Act or fiction?

Actor Ron McLarty wrote novels for fun. Then Stephen King made him famous

Ron McLarty once played a timed-release cold capsule on TV. That was before he starred in an ad for the American Bowling Association. “I was a talking ball,” he says. Another time, in a commercial for Dutch Boy Paint, he was a talking wall. Over the years he’s acted on Broadway, appeared in feature films, and been a regular on a hit TV series—he was Sergeant Frank Belson on the ’80s crime drama Spenser: For Hire. McLarty’s got a fighter’s nose, wild dark eyebrows, a trim white beard, and a mouth that, when not grinning, is ruler straight. At 5 feet 11 inches, he usually hides his round belly under an untucked Hawaiian shirt. He can look scruffy; if they remade Gunsmoke, he’d be a perfect Festus. But when a casting director is seeking someone to play a cantankerous authority figure, he also makes the cut. In recent years he’s played mailmen, priests, bartenders, doctors, and defense attorneys with such regularity that his name has entered the Hollywood vernacular. Once he responded to a casting call that specified “a Ron McLarty type.” At the audition he told the producers, “Hey, you can have the Ron McLarty.” He didn’t get the part.

Even for an actor who works as much as McLarty does, rejection is a constant. That can make it difficult to keep doing what’s necessary—“throwing it out there,” as he likes to say. Which is partly why, in the early ’80s, he started writing fiction. He had written numerous plays—some that had been produced—but a few didn’t feel finished, so he chose one and turned it into a novel. Then he did it again. For the next seven years he sent manuscript after manuscript to New York publishers. Even though he’d included self-addressed, stamped envelopes, he didn’t receive a single reply. Finally, he stopped wasting postage. He kept writing. Those who loved him were awed by his tenacity. Once at a party a friend presented him with a compilation of his 44 plays, eight novels, and ten screenplays bound in a cardboard cover labeled “The Collected Mailings of Ron McLarty.”

You might think that striving toward two goals could lead to twice the disappointment; instead of simply not being Tom Cruise, McLarty had to acknowledge he was also not Tom Clancy. But he took such joy in writing that he couldn’t stop. McLarty discovered that by pursuing two passions, he suffered less in the service of either. Writing eased the frustrations of acting, and vice versa. The actor-author realized he was getting better at both.

How much better became clear last September when Stephen King wrote a column in Entertainment Weekly that turned McLarty into a hot literary property. Seven publishers bid for his third novel, The Memory of Running, the tale of an overweight 43-year-old bachelor who reacts to the deaths of his parents by jumping on his childhood bike and pedaling across the country. McLarty ultimately signed a two-book, $2 million deal with Viking Penguin, which will publish The Memory of Running in November. Then Warner Bros. paid him another $1 million for the movie rights to the book. He is now writing the screenplay.

“I have two passes and a polish,” he says. “I don’t know what that means, but I’m going to pass and polish.”

Chances are you’ve seen McLarty. On Sex and the City, he was the sex therapist who told Charlotte and Trey to name their private parts Rebecca and Schooner. He’s been the father-in-law of a Third Watch paramedic and has a recurring role on Law & Order as a judge who makes “ugly decisions,” as McLarty puts it. “I’m the guy who looks at the retarded girl who’s been raped and says, ‘Come on, honey; you enjoyed it, didn’t you?’” Last fall on The Practice when Sharon Stone played a defense attorney who thought she could talk to God, that was McLarty looking down at her from the bench.

“Ron is the quintessential working actor,” says his theatrical agent, Richard Fisher, who points to his last TV series, the short-lived 1996 comedy Champs, as the kind of show in which McLarty shines. “He’s not the leading man/love interest. In that series he was the ex-coach of all these older guys who used to be athletes. The role was very blue collar, and that’s Ron.”

Like many actors, McLarty does a lot of voice-over work. He’s done ads for a telephone company and been the voice of Papa Bear on the cartoon The Berenstain Bears. But since 1990, a mainstay of his career has been narrating audio books. He has a knack for creating distinct voices for a book’s characters, infusing his baritone with humor and warmth, and over the years he’s developed a solid fan base. He’s Danielle Steele’s favorite reader of her romantic potboilers, and he’s also good with crime and suspense. Books by Elmore Leonard, Scott Turow, and Ed McBain are among the more than 100 titles he’s read aloud.

