Icons of Cool

As so often happens, I actually had another topic planned for this post. But yesterday I found something out that absolutely redlined my bullshit meter. Acording to Lee Goldberg’s excellent blog A Writer’s Life, there’s a movie version in the works of John D. MacDonald’s first Travis McGee book, THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE.


McGee is to be played by…brace yourselves:

Leonardo DiCaprio.

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Okay, after seeing BLOOD DIAMOND and THE DEPAHTED, I’ll grant that DiCaprio can play a tough guy. He’s turned in some great performances.  But damn it, he’s just wrong for McGee. He’s too short. He’s too blond. He’s too goddamn pretty.

I know I shouldn’t get this upset. It’s just a movie. And McGee’s just a fictional character in some old paperbacks.

Except to me, Travis McGee is a lot more than that. As I’ve mentioned here  before, I discovered the Travis McGee books at a formative time in my life. In my mid teens, I was a lonely kid with a tendency to wax philosophical. I could, and occasionally did, get all tragic and self-pitying, what the kids today  call “emo.” But then John D, MacDonald’s series about a loner with a philosophical bent who lived on a boat, righted wrongs, AND got a lot of hot women, hooked me and hooked me hard.  My parents had a couple of the books on their shelves, and after devouring those,  I went out and hunted down every other  one I could find. I’ve probably read all of them at least twice, and some I’ve read so many times the old paperbacks are coming apart.

McGee had a lifestyle most people would envy. In addition to the aforementioned boat and hot women, he had a fantastic , if entirely unconventional car: a Rolls Royce some maniac had painted electric blue and chopped up to make a pickup truck. He called it Miss Agnes after an old teacher who’d had hair the exact same shade of blue. He had an awesome best friend: a genius economist named Meyer who lived on a nearby boat and provided  him with a foil for his musings (and a mouthpiece for  some of John D. MacDonald’s observations as well). Most importantly, though, McGee had life figured out. He had life flat knocked. McGee had decided that life was too short to wait for the good times, so he’d take his retirement in installments and only work when he needed money. To make this happen,   McGee crafted for himself the ingenious profession of “salvage expert,”   a  euphemism for what he really did: Recover things for people who’d had those things stolen from them. Often, the thievery was legal; McGee’s methods of recovery,  not so much. His fee was half of whatever he recovered. On the surface, this sounds pretty mercenary, but McGee had a romantic streak that often caused him to take on apparently lost causes. He once expressed his philosophy of life in a way that almost makes him sound like a hippie:

Up with life. Stamp out all small and large indignities. Leave everyone alone to make it without pressure. Down with hurting. Lower the standard of living. Do without plastics. Smash the servo-mechanisms. Stop grabbing. Snuff the breeze and hug the kids. Love all love. Hate all hate.

And yet, McGee could go out and kick asses if he needed to. THis was fortunate, becuase he needed to, a lot. Further, he didn’t take himself too seriously. He referred to himself  on more than one occasion as a  “knight with rusty armor, a bent lance and a swaybacked steed.” This cynical/romantic dichotomy is pretty much a staple of private eye fiction; McGee, however, took it and made it seem even cooler than usual.

And that, more than anything else, is why Travis McGee is so special to me. There are a lot of real-life people who influenced my idea of what it was to be cool. But I can’t deny the influence of some cultural icons as well, and one of the first was Travis McGee.

Granted, he had some flaws. His attitudes towards women could be a bit paternalistic, although it’s unfair to call it Hugh Hefner-like,  as George Pelecanos once did (McGee would probably bridle at anyone referring to a woman as a “Playmate”).

All that said, though, McGee was the type of guy who a lonely kid could aspire to be. He was a tough guy with soul. An undeniable bad-ass, but with a soft spot for the wounded and downtrodden and a willingness to fight for them. A guy who lives by his own strict code, but who doesn’t take himself too seriously. A guy who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks of him or the way he lives. A guy who is, in a word, an icon of cool.

And I’m sorry, Leonard DiCaprio can never be that.

So tell me, ‘Rati: what fictional character most influenced your concept of cool? Has any movie casting of one of your favorite characters pissed you off as bad as this has me?

32 thoughts on “Icons of Cool

  1. neil

    This book is good for anyone who likes to read books.I hope the movie provides same thrill and fun which I got with the book.Dicaprio is good actor and I am sure that he will give some provide great performance.


  2. Stacy McKitrick

    I know what you mean when an actor can ruin a character for you. I loved Stephen King’s "The Stand" and read that book numerous times. And when I heard a mini-series was being made of that book, I was excited. It wasn’t until I saw Molly Ringwald play the part of Frannie, that I became mad. She absolutely ruined it for me. It was like the casting people didn’t even read the book!

