It Was Thirty Years Ago Today….

June 16th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

I have been wanting to share this with you for ages, but couldn’t figure out how to do so – all I have is a VHS tape of it. What is it? Seduction of the Innocents’ video of “The Truth Hurts” from our CD, The Golden Age. I love this video, and how well it displays Miguel Ferrer’s charisma, and Bill Mumy’s acting. Also there for the video shoot, and perhaps glimpsed here, was Brandon Lee, who was (believe it or not) a kind of camp follower of the band – a wonderful guy.

Time passes and things happen, and along the way we meet – if we are very lucky and I have been – some remarkable people, and that includes those mentioned above, but also my bandmates Steve Leialoha and Chris Christensen. Chris in 1990 had not joined the band yet, but he released “The Golden Age” on CD on his Beat Brothers label (also the label that released the various Crusin’ CDs).

Thirty years ago? Really?

Also thirty years ago was the release of the Dick Tracy film, and it’s getting some Thirtieth Anniversary play right now.

So here is a long excerpt from an article I wrote for Lee Goldberg’s Tied In – The Business, History and Craft of Media Tie-In Writing. It is the behind-the-scenes amusing and horrorifying story of my writing of the movie tie-in novelization of Dick Tracy.

I wanted to write the Dick Tracy tie-in novel because I‘d been the writer of the syndicated strip since 1977, plus I was a mystery novelist. Landing the Dick Tracy strip was my first really big career break. I got the job after trying out for it, writing a sample continuity. I got the opportunity to try out chiefly because of some mystery novels I‘d written as a kid that had a strong comics element (Bait Money and Blood Money, both 1973).

My re-boot of the strip got a lot of positive attention, and I loved the job, having been a stone Dick Tracy fanatic since childhood. Before getting the strip, I had even developed a friendship with creator Chester Gould – a rarity, because he was very private – although Chet played no role in my landing this plum assignment.

Some time in the ‘80s, I was shown a potential screenplay for Dick Tracy, shared with me by my Chicago Tribune Syndicate editor. I thought it was lousy, and told him so, and he agreed. I figured that was the end of it.

But the Dick Tracy film was a project that wouldn‘t die – Clint Eastwood was going to be the square-jawed dick for a while, which was exciting, and then finally Warren Beatty got obsessed with it, and it became a Disney project and a very big deal. I offered to do the novel version and, thanks to my credentials as the writer of the strip, got the gig. I was thrilled.

Then they sent me the screenplay – it was virtually the same lousy one I‘d read seven or eight years before! I was
shocked and dismayed. Lots of the classic characters, villains and good guys alike, some good situations…but no story. Not really.

I asked my agent what to do about it, wondering what kind of novel I could fashion from such weak material, and he said, “Just do whatever you want with it. Nobody‘s going to read it at Disney – this is just small change to them.” Did I mention that my usually very savvy agent had never sold a tie-in before? And that this was the worst advice he ever gave me?

So I wrote a novel very loosely based on the screenplay. I added more characters from the strip, provided a story, even replaced what seemed to me to be unimaginative death traps with my own better ones. It was a terrific little novel, designed by and for a Dick Tracy fan like me.

I sent it in, went on about my business, and several months later my wife Barb and I were preparing to go on a research trip to Nassau (for my Nate Heller novel Carnal Hours) when my agent called with bad news. The Disney people hadn‘t even made it through my book – got maybe a third of the way – before saying a faithful-to-the-screenplay page one rewrite was needed.

In seven days.

Dick Tracy is legendarily a movie that Warren Beatty micro-managed. Every tie-in aspect was overseen by Beatty and his top people. The novel I‘d written was inappropriate for any film. To have taken these liberties on Dick Tracy was a blundering piece of farcical arrogance on my part that makes Fawlty Towers look like a documentary.

So with a 1989-era laptop (think about it), I went to Nassau and spent 70% of my time in the hotel room salvaging what little I could from my first version. Maybe 25% of it was workable. Actually, some of my non-screenplay stuff made it in, because it didn‘t contradict anything (Vitamin Flintheart is in my novel, for instance, but not in the film, not even deleted scenes).