McLarty started writing his novels in the basement of the rambling Montclair, New Jersey, home where he was living with his wife and three sons. He jokingly calls the spot his “pit of despair,” but really it was a refuge, papered floor to ceiling with movie posters, playbills, a world map, and photographs of his friends and family McLarty is an insomniac. He tends to sleep for an hour and then wake up—not anxious, but alert. “Saucer-eyed,” he says. So early in the morning, when sleep wouldn’t come, he’d take a yellow legal pad and head to the pit.

“Some days he’d go down for 45 minutes,” says his eldest son, Zachary, now 29. “Some days he’d be down there for six hours.”

McLarty’s parents, an oil refinery foreman and a teacher, raised him and his brother in East Providence, Rhode Island, and his early stories sprang from childhood memories. But soon he was writing about everything from the Napoleonic Wars to crushing personal failure; one of his favorite novels, his seventh, is Art in America, a long, autobiographical narrative about a playwright who can’t get his plays read.

“Being an actor, it was easier for him to write real characters,” says Zachary, who is also an actor. On the days McLarty took the bus into New York City to audition, he usually spent a few hours writing at the public library. “By writing every day,” Zachary says, “getting into so many characters’ minds, he kept himself very sharp. At an audition he could go into that writing process of ‘Now what would this person do?’”

A frequent destination in Manhattan was the Chelsea studios of an audio book company called Recorded Books. Claudia Howard, the executive producer who hired McLarty to be part of what she calls her “rep company” of readers, says his ability to enliven what’s on the page sets him apart. “When he reads, he not only sees what the character is saying at that moment, but he understands what the room is like that they’re in, where they think they’re going next, and where they came from,” Howard says. “When he sees the picture in his brain, we see the picture in our brains.”

McLarty and Howard became friends, and soon he told her about his writing. It was a “compulsion,” she remembers McLarty saying. He’d even gone to a shrink and asked, “Can you cure me of this? I’ve got to stop this.” Instead, he started bringing Howard things to read—first the plays, and then a novel that he was proud of, despite the silence it had elicited from publishers. Five years later Howard still remembers reading The Memory of Running for the first time. She read about Smithson Ide, known as Smithy, and his sister, Bethany, whose schizophrenia made her both dazzling and tragic. She read about Smithy’s next-door neighbor, Norma, who—with little encouragement—had loved him all her life. She read about the death of Smithy’s parents in a car crash in rural Maine and of Smith’s decision to get on his bike and ride west, to Los Angeles, to see Bethany one more time.

“I read 700 books a year. It takes something for me to sit up and take notice. But I read this book and just fell in love with it,” Howard says of the novel, whose main character has a habit of berating himself aloud and is only good at one thing: listening. “It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s very bizarre in its own way,” she says. “It was a voice I hadn’t encountered before in all my reading.”

As far as anyone knew, no unpublished novel had ever been released on audio. Howard set out to make The Memory of Running the first. “I basically browbeat my bosses until they allowed me to do it,” she says. “Ron was a narrator with a large following, whose fans would pick it up. I also thought we might get a little buzz for doing it first.”

McLarty had begun writing The Memory of Running in 1988 in Portland, Maine, in the hospital where his own parents were taken after a car wreck that would cost them their fives. He began narrating the book in 1999, just a few months after another Maine resident, Stephen King, was almost killed by a van. King didn’t know McLarty that June when the best-selling writer was hit with such force that, in his words, his lap appeared to be “on sideways.” But as a reluctant flier who tends to drive even long distances, he was already a big fan of recorded books. He had narrated a few of his own. Now, as King waited for his fractured right hip, his pulverized right leg (broken in nine places), his four cracked ribs, and his lacerated scalp to heal, he appreciated the power of voice acting all the more. For is there anything in the world more soothing than being read a good story?

