Early on in Fletch Won, the eighth published novel in the series by Gregory McDonald and the first chronologically, Irwin Maurice Fletcher is reassigned to the society pages of the Los Angeles News-Tribune.
“Frank, I don’t believe in society.”
“That’s okay, Fletch. Society doesn’t believe in you, either.”
So retroactively begins the career of the fictional journalist known to lovers and divorce attorneys alike as Fletch. In the hands of McDonald, he’s Schrodinger’s bum, changing zip codes and tax brackets from one book to the next. Not that he regularly pays taxes – Fletch’s Fortune sees him blackmailed by the CIA because retired journalists shouldn’t have offshore accounts. Fletch has no fuzzy feelings about any institution – financial, marital, or otherwise reputable – least of all the ones that offer him an honest day’s work.
When Gregory McDonald wrote Fletch, he was Fletch. From 1966 to 1973, McDonald worked for the Boston Globe under one simple rule from his editor: “Go have fun and write about it.” While that gave him the freedom of Fletch, his spirit came from a post-script suggestion: “If you end up cut and bleeding on the sidewalk, call the city desk.” His last year at the Globe, McDonald handed his detective story to a friend and ran away on a family vacation. He came back expecting notes. His friend didn’t have any – he’d already mailed it to publishers.
Fletch hit bookstores in 1974, when a pair of mop-headed reporters took down the president and Philip Marlowe looked like Elliott Gould. It was a fast best-seller, and won the 1975 Edgar award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. The 1976 sequel, Confess, Fletch, won the 1977 Edgar for Best Paperback Original. To date, no other series has managed back-to-back Edgars.
Fletch was hot – so hot that Hollywood wanted him immortalized by hunky leading men – Burt Reynolds – dependable comic stars – Charles Grodin – and the hippest rock stars that could be convinced to act – David Bowie and Mick Jagger – respectively. Leveler heads and McDonald’s casting approval clause prevailed. When a post-Caddyshack Chevy Chase showed interest, McDonald gave him the thumbs-up: “I think if you were to hold a national election, Chevy Chase would be the one Fletch readers would choose as Fletch.”
Universal Studios wanted him, too, it just didn’t want Fletch. Jerry Belson, decorated Dick Van Dyke Show veteran, was tasked with moving the character to Miami and giving him an original mystery to untangle. That take lasted as long as the executives did. Incoming brass decided to make what they paid for and hired Andrew Bergman of Blazing Saddles fame to adapt McDonald’s novel instead. After rewrites from Sneakers writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, revisions from Belson, conscientious input from Chase, and improv supervision from director Michael Ritchie, the barefoot reporter became a bonafide star.
Fletch edged out both Clark Griswold and James Bond at the domestic box office as the 12th highest-grossing hit of 1985. Avowed Chase detractors Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert disagreed on the results. Siskel liked the sturdy whodunnit beneath the star’s familiar winks. Ebert couldn’t let him off that easy, blaming Chase for getting in the way of McDonald’s book: “He’s a comedian in a movie where everybody else doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be a comedy.”
Reading Fletch now, when you can order a t-shirt with his famous face on it, clarifies just how much cuddlier Chevy Chase made him.
The first chapter is familiar – the terminally ill Alan Stanwyk asks Fletch to kill him so his family can collect insurance and Fletch says, “Sure.” When he returns to the News-Tribune in the second chapter and refers almost exclusively to his boss as “bitch editor” for making sure he’s doing his job, the two Fletches diverge. As written, everybody either jumps his bones or hates his guts, sometimes both. In the movie, Fletch and Mrs. Stanwyk run off to Brazil. In the book, they still sleep together, but Fletch leaves her in the dark about her husband’s scheme even after his untimely demise. Instead of playing phone-tag with one ex-wife, book Fletch dodges two plus a gay divorce lawyer, all of whom offer sexual favors. One of those divorces involved Fletch throwing a cat out a seventh-floor window. Neither deadly sin, wrath nor lust, ever go away in the series – in the follow-up, Confess, Fletch, he beds his fiancé and her step-mother in the same 24 hour period. But they evolve alongside a gentler Fletch ;the last two novels have him match wits with the son he never knew he had.
The movie adaptation left out the darkest corners of the book, none darker than the fifteen-year-old prostitute Fletch lives with as part of his junkie cover. They sleep on the same rolled out sleeping bag, but despite the raised eyebrows of everyone who knows, there’s nothing funny going on. The only personal investment this largely amoral Fletch has in his drug story comes from her overdose. He buries her body in the sand, screams for a good while, and washes his hair feverishly, until the smell of death comes out of it.
That B story, the drugs on the beach, is the biggest loss in translation. As filmed, the drug story and the Stanwyk story are one in the same. As written, they don’t quite intersect until the penultimate chapter, in a clockwork ending so precise it’s dizzying. In one night, he successfully ties up the following loose ends: busting the drug ring, surviving Stanwyk, avoiding an alimony hearing, dodging his Bronze Star ceremony, tricking his ex-wives into moving in together, framing his latest ex-wife’s attorney into abetting a fugitive, and fleeing the country as a millionaire.
There are no silly disguises in the book, but it’s also decidedly uncinematic to show the hero lying about his name over the phone for ninety minutes. Shame Universal wanted more wigs and fake noses.
Chevy Chase had already signed on for two. Andrew Bergman wrote a sequel based on Fletch and the Man Who, in which he’s conscripted as the press rep of a presidential hopeful. The studio passed. The eventual sequel, Fletch Lives, wasn’t based on any of Gregory McDonald’s novels, though it might’ve taken inspiration from his private life; in 1986, McDonald moved into an old antebellum mansion and spent the rest of his life fighting the KKK. The mystery doesn’t hold up under any scrutiny – the original movie’s secret weapon – and commits the cardinal sin of making everyone around its displaced hero dumber, as opposed to making Fletch smarter than his circumstances.
Chase almost had another shot at his favorite character when Clerks director Kevin Smith e met with him in 1997 about adapting Son of Fletch, the penultimate novel. Smith didn’t like Chase. Chase didn’t like Smith. They parted ways and the filmmaker spent the next decade trying to make Fletch Won instead. In the time since, Fletch could’ve been played by Ben Affleck, Dave Chappelle, Zach Braff, Chris Tucker, Jason Lee, Ryan Reynolds, Justin Long, John Krasinksi, and Joshua Jackson. Possible filmmakers included Smith, Grosse Point Blank’s Steve Pink, Rush Hour’s Brett Ratner, and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence.
As recently as 2014, Jason Sudeikis was attached to Fletch Won with a script from Gregory McDonald’s manager, David List, who had unsuccessfully shopped around Fletch’s Fortune a few years prior. So far, nothing’s come of it. Chase remains ready and available to don the Lakers cap one last time.
Gregory McDonald passed away in 2008, leaving behind 11 Fletch novels. They range in flavor from spy-lite to voodoo travelogue. There are sublime stories (Fletch; Confess, Fletch), great stories (Fletch’s Fortune, Fletch Won), progressive-at-the-time-but-predictable-now stories (Fletch and the Widow Bradley), and Fletch Too. Thirty-five years since Fletch left its dimple-chinned impression on pop culture, the greatest crime of all is that no other adaptation of McDonald’s most enduring character has made it to screens big or small, even when the stage seems perfectly set for the right reporter to blow the world open with nothing more than a fake name and a phone call.
P.S. The Underhills are called the Underwoods in the book. Their credit card number is irrelevant.