How did the idea for What If They Lived come about?
The idea for the book was percolating for years. I was always curious about what could have happened if stars like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, John Belushi and Bruce Lee had not died not died so young – could their stellar power have grown over time, or would they have gone into a decline?
Getting this project off the ground has been a Sisyphean effort – a lot of publishers thought it was a terrible idea. Oddly, people that I spoke with who had no connection with publishing thought it was a great idea. I kept going with the project because there were people who were intrigued by the book's concept – and, thankfully, it has finally come about.
Could you describe the framework of the book?
The book spans Hollywood history from the silent era to contemporary cinema. Each chapter is an essay about a notable star who died at a crucial period in his or her career – either they were on the cusp of superstardom or their career had been on shaky ground but they seemed poised for a major comeback.
The obvious suspects are here, of course, but some of the actors in the book may not be familiar to many movie lovers today – Robert Harron, Larry Semon, Evelyn Preer, Laird Cregar, Robert Francis and Judy Tyler are probably recognizable to film historians, but not the average moviegoer. Yet in their day, they were very well known and their deaths received considerable news coverage.
I co-wrote the book with Rory Leighton Aronsky, and we divided the essay quantity in half.
The hypothetical "What if they lived" segments. How were those constructed?
It is very simple: the first part of the essay is a biography that covers the life and career of the star. The second part is a speculative consideration on where each star's career could have gone if they had not died so young. A number of experts provided input in several essays: John J. Puccio, a film and classical music writer, was invaluable in offering expert commentary on the actor/tenor Mario Lanza, while rock music writer Ricky Flake was very helpful in considering the possible fate of Elvis Presley.
Among those listed in What If They Lived, would you venture a guess as to which ones would have gone on to become much bigger stars?
Columbia Pictures was investing a lot of money and energy into building Robert Francis as a star – this was the same studio that manufactured Kim Novak in the same era as a movie icon, and Francis was being groomed in the same way. Whether he could have pulled it off is something we'll never know, but I think that studio mogul Harry Cohn would have done everything possible to ensure that Francis reached major stardom.
Closer to our time, I might guess that Aaliyah and Tupac Shakur would have gone on to significant film careers – both were already established as recording stars and they had the talent and charisma to cross over into mainstream films.
Also, Natasha Richardson might have taken advantage of the “older British woman” syndrome in films – the unusual ability for British actresses of a certain age to see their film careers belatedly bloom while their American counterparts either wind up playing supporting roles as someone's mother or doing silly TV movies.
What about those who, though their careers had been in the doldrums at the time of their death, would possibly undergo a professional resurgence?
Robert Walker came out of the 1940s as a somewhat washed-up light leading man who generated negative press due to his personal problems. But in the early 1950s, he showed that he could play serious dramatic roles with Strangers on a Train and My Son John. I suspect that if he had lived, he would have enjoyed a dramatic career turnaround.
Any other books in the works?
This is my fifth book since 2004. I think it is time to turn off the computer for a while and just appreciate the flowers and clouds!