The Donald Westlake/Joan Rivers connection

Joan Rivers
Here’s an interesting story I discovered amongst the stacks of articles marking the passing of Joan Rivers.

It’s told by Roger L. Simon, novelist and screenwriter. Simon is best known as a novelist for his series of Moses Wine detective novels (which, I’m ashamed to say, have never made it off my TBR pile despite being on there for a decade or more), the first of which is The Big Fix. Simon also wrote the screenplay to the movie adaptation of The Big Fix, which came out in 1978 and starred Richard Dreyfuss. (Incidentally, Simon started on the Left, but developed into a sort-of conservative, while Dreyfuss stayed very firmly on the Left. Despite this political difference, Dreyfuss was kind enough to write the introduction to the latest edition of The Big Fix.)

As a screenwriter, Simon’s most famous credits are likely Bustin’ Loose, starring Richard Pryor, and Scenes From a Mall, starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler, directed by the recently-passed Paul Mazursky.

It was the former that got Simon this gig:

It’s the very early eighties and, as it goes in Hollywood, I’m in one of my intermittent hot periods, having just written Bustin’ Loose for Richard Pryor, ergo the powers that be thought I could be funny. (I’m not altogether sure they were right.)  I got what was then a dream job, writing a script for Lily Tomlin. The premise was that Lily would play a “psychic detective” based on an Italian-American woman in New Jersey who was then doing clairvoyant investigations for the police. I met the woman. Lily told me she wanted me to write her as if she were Al Pacino. Cool, I thought.

It’s a very Hollywood story, and, rather than steal the whole piece, I’ll let him tell it here.  The short version is, Tomlin got fired because the Powers That Be didn’t think she was a box office draw. Instead, they hired Joan Rivers. Simon went to meet with Rivers and it didn’t go well. Rather than being allowed to do rewrites with Rivers in mind, he was removed from the project.

The end of the story?

Joan had the good taste to hire the late Donald Westlake, one of the finest mystery writers in America, to rewrite me. But as you may not be surprised to learn, as with many Hollywood projects, the movie was never made.

So there’s a lost Westlake screenplay for someone to track down!

Rest in peace, Joan Rivers.