McLarty and his wife, Diane, had developed a routine. Whenever he emerged from the pit, she wouldn’t quiz him about what went on down below. “He would come back upstairs, and it would just be like, ‘Are you hungry?’ or ‘Do you want to see a movie?’” Zachary recalls. “She wouldn’t say, ‘What did you write?’ or ‘How much?’ Dad’s writing wasn’t a family thing. It was his own thing.” Still, whenever McLarty completed a play or a novel, he would deliver his hand-scrawled prose to his wife to transcribe. “So many times,” says Zachary, “I remember coming home from school and seeing my mom typing it up on the computer. As she was going along, she’d ask him questions. My mom was pretty much the first and only champion of Dad’s writing.”

McLarty’s sole readers were his family and friends. “The wonder of McLarty is that despite his anger and anguish about not finding an audience and not having the home for his characters that many, many, many much less deserving writers have found for their characters, he never lost faith for long in his own talent,” says Peter Maloney, a writer, actor, and director who’s been a friend since 1974. “He would have lapses—times when he would get depressed and say; ‘Why should I do this anymore?’ But Ron’s always been able to laugh darkly about the plight of being unrecognized.”

It helped that he felt his writing was paying huge personal rewards. “It protects me,” he says now. “Sometimes as an actor you hear, ‘We don’t want you. We don’t like you. We don’t want you in our project.’ And even though you tell yourself, ‘It’s not my fault,’ there’s something in the back of your mind saying, ‘Yeah, it’s your fault.’ But me—while I love to get a job, I don’t go home crying, because I can go home and write.”

McLarty and his wife loved to fish together. When he learned to meditate as a remedy for his insomnia, he chose to imagine casting his line, again and again. “It’s my fly-fishing meditation,” he says, “though I cast much better in my head than in life.” When McLarty’s second TV pilot, The Lucie Arnaz Show, was picked up for a series in 1985, he celebrated by buying a first-class ticket and going fly-fishing in Colorado. In the middle of the trip, he got a message on his service: “Please call Mr. So-and-so regarding your replacement.” Although McLarty’s performance had helped sell the show, CBS wanted Tony Roberts instead.

One of McLarty’s favorite acting jobs was playing a singing criminologist on Stephen Bochco’s 1990 musical series Cop Rock. Critics panned the show, which would be canceled after II episodes. Early in the shooting schedule, when McLarty approached Bochco on the set to thank him for the opportunity he says the show’s creator replied, “You know, when we saw your audition on the tape, I turned to my partner and I said, “There can’t be but 10,000 or 15,000 people who can do it exactly the same way,’” McLarty shuddered. “He said it very nicely,” he says now, “but I think the point was to be thankful.”

A few months later, when the show’s last episode wrapped, the cast and crew gathered on the 20th Century Fox lot for cocktails. “We were in this little hacienda, and we’re toasting with champagne, and I’m looking out the window, when suddenly my little van from New Jersey floats by pulled by a tow truck,” McLarty recalls, laughing. “I look at one of the secretaries and say, ‘That’s my car!’ And she says, ‘Yeah, after your show is canceled you’ve got like an hour to get off the lot.’”

In August 2000, Recorded Books released The Memory of Running. Just as Howard had predicted, publications that track audio publishing wrote stories noting the breakthrough. The novel got terrific reviews. The Philadelphia Inquirer called Smithy Ide “one of the sweetest, most endearing losers in literature” and urged “people who get a thrill out of discovering a little-known gem” to call Recorded Books and buy a copy The reviewer even listed the toll-free phone number.

The audio book sold pretty well, particularly to public libraries. One librarian in Middleburg, Virginia, loved the novel so much she got her book club to “read” it—a time-consuming endeavor, considering members had to share a single 12-CD set. One of her fellow club members was a literary agent at the Washington, D.C., firm Graybill & English. Jeff Kleinman was so engrossed in the book that he told his wife he had to skip dinner, opting instead to lie on the couch and cry.

“The voice of Smithy was so original and fresh because Ron’s inner ear is so honed,” Kleinman says, explaining what moved him to contact McLarty. “I wrote him basically a fan letter.” McLarty wrote back, thanking Kleinman but declining his offer to try to sell The Memory of Running. He’d already sent the manuscript out, after all, and gotten no response. The book had had its moment, he said. He wanted to move on.

