Mystery Novel Characters: Often Miscast for Films, TV

The history of casting actors for roles in movies or TV series made from mystery novels includes more misses than hits, but there have been notable exceptions.

Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes. And when Hawk showed up on the “Spenser For Hire” TV series my reaction was: “Migawd, that’s him!” It was if my mental image of Spenser’s black sidekick had been transferred intact from my mind to our television screen. Avery Brooks was dead-solid perfect for the part.

The whole “Spenser For Hire” cast was very good, in fact. Robert Urich made a very acceptable Spenser; Richard Jaeckel and Ron McLarty were excellent as Lieutenant Martin Quirk and Sergeant Frank Belsen, respectively. On the other hand, I thought Joe Mantegna was a pale shadow of Spenser in the “Small Vices” movie. He had neither the size (remember Spenser was an ex-heavyweight boxer) nor the insouciant, flippant manner to carry off the role.

What started me off on this “horses for courses” musing about actors in mystery roles was the recent showing of the movie made of Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers for PBS. My first impression of Wes Studi as Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Police was negative.

“Too young-looking, too nattily dressed,” I thought. I always pictured Leaphorn as showing a little more age, perhaps a little shorter and stockier, usually dressed in khaki shirt and slightly rumpled slacks, with a windbreaker or fleece-lined denim jacket in colder weather. My mental image of Jim Chee was a little fuzzier, but Adam Beech sharpened it and made the character his own. Whenever I read a Hillerman mystery from here on out, my mind’s eye will visualize Beach as Officer Chee.

Probably the worst collective disaster in the history of translating mystery novels to the big or small screens befell Jonathon Gash and his randy, rascally, ever-impoverished antiques dealer, Lovejoy. Ian McShane was woefully miscast as Lovejoy, but has only himself to blame. He was both star and co-executive producer of the first year of episodes (1986). He continued to star and co-produce but also directed the series in seasons two through six (19911994), to his great shame. His worst sin may have been transforming the slovenly, beer-swilling Tinker, Lovejoy’s “barker” (antiques scout and all-around helper), into a sanitized eccentric who bore no resemblance to the original beyond the name.

More unfortunate was the horrible miscasting of Tony Randall, a truly fine actor, as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in “The Alphabet Murders.” David Suchet was a far better choice as Poirot from the mid-1980s to 2001.

On the other hand, it’s hard to think of anyone filling the bill better as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse than John Thaw, who starred in the long-running British series.

A legendary sleuth who has been portrayed on TV and in the movies with varying degrees of success is Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. A&E offered the latest versions, standing Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. An earlier series (1981) starred William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Horsley as his indispensable aide and legman, Archie Goodwin. Neither Chaykin nor Conrad felt exactly right as the 285-pound, orchid-fancying genius who occupied a custom-build in the office of his Manhattan brownstone. Excellent actors both, but perhaps Conrad was too identified in my mind as Marshall Matt Dillon of the radio Gunsmoke and Chaykin tends to over-emote more than I expected of Nero.

Timothy Hutton, however, is the hands-down choice over Lee Horsley as Archie. He fits the bill physically and strikes all the right notes in attitude. Horsley seemed tighter and never as comfortable in the role.

There have been several very good Saul Panzers. George Wyner was one (1981 series) and George Jenesky of the A&E series was another.

I know this is heresy but I did not feel initially that Humphrey Bogart was absolutely right as Sam Spade role in the classic movie of Dashiell Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Physically, he didn’t fit the mold but he played the role with such consummate skill that he literally made it his own. Instead of adapting to the part and becoming the character he portrayed, Bogart forced the character to become him, and did so with great success. Ironically, Bogart was not the first choice for the Spade role. He got it after George Raft turned it down, presumably because he did not want to work with the “newbie” director, John Huston. Just as well to my thinking, because never in a million years could I think of Raft as Sam Spade!

I found Bogart more accurately cast, however, as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep,” one of Raymond Chandler’s best hard-boiled mysteries transformed into a film noir, private eye film classic. Called “the best example of a classic Warner Bros. Mystery” by some reviewers, it has aged well since coming out in 1946. The palpable sexual tension between Bogart and Bacall, mirroring their off-screen romance, added an extra level of excitement and electricity to the film. Lauren Bacall was a near-ideal choice for her role.

Most people forget, or never knew, that Robert Mitchum reprised the role of Marlowe in a British remake of the classic mystery in 1978, with the setting transferred from a 1940s Los Angeles to an updated 1970s London. Mitchum actually made a better Marlowe in some ways than Bogart, but the film itself was not in the same league as the original. Mitchum came a lot closer to fitting the Marlowe persona in my mind than Bogart.

Getting back to “The Maltese Falcon,” I must pay tribute to two casting decisions that rank right up there in greatness with Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and Avery Brooks’ Hawk: Sidney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo.

Speaking of these cinema versions of Hammett and Chandler classics raises an interesting point. Millions of viewers have seen the movies over the years, but how many read the books first? In all cases cited in this article I read the books before seeing the movie or TV adaptations so I came to big or little screen presentations with pre-formed mental images of the characters the peopled the stories. These images were formed by my imagination, guided by hints from the text. People who see film or TV versions of novels (mystery or otherwise), then read the books, must unconsciously identify characters on the written pages with the actors they have seen portraying them on film or TV.

This is a personal theory but I think it makes sense.

Take Raymond Burr, for instance. He pretty well cornered the market on Perry Mason but he never did it for me. He just didn’t fit the mental picture of Mason I built up in my mind from reading Ellery Queen’s books. Admittedly, however, I was a tepid fan of the Perry Mason series from the git-go so that probably colored my reaction. For those who read Queen’s books after viewing TV episodes or never read them at all, which is more likely Raymond Burr will forever be Perry Mason in their minds.

Another example is “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Walter Mosley fan and I think Denzel Washington is a fine actor. I just don’t feel he fit the Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins part: too handsome, and it was hard to think of him as an unsophisticated ex-GI, raised in rural Texas.

A factor here again is that I’d read the book long before seeing the movie. Also, I’d seen Washington in a number of movies before seeing “Devil in a Blue Dress,” so I had some preconceived ideas about his persona. This whole subject do get complicated, don’t it!

To add to the mix, I have some thoughts on “what might have been,” of casting of protagonists for books I would like to have seen brought to the screen. The first ones fall into the “it’s too late now” category.

Travis McGee? The only candidate I ever considered for the hero of John D. MacDonald’s wonderful series was Sterling Hayden. I thought he was made for the role and could have played it as if born to do so.

The recent death of James Coburn reminded me that I would have loved to see him star in a film or series as Fiddler, protagonist of the husband and wife team (Ann & Evan Maxwell) that writes under the pen name of “A.E. Maxwell.” Their books include Money Burns, Just Enough Light to Kill, Redwood Empire and Just Another Day in Paradise.


In the “still possible” category, I’ve pondered the possibilities of casting the leads for film or TV versions of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum (and the host of other eccentric characters in the Plum series), James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheau and more.

One role no casting director need worry about filling is that of Kinsey Milhone, Sue Grafton’s hugely popular female private investigator. Ms Grafter, who refers to her 15-year career writing scripts for movies and TV as “doing time in Hollywood,” refuses to sell screen rights to her books. In a talk recently she made that abundantly clear with this statement: “I would rather roll naked on a bed of broken glass!”

All of these observations are very subjective, of course. You may agree or disagree, maybe mildly, maybe heatedly. If so, I would like to hear from you, yea or nay. Send your thoughts to me at and perhaps we can revisit this question of character casting, or miscasting, as some future date.

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