Warren Beatty: Dick Does Tinseltown

It only took Warren Beatty 15 years, 10 directors, 4 studios, and 1 lawsuit--not to mention over $30 million-- to bring his version of Dick Tracy to the screen. Here's how it happened:


When Warren Beatty, filmmaker and procrastinator extraordinaire, finally commits to a film project--a process he approaches as joyfully as he would, say, castration--all the decisions are made around the huge, circular kitchen table at his Mulholland Drive home high in the LA. hills. The shape of that table is fraught with almost Freudian significance: when he was a child, Beatty's school principal father terrorized the family from his position at the head of the dinner table, so Beatty's table deliberately has no head. It doesn't need one. Wherever he is, Beatty is in charge, and given his druthers, he doesn't move far from the spot, except to bicycle over to his office on Beverly Glen Circle.

Grazing foods are laid out--carrots, celery, oranges, and nuts--Beatty has a slight sugar problem, and needs to eat frequently. To this table over the past 15 years have come actors, producers, agents, production designers, directors, writers, costume designers, cameramen, all of them anxious to be part of Beatty's long-cherished dream of transforming Chester Gould's upright, lantern-jawed crimebuster Dick Tracy from a yellow-hatted comic strip detective into a full-fledged superstar of the big screen.

When it comes to putting a film together, Warren Beatty has the drawing power of a Coppola or a Spielberg. This is the guy, after all, who made Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, and Reds. What's a little Ishtar among friends? When Beatty calls, they come running, whether it's at the crack of dawn, or after midnight.

Visitors report bumping into Madonna making popcorn in the Beatty kitchen, finding a dripping wet Beatty wrapped in nothing but a towel, or coming upon Al Pacino sitting all alone at the table, dressed in dark colors as though he'd stepped out of the last scene of The Godfather to contemplate the mysteries of Gould's complex villains.

"It was the hottest spot in town," says one of the frequent visitors. And now the results of all that heat are coming to the big screen. For better or worse, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy is the most eagerly anticipated film of this summer.

This isn't the first time showbiz has tried to capitalize on the success of Dick Tracy, one of the longest running comic strips in history. An actor named Ralph Byrd made a cottage industry out of playing Tracy, in four Saturday afternoon serials churned out by Republic from 1937 to 1941, then in two of the four Tracy features produced by RKO from 1945 to 1947, then on the hit ABC-TV series that ran from 1950 to 1951. (No doubt Byrd, rather like Clayton "Lone Ranger" Moore and Adam "Batman" West, would still be fighting to wear his fedora at shopping mall openings today, had he not died of a heart attack in 1952.) In 1961, Tracy returned to TV as a Saturday morning animated cartoon.

But that's ancient history. The modern history of Dick Tracy begins 16 years ago, and makes for a dizzying tour of the confusion that reigns in the corridors of power in Tinsel-town: though many saw the box office potential, the project died a thousand deaths during the 16 year wait to get the green light.

Fade in, 1974. Convinced that audiences are ready for movies based on comic strips, producer Michael Laughlin buys an option to make a new movie version of Tracy, and sees maybe Philip (_The Right Stuff_) Kaufman as the director. Laughlin's agent at the time, Mike Medavoy, is so excited by the idea, he takes Laughlin along to pitch it to Universal's Sid Sheinberg. But Sheinberg is betting instead on another pop culture icon--The Lone Ranger.

Not discouraged, Laughlin shops around, finds that Martin Scorsese is interested, with perhaps Robert De Niro or Robert Redford or Paul Newman or maybe even George C. Scott playing the man with the two-way wrist radio. Excited, Laughlin enlists first Dick Lochte, then Tom (_The Man With the Golden Gun_) Mankiewicz to write Tracy, and takes it to UA--where he's met with thumbs down.

Cut to late 1974. Laughlin shops Tracy to Warner Bros., where he learns that writer Charles Roven has already completed a Tracy script on spec. Laughlin likes Roven's work, and they team up--only to have Warners unable to meet their price for the project. Universal likes Roven's script, too, so Tracy finds a home there after all. By mid-1975, on the basis of Shampoo, Warren Beatty is a top box office name. Laughlin and wife Leslie Caron (a past Beatty paramour) have dinner in Paris with Beatty and current paramour Michelle Phillips. Names of possible Tracy directors range from Orson Welles to John Huston, and Laughlin takes a meeting with Welles. But then Beatty says he rather likes the idea of playing Tracy if the director is his old pal Roman Polanski. All these discussions prove academic, however, because it's impossible to pin Warren down. He has more momentous fish to fry, like his proposed bio-pix of John Reed and Howard Hughes. Laughlin's option runs out, and the movie dies.