Barb and I were in Nassau four or five days, and I came home and wrote the rest of it, just blazing. What I came up with was pretty good. I was as happy with it as possible, considering the weak screenplay that was my source. But that, as they say, was just the beginning….

I spent many, many hours on the phone with the producer of the film, Barry Osborne (later involved in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), a gracious, intelligent man, and way too far up the food chain to be giving a lowly tie-in writer such instructions as, “The chair on page 223? It‘s green not red,” and, “You have 88 Keyes standing up from the piano too soon on page 187.” Most of the changes I was asked to make had to do with such surface things, and many substantial changes I had made in character motivation and dialogue were overlooked.

This was perhaps the most instructive thing I learned from the experience – if you follow the screenplay out the door, and do the surface of it accurately, you can slip in all kinds of substance where characterization and fleshing out of scenes are concerned.

Osborne actually liked the novel a lot, and he told me on several occasions that I had solved plot problems for them, which they had fixed by way of dialogue looping – and indeed the film has five or six lines I wrote.

Also, he asked me about a scene involving Tracy‘s girl friend Tess and her mother, where Mrs. Trueheart says a lot of negative stuff about Dick, how she is delighted that Tess and Dick have broken up and how selfish the detective is, etc. I had softened this scene, making Tess‘s mother much more positive about her potential son-in-law. The producer asked me why I‘d done that.

“Because,” I said, “Tracy joined the police force to avenge the death of Mrs. Trueheart‘s husband – Tess‘s father, who ran a deli and got shot by robbers. Mrs. Trueheart adores Dick Tracy. Every Dick Tracy fan knows that.”

And they re-shot the scene along my lines.

So I take a certain pride in knowing that Dick Tracy is a film in part based upon its own novelization. The final battle, however, reached new heights of absurdity, and involved phone calls with high-level folks at Disney. How high level? How about Jeffrey Katzenberg? The “surprise” ending of Dick Tracy is that the mysterious masked bad guy called the Blank is actually Breathless Mahoney. Sorry to ruin it for you, but, yes, Madonna did it.

This surprise seemed painfully obvious to me, the kind of shocker you can damn near figure out in the opening credits. But Beatty, Disney and all associated were convinced they had a surprise on the level of The Sixth Sense (I figured that out, too, about five minutes in). So I was instructed to remove it from the novel.

Wait a minute, you‘re saying. Remove what? The identity of the masked bad guy. The solution to the mystery. You know…who the killer is.

This surprise ending, the Disney folks told me, had to be guarded like the Coca Cola recipe or the unretouched Zapruder film. And when I pointed out that Dick Tracy was a mystery story, and that leaving the ending off a mystery story just might disappoint a few readers, this seemed of no particular import.

I did half a dozen rewrites of the ending, sneaking in hints of the Blank‘s identity, such as, “Why, look who it is under the mask…” said Tess, breathlessly. No sale. About a page was cut from the book.

I won only one small concession – that any printings after the film came out would include the full ending. Only one small print run represents the complete novel (the sixth, distributed to school book clubs).

There can be no doubt that I hold a singular honor among mystery writers – I wrote a bestselling whodunit… without revealing whodunit.

Perhaps by way of apology, the Disney people flew my wife, son, mother and father and me to the film‘s premiere at Disneyworld in Florida. They treated us great. Everybody attached to the movie treated us great, including Warren Beatty. We did a big press get-together with many of the stars. I was doing a Mumbles continuity in the Dick Tracy strip at the time, and Dustin Hoffman (who played Mumbles in the film) read me that day‘s strip from a local paper, doing Mumbles’ dialogue in character. Doesn‘t get much better than that.

Two postscripts: in our Disneyworld hotel, a coloring book on sale – an item that (it turned out) had been available to the public for several weeks – included the Breathless-is-the-Blank ending. As we say in the funnies, “Sigh….”

Also, the wonderful actress Estelle Parsons (who played Mrs. Truehart in the film) wandered into a bookstore at Disneyworld, where I was signing copies of my open-ended novel. We spoke, and she was very sweet, and I said to her, “You had to re-shoot your big scene, didn‘t you?”

She looked at me, amazed. “How did you know that?”

And I told her.

* * *

Here is a look at the Thirtieth Anniversary of Dick Tracy in which my role is dealt with somewhat.

