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Spies in History & Literature ~
“The Saint” in Fact and Fiction – An Interview with Historian and Novelist Burl Barer

By Wesley Britton


When I began work on my 2003 Spy Television, I knew one chapter would be devoted to Simon Templar, alias “The Saint.”

I had read many of the Leslie Charteris books, watched many of the film and TV incarnations, and listened to many of the old-time radio adventures. I was a fan – but no expert. Then, I picked up a copy of Burl Barer’s The Saint in Print, Radio, Film, and Television, 1928-1992 (Jefferson NC and London: MacFarland and Co, 1993). I admit astonishment at just how much ground was covered in that book, and all readers can easily understand why it won an Edgar Award. (Note 1)

Then, I picked up a copy of the novelization for the 1997 Val Kilmer film and noticed it too had been penned by Barer based on the story by Jonathan Hensleigh and Philip Noyce. What a great choice, I thought, getting a real expert on a character to bring Simon Templar back to the printed page.

I wasn’t alone in this conclusion. As Ian Dickerson, General Secretary of The Saint Club put it, “He’s read too many Saint books. That’s the only thing I can think of to explain Burl’s solid plotting, deft dialogue and neat storytelling. An obvious lifetime of studying The Immortal Works of Leslie Charteris shows whenever you read one of Burl’s Saint adventures.” Ian adds, “Burl adheres to Charteris’ first rule of Saintly storytelling. He has fun with the story. Never mind the snappy dialogue or tightly plotted action and adventure. Burl’s Saint books are first and foremost jolly good fun to read. This is Entertainment with a capital ‘E’, just like all the other Saintly adventures.”

In November, 2005, I had an opportunity to interview Barer. Below are his insightful and detailed responses to my questions and perhaps yours.




Q – What first interested you in the Saint? Books, radio, film?

I read my first Saint book at age 16 – The Saint in New York (1934). It wasn’t the one that hooked me, however. I found it too dark for my taste. The second one, Saint’s Getaway made me a Saint fan forever. Then I read the first two in that trilogy – Last Hero (The Saint Closes the Case), Avenging Saint – and moved backwards to Enter the Saint.

After securing my introduction to the character, I re-read The Saint in New York, and then read all the rest. At the same time, the Saint TV show just debuted on independent TV stations, the old George Sanders movies were running on TV, and the Saint Mystery Magazine was on sale at my local drug store. It was a Saint infused world for me in those days, and my friend David and I vowed to someday visit the Leslie Charteris collection at Boston University. We did exactly that when I wrote The Saint: A Complete History.


Q – Your history of the Saint is quite objective discussing the various incarnations of Simon Templar. What are your favorites, which do you think are the best?

The “BEST” Saint portrayals are those that capture the Saint as Charteris defined him. In my own words, I would characterize the Saint as a man who lives life as a joyous adventure – the Saint has great fun even in the midst of melodrama. The screenwriter of The Fiction Makers (a 1966 two-part TV episode released as a feature film in Europe and on video) rightly noted that the film would have been much better had everyone played it dead serious except Roger Moore. It is the dissonance of attitude that is so disarming and refreshing – while others take what’s happening seriously, the Saint’s approach, especially verbally, is not unlike an armed and dangerous Groucho Marx or Bugs Bunny. In short, he is having fun. Charteris once said that the two characteristics of any Saint adventure are witty dialogue and just plain fun.

With that being said, it is easy to spot the Saint portrayals, movies, or TV episodes that manifest those characteristics. The Saint in New York (1938 film) has one or two marvelous moments – most notably the scene between Templar and Nather when the Saint pockets several thousand dollars in cash – as does the beautifully photographed high-gloss The Saint Strikes Back (1939), George Sanders’ debut as the Saint.

Charteris’ favorite Saint film was The Saint in London, although he always bemoaned Sanders’ underplayed and restrained (Charteris used the term “constipated”) performance. The same standard of what constitutes a “Saintly” episode, portrayal, etc may be applied to each episode, film, radio broadcast, etc. Some, such as The Saint’s Double Trouble are so devoid of Saintly elements as to leave one dizzy with dismay.

