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Elmore Leonard Dies at 87

Elmore Leonard 2007 - H 2013
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Elmore Leonard

The prolific author whose stories inspired "Justified," "3:10 to Yuma," "Get Shorty," and other hits passed away due to complications of a stroke.

Elmore Leonard, considered by many to be the greatest crime writer of modern times, has died due to complications of a stroke. He was 87.

The prolific author died at his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township on Tuesday morning surrounded by his family, his researcher Gregg Sutter told the Associated Press.

Leonard was hospitalized last month after having the stroke, then believed to be non-life threatening. A week later, Sutter said the author's family was "optimistic" about his condition, which had been improving a little bit each day.

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He wrote 45 novels, many of which were adapted for movies or TV over the years.

His most recent TV hit was the FX series Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, which was based on his short story "Fire in the Hole."

Films based on his work included Hombre, 52 Pick-Up, Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.

The film version of Leonard's The Switch, starring Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Tim Robbins and Isla Fisher, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. At the time of his death, he was at work on another novel, which was set in the world of competitive bull riding.

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Although his first novel, The Bounty Hunters, was published in 1953, it wasn't until Glitz in 1985 that Leonard achieved national recognition.

Glitz was a best-seller, and each of his subsequent novels has been one as well, including Bandits, Touch, Freaky Deaky, Killshot, Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, Pronto, Riding the Rap, Cuba Libre, Tishomingo Blues and Up in Honey's Room.

His gritty dialogue and terse, poetic writing style were what made him a Hollywood favorite of such directors as Quentin Tarantino.

"I've been doing this for 50 years. I still enjoy it," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. "Writing never felt like work to me."

Indeed, he considered the rhythm of how a character spoke more important than what they actually say. "If it sounds written, it's wrong."

Leonard wrote "what happens next," is "I try to leave out the parts the readers skip."

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He abhorred adverbs and reportedly said if one ever made its way into his writing, he would have it "killed."

Those last two items were part of his 10 rules for writing, which he first put down in a piece for The New York Times in 2001 and has become a shorthand bible for aspiring writers.

"The way I write is always from the character's point of view," Elmore said in a 2011 interview with Justified producer Graham Yost.

"I make up my characters as I go along, and I listen to them. They've got to be able to talk. If they can't talk, they're out. Or they get shot."

When 1995's Get Shorty became a critical and box-office success, it stimulated an interest in his works as movie material.

To his amusement, that revival included even his earliest works, including a Western novel, Last Stand at Saber River, which he wrote in 1958. It was adapted for TNT and starred Tom Selleck.

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"All my stuff is always bought by Hollywood and then they sit on them," he said.

Leonard's stories were filled with blue-collar characters and often featured a hero with a flawed or criminal past, such as Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, starring John Travolta.

His lead characters have been portrayed by such actors as Glenn Ford, Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Samuel L. Jackson and Pam Grier, among others.

More recent movie adaptations of his novels include Be Cool, Killshot and Freaky Deaky, which was reportedly Leonard's personal favorite.

In 2007, a remake of 3:10 to Yuma was made starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The original 1957 movie based on Leonard's story starred Ford and Van Heflin.

Leonard started out by writing Westerns, because at the time, that was most financially viable. He later switched to crime. Disciplined and consistent, Leonard wrote in longhand throughout his writing career, which spanned more than half a century.

In November, he received the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, considered one of the highest honors for an American writer.

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Three of his novels have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America, including The Switch, Split Images and La Brava, which went on to win best novel in 1983. In 1992, Leonard received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of American for lifetime achievement.

During a period of his career, he battled alcoholism but, befitting his writing style, quit cold turkey.

"Once I came back from Hollywood in the early '70s throwing up blood … I was drinking heavily. But when I quit -- on Jan. 24, 1977, at 9:30 a.m. -- my fiction got better," he told Esquire in 2005.

Leonard's screenwriting credits include Moonshine Wars, Stick and 52 Pick-Up.

Although he was a successful screenwriter, he likened it to being a hired hand.

"You have to please too many people. I would go against my better judgment and make the changes they wanted so I could get the money. Because that kind of work was really supporting my book writing. Finally, when I reached the point where I could make more money writing books than screenplays, I stopped," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Leonard was born Oct. 11, 1925, in New Orleans. He was attracted to writing as a kid. After high school, he joined the Navy and served during World War II, doing a tour with a Seabee unit in the South Pacific.

Following his discharge, Leonard attended the University of Detroit, graduating in 1950. While a student, he began work in 1949 at the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency. He garnered his first professional writing credit in 1951, a short story for Argosy magazine titled "Trail of the Apache."

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His first novel, The Bounty Hunters, was published in 1953.

He wrote four more novels during the next eight year as well as numerous short stories, mostly Westerns, which appeared in such publications as Zane Grey Western and The Saturday Evening Post.

Among those early novels was Hombre, which was selected as one of the best Westerns of all time in 1961 by the Western Writers of American. At that point, Leonard felt secure enough in novel-writing that he quit his day job, leaving the ad agency to devote all his energies to his novels.

He received $1,250 for Hombre, which was turned into a 1967 movie starring Newman and directed by John Sturges.

He was the subject of a 1991 BBC documentary, Elmore Leonard's Criminal Record.

He married three times: to the late Beverly Cline in 1949, the late Joan Shepard in 1979 and, at the age of 68, to Christine Kent in 1993, whom he divorced in 2012.

He is survived by his five children, all from his first marriage.