And here, as well, my part touched on somewhat more extensively. (If this link requires you to subscribe to the Telegraph, note that a free subscription is available.)

As for the Seduction of the Innocent CD, “The Golden Age,” it’s possible Chris has a few copies left; write him at I have a few cassette copies and also Seduction’s live CD. You know where to find me.


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10 Responses to “It Was Thirty Years Ago Today….”

  1. Dennis Lynch says:

    Fascinating DICK TRACY history. I only watched the film once.

  2. Brian Drake says:

    Didn’t royalties from Dick Tracy pay off your house? As a writer who can’t afford his own, that’s my favorite part of the story.

  3. Brian Drake says:

    And by the way “The Truth Hurts” is quite catchy and the hook is now on repeat in my head.

  4. Thomas Zappe says:

    This week’s entry is perfectly lovely.

    There is nothing here that anyone could object to.

    Oh well….perhaps next week.

  5. Thanks for these comments.

    Yes, Brian — the Disney people offered me chump change for writing the TRACY novelization, but my agent got me a small royalty. Then the book sold 800,000 copies and I got a huge royalty check, with which I paid off the mortgage of my new house (“new” in the sense that we’d just bought it — it was built in 1937). Still can’t believe we put on over on the Mouse.

  6. Fred Blosser says:

    I’ll put in a good if belated word for the follow-up Tracy novels from Bantam (…GOES TO WAR and …MEETS HIS MATCH).

  7. Sean Kelly says:

    As I finish organizing my bookshelves and get books out of boxes, I just came across my copy of Dick Tracy. I’ll have to look and see which edition I have. (And if I don’t have that elusive final version, I’ll have to track it down.)

    As of right now, my MAC collection takes up three shelves of two cases (with all the mass-market paperbacks tucked behind the hardcovers so technically 5 shelves). The Heller shelf has no more room and the others are full as well. I will have to do some shuffling when the new Ness, Johnny Dynamite and Ms. Tree books come out.

  8. Mike Doran says:

    Sometime in our checkered past, I might have mentioned that I happen to have both versions of the Dick Tracy novel: I got Version One new in ’90, which you and Dick Locher signed for me at the time.
    Years later, I found (purely by happenstance) a copy of the Revised Standard Version – on the used shelf at Metro Golden Memories (since defunct, dammit).
    I have dutifully held on to both versions ever since.

    I’ve always wondered why Dick Tracy, alone among the big ticket movies of that era, never got a super-deluxe DVD release, with features, commentaries, interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff, and like that there – not at the time of release, not on subsequent anniversaries (including this 30th one), not ever.
    Most of the stories I’ve read/heard have to do with Warren Beatty, who apparently carries eccentricity to quite an extreme.
    (Or didn’t you think it kind of odd that his Howard Hughes movie features the screen debut of Steve Mnuchin and his galpal?)
    (Among other things, I mean …)

    Ah Well/Oh Hell … back to the Waiting Game.
    At least Amazon Prime seems to keep coming through …

  9. H. Langhans says:

    Dick Tracy – that takes me back.

    I am from Germany. In a small way, I was also connected to that novelization.

    Back in 1988 to 1990, me and my then-ladyfriend collaborated on essays, translations, and other stuff related to writing-as-a-profession, freelance. And we did the translation of that novelization for the German publisher, Bastei. They sent us a photocopy of MAC’s manuscript; the US edition had not even been publshed. And we had a bit more than seven days to work on it, but not much more. I seem to remember that our deadline was three weeks; any later, and it would not synchronize with the film’s release in Germany.

    I was a fast reader. Still am, to a degree. So, I took the ms home, drew the curtains and poured over the ream in six hours. Next morning, I gave the first half to my partner and started work on the second.

    It was a weekend. The next Monday, I took a break from typing and phoned the editor.

    “The ending is missing.”

    “What do you mean – missing?”

    “Well, they get the bad guy in the end, and they just look at the body and walk off without mentioning his name. Can that be right? The MS arrived loose-leaf; are there any pages left on your desk?”

    “Hang on … No, that’s OK. The movie people want it that way.”

    “They WHAT?”

    “You heard me. And send along what you guys got finished for speed-editing. Remember the deadline.” Click.

    The wackiest translation job I ever had. But we made the deadline.