The long dreary road to success

Booknotes looks at the stick-to-it-iveness of Michael Blake.

Michael Blake

Michael Blake

Mike Selby

It was the screenplay nobody wanted.

It was written by Michael Blake, a writer who had spent the 1970s and ‘80s paying some serious dues. After a stint in the Air Force, Blake tried journalism, film school, acting, and eventually rock music. None of these seemed to work well for him. He turned his attention to writing screenplays, but this led to long stretches of chronic rejection and bouts of homelessness.

Blake kept at it though, and in 1982 a screenplay of his — “Stacy’s Knights” — was bought (for very little money) and made into a forgettable low budget film. Buoyed by this one sale, Blake continued to write, while living out of cars, garages, and friend’s couches. It was difficult to get anyone to even look at what he had written, so he spent most of his time washing dishes.

In 1987 Blake was sleeping on the couch of Exene Cervenka, singer of the L.A. punk band X. It was there he came across Wilbur Sturtevant Nye’s book “Plains Indians Riders,” (probably belonging to Cervenka’s boyfriend, actor Viggo Mortensen). In the book Blake read about a wagon driver bringing supplies to a frontier outpost, only to find the outpost completely deserted. This image gripped Blake completely — giving him a new idea for a screenplay.

He went to see a friend of his, one of the actors who starred in “Stacy’s Knights,” and pitched to him this latest idea. The actor frowned, and pointed to a floor-to-ceiling stack of screenplays. No one in Hollywood would ever see it.  Seeing the heartbreak in Blake’s face, his friend suggested that he try and sell it as a novel instead.  Blake felt this was a great idea.

And then he was stuck with the novel nobody wanted to publish. But in 1988, Fawcett released it as a paperback original. Sales were beyond dismal, and Blake — feeling “lonely, ill, depressed, and forsaken” — relocated to Arizona and took another dishwashing job.

He was even fired from that. The detergent the restaurant was using was causing a rash on his hands, so he asked his employer to supply rubber gloves, which resulted in his immediate termination.

Yet on that very day his phone rang. It was Kevin Costner — the actor from “Stacy’s Knights” who had encouraged Blake to turn his screenplay into a novel. Costner — coming off a string of hits including “The Untouchables” and “Field of Dreams” — wanted to turn Blake’s screenplay turned novel back into a screenplay. Blake easily agreed, and the two worked nonstop converting Blake’s novel, “Dances With Wolves,” into the 1990 film.

The immense success of the film caused the book to skyrocket, finally giving Blake financial stability. He won numerous writing awards that year, including the Academy Award for best screenplay.

Since then, Blake has written a half a dozen novels and various non-fiction books. In 2001 he published “The Holy Road,” the sequel to “Dances With Wolves.” While Costner has expressed little interest in filming the sequel, Viggo Mortensen has, bringing the story full circle.  Blake never forgot the kindness of Mortensen’s girlfriend (now wife) Exene Cervenka for letting him crash on her couch.  He dedicated “Dances with Wolves” to her in the book’s title page.


Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

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