Sunday Stories: “Die Hard, Starring Frank Sinatra”


Die Hard, Starring Frank Sinatra
by John Waddy Bullion

Did you know that, in 1968, Frank Sinatra starred in a moderately successful but ultimately forgettable crime thriller called The Detective? Did you also know that when 20th Century Fox first secured the rights to the source material (Roderick Thorp’s bestselling novel), the studio’s legal department inserted a clause giving it ownership of any subsequent novels produced by Thorp featuring Sinatra’s character, Detective Joe Leland? Would it surprise you in the least to learn that Roderick Thorp wrote another Joe Leland potboiler more than a decade later called Nothing Lasts Forever, which follows Leland—now retired from detective work—as he fights off an army of terrorists that has taken an entire Los Angeles skyscraper hostage? Did you know that Thorp’s book was another bestseller, and that Fox, without lifting a finger, now found itself sitting on a guaranteed summer blockbuster? (Do you see where this is heading?). How quickly after they’d greenlit the project do you think the suits realized they’d painted themselves into a corner? Did they arrive at the “oh-shit” moment on their own? Or did it take a flop-sweat-soaked lawyer bursting through the doors of their mahogany-lined boardroom anxiously explaining to the assembled impresarios that, owing to the peculiar wording of the miracle clause in the original agreement, the studio was contractually obligated to offer the starring role in the sequel they’d so shrewdly purchased to none other than Frank Sinatra, who was by then well into his seventies? How big was their collective sigh of relief when Sinatra, whose balding pate was barely concealed beneath a bad hairpiece, whose lungs were depleted from years of inhaling cigarette smoke and exhaling every emotion known to man, and whose right hand still carried the aching memento of the ill-advised karate chop he’d delivered on the set of The Manchurian Candidate and had been further gnarled by the repetitive stress of a lifetime spent holding a microphone aloft, told the studio Thanks for thinking of me, but I’ll pass?

But what if he’d said Yes

What if he’d said Sure, I’ll do it, I owe it to all the fans of the original, who want nothing more than to follow Joe Leland on his action-packed journey of self-discovery? Would he then demand a production credit? A sizable cut of the movie’s first-dollar gross? A final say in all casting decisions? A copy of the shooting script so that he could compare it to Thorp’s novel? And while reading both texts, would he have periodically bellowed Now why in the hell are we calling it Die Hard? Who’s the wiseguy that changed my character’s name to John McClane? And What gives with the hero spending half the goddamn movie barefoot? Would he, after maybe sleeping on it a night or two, have come around and supported some of the screenwriter’s storytelling choices, those ruthless edits that every great adaptation must make in the transition from page to screen? Would he have loved, in particular, the masterstroke move of switching out the main female protagonist–the woman Leland is visiting when all hell breaks loose in the skyscraper–from his daughter to his estranged wife? Would he have lunged for the phone and, without thinking, grabbed for it right-handed, only to wince, cursing first himself for forgetting and cursing second whatever quack had come up with that fruity-sounding diagnosis—Dupuytren’s contracture, vaffanculo? Would he have recovered the instant the poor sap in production picked up on the other end and summoned every remaining ounce of oxygen his exhausted lungs could spare to yell Get me Mia Farrow! She still owes me for the Rosemary’s Baby debacle! And if she ain’t available, get me Ava Gardner—so what if she’s confined to a wheelchair, it’ll add to the peril? Would the next call he placed be to still-on-the-speed-dial Sammy, to offer him the role of Argyle, because let’s face it, a half-blind limo driver would really give this picture some much-needed comic relief? And when it became clear that all poor old Sammy wanted to discuss was his upcoming hip replacement, would Frank Sinatra have listened patiently? Would he have contrived a convenient excuse, a gentleman’s gentle lie, perhaps a phantom call coming through on the other line? Or would he have simply hung up, just slid the phone softly back into its cradle, his dear friend’s voice a wisp, then gone, like a withered flame snuffed out by trembling fingertips? Would he have stared down at his bare feet, which were at that moment sinking pleasantly into the plush broadloom carpeting of his Palm Springs compound? Would he have muttered, almost gently, as though he was revealing a secret to himself, a secret that he’d always somehow known: Son of a bitch—fists with your toes?


John Waddy Bullion’s writing has appeared in BULL, HAD, the Texas Review, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, and Identity Theory, among other fine places. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his family. Visit him online at

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