues aesthetic,” which he said permeated the works of black musicians, writers and artists and was being increasingly adopted by whites. To Mr. Murray, the blues were “the genuine legacy of slavery,” Laura Ciolkowski, a professor of literature now at Columbia University, wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 2002.
“For him,” she wrote, “blues music, with its demands for improvisation, resilience and creativity, is at the heart of American identity.”
It also expressed something universal, Mr. Murray said. “When the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues,” he wrote, “he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest and the medicine man. He is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine.”
Albert Lee Murray was born on May 12, 1916, in Nokomis, Ala., to middle-class parents who soon gave him up for adoption to Hugh Murray, a laborer, and his wife, Matty.
“It’s just like the prince left among the paupers,” said Mr. Murray, who learned of his adoption when he was about 11. The Murrays moved to Mobile, where Albert grew up in a neighborhood known as Magazine Point. In “Train Whistle Guitar,” his largely autobiographical first novel, he called it Gasoline Point.
An Alter Ego in Novels
Through the novel’s protagonist, Scooter, his fictional alter ego, Mr. Murray evoked an unharrowed childhood enriched by music, legends, jiving and jesting, and the fancy talk of pulpit orators and storefront storytellers.
As rendered in Mr. Murray’s inventive prose, the adolescent Scooter and his friend Buddy Marshall could imagine themselves as “explorers and discoverers and Indian scouts as well as sea pirates and cowboys and African spear fighters not to mention the two schemingest gamblers and back alley ramblers this side of Philmayork.”
After graduating from the Mobile County Training School, where he earned letters in three sports and was voted the best all-around student, Mr. Murray enrolled at what is now Tuskegee University, where he discovered literature and immersed himself in Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Mann. He met Ralph Ellison, an upperclassman, as well as another student, Mozelle Menefee, who became his wife in 1941. She survives him, as does their daughter, Michéle Murray, who became a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Mr. Murray received a bachelor of science degree in education in 1939 and began graduate study at the University of Michigan. But the following year, he returned to Tuskegee to teach literature and composition.
He enlisted in the military in 1943 and spent the last two years of World War II in the Army Air Corps. After the war, the Murrays moved to New York City, where he used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree from New York University and he renewed his friendship with Ellison. In 1951, a year before Ellison published his classic work, “Invisible Man,” Mr. Murray rejoined the military, entering the Air Force.
He served in the military, peripatetically, for 11 years — teaching courses in geopolitics in the Air Force R.O.T.C. program at Tuskegee in the 1950s, taking assignments in North Africa and studying at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Paris.
After retiring from the Air Force as a major in 1962, he returned to New York with his family and settled in an apartment in the Lenox Terrace complex in Harlem. He began writing essays for literary journals and articles for Life and The New Leader, some of which were included in “The Omni-Americans.”
He also became a familiar figure on campuses, holding visiting professorships at the University of Massachusetts, Barnard, Columbia, Emory, Colgate and other schools. And he resumed exploring the streets and nightclubs of Harlem with Ralph Ellison.
From 1970 to the mid-1990s, as if compensating for his slow start, Mr. Murray published nine books. His second, “South to a Very Old Place” (1971), recounted his return to his Southern homeland. The book later became part of the Modern Library. In “The Hero and the Blues” (1973), a collection of essays based on a series of lectures, Mr. Murray criticized naturalism and protest fiction, which he said subjugated individual actions to social circumstances.
The Joy in the Blues
In “Stomping the Blues” (1976), he argued that the essence of the blues was the tension between the woe expressed in its lyrics and the joy infusing its melodies. He saw the blues, and jazz, as an uplifting response to misery.
“The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people,” Mr. Murray said years later. “It is the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people.”
He next began a long collaboration with Count Basie on his autobiography, “Good Morning Blues,” which was published in 1985, a year after Basie’s death. Along with the writer Stanley Crouch and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Mr. Murray was actively involved in the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the institution’s first permanent jazz program.
