Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Solving the Mystery of Lew Harper

Something about Paul Newman puzzled me.
More than once, I’d heard the anecdote about how Newman changed the name of Ross MacDonald’s private eye character Lew Archer to “Lew Harper” for the 1966 film Harper. The story went that Newman had had two hits in Hud and The Hustler, and wanted to extend his lucky strike with a third alliterative title.
But that would have made Newman kind of stupid, and the keenly compassionate liberal Newman didn’t strike me as being stupid. Hence my puzzlement.
The mystery was solved by Tom Nolan, the biographer of Ross MacDonald (who was really Kenneth Millar). Eyeing United Artists’ immensely popular James Bond films while considering turning McDonald’s first Archer novel, The Moving Target, in to a movie, Warner Brothers decided to acquire all the film rights to Lew Archer and make a series. But Millar wasn’t willing to part with those rights for less than $50,000.
“I’d much rather see the deal fall through than risk having Archer lost in the clutches of the Warner octopus … I say nuts,” Millar said. But the studio didn’t want to pay Millar’s price. Their solution: change the character’s name and make a series anyway.
Newman’s wife, actress Joanne Woodward, later told the anecdote about her husband’s H superstition on the Tonight Show, and a myth was born. Presumably that sounded better than saying that the studio wanted to cheat the writer out of his fee.
Screenwriter William Goldman knew the true story, because he was the guy whom the studio asked to think up a new name for Lew Archer. Goldman picked the two-syllable “Harper” because it sounded like “Archer.”
 “If you know anything about the movie business, you know it’s all bullshit,” Goldman said. 

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