Payday for hyped novel ‘Memory of Running’

Author McLarty to pen script for Warner Bros.

Warner Bros. will pay high six against seven figures for screen rights to the Ron McLarty novel “The Memory of Running.” Two weeks ago the book received a column endorsement from Stephen King, leading to a $2 million Viking Penguin deal. McLarty will write the script.

All this for a book McLarty wrote in 1988 about a 43-year-old, 279-pound assembly line supervisor who grieves the car crash death of his parents by getting on a Raleigh bicycle in his funeral suit and pedaling cross-country.

According to McLarty’s D.C.-based lit agent Jeff Kleinman, a book hasn’t come this far out of left field since Nicholas Evans’ “The Horse Whisperer.”

McLarty’s book and movie checks are smaller than Evans’, who at least was an author. McLarty is a 56-year-old actor from New Jersey who is best known for playing paunchy, donut-eating detective Frank Belson on the Robert Urich TV series “Spenser for Hire,” along with enough other TV stints to make his mug vaguely familiar. No one, except for family and friends, knew McLarty fancied himself an author first, one who has written eight unpublished novels and many plays that collected dust. “Memory of Running” was his third effort.

Said McLarty: “My friends gave me a party once and they took all of my plays and novels, bound them with this cardboard cover and titled them ‘The Collective Mailings of Ron McLarty.’ They’d say, here comes nutso with another book, and watched me complete each one and send them to publishers and never hear back. But I barreled on.”

Full-time gig

McLarty planned to begin his career writing, only going into acting temporarily to pay the bills. That was 35 years ago.

“I got extremely lucky early, starring in ‘Moon Children’ on Broadway at 23 and then replacing Charlie Durning in ‘That Championship Season,'” he said. “I thought I’d become a movie star, force my writing on everybody. It didn’t work out that way. But I always found five or six hours a day to write, always longhand. It helped me through every crisis in my life.” That includes losing his wife of 32 years to cancer about 16 months ago.

Years of acting in plays, TV shows and movies gave him connections, but McLarty said he has no entrepreneurial skills and never called in a favor to get serious consideration from a publisher. Lit agent Kleinman feels if he had, surely someone would have told McLarty that a plodding first chapter and a manuscript filled with typos was killing his chances. McLarty moonlights by narrating audio books, using that tie to get the consolation prize of having the book published on tape.

“My local librarian gave me the tape in 2000 and told me I must listen,” Kleinman said. “I thought it sucked. It needed a lot of work. It wasn’t clear where it was going and I stopped. I gave it back and she said, keep going. All of a sudden, the narrative became amazing, and I sat there crying. I wrote him a fan letter, telling him in three pages how he could fix that first chapter and make a salable book. He wrote back saying he’d moved on.”

Revise, revise, revise

Three years later, McLarty included Kleinman in a mass mailing, telling agents he’d finished another book. Kleinman got him to put that aside and revise the old one.

King, who got hooked on audio books while convalescing after being hit by a truck, listened to the tape and wrote his now-fabled rave column in Entertainment Weekly. Viking Penguin made McLarty an overnight millionaire and has already racked up $1.6 million in foreign advances. Studios lined up and McLarty engaged Hollywood agent Sylvie Rabineau, who just brokered a Paramount deal for Alex Kershaw’s WWII book “The Few,” with Tom Cruise set to star.

“In both cases, the figures made my head spin,” McLarty said. “I was asked if I’d ever been in an auction before and I said yes. I just didn’t say that it was pitting Budget Printing against Kinko’s to see which one I’d pay to print the 20 copies of each book I’d have made up.”

Rabineau took the WB bid over another studio offer late Friday. The deal wrapped as McLarty landed in L.A. to see girlfriend Kate Skinner open onstage in “The Graduate.”

McLarty will continue acting and narrating books, but his most important job title is the one he always carried in his head: McLarty is a writer, and there are several other fully completed, slightly dusty novels where “The Memory of Running” came from.

“I sit here and wonder, why me, but one thing I can say is that I’m sure of the product,” McLarty said. “I just know people will enjoy the hell out of this book and that I’ll write a helluva screenplay.”

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