By Michael E. Miller
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You won't find his name in the credits or in the press packet, but Miami Herald columnist and psycho novelist Carl Hiaasen is bagging 50 per cent of the book royalties from the new Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood. "Yeah," says Hiaasen, who co-wrote the novel on which the movie is based, "I'm not stupid. Well, I'm not as stupid as I look."
Hiaasen is, in fact, a quite unstupid writer, a twisted visionary who exorcises sociological demons with words, a reliable print journalist who also crafts fiction -because it gives him a chance to create his own endings. Of all the authors mining Miami for material, no one comes as close to capturing the city's beyond-insane Zeitgeist so precisely - and hilariously -as the Herald veteran.
Hiaasen's dual careers began while he was a student at Atlanta's Emory University two decades ago. A medical student named Neil B. Shulman had written a rough draft of a novel, and he turned it over to his pal Hiaasen, who, Shulman says, "came in and improved it dramatically." The result was published under the title Finally I'm a Doctor.
The duo decided to collaborate on a second project, but this time Shulman insisted on a bit of gonzo research. At one point, while driving through the deep South, he pretended to be as loony as a Miami politico so Hiaasen could get a sense of life in a rural psychiatric ward. "I was so convincing," Shulman recalls, "that when I finally told the medical students I wasn't a mental case, they didn't believe me."
Hiaasen stitched together Shulman's anecdotes and skewed themes in 1974, after Hiaasen took his first post-college print job, at Cocoa Today. The completed manuscript, What?...Dead Again? ("I don't know where the fuck that horrible title came from," Hiaasen quips) was published by Legacy, a small house in Louisiana. Shulman says that just as the book was beginning to take off, Legacy suffered a financial coronary and folded.
Shulman says he paid Hiaasen $1000 for his work on What?..., and also guaranteed his friend 50 per cent of any future profits. He also forced the upstart to take some credit. "I wanted Carl's name on the front of the book," Shulman says. "He was too shy, so I put it inside. I also wanted a picture of us on a stretcher to go on the back cover, but Carl didn't want to go along." Says the reluctant scribe: "I give Neil full credit. The book mentions me, he was nice about that. But it was Neil's stuff. I was just figuring out how to write a book."
After Shulman became an M.D., he dedicated his practice to rural clinics, visits to Africa, solving the hypertension crisis among black people - just about anything that wasn't easy and didn't pay big bucks. One treatment of the novel, written by a producer's secretary, attracted attention, but Warner Bros. dropped the option. "Nobody was interested," Shulman says. The enterprise was later resuscitated and, Shulman says, there was a plan to make the movie with Chevy Chase playing the Dr. Ben Stone role. After two years, that project was scrapped.
Word spread, however, and Michael J. Fox became involved. The screenplay was rewritten by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, but the actor wasn't ready to commit. British director Michael Caton-Jones was ready, and when Fox learned that, he sent in his own script polisher, Daniel Pyne. "There were seven scripts in four years," Shulman says. The film, less horribly titled Doc Hollywood, was finally shot, and during its first two weeks of release brought in more than $17 million, charting as the fourth most popular box-office attraction in the nation.
Posting the ledgers in Lotus Angeles is a notoriously tricky business, so it's hard to say when and if Shulman and Hiaasen will pocket some cake. In theory at least, they will evenly split five per cent of the film's net and retain live-stage and sequel rights. "I haven't bought my Maserati or yacht yet," Hiaasen reports.
Shulman has aspirations of his own. "I hope `Doc Hollywood' enters the lexicon," he says. "If it does, maybe it could get young [medical students] interested in choosing areas where we need people, and be proud of that. The [specialist] lifestyle is not as great as being out in a rural area with the variety, where you can still make a reasonable living."
As for the film itself, Hiaasen says, "I expected to be mortified, but it was pretty close to the book. The romance, in the book, was consummated in the back of an ambulance. That was one of my sick touches. I had a feeling that wouldn't make it. [It didn't.] But the movie could have been lots worse. It could have starred those Bill and Ted guys."
It could have been even worse than that. Hiaasen's three solo novels -Tourist Season, Double Whammy, and Skin Tight - have been considered by Hollywood's taste makers. "All my other books are in various stages of destruction," the author says. "I promised myself not to be involved in any of that. I'm sort of embarrassed that I don't have a fetish about keeping up, but I would be a basket case."