John Grisham becomes a television producer for his own 'Client'

September 17, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Author John Grisham's good friend, novelist Stephen King, once gave what Mr. Grisham considers some very sound advice about selling a best-selling book to the movie industry.

"When you deal with Hollywood," Mr. King told him, "get all the money you can up front."

Mr. Grisham has followed that advice well, regularly getting seven-figure sums for such books as "The Pelican Brief" and "The Chamber," but has added a twist of his own: "Kiss it goodbye."

That's just so you won't feel bitter when the movie turns out to be something quite different from the book, says Mr. Grisham, which it often does.

"Nobody makes us sell our books for film," he adds.

So, now look what he's doing:

Instead of just selling the film rights to his latest best seller, "The Rainmaker," and walking away from it, Mr. Grisham is writing his own screenplay for it. He also has written an original screenplay, "The Gingerbread Man," which Island Pictures will start filming this year.

There's even more recent evidence that Mr. Grisham is hedging on his own advice: He's serving as one of the producers for CBS' "The Client," the first TV-series adaptation of one of his books, which premieres tonight as a two-hour movie (9 p.m. to 11 p.m., WJZ, Channel 13) then starts its regular weekly run Tuesday night at 8.

"I was told from day one that I could do anything I wanted to do," says Mr. Grisham. "I could be as involved as I wanted to be or I could ignore it."

At first, Mr. Grisham thought he'd just look over the script for the series pilot -- the Sunday night movie -- and make a few suggestions.

L Instead, he wound up spending a lot of time with the script.

"I had a lot of notes and a lot of questions," he says. "I had a lot of good things to say and a lot of bad things to say," he adds, "and I said them."

Mr. Grisham spent long hours on the phone from his home in Oxford, Miss., to Hollywood, where executive producers Michael Filerman and Judith Paige Mitchell are based.

"We worked through a lot of the problems I had with the script," he says, "and I think we made it better. When I saw the pilot, I saw that a lot of the things I'd suggested had been listened to and some of the ideas I had, which probably weren't that good to begin with, were ignored."

The result has been a gradual increase in Mr. Grisham's participation, at least for this initial season, because he had finished the one novel he likes to write each year and had time for the TV project.

"What I probably will do is suggest stories, not write them," he explains. "I really don't have the time to write them and don't have the desire to do the writing."

"The Client," which became a hit movie in 1994, is about lawyer Reggie Love, a divorced woman and a recovering alcoholic, who's locked in a child custody dispute with her ex-husband. She specializes in child welfare cases and, in Sunday's movie, helps a youngster who picked up a bag of stolen money after witnessing a brutal murder and is being stalked by the killer.

Susan Sarandon earned an Oscar nomination playing Reggie in the movie. Another film star, JoBeth Williams, takes on the role for the TV series, with John Heard taking over for Tommy Lee Jones as prosecutor Roy Foltrigg. Polly Holliday, best known as Flo from the old CBS sitcoms "Alice" and "Flo," plays Reggie's Mama Love.

Mr. Grisham believes "The Client" is one of his few novels that could be easily translated into a weekly TV drama because the main characters don't end up on the run. He's also especially partial to Reggie Love as a character because she practices a kind of law similar to Mr. Grisham's when he was a working lawyer.

"The ideas and stories sort of come naturally" for that reason, he explains.

Right at the start, though, Mr. Grisham had to swallow one major compromise. The producers have switched Reggie Love's practice from Memphis to Atlanta, because Atlanta is a much busier film production center and the crew people who work on the show will be able to live at home, considerably reducing expenses.

"It didn't bother me," says Mr. Grisham. "It doesn't have a strong geographical base to it, so you can set the story anywhere and it will work."

Mr. Grisham has already built a strong track record on screen. Two of his books -- "The Firm" and "The Client" -- turned into blockbuster films, and "The Pelican Brief" became a modest success. His first novel, "A Time to Kill," is being filmed and "The Chamber" will soon follow. All six of his published novels have sold millions of copies.

With each of his books touching off bidding wars for screen rights, it seems as if Mr. Grisham couldn't possibly remain unaffected by the fame.

"As hectic and crazy as everything might look, it's not that bad," he insists. "I mean, I go home and hide and I write a book. It's really a pretty simple lifestyle. I don't view myself as any type of an industry. I'm a writer."

Mr. Grisham has honed his writing to a rigid schedule. When his two children are in school, he normally starts writing at 5 a.m. and works until noon, producing seven to nine pages per day. He finishes a book in about six months. He says fame and fortune haven't altered that routine.

But can such an enormously successful writer remain as "hungry" as the young lawyer who labored so long to sell his first book a decade or more ago?

"I don't know if I can answer that," he says. "I certainly don't feel any different than I felt five years ago. I'm the same person I was back then. I want the book I'm writing now to be better than the book I wrote last year -- and I work real hard at making that happen."

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