Michael Blake Dances (with Wolves) into the Spotlight
In 1986 Michael Blake hit a bottom that was about as low as a struggling novelist and screenwriter can go. He had no publisher, no agent and no prospects. After years of supporting himself with odd jobs and occasionally sleeping on friends’ couches, he was using his battered 1970 Chrysler as both home and office. Penniless and discouraged, he fled Los Angeles and came to roost in Bisbee, Ariz., where he worked as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. “There wasn’t anything romantic about it,” Blake says. “I was an angry young man for a lot of years. I felt like everybody was having a party and I didn’t get invited.”
Luckily for Blake, the invitation was, almost literally, in the mail. In May 1987 he got a phone call from Kevin Costner, an old friend from the days when Costner, too, was an unknown in Hollywood. The actor was excited about a manuscript for a novel that Blake had left with him. Costner wanted to direct and star in a movie version of the novel and asked Blake to return to L.A. to write the screenplay. The forlorn manuscript eventually became the book—and the movie—Dances with Wolves.
Today, in the wake of the film’s huge success, the novel has enjoyed a 14-week ride on the paperback best-seller list. For his screenplay, Blake has won a Golden Globe award and is a front-runner for an Oscar next week. “Unbelievable,” says Blake, 45. “You dream about everything, like being king of the world, but nothing can prepare you for the reality.”
Blake had plenty of time to dream as he toiled through the late ’70s, turning out one unproduced screenplay after another. In 1981 the horizon brightened when director Jim Wilson, a friend from film school at Berkeley, asked him to write a script for a gambling-adventure film, Stacy’s Knights. At an open casting call, Blake met Costner, who won the film’s leading role, and the two became fast friends. “It was the first thing I’d had produced and the first real movie Kevin was in,” says Blake. “We really thought we had it made.”
They were half right: Costner soon shot to stardom in Silverado, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. But Blake, as he puts it, continued to “labor under the blanket of failure.”
The idea for Wolves came to him in 1986, when he read a historical account of a Civil War wagoner who discovered an abandoned frontier fort. Blake had grown up in Southern California, the oldest of four sons of a telephone company executive and a housewife, and was fascinated by horses and Indian lore. The passion rekindled as he pondered the soldier’s adventures and thought, “Well, what if…?”
“It was the clearest idea for a movie,” says Costner of the resulting novel. “I felt the language was really important. And I felt it was important that Michael’s voice was heard in the screenplay.” Not that Costner and Blake always saw eye to eye during the next 2½ years and six drafts of the script. “It was hard,” says Costner, “but you have to be honest with yourself when something’s not working.” All was well, however, by the time shooting began in South Dakota in July 1989. Blake and his then girlfriend, Jocelyn Heaney, a 23-year-old writer, went along and hosted spaghetti feeds for the cast and crew on Sunday afternoons.
After the film wrapped, Blake, feeling optimistic about the world and his future, returned to L.A.—and received another sharp rabbit punch from fate. Last April he awoke one morning and noticed, he says, “a buzzing in my arm like I’d hit my funny bone.” X-rays showed a baseball-size tumor lodged in his chest; the diagnosis was Hodgkin’s disease. After surgery and four months of intensive radiation, he is now in remission. “Life has always been precious.” says Blake, “but now I try to get as much out of every day as I possibly can. Every morning the sun comes up, I feel good about that.”
Bluntly reminded of life’s uncertainty, Blake has become more passionate than ever about the causes that matter to him, particularly environmental issues and animal rights. “We can’t continue to have a destructive attitude toward nature,” he says. “The choice is simple: Do we want to live in the world as the Creator made it, or as we have made it?”
Financially sound thanks to Dances’ success, Blake now lives, with two dogs, two horses and a cat, in a rustic Topanga Canyon retreat. (He and Heaney parted ways in February.) He occasionally gets together with friends in small clubs and coffee shops to read works in progress. He’s currently working on a screenplay for Universal about the slaughter of wild mustangs in Nevada and plans to donate profits from the newly issued hardcover version of Dances to the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation. “Michael has a very generous outlook on life,” says Costner. “He’s always known what he’s wanted to do with success—and that’s to share it.”