The Saint Takes Over, considered one of the better RKO Saint efforts, works only because it entertains with Saintliness – the plot, action, and outcome are all absurd. The unevenness of the Moore series was always troublesome – one week perfect and the next week “WAAAAAH????”

I thought Return of the Saint (1978-79) had tremendous potential, and Charteris was most impressed not only by the quality of the scripts, but also by Ian Ogilvy’s portrayal. He made a point of writing Ogilvy a “fan letter,” noting the actor’s ability to capture the Saint’s inner core of steely toughness.

I was disappointed in The Saint in Manhattan (1987 pilot) and the Simon Dutton TV movies were rushed into production when the first scripts were still in a rough state – although even the debut episode (poorly reviewed) had one or two scenes that stood out as “authentic” – these were, not surprisingly, noted by critics in published reviews. Some of the later episodes were much better, such as the one guest starring Ben Gazzara. Jean Morais, portraying an older Saint in a French film, was better than the dreadful film – a film so off the wall that Charteris suggested it be released as a satire of the Saint, with the character being called The Angel.

As for the Kilmer film, as one would suspect, the scenes in which he behaved most “Saintly” were the ones that the audience, in test screenings, most enjoyed.


Q – How did your first book come about? It’s my understanding your nephew, Lee Goldberg, set up the connection with McFarland Press.

True. On the first Saturday after the 4th of July, 1990, I arrived at Loon Lake, Washington where my father handed me an envelope that had arrived in Walla Walla during my absence. It was a contract from McFarland for The Saint: A Complete History. I was drop jawed. I had sent my sample chapter – actually a proposed magazine feature – to Lee, and he had sent it on to McFarland as a proposal for me to do the book. I will always be grateful to Lee for doing that – that selfless act on his part launched my career as an author, and the book won an Edgar Award. Can’t beat that!


Q – How did it come about you got the contract to write the novelization for the 1997 movie? Did you have any discussions in the early stages of the scripting and contribute to the direction the film took?

I did have many discussions in the early, middle, and almost-late stages of the scripting with my good friend Bill Macdonald, who was wonderfully cooperative – it was Bill’s idea in the first place for Robert Evans to option the screen rights to The Saint, what Bill wanted to see on screen – and his goal in giving Charteris the Saint movie that he never had – did not come about for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this interview.

I did not have any creative input into the final screenplay whatsoever, although I would have loved the opportunity. The only time I was invited to contribute directly in any form was when there was a script being written by a gent in England that was remarkably on-target in terms of character, dialog, etc. He wrote with Saint books spread out in front of him and lifted elements right from Charteris’ text.

We would talk on the phone and toss some things around – his wife had a baby and I sent the newborn an itty-bitty Saint T-shirt! Tragically, the screenplay fell apart, imploded and collapsed in the third act. The writer knew it too, and told me that he was put under pressure to finish it “NOW” – it suddenly went from being a Saint film to being a silly knock off of The Last Crusade starring Cossacks as good guys! A tragic end to a wonderful possibility.

The only actual contribution in terms of anything written by me was when I got a call from Robert Evans’ office asking me to prepare a presentation with illustrations on the international appeal of the Saint – and FedEx it to them in two days so they could use it when re-pitching the project to Paramount brass – for some reason, they had to re-confirm the studio’s commitment to The Saint. I granted this request, of course, and was taken to lunch at a nice bistro on Melrose for my efforts.

I knew that Evans’ deal included the right to make a novelization of the screenplay. My agent on the project, and agent for all Saint books, Jane Gelfamn, went to the publisher, Simon and Schuster, to pitch me. I had already written Capture the Saint, a novel continuing the original Charteris series. Simon and Schuster passed on Capture the Saint, terming it “too sophisticated for today’s readers” but asked me if I could be “less literary when writing the novelization.”

Jane told me that when she got there she was told that I was the preferred author on the project. I assume it was Bill Macdonald who told the publisher that I was whom they wanted, and that I was “100% approvable on their end.” Maybe not. Maybe it was because I had written Capture the Saint. I’ll ask Bill next time I see him.


