Donald Westlake, the mystery writer who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for the 1990 John Cusack crime drama The Grifters, died New Year’s Eve while vacationing in Mexico. He was 75.
A prolific writer, Westlake published books under several nom de plumes on the advice of his agent, who worried that he might be over-saturating his own market. It was under one of those aliases, Richard Stark, that he published the long-running “Parker” series about a master thief and the nearly impossible heists he plans and executes. The lead novel in the series, The Hunter, has been adapted to film twice- first with Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967) and with Mel Gibson in Payback (1999). In each instance, the character of Parker underwent a name change, with Marvin going as “Walker”, Gibson as “Porter”. The third Parker novel, The Outfit, was filmed in 1973 with Robert Duvall in the yet again renamed lead.
Westlake also had some cinematic success with another of his mystery series. His John Dortmunder character was a more comic iteration of the harder-edged Parker. The first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock, was adapted in 1972 with Robert Redford in the lead role. George C. Scott took the lead in 1974’s Bank Shot, though his character was renamed toWalter Upjohn Ballentine. the third novel in the series, Jimmy The Kid, was adapted in 1980 with Paul La Mat and Gary Coleman in the title role. Jimmy The Kid has also been adapted in Italy (1976) and Germany (1999). Two more Dortmunder novels have been adapted by Hollywood – 1990’s Why Me? and 2001’s What’s The Worst That Could Happen? – each time with the Dortmunder character being renamed.
In addition to having his novels adapted to film, Westlake directly wrote for the silver screen as well. His screenplay for 1989’s The Stepfather was loosely inspired by the life of murderer John List. In addition to adapting Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters, he also wrote a story treatment for the James Bond adventure Tomorrow Never Dies. Since the film went through numerous writers, it isn’t clear how much, if any, of Westlake’s material made it to the screen.
Born July 12, 1933, Westlake published more than 90 books. He also won three Edgar Awards and was awarded the title Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1993.