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The curse of 'Fletch'

Why hasn’t the cult classic been rebooted? Well, Ryan Reynolds was reluctant to step into the shoes that Chevy Chase filled so famously. Ben Affleck and Zach Braff just couldn’t commit. Inside the unmaking of a beloved franchise

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Fletch | PAGING DR. ROSENROSEN Chevy Chase dons one of many disguises in Fletch
Randy Tepper

You don’t need a time-traveling DeLorean to revisit the 1980s. Just grab your leg warmers and your Gordon Gekko suspenders and head to the multiplex. Several franchises from that decade — Indiana Jones, Rambo, Friday the 13th, The Terminator, Batman — returned to the big screen with great fanfare in recent times, and this year will see updates of Red Dawn, Tron, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Clash of the Titans, among others. But one film that won’t be getting a Hollywood dust-off anytime soon is Fletch, the iconic 1985 comedy in which Chevy Chase, as the titular wisecracking reporter, unravels complex crimes with help from disguises and absurd aliases, such as Ted Nugent, Harry S. Truman, and Dr. Rosenrosen.

It isn’t that no one’s tried to revive Fletch. Over the last dozen years, at least four studios have attempted to revitalize the cult franchise (Fletch spawned a far less beloved 1989 sequel, Fletch Lives), and Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, Jason Lee, Zach Braff, Joshua Jackson, and Chase himself have all been approached to play the lead. ”There’s not an actor that’s ever said anything funny that hasn’t been talked about,” says David List, who managed the late author Gregory McDonald, on whose novels the Fletch films were based. ”One executive said, ‘Why don’t we write the role female and go to Ellen DeGeneres?”’

When it was released 25 years ago, Fletch was a decent-size hit, earning $51 million. Over the decades, the film has achieved a cult status among comedians and humor buffs, who repeat the central character’s bons mots (”I’ll have a Bloody Mary, and a steak sandwich and…a steak sandwich,” ”It’s all ball bearings nowadays”) with the enthusiasm of evangelical preachers. It’s a fair bet that someone at this very moment is uttering one of the movie’s classic lines or jokingly attempting to charge some purchase to ”the Underhills,” a country club couple who unwittingly finance some of Fletch’s shenanigans (including those steak sandwiches). You can even buy a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ”This shirt was also charged to the Underhill’s.”

The film’s appeal lies squarely with Chase’s droll depiction of a hero who relies not on superhero powers, or even a gun, but his wits alone. ”The reason Fletch meant so much to me is that it showed that the smartest guy in the room is actually the coolest,” says one unabashed fan, the writer-director Cory Edwards (Hoodwinked). ”My favorite exchange is when some woman says, ‘Now, who are you again?’ And he says, ‘I’m Frieda’s boss.’ And she says, ‘Who’s Frieda?’ And he goes, ‘My secretary.’ And he leaves!” Edwards is among an army of scribes who have pitched ideas for a new Fletch movie. So many Hollywood insiders have fallen under the spell of McDonald’s character, in fact, that Fletch‘s continued absence from theaters is bewildering. Director Kevin Smith, who’s dreamed of making a third Fletch film since 1997, says McDonald’s Fletch novels ”taught me how to write dialogue.” Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence calls himself ”a Fletch nerd.” Ryan Reynolds considers Chase’s performance ”hallowed ground.”

And then there’s Ben Affleck — who, as a young actor, once said, ”I always tell people at hotels to ‘put it on the Underhills’ account.’ Only rarely do they know what I’m talking about. But when they do, I know I’ve met a kindred spirit.”

NEXT PAGE: Birth of a cult classic

Gregory McDonald created the character of Irwin Maurice Fletcher while working as a journalist for The Boston Globe. The Harvard-educated McDonald joined the paper in 1966 and was given what sounds like the best job in the world — or in journalism at least. ”Go and have fun and write about it,” his editor instructed him. ”And if you end up cut and bleeding on the sidewalk, call the office.” Over the next few years, McDonald reported from both sides of society’s suddenly chasm-like generation gap, writing about John Wayne, war protesters, Vietnam vets, and On the Road author Jack Kerouac, with whom he went barhopping.

