In the late 1990s, the great Bruce Campbell found himself in Disney’s orbit, appearing in the 1997 big screen version of The Love Bug and seven episodes of Ellen on ABC. During this period, Mr. Campbell landed a development deal with Disney, which unfortunately didn’t lead to any major starring roles or projects, but one property under Disney’s control caught his eye as he was browsing through a list of properties under their control: the most famous comic strip detective in history, Dick Tracy. This story comes to light in Bruce Campbell’s latest book, Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor, the delightful sequel to his equally delightful If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor (if you haven’t read this, what are you waiting for?).
“[Dick Tracy] would make a great weekly TV show,” Campbell writes in Hail to the Chin, “very stylized, with fifty years’ worth of stories already laid out in comic book form. I also thought I could have pulled of a convincing, if slightly snarky, Dick Tracy.”
We’re inclined to agree with his assessment. Not only is Dick Tracy a better fit for TV than the big screen, it’s hard to imagine an actor better suited to the role than Bruce Campbell. Just look at the photo above, which comes from his role as Smitty in The Coen Brothers’ brilliant The Hudsucker Proxy (where I always felt he was channeling a little bit of George Reeves’ Clark Kent from the old Adventures of Superman TV series, but that’s another story). If I told you that was a still from a Dick Tracy TV pilot, you’d probably believe me, right?
Disney TV executives were apparently interested enough to engage in discussions about a Dick Tracy TV series, but it never happened. The reason? The same reason Dick Tracy has been completely absent from everything other than newspaper comic strips since about 1990: Warren Beatty. Beatty, of course, played the character in the 1990 feature film (which he also directed). This wasn’t Mr. Campbell’s only brush with newspaper strip hero glory, either, as he very nearly played the title role in The Phantom in 1996, too (this is detailed in his previous book, If Chins Could Kill). But holy moley, we were robbed of something with all kinds of cool potential when Beatty shot this Dick Tracy TV show idea down. Campbell, of course, moved on to other projects, eventually returning to Disney to play Coach Boomer in the wonderful Sky High in 2005. In his usual humble way, Mr. Campbell shrugs the whole thing off and gets on with his book.
I, on the other hand, have nothing better to do than write about this stuff, so allow me to just expand on this for a moment.
Warren Beatty has held the rights to any/all Dick Tracy projects since purchasing them from Tribune Media in 1985 and there’s all kinds of impenetrable legal nonsense involved with that deal. The best I can figure out is that Beatty gets to keep the rights as long as he can prove that he has any kind of intent to make a new Dick Tracy project in the near future. This has led to him periodically making statements that he still plans to make Dick Tracy 2, even though we all know that won’t happen. He even, in a really bizarre move, appeared in character as Tracy in a 2011 interview special to talk about the character’s history, in what was clearly a maneuver designed to hold on to the rights via technicality. I went into much more detail about the long and winding road to nowhere that is Dick Tracy 2 right here if you’re interested.
Anyway, that’s a perhaps unnecessarily long-winded way of pointing out that if Warren Beatty doesn’t want a Dick Tracy TV series to happen, it ain’t gonna happen, and that was as true circa 1997 as it is in 2017. In Beatty’s defense, if he told Disney in 1997 that a TV series was a no-go because he still planned to make Dick Tracy 2, we’d be more inclined to believe him than when he says it now, at the age of 80.
In the extraordinarily unlikely event Warren Beatty is reading this, I still think Bruce could pull off a great Dick Tracy. Let the guy do it. If that doesn’t work, get Bruce Timm to do an animated series and let Campbell do the voice.
Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor is available now, and can be purchased via Amazon and any number of other fine retailers.
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