  3. Alafair Burke

    For me, one of the worst adaptations was of Less Than Zero, with both a bad screenplay and ridiculous casting (save for Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader). I usually wind up being happier with casting choices than I expect. Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie? Michael C. Hall as Dexter? They were both terrific, the latter so much so that I can no longer read Jeff Lindsay’s books without comparing the written Dexter to the television one. The script always seems to matter more than casting. Kathleen Turner was brilliant as VI Warshawski, but, wow, that movie was bad. Leo hasn’t managed to be bad in anything yet, so you might end up surprised.

  4. Sara J. Henry

    NO, NO, SAY IT AIN’T SO! Leonardo DiCaprio at TRAVIS McGEE!?!? (Yes, I know I’m shouting.) Who will they cast as Meyer – Jeremy Piven? Holy cow. I grew up on McGee (thank you, Dad) and those books hugely influenced my own writing – it’s no coincidence that my pivotal scenes take place in large bodies of water.

    And, wow, a spam comment! Love that clever little "proteine" link to entice you off to another site to buy supplements. As if that’s gonna happen.

    J.D., ya ruined my morning. Maybe a scheduling or script conflict will happen and this movie will never get made.

  5. JD Rhoades

    Sorry to ruin your morning Sara. I removed the spam link, BTW. The comment was at least arguably on topic so I left it. But "neil" my boy, you’re on notice. The only selling we do here is of our own and each others’ books. And maybe our friends’.

    Stacy, you raise an interesting question. Can bad casting "ruin" a character for you? I don’t think McGee could ever be ruined for me, even by this lousy casting decision. And, as Alafair points out, I might be surprised. I’m not betting the farm on it, though.

  6. Brett Battes

    I’m a HUGE McGee fan, too. And am concerned by this casting choice, but, as Alafair say, he’s not done anything bad yet. (in fact, as actors go, he’s pretty damn good.) And, actually, DiCaprio is one of the taller actors in Hollywood. If I’m not mistaken he’s just a shade under 6′ (per google 5′ 11.5") I know McGee is more like 6’5", but since most of the other actors in Hollywood are short, Leo may seem that tall! Can’t do much about the pretty boy looks, though.

  7. Dana King

    A younger Scott Glenn might have been a good McGee, but also have to agree with Alafair: I couldn’t imagine Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie, but he was very good. They made an accommodation or two for his age and size, and it worked.

    As for casting taking me out of amovie altogether, just about anything with Renee Zellweger will do it.

  8. Rae

    Gotta say, I’m very interested by the idea of DiCaprio as McGee. While he certainly doesn’t fit my mental image of the character, he’s a great actor and a very smart guy (from what I hear) so it’ll be fascinating to see what sort of interpretation he and the producers come up with.

    As far as cool fictional characters are concerned, Amos Burke (Burke’s Law) really did it for me. I always thought Jim Rockford was way cool, too.

    I don’t remember being particularly pissed off at any wacky casting of my favorite characters, although I’ve wondered "what were they thinking" more than once. I can’t get too bothered by the whole thing: I figure the movie rights make some money for my favorite writers, and if I don’t like the idea of the film, I just won’t see it.

  9. JD Rhoades

    Mike: I do remember that. Elliot’s one of my favorite actors, and an icon of cool in his own right. He wasn’t a bad McGee, but the producers completely screwed that movie up. McGee in California? On a sailboat? WTF?

    Dana, Rae: I agree, DiCaprio is a fine actor, and if he does manage to pull it off, I will come back here and publicly apologize to him. I know that’ll make him feel a lot better.

    Stephen: you gotta admit, though. Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl was inspired.

  10. Karen in Ohio

    JD, as my mother used to say, don’t holler until you’re hurt. Let’s see what young Leo does with the role before we dismiss him out of hand. I predict he’ll surprise you.

  11. kit

    good post…made me think..when I read a book, it’s like a personal relationship I have with the author, and as I’m reading…there’s kind of like this movie playing in my head to match words to action and description……
    I can’t answer your specific question..but it made me think of people I WOULDN’T want to see playing certain favorite charactors..things that would drive me on the edge of postal…and scream Inside (and YEAH ….maybe out loud) "what the @@#$Q%Q#% were you people thinking!!!??? Oh HELL NO!!! this is just WRONG!!

  12. pari noskin taichert

    Kathleen Turner as VI Warshawski (sp). That was a horrible, horrible mistake. Both the character and Ms. Turner deserved better.