In 1973, McDonald resigned from the Globe and, guided by ”this blithe spirit of journalism that came to my mind” during his exploits there, published Fletch the following year. The book was a best-seller, and the author penned 10 more novels involving the character, most notably the origin story Fletch Won. Hollywood was interested in Fletch from the start. In 1985, McDonald said, ”It seemed that over the last 10 years, everybody in the world who acts and is a male between the ages of 17 and 76 tried to get the role. Even Mick Jagger. I admire Mick Jagger, but he is not my idea of a young American male.” However, McDonald did approve of the casting of Chevy Chase, then in his early 40s. ”When Chevy Chase was signed to play Fletch,” the author later recalled, ”I sent him a telegram saying, ‘I am delighted to abdicate the role of Fletch to you.”’

Since leaving Saturday Night Live in 1976, Chase’s career had featured both highs (Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation) and lows (Oh Heavenly Dog, Deal of the Century). But filmmakers had rarely taken full advantage of his ad-libbing chops. Chase has fond memories of the leeway Fletch director Michael Ritchie gave him to improvise. ”It all began when [costar] Tim Matheson asked me what my name was,” he says. ”Right away, with a straight face: ‘Ted Nugent.”’ The Fletch screenplay was penned by Andrew Bergman, who had coauthored another comedy classic, Blazing Saddles. Following the success of Fletch, Bergman wrote a sequel based on McDonald’s 1983 book Fletch and the Man Who. ”He got involved in a political campaign,” says Bergman. ”I had him charging things to the Underhills. I thought it was utterly hilarious.” Universal, the studio that made the first movie, apparently did not. They went with another screenplay, one not based on any of McDonald’s novels.

Fletch Lives — a film Bergman refers to as ”that dreadful sequel” — was hurt by a writers’ strike and, according to Chase, Universal’s desire to clad him in ever more ludicrous outfits. (Fletch’s aliases this time around included Nostradamus, Victor Hugo, and, rather awesomely, Elmer-Fudd Gantry). But Chase admits his reasons for appearing in Fletch Lives were not wholly artistic: ”I probably did it for the money.” Critical reaction to the film was harsh. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, ”Fletch Lives looks less like Fletch 2…than Fletch 7, the bitter end of a worn-out series.” ”They should have done [my script],” says Bergman. ”I think Chevy could have done five Fletch movies. It really could have been his Clouseau. It should have been.” Three years later, Chase’s sojourn on the A list ended, thanks to a pair of commercial turkeys — Nothing but Trouble and Memoirs of an Invisible Man — and the chances of Universal rushing to greenlight a third Fletch movie went from slim to none.

NEXT PAGE: Kevin Smith’s quest to make Fletch Won begins

Back in 1997, almost a decade after the release of Fletch Lives, Kevin Smith scored a meeting with Universal executive Stacey Snider. Smith was a hot property after the success of his Miramax-backed film Chasing Amy, and Snider asked if there was a project he wanted to do. As a matter of fact, there was. Smith pitched Son of Fletch, in which Chase would reprise his portrayal of I.M. Fletcher alongside Joey Lauren Adams and Jason Lee. Smith was soon lunching with Chase at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Los Angeles. Writing in his blog several years later, after relations between them had soured, Smith described how, at the meeting, Chase claimed to have ”invented every funny thing that ever happened in the history of not just comedy, but also the known world…. But, whatever…. I told him I’d call him when I had some pages to read.”

Smith never placed that call. He got distracted by his controversial 1999 religious comedy Dogma and eventually told Universal that Fletch 3 was a ”no-go for now.” Smith’s decision irritated Chase, who bad-mouthed the director. ”It’s Hollywood-type crap treatment,” the actor told the New York Post.

In the spring of 2000, David List, McDonald’s manager, contacted Smith with the news that Universal had let its Fletch rights lapse. Smith told List he would see if Harvey Weinstein, his mentor at Miramax, was interested in the books. ”Three minutes later, the phone rang,” recalls List. It was Miramax co-president of production Bob Osher, who told List he was in a car with Harvey Weinstein on the way to a screening and that they had seven minutes to make a Fletch deal. Which they did. According to List, ”Within 48 hours, they had the first half a million delivered to Greg’s ranch.” Smith now planned to reboot the entire franchise by adapting Fletch Won, chronologically the first book in the series.

Weinstein thought Ben Affleck — who starred in Smith’s Chasing Amy and Dogma — should play Fletch in what he was calling ”Miramax Films’ first-ever franchise.” But the director had his heart set on the then-little-known Jason Lee. ”Harvey didn’t agree with that,” says Smith. ”I said, ‘I’m going to wait another year until Jason’s got a little more clout.”’ List, who was one of the project’s producers, thought from the start that Ryan Reynolds would be a good fit for the part — ”David List wanted Ryan Reynolds in a big, bad way,” says Smith — and Miramax put out feelers. But Reynolds was disinclined to play such an indelible character.

Finally, in 2003, Weinstein told Smith he’d pay Affleck $10 million to portray Fletch. ”I was like, ‘My God!”’ says Smith. ”We were looking to make a $50 to $60 million film at that point.” He believes that Weinstein’s largesse was partly motivated by a desire to stop Affleck from starring in Disney’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. (Disney had bought Miramax 10 years earlier, and the relationship had become increasingly fraught.) ”Harvey hated Disney,” Smith says of Weinstein, who declined to comment for this article. (David Glasser, executive vice president for Weinstein’s post-Miramax studio, The Weinstein Company, denies that his boss attempted to derail the Disney film.) Although Jason Lee remained Smith’s first choice, Affleck was a good friend, as well as a fan of the original Fletch, and one of the biggest stars in the world. Smith agreed. The Fletch Won train, it seemed, was finally departing from development hell. ”They opened a production office and sent out a location scout,” says Smith. ”Then Ben pulled out.” (Ironically, Ghosts didn’t get made until 2009 — with Matthew McConaughey and Affleck’s wife, Jennifer Garner.) After the disappointment of losing Affleck, Smith says he resumed his old argument with Weinstein: ”’Jason Lee.’ ‘No.’ ‘Jason Lee.’ ‘No.’ ‘Jason Lee.’ ‘No.”’

According to Smith, the lack of progress caused tension between him and List. ”Harvey had a zillion other movies to make,” says the director. ”He didn’t give a f—. So it created a bad situation. By the time year 3 or 4 rolled around, List was at his wit’s end. I would dread receiving phone calls from him. I’d see his name come up and be like, ‘Ugh.”’ It didn’t help that List was unimpressed by Smith’s Fletch Won script. ”Which I always found very f—ing strange,” says Smith. ”My version of Fletch Won is slavishly devoted [to the book]. But List wanted funny disguises and s— like that.” For his part, List insists he always wanted to remain faithful to McDonald’s prose: ”Kevin has said a lot of things over the years, and I’m sure he believes them. My knowledge bears some stark differences.”

NEXT PAGE: Zach Braff to Dave Chappelle to Chris Tucker and back to Jason Lee

In March 2005, Harvey and his brother Bob split with Disney to form The Weinstein Company. Among the properties they took with them was Fletch. Harvey Weinstein persuaded Smith to start thinking about other actors for Fletch Won, and the director met with Scrubs star Zach Braff, who was hot off Garden State. ”Harvey was like, ‘Garden State-meets-Fletchequals a billion dollars,”’ recalls Smith. Smith himself had doubts. ”You need somebody who has an air of confidence: ‘I’m the smartest guy in the room, but I’m not going to tell anybody,”’ he says. ”What Zach does is really cool. But his thing is not that.” And Smith wasn’t sure that Braff would ultimately want to play such an iconic character. ”He knew it was a thankless role,” he says. Carla Gardini, one of the Weinstein Company executives shepherding Fletch Won, suggested stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle. ”Dave Chappelle was a stroke of brilliance,” says Smith. ”Harvey was like, ‘No, I’d rather have a name that works here and overseas.”’ Chappelle was not the only African-American considered for the part. Says List, ”At one point New Line made a written offer in the event that Harvey lost the rights, because Brett Ratner wanted to direct it with Chris Tucker.”

