Fletch arrived in theaters on May 31,1985, offering an effortless charm that belies its almost decade-long struggle to reach the screen.
Producer Jonathan Burrows acquired the film rights to Gregory McDonald’s award-winning 1974 novel of the same name years earlier. But the writer shrewdly secured approval of casting for the title role, though none of the suggested actors seemed to fit.
”It seemed that over the last 10 years, everybody in the world who acts and is a male between the ages of 17 and 76 tried to get the role,” McDonald said in 1985. “Even Mick Jagger. I admire Mick Jagger, but he is not my idea of a young American male.”
Born less than three months after Mick Jagger. Chevy Chase also didn’t necessarily fit the “young” part of that equation. But he was American and, crucially, a bankable movie star since leaving Saturday Night Live for Hollywood in 1976. Perhaps most importantly, he could be a wiseass while maintaining a blank, deadpan facial expression — a necessary characteristic to portray investigative reporter Irwin M. “Fletch” Fletcher.
Although McDonald told a Fletch fan site that he “never really watched Chevy on Saturday Night Live,” he nonetheless approved of the decision. ”I sent him a telegram saying, ‘I am delighted to abdicate the role of Fletch to you,” he said.
Andrew Bergman, who’d earned hits with Blazing Saddles (one of several co-writers) and The In-Laws (his own creation), was brought in to adapt McDonald’s novel into a screenplay. “I wrote it very fast,” he told the New York Post. “I did the first draft in four weeks, and I usually can’t write a check in four weeks.”
Bergman stuck largely to McDonald’s plot, which wove two stories together. In the script, Fletch is working on a story about the infestation of drugs on Los Angeles beaches when he’s approached by wealthy aviation executive Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson). Mistaking Fletch for a junkie drifter, Stanwyk offers him $50,000 to stage his own murder, telling the reporter that he has incurable bone cancer and would rather be shot than go through a slow, painful decline. Upon completion of the task, Fletch would go to the airport, where a flight would take him to Rio de Janeiro.
Fletch accepts, putting his professional instincts into action. Using a variety of cheap disguises and pseudonyms — he tells Stanwyk that his name is Ted Nugent, for example — he seeks to find out more about the man he’s supposed to kill. This delays the drugs story, upsetting his editor (the always-wonderful Richard Libertini).
But Fletch puts everything together: He learns that Stanwyk was living a double life (having married his childhood sweetheart in Utah) and that his actual plan was to murder Fletch, making it look like his body was burned beyond recognition. Stanwyk would then take $3 million of his wife Gail’s (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) money and settle in Rio with his first wife. Fletch also solves the drug situation, discovering that the Los Angeles Chief of Police (Joe Don Baker) was responsible for the trafficking, with Stanwyk flying the stuff weekly from South America on his private jet. Fletch prevails in the climactic scene, windng up with the money — and Gail — in Brazil.
Chase added to Bergman’s deft dialogue by ad-libbing many of his lines. “What made it so much fun to make was my improvising, to the point that Fletch was me and I was Fletch,” Chase wrote on Instagram in 2019, calling it his favorite of his movies. “Day to day I had a lot laughs inventing dialogue for Fletch.”
Director Michael Ritchie kept everything at a breezy pace, with just enough drama and action — including a humorous car chase where Fletch commandeers a vehicle from a teenager who’s stealing it — to prevent the film from dragging. And they’re all aided by a stellar cast of character actors, including M. Emmet Walsh, Kenneth Mars, George Wendt, George Wyner and, in her second screen credit, Geena Davis.
The commercial success of Fletch — it grossed more than $50 million on $8 million budget — made a sequel inevitable. But 1989’s Fletch Lives, which didn’t use one of McDonald’s sequels as its source material, failed to live up to the standards of its predecessor. A third movie has been bandied about on several occasions: Kevin Smith was hired to direct it at one point, with actors like Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Zach Braff being considered for the starring role. Rights to the franchise have changed hands a few times, with McDonald’s prequel Fletch Won being considered as a Jason Sudeikis vehicle, but there’s been no movement on that front since 2014.