Cut to 1977. Writer-director Floyd (American Hot Wax) Mutrux bumps into Laughlin on the street, hears that Laughlin no longer has the option on Tracy, and gets excited. Mutrux and producer Art (The Untouchables) Linson buy the rights to the comic strip for a modest $25,000--and march over to see then-Paramount chief Michael Eisner.

"Floyd has a million dollar idea," says Linson.

"It's James Bond for Paramount," says Mutrux. "The Adventures of Dick Tracy."

Eisner gets excited. "Get in here," he yells to producer Don Simpson, then working in the studio's story department. Everybody agrees this idea will fly. Mutrux and Linson's lawyer, Tom Pollock (now head of Universal), makes the deal with Paramount. James Caan and Harrison Ford are the leading candidates to play Tracy. Mutrux, set to direct, flies to Bora Bora to work out the screenplay with Lorenzo (King Kong, Flash Gordon) Semple Jr., who is in the tropics toiling on Dino De Laurentiis' Hurricane. But nothing comes of it. For years the Tracy project languishes in development--though money's spent, no green light is forthcoming to make it a "go" picture. Mutrux, wishing to get on with other movie projects, steps aside as director, though he and Linson will produce when--and if--a movie is ever made.

Cut to 1981. Over at Universal, John Landis is now excited. A Tracy fan from childhood, he has always wanted to put his comic book hero on the big screen. Dirty Harry Clint Eastwood is so anxious to play Clean Dick, he actually lobbies Landis, but Landis--who has hired struggling screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. to pen an entirely new screenplay-- nforms Eastwood that as far as Universal's concerned, Beatty still has the inside track. Cash and Epps, starting over from scratch, claim that their script "has nothing to do with what Floyd has written. We've enlarged the Breathless Mahoney character to make her a sultry torch singer, part of a romantic triangle with Tracy and Tess Trueheart." Then suddenly, Landis exits the project; he has his hands full with heavier matters--the legal fallout from the Twilight Zone helicopter crash.

Cut to 1983. Director Walter Hill enters the picture. Needless to say, he's excited. We're still at Universal, though now Paramount and Michael Eisner are in on the action too: Tracy will be a co-production, under Hill's direction for producer Joel Silver, with Mutrux and Linson wearing executive producer hats. Months of work go into the new version of the script. Beatty will play Tracy--but just in case he changes his mind again, Harrison Ford's waiting in the wings to assume the fedora. Sure enough, Beatty doesn't sign on the dotted line--he's reportedly asking for $5 million, plus 15 percent of the gross, and is giving studio executives palpitations with demands that would put profits into Beatty's pocket before MCA and Gulf + Western get theirs. In any case, at $18 million, the picture is getting too pricey. Then comes an even more crucial crunch: the director and star have genuine "creative differences"-- Beatty, who's still around but still hasn't signed on the bottom line, wants to make a comic book movie with heavy makeup and exaggerated colors, while Hill wants to bring the characters to life realistically, on the streets of Chicago.

Cut to February 1984, and we're back at Paramount. Barry Diller, still suffering aftershocks from Beatty's huge Reds budget, insists on scaling Tracy back even more--to a downright insulting $14 million. Beatty pulls out, but the studio moves ahead. Richard Benjamin is going to direct this smaller, less tongue-in-cheek Tracy. Sets have been built to the tune of $1 million. Then, exit Benjamin, who's off to direct Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in City Heat, and re-enter Martin Scorsese--and Warren Beatty.

Cut to April 1985 and, with Barry Diller gone to Fox, Tracy's fate at Paramount hangs in the balance. Besides the continuing concern about controlling the cost of the film, another factor looms: Beatty just doesn't seem ready to commit to making Tracy. It begins to look like Tracy won't happen. It doesn't happen.

Cut to August 1988--three years have gone by. lshtar has happened to Beatty's career, so he's now ready to make Tracy. Taking his belief in Tracy with him, Michael Eisner has gone from Paramount to Disney. Tracy gets the go-ahead there, as long as Beatty can stick to the strict $25 million budget. The credits have now changed to read: produced, directed, and starring Warren Beatty (no mention anywhere of Mutrux and Linson). The script is from Cash and Epps, with uncredited assists from Beatty, Bo Goldman, and--it is whispered--Elaine May. (Those close to Tracy say Ms. May whispers back that those are not her fingerprints on the script.)

On February 1, 1989, shooting at last begins, on a closed set at--ironically enough--the Universal Studios lot, the only one with sufficient space available to house the huge Tracy sets.

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