'Justified' Boss Remembers Elmore Leonard's Final Days

10:00 AM PST 05/14/2014 by Graham Yost
FX

As FX turns 20, Graham Yost recalls the day the late author had his stroke: "He was in his sunlit room, conducting the voices he heard in his head — the characters telling their stories — in his hand a Virginia Slim trailing smoke."

As FX turns 20, fifteen of TV's top scribes -- from Rescue Me's Denis Leary to Louie's Louis C.K. -- reveal what it's like to write for a network that encourages smart TV (almost) without rules as part of a series that The Hollywood Reporter is rolling out this week. This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

FX is the perfect place to do an Elmore Leonard show. Why? They allow us to do things that are identifiably Elmorian (Leonardian?) -- like spend time with the bad guys and have four-minute-long scenes where people just talk -- that are funny and then shockingly violent.

The first note we got from Elmore, whose short story Fire in the Hole inspired Justified, was during preproduction on the pilot, and it was about Raylan's hat. Elmore had in mind a "businessman's Stetson" -- the kind, he said, the police were wearing when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Well, we tried a hat like that on Tim [Olyphant], and it just didn't look right, so we went with a more traditional cowboy number. Elmore grew to accept it, even like it, but I think that was mostly because he liked what Tim was doing in the part. And that was it -- the one and only note we got from Elmore. He didn't like notes, which is why his stretch of screenwriting in the '60s and '70s came to an end. He liked the money and did well at the work but didn't care for studios and producers asking for more backstory.

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What we got from Elmore was the opposite of notes -- we got stories. Off Tim's suggestion, Elmore wrote a new Raylan Givens short story and had enough fun that he wrote two more, telling me we could hang 'em up and strip 'em for parts. Those stories were published in 2012 as the novel Raylan, Elmore's 45th novel and his last. Elmore was working on a new novel when he died last year. Called Blue Dreams, it was about bull riding, hot women, medical marijuana and Slab City, out by the Salton Sea.

The day Elmore had his stroke last year, he was in his sunlit room, conducting the voices he heard in his head -- the characters telling their stories -- in his hand a Virginia Slim trailing smoke. Months before, he'd thought about having Raylan enter the story then decided against it. But that week he'd thought, what the hell: He liked Raylan. On that last unlined yellow page, Raylan Givens was back in the story -- hat and all.

Graham Yost is the creator of and an executive producer on Justified, which aired its fifth-season finale in April.

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