    It didn’t turn me off of Sara Paretsky’s books, but I felt it was beyond a stupid decision.

  13. Allison A. Davis

    Yeah, I was going to say Kathleen Turner as VI and I didn’t like Robert Ulrick as Spenser (come on dude, you can’t cook), or Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone but then I’m really picky about that stuff.

    But pretty boy as McGee? Maybe as a teenager. He’s not tall enough.

    But I am going to steal, lock stock and barrell: "Don’t holler until you’re hurt." Karen in Ohio, our mother’s were brilliant. (Mine used to say "be useful as well as ornamental" among other things.)

  14. Cara

    J.D don’t know if the film Croupier came from a book, but Clive Owen carved that character for me. So could Leo carve his own Travis…jury’s out but yes, Allison Urich as Spenser, dude you can’t cook.and driving his car into the ‘kitchen’ my mother used to say, very bad manners.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JD

    Hm, I’ll reserve judgement on LdC playing McGee until I’ve seen it, I think.

    After all, he can’t be as bad as Val Kilmer playing Simon Templar, The Saint, can he?

    Or what about Tom Cruise (hardly visible with the naked eye) wanting to play Jack Reacher after Cruise Wagner acquired the rights to ONE SHOT? I mean, Cruise was excellent as the hitman in ‘Collateral’, but he just can’t act TALL enough …

    And what about Keira Knightly playing bounty hunter Domino? Couldn’t bring myself to sit through to the end of that one. Or Steve Guttenberg’s unitentionally hilarious turn as a tough guy Black Ops leader in ‘Airborne’?

    But who would have guessed that a Brit light comedy actor like Hugh Laurie would do such a convincing turn as a brilliant but irascible US doctor …?

    So, yeah, I’ll wait until I’ve seen him give it his best shot. After all, they slagged Daniel Craig to bits for taking on Bond, and – much as I’m not that keen on the guy – he’s done a pretty good job so far ;-]

  16. Louise Ure

    Oh man, you hit an open sore for me here, J.D. The Travis McGee novels are the only complete collection I have here at the house. Every single f***ing first edition. Travis is my idol.

    And DiCaprio as my hero? Feh. Sam Elliott was the only true celluloid McGee. Anything else would be as bad as the reported threatening of starring Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

  17. JD Rhoades

    To be fair I’d heard that Tom Cruise had optioned one of the Reacher books, but that he wasn’t actually planning on attempting the character.

    he can’t be as bad as Val Kilmer playing Simon Templar, The Saint, can he?

    Oh, Lord..thanks for reminding me of THAT abomination.

  18. toni mcgee causey

    I was always deeply amused by Travis McGee’s last name. I found the books as a kid on my dad’s shelf and thought it was a story about a relative. (Was vastly disappointed to realize that no, he was fictional.)

    I loved those books, though. Plus, my dad thoroughly enjoyed them, which, along with Tony Hillerman, gave us authors in common to talk about when sometimes there weren’t many things to talk about at that awkward father-not-quite-grown-daughter stage.

    Leo as McGee? Ugh. I’ve just never been a fan, but then, he’s just too pretty, even when he’s trying to look rough. I’m with Louise on Sam Elliot.

    I’ve seen so few adaptations for this very reason–if I love the book, I don’t want to see someone else’s interpretation of it. I want to keep my own journey through that story, because that’s personal to me.

  19. James Scott Bell

    The perfect McGee would have been a young Sterling Hayden. Rod Taylor wasn’t bad, just wasn’t great. The world has changed, too. It’s not going to be easy translating McGee for postmoderns.

  20. Karen in Ohio

    Actually, Mark Harmon would make a super Travis McGee, in my opinion. Or is he a little too old? It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of those "colorful" mysteries.

  21. Stacy McKitrick

    JD – Bad casting ruined the character on the screen for me, not in the book. When I read "The Stand" (and I’m sure I’ll read it again), I’ll picture Frannie the way she’s described in the book. But when I watch the mini-series (and yes, I own it), I cringe every time I see Molly Ringwald (although I mostly enjoyed the mini-series).

  22. JD Rhoades


    Karen: Mark Harmon…hmmmm….maybe. As for the age, McGee does age some throughout the series, and gets considerably more weary and battered. So Harmon may not be too old.

    James: Sterling Hayden! Yes! Darren McGavin (who IIRC did a couple of the audio books) had the perfect voice, but the look was all wrong.

