Well, you MIGHT know him — he wrote a book called Miami Blues that was made into a tight little hardboiled comedy in 1990 with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Ward, and a 32-year-old Alec Baldwin. But you probably don’t.
But you should. Here’s a great intro from over at CrimeReads, which includes this spectacular sequence:
Although he was writing fiction, Willeford believed in doing his homework to make the story believable. He spent two years learning everything he could about the sport of cockfighting before he wrote his 1962 novel Cockfighter. Hard-boiled fiction is known for its terse heroes, but the hero of Cockfighter, Frank Mansfield, tops them all. He vows not to speak to anyone until he wins the big championship.
Cockfighter was going to be Willeford’s big breakthrough novel. But shortly after it was published, his publisher died and the publishing house went bankrupt. As a result, most of the print run, more than 20,000 copies, never reached bookstores.
Later, in 1974, Roger Corman produced a movie version directed by Monte Hellman and starring a masterful Warren Oates as Mansfield and Harry Dean Stanton as his nemesis. Willeford wrote the screenplay and had a cameo as a ring official. Corman said that it was his only film that lost money, despite the movie’s legendary tagline: “He came to town with his cock in his hand, and what he did with it was illegal in 49 states.”
Anyway, there’s a new Willeford film coming — or, rather, it’s out, but in these COVID days lots of small films are getting lost. It’s called The Burnt Orange Heresy, based on his 1971 novel of the same name, and it premiered at last fall’s Venice Film Festival. Per the linked story, “A Variety review calls it ‘a marble-cool art-fraud thriller.'” Bonus: if you enjoyed the BBC/Netflix adaptation of Dracula earlier this year, you’ll be pleased to find that Claes Bang appears here in a leading role.