Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Hey, I’m on TV!
   by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)
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AT THE PRE-SCREENING FESTIVITIES, somebody mentioned in passing that the Philadelphia Inquirer critic had given the film a “mixed review.”Printer friendly version This caught my interest, for I was afraid that the TV-movie treatment of my private-eye novel, Third Man Out, premiering at the Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festival July 7, was going to be wretched. “Mixed” sounded promising.
     Although a number of television pros were involved — screenwriter Mark Saltzman, director Ron Oliver, star Chad Allen (of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”) — the film had been done on a minuscule budget and shot in Vancouver in 14 days. My opinions had not been sought, and Saltzman had not been asked to be present at the shoot. He told me the old Hollywood joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer.
     When HereTV, a new gay cable channel, bought the novel and optioned the seven others in my Don Strachey series a year ago, it all felt like a win-win proposition. I’d make some money from the TV and film rights sale — $5,000 for each book filmed — and I’d sell some books, too. Enthusiasm for the series, written under my pseudonym, Richard Stevenson, had been waning for years, and the TV deal would revive interest in the Strachey books by, among others, me. Plus, the thing might even be good. In any case, I recalled Raymond Chandler’s reply when somebody said wasn’t it awful what Hollywood had done to his books. “Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books,” the creator of Philip Marlowe calmly explained, “my books are right up there on the shelf.” If the great Chandler could be so cold-bloodedly sane about it, God knows I could. But as the reality of the first screening approached, I began to sweat. Some people enjoy these gay-life social comedies in the form of mysteries and some people don’t. Anyway, I have grown fond and protective of Strachey and his longtime partner Timothy Callahan over time, so I didn’t want to see them trashed.
     And they weren’t, exactly. At the screening, part of the festival’s opening-night gala at a big downtown Philly movie house, the audience pretty much laughed when it was meant to and gasped at the right spots. My partner Joe Wheaton and I were so relieved that the thing wasn’t catastrophically awful that when it was over we were elated. I was thrilled to see my characters — recognizable as themselves — cavorting on a big screen. It’s a surreal experience. Allen, as Strachey, is excellent. He’s only 30 — ten years younger than Strachey was when the first book came out in 1981 — but he’s solid and grown-up and as an actor he’s got the chops. Sean Carey as Timmy is pretty good, too, though in a few misdirected comic scenes he comes across as a kind of gay Dagwood Bumstead. And the cute music on the soundtrack, cuing the audience when to be amused, seems to have wandered in from some other movie, maybe “Francis the Talking Mule.”
     Some of the other actors are less than wonderful — union rules say most must be Canadian — and Vancouver looks nothing like Albany, New York, where the story is set. There’s some awkward editing, too, and, worst of all, the producers hired a gay-porn star, Matthew Rush, for a brief scene where Strachey interviews a former porn actor running a phone-sex operation in an Albany business park. It’s an amusing gimmick, but the guy’s acting abilities are scant and with his pectorals like ’52 Buicks and biceps the size of warthogs he’s an appalling sight. He was at the screening, and Joe wondered, “What if he explodes?”
     The Inquirer critic, Carrie Rickey, called the film a “cheesy whodunit that dishes more humor than suspense,” and that’s not altogether unfair. Director Oliver was looking, he said, for a combination of film noir and The Thin Man, and he mostly gets that. The tone wobbles sometimes, and on a few occasions fails altogether. When, in a tense scene, Timmy blurts, “You SHOT your boyfriend!?” the audience howls. That’s not what was meant.
     Rickey was wrong about one thing. Labeling the film cheesy, she went on, “We’re not talking brie, we’re talking Velveeta.” It’s a good line, but Joe said Havarti with dill is more like it, and that’s about right. It all feels like a moderately successful combination of a good sixties TV PI show with “The Thin Man” — except the Nick and Nora here are two men who are healthy and smart and playful and plainly nuts about each other. This is novel and refreshing on TV, no matter how cheesy the execution. When other Peace Corps writers’ books are filmed, I hope they’re as flavorsome and true to the spirit of the original as “Third Man Out” is — and that the authors ARE PAID MORE THAN I WAS.
     “Third Man Out” will air on HereTV periodically from September 1 to October 28 in those households that can receive it. Mine and those of several Here vice presidents are the ones that I know of. Next, HereTV plans to film Ice Blues, set during a brutal Albany winter — though if it’s shot in Vancouver it may have to be called “Light-mist Blues.”
Richard Lipez worked as a Peace Corps program evaluator for three years following his Ethiopia service. He ran the Pittsfield, MA community action agency from 1968–71. A writer since then, Lipez has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Progressive, Glamour, Redbook, and other publications. He is a regular mystery reviewer for The Washington Post and an editorial writer for the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield. He co-authored Grand Scam, a caper novel in 1979, and since 1981 has written eight Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson, all published by St.Martin’s Press.
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