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Elmore Leonard

As part of a special CBS.com series profiling mystery writers, CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason interviews Elmore Leonard.

Elmore Leonard could never be mistaken for one of his characters. He looks more like your high school math teacher. The creator of some of crime fiction's most endearing con men, he's been writing now for 45 years:

Anthony Mason
MASON: Does it seem a long time ago, now?
LEONARD: Awful long time ago. But it's funny though. I still, I'm 72 right now, but I still kind of think of myself as...as I wanted to be then. The hot kid. But it's too late.

Too late to be a kid maybe. But at 72 Elmore Leonard is hotter than ever:

MASON: What did the film Get Shorty do to your life?
LEONARD: It made me known. I became known to almost everyone (laughs) since that movie.

Get Shorty is Leonard's story of the charming loan shark, Chili Palmer, who hustles his way into becoming a Hollywood producer:

LEONARD: I have gotten more attention and notoriety because of Get Shorty than I have for 45 years of writing, there's no question about it. I was a category on Jeopardy. I've been an answer on there before, but never a category.

Leonard got his start writing westerns. The pulp magazines paid top dollar for them in the '50. So the kid from Detroit wrote about cowboys.

That's when he wasn't working his other job. One of the most successful of his westerns, Hombre, was turned into a 1967 film starring Paul Newman.

For seven years, he wrote ad copy for Chevrolet.

MASON: I get the sense you didn't really enjoy your advertising days.
LEONARD: No, no.

By then, Leonard had launched his writing career - undercover:

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MASON: All the time you were working as an ad man, you were still sneakily scribbling at your desk?
LEONARD: Yeah. Yeah. Even while I was an office boy. I would write in the morning before going to work, from 5 to 7, and then I would very often write, yeah, in my desk. I'd open the desk and put my arm in there and write without looking at what I was writing.

MASON: How'd that turn out?
LEONARD: It worked alright. And then if someone came n, I'd just close the drawer. Yeah. And maybe some of the books read like that. I don't know, but they were bought.

Five novels and some 30 stories. In 1957 Hollywood found Three-Ten to Yuma in Dime Western magazine, and Leonard was in the movies:

MASON: But something happened to the western market, didn't it?
LEONARD: Yeah, television. By, by 1959 or '60 there were more than 30 westerns on prime time. And that finished off the western. Western movies, western fiction just kind of disappeared. All of a sudden what I'd been doing wasn't there anymore.

That's when Leonard was forced to turn to crime. The same imagination that created cowboys on the prairie has turned out a wacky gallery of criminal anti-heroes... In novels like The Big Bounce, Glitz, Maximum Bob and Out of Sight.

LEONARD: Out of Sight started with a photograph I saw in the paper about 7 or 8 years ago of a woman federal marshal, standing in front of the federal courthouse in Miami with a shot gun on her hip. And she's kind of hip cocked a little bit. Very attractive woman. I thought, 'That's a book.' What if she met a bank robber who fascinated her?

MASON: (Looking at photo): Who's that kid?
LEONARD: That kid? That's little Elmore Leonard. He was called Bubba then. Bubba's about 10 years old...9 or 10 years old in Memphis. The picture was taken I would say within months of Bonnie & Clyde being gunned down in Northern Louisiana. And it didn't occur to me 'til about 5 or 6 years ago when I looked at that again, that, My God, this is where I got all my inspiration.

But you won't find Leonard's life in his stories. The author disappears in his novels.

LEONARD (in bookstore): I never write from my point of view, ever. I don't want my reader to be aware of me. I want you to be lost in a book, same as I get lost in it when I'm writing it.

So lost, the writer himself says, often all he is to start with is a character:

LEONARD: I would say in the last 20 years or more I haven't plotted at all. Not until I get into the book. And then I meet my characters and get to know what they're about and then they kind of point the way.
MASON: So, let me get this straight. When you sit down to write a book, you actually have no idea where it's going?
LEONARD: No, uh-uh. What I'm doing right now, a sequel to Get Shorty, I'm on page 250. I don't know how it ends. But I've got a hundred pages to go, about, to find out.

It's called Be Cool, and in it Chili Palmer returns to become the manager of a rock band. Leonard's research took him deep into the heart of rock n roll:

MASON: How did you enjoy listening to all this music?
LEONARD: I loved it. I really have enjoyed it. Sitting in the same room with the Red Hot Chili Peppers rehearsing - without earplugs. Loved it. And then talking to them. Meeting Aerosmith, watching their show, inviting them over to the house. And they came! Sat around the patio. And herare my grandchildren looking at Aerosmith here.
MASON: You were pretty cool.
LEONARD: Oh, listen. I'm the coolest grandfather in...I was going to say in town...in the Midwest!

He found the prototype for Chili's band in a little known Boston group called the Stone Coyotes:

LEONARD: And immediately I thought 'That's the music I want to use because I understand it, Chili Palmer will understand it.'

Hollywood can't get enough of 'the hot kid' now. Almost everything he's written has been sold to a producer somewhere. But Leonard has other ambitions:

LEONARD: After this one, I think I might take up...I'm going to take piano lessons. And start writing music to see if I'm any good at that.
MASON: Do you have any songs in mind?
LEONARD: That's the trouble. It seems to me it's not unlike 1950-51, when I couldn't think what to write about.

After 34 novels, he's a crime writing legend. Is it too late for Elmore Leonard to become a rock idol?

Reported by Anthony Mason
©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed