Alex Beam

Legal thriller

Who doesn’t love a good fight? The free-for-all over Higgins’s ‘The Rat on Fire’ promises to be a barnburner.

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / March 29, 2011

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Boston has never replaced George V. Higgins, and the city is the poorer for it. Toper, raconteur, lawyer, best-selling and critically admired novelist, pot-boiling hack, must-read newspaper columnist — no one man or woman has amassed such a delightful assemblage of talents under one cranium since he died in 1999.

George would love the ongoing legal donnybrook over the rights to his 1981 novel, “The Rat on Fire.’’ He would have milked it for numerous, speed-written Boston Herald columns, tapped out moments before his ritual lunch at Locke-Ober, the antediluvian eatery on Winter Place.

As filmmaker Jan Egleson explains, back in the late 1970s he had an idea for a docu-drama about low-life Boston arsonists that he hoped to sell to PBS. Egleson commissioned Higgins, still smoking hot from the success of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,’’ to write a script. Three months and $40,000 — that was real money back then — later, Higgins delivered. Egleson dived into the manuscript: “I think, oh my God, George has written a novel. It’s a great novel, but nevertheless what I was after was a script.’’

“I called him up, and I said, ‘Hey, George, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘It’s yours. Do with it what you want. In the deal he had the novel rights. He published the book, and it’s a great book, ‘Rat on Fire.’ I was was left with a story and nowhere to go with it.’’

Predictably, PBS wanted no part of the super-profane story that Higgins confected. “I managed to off-foot or offend . . . the minority-group tenants, the Jewish landlords, the Irish arsonists, the Italian policemen — everybody got it,’’ Higgins boasted in a 1999 interview. He was unwounded by the rejection from PBS, which he called “full of left-wing types and midget knee-jerk liberals.’’

Fast-forward 30 years, and Egleson correctly detects an uptick in Higgins’s stock. “Coyle’’ was released on DVD a couple of years ago. Last year Hollywood director Andrew Dominik bought the rights to Higgins’s book “Cogan’s Trade.’’ He’s filming it in New Orleans as we speak, with Brad Pitt playing the lead. The Big Easy standing in for Boston? “Brad and Angelina have a real commitment to that city,’’ Higgins’s literary agent Albert LaFarge told me.

Random House’s Vintage books division will soon announce the reissue of “Cogan’s Trade’’ and 10 other Higgins novels.

Egleson took a second look at his 30-year-old contract and decided that he still owned the film rights. He started working on the movie this year, in partnership with Robert Patton-Spruill, who wrote the script. “Imagine what happens when two Boston indie Icon’s [sic] Jan Egleson and Robert Patton-Spruill team up to make a classic George V. Higgins novel,’’ they announced on their website. “Well you don’t have to imagine anymore, because we have started making it.’’

That came as interesting news to LaFarge and Higgins’s widow, Loretta. “It popped up on Google Alerts,’’ LaFarge said, “and we thought, ‘Who are these people?’ ’’ Behind every successful literary agent lurks a formidable lawyer, in this case Los Angeles-based Wayne Alexander. He sent Egleson and Patton-Spruill the kind of cease-and-desist letter that you do not want to find in your mailbox: “Demand is hereby made that you and anyone connected with you cease all activity related to development or production of a motion picture based on or derived from Higgins’ book ‘Rat on Fire.’ . . . If you continue to proceed despite this demand my client is prepared to enforce her rights through legal and equitable proceedings’’ and so on.

Alexander explained to me that under standard screenwriting contracts, rights revert to the author if the film or TV series doesn’t get made. “These guys are just idiots. They don’t know what they are talking about,’’ he said. Patton-Spruill showed me a clause from the contract that purports to grant Egleson the motion picture rights “in perpetuity.’’ “I’m sorry Mrs. Higgins didn’t know what we were doing,’’ Patton-Spruill says. “We’re not trying to hurt anybody, we’re just trying to make the best Boston movie ever made.’’

“I am advising them to continue working,’’ said attorney Fletcher “Flash’’ Wiley, who worked on the 1979 contract and represents Egleson and Patton-Spruill. “This was work for hire, with the film rights specifically reserved for [Egleson’s company]. There was no reversion of rights to Higgins.’’ Egleson and Patton-Spruill plan to start filming on May 7. “We’ll be shooting until they make us stop,’’ Egleson says.

Can’t we all just get along? I hope not. I’m planning to milk this imbroglio for numerous speed-written columns, tapped out before my regular lunch date at the Red Lentil, Watertown's A-list vegan emporium. They don’t have a liquor license, but otherwise I know Higgins would approve.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is