In 1991 he returned to his fictional alter ego, Scooter, depicting his college years at Tuskegee in the novel “The Spyglass Tree.” Four years later, as he neared 80, Mr. Murray published two books: “The Seven League Boots,” the third volume of his Scooter cycle, and “The Blue Devils of Nada,” another essay collection. Still another collection, “From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity,” which explored in part the “existential implications of the blues,” was published in 2001.
Mr. Murray published the fourth and last novel in his Scooter cycle, “The Magic Keys,” in 2005. The book, which received tepid reviews (it “feels plotted rather than lived,” John Leland wrote in The Times), brings its narrator, whose real name is never learned, to graduate school in Manhattan, where he befriends a thinly disguised Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden.
Mainstream recognition was slow to come for Mr. Murray. But by the mid-1990s, the critic Warren J. Carson had called him “African America’s undiscovered national treasure,” and in 1997 the National Book Critics Circle gave Mr. Murray its award for lifetime achievement. The next year he received the inaugural Harper Lee Award as Alabama’s most distinguished writer.
In 2000, Mr. Murray published “Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray,” which he edited with John F. Callahan. That same year he appeared as a commentator in Ken Burns’s multipart PBS documentary “Jazz.”
The critic Tony Scherman wrote of Mr. Murray in American Heritage, “His views add up to a cohesive, elegant whole, making him a rarity in today’s attenuated intellectual world: a system builder, a visionary in the grand manner.”
He could also write on a personal scale: his first book of poems, “Conjugations and Reiterations,” appeared in 2001. And he was candid in writing about advanced age.
“I’m doing more than ever,” he wrote in an Op-Ed essay in The Times in 1998, two years after undergoing spinal surgery, “but it’s harder now. I’m in constant pain. At home I use a four-pronged aluminum stick to get around. I need a stroller when I’m on the street. At receptions and in airports I need a wheelchair to get down the long aisles.
“But nothing hurts quite like the loss of old friends. There are ways to cope at the time they die. But weeks and months later you realize you can’t phone them and talk: Duke Ellington, Romare Bearden, Ralph Ellison, Alfred Kazin, Robert Penn Warren, Joseph Mitchell. It’s hard to believe they’re all gone.”
William McDonald and Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
ELMORE LEONARD, A NOVELIST WHO MADE CRIME AN ART, AND HIS BAD GUYS ‘FUN’
Elmore Leonard: The Movies He’s Inspired: The prolific crime novelist, who died on Tuesday, came to be known by a younger generation through the myriad film and television shows inspired by his writing.
By MARILYN STASIO
Published: August 20, 2013
His death was announced on his Web site.
To his admiring peers, Mr. Leonard did more than merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn-out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and lifting it to a higher literary shelf.
Reviewing “Riding the Rap” for The New York Times Book Review in 1995, Martin Amis cited Mr. Leonard’s “gifts — of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing — that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.” As the American chapter of PEN noted, when honoring Mr. Leonard with a lifetime achievement award in 2009, his books “are not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century.”
Last year, the National Book Foundation presented him its award for distinguished contribution to American letters.
Mr. Leonard, who started out writing westerns, had his first story published in Argosy magazine in 1951, and 60 years later, he was still turning out a book a year because, he said, “It’s fun.”
It was in that spirit that Mr. Leonard, at 84, took more than a casual interest in the development of his short story “Fire in the Hole” for television. “Justified,” as the resulting series on FX was called, won a Peabody Award in 2011 in its second season and sent new fans to “Pronto” (1993) and “Riding the Rap” (1995), novels that feature the series’s hero, Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant), a federal marshal from Harlan County, Ky., who presents himself as a good ol’ country boy but is “not as dumb as you’d like to believe.”
Approving of how the show was working out, Mr. Leonard wrote his 45th novel, “Raylan,” with the television series in mind. Published in 2012, it featured three strong female villains and gave its cowboy hero license to shoot one of them.