  23. PK the Bookeemonster

    In the "don’t holler until it hurts" department: I think so far it is still a rumor that Kenneth Branagh is going to play Matthew Shardlake from CJ Sansom’s historical mystery series. I’ve loved Branagh since Henry V but no no no!
    I can’t see Tom Hanks as Dan Brown’s leading man either. Or how about Jim Carrey as Horton (Horton Hears a Who) or the Grinch? Blech. Leave Dr. Seuss alone!
    I’m wondering, if he scruffies up a bit, if Matthew McConaughey could play Travis McGee. Kinda has the right laid back attitude. Maybe. He is getting on the old side to be playing the young romantic comedies it seems to me.

  24. BCB

    I had something to say. I think. Then was traumatized by the thought of Tom Cruise playing Reacher. That’s like trying to cast Roarke. (They find a good fit for either role, I’m seriously considering kidnapping.)

    Now I need a cleansing refreshing sorbet for the brain. Give me a minute here. Or ten.


    At the risk of being asked to leave and never come back, I have to admit I’ve never read a Travis McGee book. But it’s not like I didn’t read them on purpose. I mean, I’ve heard the name, but I guess I wasn’t sure who he was or what story/movie he was in. Now I know. Actually, he sounds like my kind of guy. Since I’m planning on being in the same library with you this weekend, JD, maybe you’ll agree to help me pick out the ones I should read first… if Louise doesn’t yell at me for reading instead of writing. 😉

    Can’t think of any bad movie adaptations just now, but the best one I can remember is Eye of the Needle. Loved the book. Loved the movie even more.

    And this makes me wonder about something related. [I know, you all are done for the day and I’m just getting started, but still. Going to ask anyway.] Do any of you use "placeholder" people (either known actors or anonymous model types) to stand in for characters while writing? I’ve heard some writers say they do and I’m curious as to whether you all find that helpful. A while back I tried to find some that might fit and found a couple great ones for secondary (non-POV) characters. But none of the ones I considered seemed quite right for the main characters. Maybe because I can see my characters and their personalities so clearly without stand-ins? Would love to hear what works for everyone here and why. Well, that is, if I’m allowed to come back.

  25. Karen in Ohio

    I don’t know, Matthew McConaughey doesn’t seem smart enough to be Travis McGee. Maybe that’s just me.

  26. Fran

    I do so love Travis, and I tend to become surly with people who maintain he was misogynistic (which I hear more often than you might suspect), or that MacDonald simply couldn’t write (which I also hear far too often). I still cry over the letter at the end of "The Lonely Silver Rain".

    My gut reaction was NO to Leonardo. But. . .maybe. I’ll wait and see. Depends on who’s directing, I suspect.

    And who’s going to play Meyer? Because without Meyer, there’s going to be a huge hunk missing from the story. I love Meyer.

    While we’re looking at casting faux pas, may I just say I never could get my head around Eriq LaSalle as Lucas Davenport.

  27. Jake Nantz

    The one that threw me was Tom Cruise as The Vampire Lestat. I was never a huge fan, but wasn’t Lestat supposed to be well over six feet and very imposing? God, Cruise is shorter than me! Which leaves VERY little room to be imposing.

    And BCB, I’ll be there this weekend too, and I am also a Travis McGee virgin, so I might ask to tag along while Dusty points out the ones to start with. That said, and without even knowing the character, I have little if any faith in Leo. Just a personal preference thing (though I’m sure there could be worse choices).

    Then again, when I first heard about Ledger as the supreme sociopath of all time, I thought it had to be a Joker-esque prank on the already salivating comic book public. Boy, was I wrong. Nicholson had NOTHIN’ on that performance.

    As for the other side of your question, Dusty, I can think of two characters I hope never make it to the silver screen, because someone will do them wrong:

    Harry Bosch and Joe Pike.

    I can see most of Hollywood overplaying Bosch’s tough-guy side without getting his internal motivation right, and who couldn’t see someone like Bruce Willis or Christian Bale making Pike TALK too damn much, and never getting what makes him who he is.

    I hope Crais and Connelly never let those film rights go. (and if they do, I hope the studios cut the check, but then fight amongst themselves and never actually put the film together).

  28. BCB

    Jake, looking forward to meeting you!

    I checked the library’s online system and they don’t have the early books in the series. If I know it’s a series I’m reading, I have to start at the beginning. So I took the dangerous route. I went to B&N. They didn’t have the first two (now on order) but I bought the next three. Plus five other books I saw and just had to have…

  29. kit

    I knew when I first read this…there was something out there that I had read or seen that related…..I’m not heavily into comics….but it was a Punisher storyline that included rapper Eminem.
    That one made me want to puke….it seemed too much like selling out on the Punisher’s part(or the creator’s, powers that be). I’ll leave it at that..it just seemed off and totally WRONG.


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