Q – What were the initial ideas for the Val Kilmer film? (Note 2)

The first Saint movie in the proposed Kilmer series was always meant to be an origin story . . . but it was Charteris who provided the original back story and plot – basically it was Son of the Saint, and Moore was going to cameo as the original Simon Templar who didn’t know he had a son – and the son doesn’t know his dad is the Saint until his mother is murdered that he discovers the identity of his father . . . and it goes from there . . . he finds himself, his destiny and identity as The Saint.


Q – How much were you able to draw from your own knowledge of the Saint in the novelization or were you restricted by the Philip Noyce (director) interpretation?

Well, anyone who knows the Saint and reads the novelization can answer that – I got away with more asides and sub-references than Dennis Miller with ADHD. They allowed me remarkable room to improvise, add, and even revise aspects of the screenplay that, while acceptable in cinema, simply don’t work in a novel.

They only “laid down the law” twice – one concerning the Saint stick figure ( I wanted Emma to have the pin made for him based on drawings of the stick figure in his sketch book – giving creative credit to Templar himself, rather than it being something she got as a gift in Catholic school). The only other edits were the removal of two of my one-liners – one in the airport lounge scene between Tretiak and Templar, and one in the scene where police show Emma photos of The Saint in various locales . . . The Saint in London, The Saint in New York . . . all Charteris book titles . . . when she looked at one entitled The Saint in Hollywood, she responds, “Hmmmm, I don’t see the resemblance there at all.”

They took that one out – which I expected. I learned from the Smothers Brothers, “Always give them something obvious to take out so you can keep what you really don’t want to lose.”


Q – You were clearly able to expand on scenes from the movie, as in the first chapters at the young boy’s school. Were there aspects drawn from Charteris in your novelization and not in the film?

I used in-jokes for Saint fans – the backstory about the Saint’s parents and their death explained how the kid wound up in the orphanage, yet it is also (obviously to fans of the books) an elaborate homage to Charteris: As the Bishop said to the actress “material.”

The play which they supposedly performed, “Love, the Redeemer” and the play’s author are taken directly from a popular Saint short story from decades gone by. The scene in the novel where Templar and Frankie listen to Tretiak’s speech, followed by marching and music, has dialog adapted from Prelude for War (The Saint Plays With Fire) – a pre-World War II Saint novel banned by the Nazis. I worked in all manner of Saint trivia, including addresses, cars, and even Hugh Sinclair, who played the Saint after George Sanders.

Of course, this is all material not in the film. If I had not expanded the story, and added characters or made minor characters more significant, it would be a short story, not a novel. Any author of novelizations will tell you that the greatest challenge/joy is creating the new material to flesh out the story and the characters. I did much the same on my recent novelization of Stealth although that was only published in Japan.


Q – Are you aware of any new Saint projects in the pipeline? It’s been awhile.

Yes, and I am meeting with the producer of a new proposed Saint project at the end of this month. Due to confidentiality agreements, I can not discuss anything at this time. With his permission, I’ll keep you posted.


Q – Any thoughts on other books about the character, especially those commissioned by Charteris himself?

Yes, I have one Saint short story I have yet to submit for approval, “The Teal Bait,” and more than one synopsis for future full-length novels including one based on an idea given me by Bob Baker, The Saint in Las Vegas.

And here is a bit of “lost” Saint story trivia. Paramount Pictures, via mysterynet.com, hired me to write an original Saint short story specifically for the internet – a very specific structure, and it would be illustrated as well. It was an interesting challenge, mastering a new structural format and devising a Saint story that would be true to the character from the books yet acceptable to those who knew him only from the recent film. Well, they were thrilled and delighted, and I was paid quite well – then they realized that they didn’t have internet rights! They own the story, and, like the original Saint in Palm Springs story Charteris wrote for RKO, no one will ever see it, read it, or enjoy it.

I did another version, changing all the names so it wasn’t a Saint story, but the length is that of a novella, and there simply isn’t a market for those anymore, except perhaps in an anthology.


Q – I’m presuming you’ve been collecting Saint memorabilia for many years. What are your most treasured items, any interesting stories about collecting Saint books or media interpretations?

