In 2010 a curious new special aired on Turner Classic Movies, a channel not known for original (or even modern) programming but trading largely in older, harder-to-find movies from the medium’s distant past. What made it even stranger, though was its content: this was a half-hour long special starring, written, and produced by Warren Beatty, who reprised his role as yellow-overcoat-wearing gumshoe Dick Tracy. This wasn’t a direct follow-up to his Dick Tracy movie, exactly, but an odd, meta-textual interview conducted by Leonard Maltin, with Beatty appearing as Dick Tracy, answering a series of questions about the various film incarnations of the fictional character.
If your mind is spinning, don’t worry, ours is too. Everything about the project is confounding. This half-hour of television, known only as Dick Tracy Special, was made nearly two decades after the original Dick Tracy came out. It was photographed by Emmanuel Lubezski, the Mexican director-of-photography who has won the Best Cinematography Academy Award two years in a row (for Gravity and Birdman) and hosted by Leonard Maltin, a film critic and encyclopedic Disney historian who has made memorable acting appearances in the past (most notably in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which like this special, had him playing a slightly different version of himself). The special was even set (and partially shot) on the historic Walt Disney Studios lot. It is baffling and invigorating in equal parts—invigorating because it’s so much fun seeing Beatty play Tracy again, even with this winking, postmodern edge and baffling because there seems to be very little reason for this special to have existed in the first place.
Dick Tracy, while something of a cult classic today, was positioned as a box office juggernaut when it was released in the summer of 1990. It seemed destined to win: it had an all-star cast (seriously: everyone from Al Pacino to Dick Van Dyke is in this movie), immaculate production design and cinematography that perfectly emulates the film’s comic book origins, and genuinely incredible music (the score is by Danny Elfman, with original songs by Stephen Sondheim). It also had the full marketing might of the Walt Disney Company, complete with an entire array of tie-in merchandise, a lavish premiere at the then-brand-new Disney-MGM Studios, a full-court marketing tour (even luring the elusive Beatty out for press), and a plan for even more Tracy-related product down the line (including sequels and a high-tech theme park attraction in the form of Dick Tracy Crimestoppers). But ultimately the movie didn’t meet expectations and things like the theme park attraction were quietly abandoned.
And yet, 20 years later, the Dick Tracy Special exists.
We were so intrigued, in fact, that we reached out to Leonard Maltin, the only other man (besides Beatty) who truly understands what this special was all about. And what he said was surprising and forthcoming, while still maintaining the air of weird mystery that the project is still enmeshed in.
How did Warren Beatty approach you about this?
He said that he wanted to reassert and reaffirm his rights to the character of Dick Tracy and that he decided that one means of doing that was to do a little special featuring the character. I don’t know the exact order of things but he had pitched it to Disney Home Video, possibly first. And it was David Jessen, who I had worked with on the Disney Treasures, who suggested that he hire me. Because at the time he was thinking of going after Charlie Rose; that was the vibe and the look that he wanted. And David said, “Why not just use Leonard?” That’s how I got the job.
Can you compare it to your past acting appearances?
It was unlike anything I had ever done before. He had written a script and as he explained to me, at a lovely lunch where we talked about lots of thing and he told wonderful anecdotes, that when he’s performing someone else’s script, he’s very disciplined about following the words but when he’s performing his own material, he feels no constrictions about ad-libbing, improvising, veering from the printed page. A couple of days before the shoot, he came over to my house to run lines with me and that’s exactly what we did.
There’s been this long-rumored two-and-a-half-hour cut of Dick Tracy out there that Beatty has wanted to get out. Did this special tie into that desire at all?
No, there was no mention of anything like that.
It landed on TCM as this half-hour special. Did you get feedback from him that he was happy with the final product?
He told me he was happy with it as soon as it was cut together.
But did it accomplish what he wanted it to?
Well, I know that he won his case. He won his case against Tribune. So now he owns the screen rights. And that was the whole purpose of doing this. [Editor’s Note: It was revealed more than a year after the special aired that there was a use-it-or-lose-it clause, wherein Tribune suggested Beatty had to produce something with the character, to prove both his interest and Tracy’s viability.] What did sort of throw me was the night before the shoot, he said to me, “You should introduce the vintage film clips and just use your own words,” which I didn’t mind doing but didn’t expect to do. That was sort of a last-minute curve. But when we finished running lines, he said to me, “When you see me in the yellow hat and coat, it makes quite a statement.” He wasn’t wrong.
Were you a fan of this movie?
Yeah I liked the Dick Tracy movie.
Do people ever bring this special up to you? It’s such a fascinating artifact.
Were you happy with it?
Well, it wasn’t my doing. I was a cog in the wheel. I just wanted to be good for him. I wanted to give him what he wanted. The day before the shoot, one of his production assistants called to set up the timing. We shot on a stage at the Walt Disney Imagineering buildings in Glendale. I figured I’d be there an hour, an hour-and-a-half. And this young fellow said, “No, we need him for a full eight hour day.” Alice [Leonard’s wife] said, “Well he’s got a screening that night, I don’t want him to be completely worn out.” So he said, “What if we started at 8:30 in the morning and gave him a guaranteed out at 4:30?” Alice said, “That would be fine.” They were good to their word. I got there on time at 8:30. Had a little make-up applied. Went to the table. And we started doing it. I had already heard that Warren likes to shoot a lot, so this was not a complete surprise. But hearing it and experiencing it are two different things.
Are we talking about 80 takes on one line?
Yes. He just likes doing it over and over and over and over. It’s his MO. It’s what makes him comfortable. And so you simply go along with it. The other rather imposing surprise was that the cinematographer on the shoot was Emmanuel Lubezski. I said, “Oh my god, Chivo is shooting this little conversation!” He’s a lovely man and I’ve seen him many times since and we always laugh about it.
In terms of timing, from the time he called you to the time it aired, how long was it?
It all happened very quickly. But the time he called me it was pretty well prepared.
Did he say anything about this leading into a sequel?
No. All he said was that he was thinking about producing another movie. Not starring in and not necessarily directing but producing another Dick Tracy. And this is why it was important to him to reaffirm his rights. That’s all I knew.
Have you kept up with him?
I see him at functions from time to time. He couldn’t be friendlier. He continually thinks me for my participation in the show and I continue to be flattered that he asked me.