It was a major concession for Mr. Leonard to acknowledge his approval of “Justified”; he had long been candidly and comically disdainful of the treatment his books generally received from Hollywood, even in commercially successful films like “Get Shorty,” “Be Cool,” “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown” (based on his novel “Rum Punch”). His first novel, “The Big Bounce,” was filmed twice, in 1969 and 2004. After seeing the first version, he declared it to be “at least the second-worst movie ever made.” Once he saw the remake, he said, he knew what the worst one was. (Yet another movie based on a Leonard novel is to open this year: “Life of Crime,” based on “The Switch” and starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins.)
In an interview with the author Doug Stanton for the National Writers Series in 2011, Mr. Leonard explained why “Get Shorty,” the 1995 movie starring John Travolta, was a faithful treatment of his novel of the same title, and why its sequel, “Be Cool,” was not. The directive he had given the producers about his clever crooks — “These guys aren’t being funny, so don’t let the other characters laugh at their lines” — was heeded in the first case, he said, and ignored in the second.
Amused and possibly exasperated by frequent requests to expound on his writing techniques, Mr. Leonard drew up 10 rules of writing, published in The New York Times in 2001. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip,” “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it,” and other tips spoke to Mr. Leonard’s puckish wit; but put into practice, his “rules” do capture his own spare style.
Mr. Leonard’s narrative voice was crisp, clean and direct. He had no time to waste on adverbs, adjectives or tricky verb forms, and he had no patience for moody interior monologues or lyrical descriptive passages. His dialogue, too, was succinct, as in this passage from “Riding the Rap”:
“ ‘She isn’t home,’ Raylan said.
“Bobby nodded toward the red Toyota in the drive.
“ ‘Her car’s there.’
“ ‘She still isn’t home,’ Raylan said.
“ ‘Maybe she’s asleep or she’s taking a shower.”
“ ‘When I say she isn’t home,’ Raylan said, ‘it means she isn’t home.’ ”
It takes only three words — “Look at me” — for Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark in “Get Shorty,” to strike terror into the hearts of the deadbeat clients he hounds for late payments. “You never tell the guy what could happen to him,” Chili explains. “Let him use his imagination, he’ll think of something worse.”
The western novels and short stories he wrote before turning to urban criminals attracted their own following, as well as movie producers. “Hombre” was made into a movie starring Paul Newman in 1967, and “3:10 to Yuma” was adapted twice, in 1957 with Glenn Ford, and in 2007 with Russell Crowe. When asked about the vivid landscapes in his westerns, Mr. Leonard told how he did his “research”: from a magazine.
“I subscribed to Arizona Highways,” he said, “and that was loaded with scenery.”
Mr. Leonard never aimed to write the kind of “high plains” westerns popularized by Hollywood, he said; he preferred grittier mysteries set in the border states of Arizona and New Mexico and featuring Apaches and Mexicans. “I was always dying to write those border voices,” he said. He began including characters like Cundo Rey (in “La Brava”) and Nestor Soto (“Stick”).
As Mr. Amis noted, Mr. Leonard had an ear, and let his chatty characters have their say. “I always write from a character’s point of view,” he said, adding that he couldn’t even begin writing a scene until he had decided which character would be assigned the narrative voice.
More often than not, that character would be among his rogues’ gallery of killers, gangsters and con artists. Guys like Richie Nix, whose ambition in “Killshot” is to rob a bank in every state of the union; or Teddy Magyk, the psychopathic stalker in “Glitz”; or the unforgettable Chili Palmer, who goes to Hollywood to collect on a debt in “Get Shorty” and sticks around to make a movie.
Mr. Leonard called them “my guys” and delighted in their affable amorality and pragmatic professionalism. He took special pride in the technical skills these gun dealers, loan sharks, bookies, thieves, grifters and mob enforcers brought to their trade. They may be criminals, but they know their business and they honor their work ethic.
“He never condescends to these people,” Scott Frank, screenwriter on “Get Shorty,” told The Times in 1995. “He loves these people.”
“The bad guys are the fun guys,” Mr. Leonard acknowledged in a 1983 interview. “The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.”
Harry Zimm, the schlock-movie producer in “Get Shorty,” is wary of Chili Palmer’s screenplay because, he says, “there’s nobody to sympathize with.” He asks, “Who’s the good guy?”
Mr. Leonard’s identifiable good guys (including those more-or-less honest civilians whose names you tend to forget) are keen observers and often strangers in town. To the ex-con hero of “Stick,” the Florida Gold Coast is alien country. “It was so different out,” he says. “All the lights, for one thing, all the headlights and streetlights, the neon lights, all other people’s lights that had nothing to do with you.”
Whenever one of these alienated protagonists is goaded into action, there’s no telling what he might do. “He may solve the crime — or commit it,” Mr. Leonard said of one such hero. “He’s easily misjudged, which is a quality all my main characters have.”
Good guys and bad guys both, the players in Mr. Leonard’s books are always energized by the big, bad cities where they operate. There’s a wicked backbeat in his urban novels that pulses through cities like Miami, Detroit, New Orleans and San Juan.
Atlantic City is its own sinister character in “Glitz,” preying on the tour buses that lumber into the city like blind cattle. “Two thousand a day came into the city, dropped the suckers off for six hours to lose their paychecks, their Social Security in the slots and haul them back up to Elizabeth, Newark, Jersey City, Philly, Allentown,” Mr. Leonard writes. “Bring some more loads back tomorrow — like the Jews in the boxcars, only they kept these folks alive with bright lights and loud music and jackpot payoffs that sounded like fire alarms.”
Although he was galvanized by the pace and patois of the metropolis, Mr. Leonard lived quietly beyond the city’s reach. During his 28-year marriage to Beverly Cline, which ended in divorce in 1977, he lived in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit. When he got married for the second time, in 1979, to Joan Shepard, who died in 1993, he moved into a house seven blocks away. He and his third wife, Christine Kent, had a home in the Bloomfield Village area of Bloomfield Township, another Detroit suburb. That marriage, too, ended in divorce.
Mr. Leonard is survived by five children from his first marriage, Jane Jones, Katy Dudley and Peter, Christopher and William Leonard; 13 grandchildren; and 5 great-grandchildren.
Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. Nine years later, his father, an executive with General Motors, moved the family to Detroit. After graduating from high school in 1943, he did a two-year stretch in the Navy. Picking up his schooling at the University of Detroit, he graduated in 1950 and became a copywriter for a Detroit advertising agency.
Before going to work in the morning, he would try his hand at writing westerns. After selling his first story, “Trail of the Apaches,” he went on to write western novels and short stories throughout the 1950s and ’60s, including “Hombre” (1961), which was named by the Western Writers of America as one of the 25 best westerns ever written.
His first crime novel, “The Big Bounce,” set in Michigan, was published in 1969 and kicked off a series of them — including “Fifty-Two Pickup,” “Swag,” “Unknown Man No. 89” and the raw genre masterpiece “City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit” — that to his fans define urban noir.
“Glitz,” published in 1985, was his 25th novel and the breakthrough that flew to the top of the best-seller fiction lists and put him on the cover of Newsweek.
But he felt it was the movie “Get Shorty” that really made his a household name.
“After writing almost anonymously” for decades, Mr. Leonard noted in 1996, “I am what you call an overnight success.”
Did success spoil Elmore Leonard? No one who knew him would say so. The only thing slightly raffish about this soft-spoken, laconic author was his nickname, Dutch, and the cloth working-guy caps he wore in all kinds of weather. The name was borrowed from a baseball player (“I was in high school and I needed a nickname”), and the caps were a concession to the vanity of a balding man. In person and in private, he was much like his hero in “Split Images”: “one of those quiet guys who looked at you and seemed to know things.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 20, 2013
An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Mr. Leonard’s marital status. He was divorced from his third wife; he was not married. It also referred imprecisely to the location of his home, where he died. It is in Bloomfield Township, Mich., not Bloomfield Village, Mich. (Bloomfield Village is an area of Bloomfield Township, not a separate town.) It also misstated the number of Mr. Leonard’s great-grandchildren. It is 5, not 15.