Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925.
His father, a dealership scout for General Motors, moved the family from city to city before settling in Detroit. Nicknamed “Dutch” after a Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher with the same surname, young Elmore Leonard went on to serve in World War II. His bad eyesight consigned him to a job as store manager for the Seabees, doling out beer for the troops.
After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1950, Leonard married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline, and took a job with a local advertising agency. He nurtured his fiction habit in private. In 1951, he published his first short story in Argosy magazine for $1,000. His first novel, “The Bounty Hunters,” came out in 1954.
Two of his early stories became popular Western movies, “The Tall T” with Randolph Scott and “3:10 to Yuma” with Glenn Ford, both in 1957. The latter was remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe.
By the end of the 1950s the Western market was saturated, so to support his wife and five children, Leonard turned to writing scripts for educational films.
Then, in 1967, 20th Century Fox bought the rights for his novel “Hombre” for $10,000. The resulting film, starring Paul Newman as a white man raised by American Indians, was only a moderate box-office success, but it gave Leonard the financial cushion he needed to reboot his fiction.
His next book, “The Big Bounce,” the story of an ex-con falling into the clutches of a psychotic young seductress, was rejected 84 times before finding a publisher. It found devoted readers, though, and it placed Leonard for the first time in his natural milieu — the modern American underworld — while planting the seeds for the great work of the 1970s and early 1980s, including “City Primeval,” “Split Images,” “Stick” and “52 Pick-Up.”
This was also a time of personal turmoil for Leonard. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his heavy drinking was a contributing factor.
“I’d been drinking since I was a kid,” he told People magazine, “and for 20 years I was a happy drunk. Then I started to get wild.” He joined and dropped out of Alcoholics Anonymous three times before he quit alcohol entirely. “I had my last drink at 9 a.m. on Jan. 24, 1977,” he said. “I think it was Scotch and ginger ale.”
Two years later he married Joan Shepard. She died in 1993. His third marriage, to Christine Kent, ended in divorce. Survivors include five children from his first marriage, 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Hollywood had long warmed to Leonard’s taut, dialogue-heavy yarns. “The Big Bounce” was filmed twice. (Leonard hated both versions.) “Joe Kidd” (1972) featured Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter tracking a Mexican revolutionary, and “Mr. Majestyk” (1974) starred Charles Bronson as a farmer battling the syndicate.
More successful were Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” (1995), about a loan shark who finds little difference between organized crime and the film industry; and Steven Soder-
bergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998), in which a deputy U.S. marshal fights and eventually resolves her feelings for a handsome jailbreaker.
In recent years, Leonard’s work inspired the FX television series “Justified,” with Timothy Olyphant as a federal lawman busting heads in the hill country of eastern Kentucky.