The McLarty household was shrinking as the sons left home. Zachary was doing voiceovers, Luke was fighting fires in New Mexico, and Matt was studying jazz in Boston. Their parents decided to move to Los Angeles. While McLarty had worked in L.A. on various TV projects, he had never lived here. It was time, he thought, to be an actor in L.A. Then in January 2002, before they could carry out their plan, McLarty’s wife of 32 years was diagnosed with lung cancer. For the next seven months he put his acting career on hold. “That was something I could do. It was something I had to do,” he says. But he didn’t stop writing. After reading a biography of Samuel Johnson, he set out to write a comedy about the eighteenth-century English author’s life. As sadness filled the house, McLarty’s pit of despair became his salvation.

“The two things you need to be happy are love and work,” says Maloney, the McLartys’ longtime friend. “When the work is not going well, you hope you have someone to turn to. And the other way round: When you are suffering psychically through the loss of someone you love, if you have meaningful work, then you’re a lucky person.”

Diane McLarty died in July 2002. “I was with her,” McLarty says. “It was, I guess, as natural as possible.” Not long after, he and his three sons traveled to a trout stream in Colorado to spread her ashes. Back in New Jersey, McLarty on a favorite Hawaiian shirt, slung his fishing creel over his shoulder, and hosted a memorial friends and relatives.

Last spring, McLarty sent Kleinman a letter saying he’d finished a new novel. The agent was thrilled: “I said, ‘Send me everything. All the novels.’” But The Memory of Running had stuck with him, popping into his head at the oddest times, like whenever he saw a banana (Smithy’s favorite cross-country meal). He persuaded McLarty to let him send it to publishers one more time in the fall. McLarty went to work fine-tuning the manuscript. Then, in June, he went to ABC’s Manhattan studios to audition for a miniseries based on a Stephen King novel. King, who had come down from Maine, walked over to McLarty and extended his hand. “You’re not Ron McLarty the novelist, are you?” he asked. McLarty was floored. “Well, I think so,” he told King. “Now there’s two of us that think so.”

The minute McLarty walked out of the audition, he called Howard and told her how King had greeted him. Howard knew King slightly; having directed him when he narrated one of his own books, Desperation. Howard sent the audio book of The Memory of Running to King with a note. “Maybe the next time you’re looking around for something to listen to,” Howard wrote, “you might pick this up, because it’s wonderful.” If King liked it and would write a short blurb to send out with McLarty’s manuscript, she added, it would go a long way toward getting it noticed.

After so much time off, money was tight: McLarty put his youngest son’s final year of college—$30,000—on his MasterCard. About a month after meeting King, he got in his car and headed for Los Angeles, as he and his wife had planned to do. He was in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, when he got a call from Howard. “Pull over,” she said. “I’ve got something important to read you.”

King, it turned out, had liked McLarty’s book very much. Instead of a blurb, he’d written an 866-word column that would soon appear in Entertainment Weekly. A copy had just arrived on Howard’s fax machine. King wanted her to make sure he’d gotten his facts straight. “My mouth just dropped open wider and wider and wider when I read it,” Howard says. Now, as she read it to McLarty couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “It’s a good thing she told me to pull over,” he says, “or I’d still be in New Mexico, having crashed my car into a tree.”

The title of King’s column was “The Best Book You Can’t Read.” It described McLarty’s protagonist as a “smokes-too-much, drinks-too-much, eats-too-much heart attack waiting to happen. I mean, this guy is a mess—a lovely, addled mess.”

“Smithy is an American original,” King continued, “worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, and your Yossarians.” So why can’t you read his story? he asked. “Because—so far, at least—no publisher will touch it with a 10-foot pole.”

King went on to excoriate publishing houses for favoring “dopey best-sellers” and “dull ‘serious fiction.’” He lamented that many worthy novels—the first Harry Potter book, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces—were released “only by the skin of their teeth” (with the latter only being published after Toole had killed himself). “The moral? It’s a jungle out there, baby and in a world where the corporate bottom line is god (or maybe the word I’m searching for is mammon), the strong survive but the worthy often do not.” King then challenged readers to make history by stampeding Recorded Books with orders. “If that happens, the book probably will be published—remember the corporate motto of the ’90s and double zeros: Money talks, bulls—walks. This is a book that can do more than walk; it has a chance to be a breakout best-seller. No it’s not literature (please remember I said that), but it’s bighearted and as satisfying as one of your mom’s home-cooked Sunday dinners.”

Kleinman sent McLarty’s manuscript out the week before King’s column appeared. Within two days he had his first call from an editor. “She’d been up all night reading,” he recalls. “She was crying. She said, ‘Thank you for the best reading experience I’ve had in as long as I can remember.’” Two days after that, a publishing house made a preemptive six-figure offer. Kleinman declined it. King’s column was coming, and he wasn’t committing to anything until it came.

When Entertainment Weekly hit newsstands on September 12, the frenzy began. McLarty had told Kleinman he wanted a writing career more than a huge payday. “He said his bottom line was he needed a $7,500 advance to cover his postage and copying costs,” the agent says. But by the end of a weeklong auction, with seven publishers bidding and counterbidding, McLarty would see his advance grow to nearly 300 times that.

“My agent called and said, ‘Well, so-and-so has offered $300,000.’ I said, ‘Take it.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t because somebody else offered $400,000. Then it was almost $700,000. Now it’s at $1.1 million.’” McLarty says the experience was both lovely and surreal. “I’d written books, screenplays, and plays, and getting them read had been next to impossible,” he says. “The novels, I stopped even sending them out. And then, suddenly, I’m on the phone with editors and publishers telling me what they can do for me. The folks at Simon & Schuster said, ‘We loved this book, Ron. And this is the third of eight?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘Why haven’t we seen them?’ I said, ‘You have. Why haven’t I gotten them back?’”

The Memory of Running has become the fastest-selling title in Recorded Books history. Advance sales of the book to international publishers have been brisk, so even before a single copy has been sold in the United States, Viking will have just about earned back its advance. Lately, McLarty has been meeting with those who’ve shown interest in making The Memory of Running into a film—among them producers John Wells, Paula Weinstein, and Wendy Finerman, and director Vadim Perelman, who made last year’s House of Sand and Fog. But until recently, when he took a hiatus to focus on the script, he hadn’t stopped acting, doing a guest spot on Judging Amy and narrating his first Stephen King audio book: an unabridged anniversary version of Salem’s Lot.

“I’m an actor. How do you stop what you do?” he asks, noting that since he used to write and act and raise kids, juggling two jobs now feels easy. He’s proud to report that Zachary, his actor son, has begun writing as well—just to keep himself grounded. McLarty, too, is writing every day; “but I’ll always act. I find it comfortable.”

Last November, at King’s request, McLarty attended the National Book Awards, where King was receiving a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. McLarty was thrilled to meet some of the writers whose works he’s read aloud: Ed McBain, Peter Straub. Then, on New Year’s Day; McLarty married a fellow actor, Kate Skinner, in a small ceremony held in Maine. They’d bumped into each other exactly a year earlier, when she recognized him from an episode of Law & Order they’d both been on in 1997. She didn’t look familiar, he says, “but we went out for coffee and fell in love.”

Today, he’s readying his New Jersey house for sale, pit and all. For a few months, as he pores over the galleys of his book, he and Skinner will live in Manhattan. After that, while he’s finishing the screenplay; they may rent a house in the Hollywood Hills. “You know, I could get a house up there for a while with a pool,” he says, his gentle face twitching as the word pool comes out of his mouth. “It’s hard to get used to saying that. I still think like that poor old slob of an actor who puts his kid’s last year of college on a credit card.”

“You always think you can orchestrate things. You can’t,” he says. Not gaining recognition earlier was difficult, but it also gave him a creative freedom. “As I had no success, I didn’t have to worry about repeating it,” he says. “You don’t know how much of a pat on the back a person needs. You need something, but on the other hand, if I had published earlier, I never would have found a voice.”