I am not a collector in the same league as Dan Bodenheimer, who has everything, including the license plate from The Saint’s Jaguar (Return of the Saint). I do have original movie one-sheets from four classic Saint movies, all the Saint books in hardback and paperback, including reissues. Of course, my most treasured memorabilia are those items given me by Leslie Charteris: an autographed copy of Saint in Europe, an autographed copy of my own Saint: A Complete History, a Saint coffee mug, and several letters written to me by Mr. Charteris in the last years of his life.

Another precious item was the authentic Saint stick figure cufflinks given to me by Ian Dickerson and The Saint Club when the book won the Edgar Award. Sadly, the cufflinks were stolen when thieves violated my apartment last year in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Q – Any special memories about meeting Saint creators like Charteris, Moore, whomever you made contact with?

I went to England in 1993 for ACTION 93, a celebration of ITC TV shows. I met [TV producer] Bob Baker, Ian Dickerson, and many other Saintly people. Then Leslie and Audry Charteris treated me to lunch at a charming coffee shop in Surrey. Leslie’s voice was very soft, and I am slightly hearing impaired, so we sat side by side and he would speak directly into my ear! Meeting Charteris was a dream come true – I treasure the memory. That was two weeks to the day before he passed away.

I have not yet met Roger Moore, although I have a funny story about the two of us. I wrote him a letter in care of his secretary in the UK asking if I could interview him for my book on the TV series, Maverick. About a month later, my young son, about ten or eleven years old, and I returned from the video store where my son picked out three Roger Moore James Bond movies. On the way home he told me how much he liked Roger Moore. When we walked in the door, he noticed the light was blinking on the telephone answering machine. He walked over and pressed the play button. “Hello,” said the distinctive voice, “this is Roger Moore . . .”

I wish I had a picture of my son’s face when he heard that, standing there still holding his Roger Moore videos! Roger left me his number, but by the time I returned the call, he was gone. We have yet to connect.




Notes ~

Note 1 – For more on “The Saint,” check out The Saint Club: Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar.

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Note 2 – From my Spy Television (2003):

In the years leading up to the creation of the film, producers wondered how to bring The Saint up-to-date. Early scripts had Simon Holme, the son of Templar and longtime girlfriend Patricia Holme, seeking out his father to become the inheritor of the family myth. According to director Philip Noyce’s commentary for the DVD edition of the film, Noyce wanted to provide a back-story for Simon Templar not explored by Charteris. Noyce drafted a plot line in which viewers saw the development of how and why a sinner became a saint in “a journey from the selfish to the selfless.” For this reason, strains of the Saint signature tune were only hinted at throughout the film, as in Simon’s car alarm. The full theme was only heard when the thief had earned his title. According to Noyce, elements for his version of Simon Templar came from clues in the Charteris stories alongside an account of a real-life crook-turned British secret agent he compared to La Femme Nikita.

By the time the final script had been hammered out, in the pre-title sequence, we see a young orphan with an unknown name being forced by priests to accept an identity chosen by the church. Escaping from his tormentors, the boy created his own name based on a fusion of Simon Magus, the early Christian magician, and the Knight’s Templar. (In the Charteris novels, Simon Templar was The Saint’s given name and he took on his trademark appellation when he was 19.)

In the film, we then see the grown Saint in action, a greedy burglar seeking to make a million-dollar payoff to retire. We learn he has used clever disguises to carry out his criminal activity using the names of Catholic saints in his nefarious robberies. This wasn’t Charteris’s Saint – in both the novels and television series, The Saint would use aliases, most usually that of “Sebastian Tombs,” but not canonized saints. Unlike Charteris’ secure, confident, arrogant Simon Templar, Kilmer’s version is tortured, psychologically damaged by his youth. Ultimately, his love interest, Dr. Emma Russell, reformed the thief who performed three miracles to save the new Russian government. As we hear the strains of The Saint theme for the first time, and as Roger Moore provided a cameo narration as a newscaster in the closing minutes, we see a disguised Saint seated by Inspector Teal, adorned with a little Saint stick figure pin. Thus the legend began anew.

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Note – Wesley’s interview with Saint expert Burl Barer was the June 2006 “Story of the Month” at the Sir Roger Moore Official Website.