Casting Study: Miami Blues

For the first in this series of comparing character descriptions against actors in adaptations, The Composites will look at Miami Blues, the 1984 novel by Charles Willeford and the 1990 film starring Alec Baldwin.

Charles Willeford was unique among crime writers.  His novels defied the conventions of the genre with naturalistic pacing, droll wit, and a melancholic worldview. During an exile from crime writing Willeford self-published experimental poetry and memoir, including a book-length account of his hemorrhoidectomy, before returning to the genre with his Hoke Moseley series, the first of which is Miami Blues.

Fresh out of prison and on a spree at the beginning of the novel, Junior Frenger is an engagingly rational sociopath who decides to settle down in suburban Miami—not to retire, but to rob his new neighbors while posing as Detective Moseley. It’s an acidic satire of 1980s yuppie mobility.

Released in 1990, the film version of Miami Blues starred a young Alec Baldwin as Junior, and Fred Ward as Moseley. Junior’s sadism was toned down but director George Armitage still faithfully translated Willeford’s mordant view of tropical suburbia and Junior’s unstable mix of wiliness and stupidity.

Here’s Willeford’s description of Junior Frenger from Miami Blues:

Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., who preferred to be called Junior instead of Freddy, was twenty-eight years old. He looked older because his life had been a hard one; the lines at the corners of his mouth seemed too deep for a man in his late twenties. His eyes were a dark shade of blue, and his untrimmed blond eyebrows were almost white. His nose had been broken and reset poorly, but some women considered him attractive. His skin was unblemished and deeply tanned from long afternoons spent at the yard at San Quentin. At five-nine, he should have had a slighter build, but prolonged sessions with weights, pumping iron in the yard, as well as playing handball, had built up his chest, shoulders, and arms to almost grotesque proportions…After the shave, the barber combed Freddy’s hair and said: “You have lovely hair, but you really should let it grow. It’s much too short for today’s stylings.”

In casting Alec Baldwin, the filmmakers made an even stronger character out of Junior. A more physically imposing actor with a prison-worn face couldn’t telegraph—in the same way that Baldwin was able to—Junior’s charm or his twitchy movement from score to score.

Fred Ward embodies Hoke Moseley’s Job-like suffering while still looking slightly off, a little too sturdy, compared to Willeford’s description of the spent and burnt detective in the series’ second book, New Hope for the Dead:

 Without his false teeth, Hoke looked much older than forty-two, and this morning, when he looked into the mirror, still thinking about Loretta Hickey, he wondered if she would ever be interested in him as a lover. She could hardly be interested, he thought, if she saw him without his teeth. His eyes were his best feature. They were chocolate brown, a brown so richly dark it was difficult to see his pupils. During his years in the Miami Police Department, this genetic gift had been useful to him on many occasions. Hoke could stare at people for a long time before they realized he was looking at them. By any aesthetic standard, Hoke’s eyes were beautiful. But the rest of his face, if not ordinary, was unremarkable. He had lost most of his sandy hair in front, and his high balding dome gave his longish face a mournful expression. His tanned cheeks were sunken and striated, and there were dark, deep lines from the wings of his prominent nose to the corners of his mouth.

Baldwin’s maniacal portrayal of Junior as a dead-eyed clown was a star turn, more so than his role in The Hunt for Red October—amazingly released at the exact same time. Despite that, Miami Blues flopped.

Coming a few years before the height of 1990s neo-noir, the film struggled with marketing. Armitage’s next film, Grosse Pointe Blank, found a more receptive audience. Miami Blues has its fans. I’m one of them.