By the summer of 2005, Weinstein was in danger of losing the Fletch rights. List, frustrated that the project had stalled, told Weinstein he intended to take McDonald’s books elsewhere when the company’s rights agreement expired in 2006 — unless Smith went away and didn’t come back. ”David List had reached the end of his rope with the f—ing Weinsteins and me,” says Smith. ”Harvey asked me, ‘Are you in or out?’ I said, ‘If it’s not going to be Jason Lee, there’s no point.’ That’s when Harvey moved forward. List put into the contract that I could have nothing to do with this movie ever again at The Weinstein Company. I couldn’t write a script, I couldn’t do anything.” List says his insistence on Smith’s departure was inspired by a businesslike ”desire to move on.” He admits, though, ”in our business, that old adage of ‘It’s not personal, it’s just business’ never applies. It is personal. It becomes a clash of ego. And if Kevin took it personally, I regret that.”

Smith, bless his heart, wasn’t really ready to give up on his pet project, or even on Jason Lee. In September 2005, a miracle occurred with the hugely successful debut of Lee’s sitcom My Name Is Earl. Now, Smith thought, Weinstein had to take the notion of casting Lee seriously. ”I was driving down Sunset Boulevard,” says Smith. ”There is Jason Lee’s face, larger than life, multiple times down the boulevard. I call Harvey Weinstein and say, ‘You mean to tell me he’s still not big enough to play Fletch?’ Harvey goes, ‘No, he’s still not big enough.’ To his credit, dude had a vision. I don’t know what it was, but it did not include Jason Lee.”

Zach Braff was still intrigued by the idea of playing Fletch. After Smith left the film, Weinstein recruited Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence as director. ”Once Kevin decided not to do it, Harvey thought Bill was the best choice as director,” says The Weinstein Company’s Glasser. Lawrence planned to make a film in the vein of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS. ”Those movies are remembered as comedies,” he says. ”But they have an edge that people forget about.” Unfortunately, once Braff brought Lawrence on board, he himself jumped ship. ”By the time I was writing it,” says Lawrence, ”Zach had already gotten a little scared.” Braff confirms, via e-mail, that he ultimately had second thoughts about tackling the part: ”There is so much passion out there for the Fletch franchise amongst the die-hard fans. Whoever takes on the remake really has to nail it. (And even then, most people will hate it unless it’s Chevy Chase.)”

List wasn’t a huge fan of Lawrence’s script, which he deemed to be not ”sophisticated” enough. Weinstein, on the other hand, adored the screenplay, greenlit the movie, and officially offered the role to Ryan Reynolds. But Reynolds demurred. So did Justin Long. And so did the half dozen other actors who were offered the part. In June 2007, John Krasinski told MTV.com that his name had been ”tossed around a little bit for the role,” which he described as ”one of those things that is so terrifying.” (”That’s the other thing about Jason Lee,” says Smith. ”He was willing to do it. Most people were like, ‘Dude, you put a target on your back if you’re going to play f—ing Fletch.”’) It wasn’t long before Lawrence returned full-time to his sitcom day job. ”Harvey Weinstein is a very involved producer, and [List] also has his own specific take,” says Lawrence diplomatically. ”Luckily, I was in a financial position where I was able to say, ‘This seems like something I might not want to do.”’ The Weinstein Company seems sorry to have lost Lawrence. ”Harvey thinks Bill is very talented and wrote a great script and should have been the director,” says Glasser.

An increasingly disillusioned List was now extending the Fletch rights agreement with The Weinstein Company on a cautious year-to-year basis. The producer claims that Weinstein, a legendarily tough negotiator, tried to get him to grant those extensions for free. As it happens, there was one easy way the Weinsteins could extend their control over the rights — they could make a Fletch movie, any Fletch movie, no matter how little it cost. List says The Weinstein Company told him they were going to make a cut-rate Fletch Won if he did not give them an extension for free. ”They always wanted to re-up for no money,” says List. ”The cheap version was hung out there as a threat.”

NEXT PAGE: 25 years and counting…

Glasser admits that The Weinstein Company considered greenlighting a $4 million to $6 million Fletch Won around 2007 just to keep the rights in-house, but denies that it was a negotiating tactic. A source close to the Weinsteins, who requested anonymity, puts the figure closer to $1.2 million, and Smith, who had kept an eye on ”the Fletch f—ing train wreck,” says he heard the same thing. ”The updates I would get were that they were going to do what they call a ‘Modesty Blaise,”’ he says. The term refers to the straight-to-video 2004 Miramax movie My Name Is Modesty. The Weinsteins had bought the rights to the character of Modesty Blaise, a female adventurer who originally appeared in a British newspaper comic strip, for Miramax golden boy Quentin Tarantino, a huge fan of the fictional heroine. (In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta is holding a Modesty Blaise book when he is killed by Bruce Willis.) Tarantino never got around to doing anything with the project, so Miramax produced My Name Is Modesty to ensure the property stayed with the company.

Weinstein, says the inside source, struggled to recruit a director to oversee this bargain Fletch Won, a project the source believes would have been as creatively fulfilling for whoever took it on as ”hitting yourself in the nuts with a Nerf bat for an hour.” One person who was actually willing to undergo that beating was…Kevin Smith. ”I was like, ‘Let me do the $1 million Jason Lee version and show [Harvey] how it could have been done,”’ says the director. ”But that would have meant confronting the idea that perhaps he didn’t know everything there was to know about the movie business.”

In June 2007, it was reported that Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek) would star in Fletch Won, with Steve Pink slated to direct. Pink had co-penned the well-regarded John Cusack vehicles Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, but his only directing credit was the previous year’s college comedy Accepted. ”Look, I don’t think I was in the top five choices,” admits the filmmaker. ”I don’t think they were like, ‘Who is the most awesome guy in Hollywood right now? Oh, it’s Steve Pink! Let’s get him to direct Fletch!”’ Pink was on the project for only a month but still sounds jazzed when discussing it: ”I met with Joshua and he was great, I liked Bill Lawrence’s script. They just called one day and said, ‘It’s not happening.”’

List says The Weinstein Company hired more writers to tackle the Fletch Won script. These efforts went nowhere: ”A great deal of money was thrown down the toilet.” In 2008, List dug in his heels. ”It was a fiasco,” he says. ”I said to Harvey, ‘No one seems to have a clue as to what Fletch even is anymore.”’ List persuaded Weinstein to let a writer friend named Harry Stein pen a script. Sadly, the possibility that Gregory McDonald would ever see Fletch return to the big screen ended on Sept. 7, 2008, when the author died of cancer. ”That’s my biggest regret,” says Smith. ”It would have been nice to have made that movie while he was still alive.”

Harry Stein delivered his Fletch Won script in April 2009. The result did not thrill Weinstein, who remained a fan of Bill Lawrence’s screenplay and decided the time had come to get out of the Fletch business altogether. Whether that decision was a merely creative one is open for debate. ”When the script was delivered, that was the point where it became public that the company was dealing with some big financial issues,” says List. In the early summer of 2009, the Weinsteins hired investment bank Miller Buckfire to restructure the firm’s debt. List says shortly afterwards a Weinstein Company lawyer called and told him, ”We can’t make the film.” In August of last year, the Fletch rights reverted to Gregory McDonald’s estate.

So it has now been 25 years since Chase’s Fletch ordered a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich. Will a new movie ever get made? And, if so, who will have the, uh, ball bearings to tackle Chase’s role? Perhaps it will be Chase himself. After all, to many fans, Chase is Fletch — and Jason Lee, Ryan Reynolds, and the rest are, well, not. ”I’d love to do another Fletch,” says the actor, 66. ”I don’t think anybody else is going to do it any better than me, frankly. But I’m not hopeful.”

David List, on the other hand, remains optimistic. He’s now planning to adapt a different book, Fletch’s Fortune, for the big screen. And List says he’s encouraged by the response he gets whenever he tells people what he has been doing for the past 10 years. ”As soon as you mention Fletch, forget it,” he says. ”Everywhere I go: ‘Put it on the Underhills’ tab,’ ‘It’s all ball bearings these days.’ Everybody remembers the lines.”

It is a response that continues to amaze Andrew Bergman, the man who actually wrote most of those lines. ”I think Fletch’s particular wiseass-ery hit a nerve with a certain generation,” he says. ”These things just become bigger than you. Somebody told me that his son had gone to Princeton, and in order to get into an eating club, you had to have memorized Fletch. This is Princeton we’re talking about. That’s certainly more than I had counted on. To me, it’s just a funny movie.” (Additional reporting by Jeff Labrecque and Dan Snierson)