Petty Revenge: Warren Beatty and Dick Tracy

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In 2009 and again in 2023, Warren Beatty shows up on TV in the middle of the night on an obscure interview-style show. He’s dressed as his 1990 Dick Tracy character and the appearances are just BIZARRE. That’s because they have one sole purpose: to keep the Dick Tracy rights in Beatty’s name. In this episode, we talk about the Dick Tracy movie and this crazy ploy to keep the rights out of pure spite. Then we chat with Comedian Glen Tickle! 

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This week’s episode is a story about petty revenge. I love petty revenge stories. In fact, I recently told one on my TikTok and it got picked up by a bunch of people who added their own stories and it was put into a bunch of compilations. It’s something I did a few years ago. You may have heard me tell this story.

When I was in college at Ohio State, I used to make the drive to Ohio University a lot. It’s about 90 miles away from Columbus, so a lot of the time, I would go and find somewhere to spend the night. Well my friend and I went down there once and found a place to crash, but in the morning, found that my car had been towed. It cost me $70 to get the car plus I had to bum a ride way outside of town to go get it. Well something like 20 years later, that same tow truck company hired me for a magic show for their Christmas Party. I took the gig, and I tacked on an extra $70 to the fee. That’s the kinda petty revenge we’re talking about here.

I found some other good stories online that people sent in to talk about their petty revenge. This one was from a user named Miss Melon Pan – mmm melon pan – Nick and I talked about that on last week’s show I think! Anyway, she says, “My husband plays games on his phone instead of helping around the house and with his kids. This is after YEARS of me asking nicely/begging. We now use a router that I bought. I throttled the speed for his phone only.” That’s a good one. Here’s another marital one from Nina Carlson: “When I first got married, my husband would leave his boxers on the bathroom floor EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. After asking, begging, and threatening violence to get him to put his boxers in the laundry basket, I just got sick of it and started wrapping his dirty drawers around his pillow every time he left them on the floor. I haven’t seen boxers on the floor for 19 years now.” Here’s a great one from Tmonious1030: “In Atlantic City, we were woken at 4 a.m. by a next door neighbor — a loud and belligerent bachelorette party. Despite calling down twice and going over there to ask them to keep it down (they ignored the knock and giggled shushing each other), we figured we were up so might as well head home. We left behind a 7:30 a.m. alarm set up on maximum volume.” That one is devilish. As someone who stays in a lot of hotels, that’s about the worst. 

Well in my opinion, Warren Beatty has all of these people beat. And it all has to do with his portrayal of Dick Tracy. 

Dick Tracy was a comic strip character created by Chester Gould first published in 1931. The character was loosely based on Federal Agent, Elliot Ness, and would follow his exploits taking out a whole host of bad guys. The comic strip evolved into comic books and even a radio show that started running 1935. There were eventually a few Dick Tracy films – one in 1945, then 1946 and 47. Several television series and TV cartoons followed. But to people these days, the most notable depiction of Dick Tracy was in the feature film starring Warren Beatty 33 years ago.

Dick Tracy, directed by, produced and starring Warren Beatty opened on June 14th of 1990 and did $162.7 million in the box office. The ninth highest grossing film of the year. It was produced with a budget of $46 million and was notable for its elaborate makeup and cartoon-like colors and costumes with facial prosthetics. Not to mention an amazing star-studded cast including Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Dick Van Dyke and a whole bunch of other household names. Danny Elfman did the soundtrack and it was released by Disney, Silver Screen Partners and Touchstone Pictures. Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars, saying “Dick Tracy is one of the most original and visionary fantasies I’ve seen on a screen.” Most of the reception was good, but the Washington Post panned the film. Their critic, Desson Thompson said “Dick Tracy is Hollywood’s annual celebration of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood,” and said Beatty was too old for the part of Tracy at the age of 52. The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, tied with Black Panther for the most nominations for a comic book movie.

Warren Beatty was pretty notable in Hollywood for being a quadruple threat: actor, writer, producer & director. He did that on Heaven Can Wait in 1978 and Reds in 1981. He won dozens of awards for his work. According to IMDB, he’s been nominated 15 times by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and 8 films he has produced have earned 53 Academy nominations. Not only that – you know the Carly Simon song, “You’re so vain?” Yeah. It’s about Warren Beatty. He made a ton of money with his 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde which cost $2.5 million to make and netted Beatty himself something like $28 million because he negotiated that he would get 40% of the box office. 

The idea of Warren Beatty taking on Dick Tracy was an idea that came from one of his friends. At first he was reluctant, but then loved the idea. Here’s Beatty explaining why the Dick Tracy comic was so different.

So much fun, in fact, that after the release and success of the film, he wanted to do it again. Beatty hoped that Dick Tracy would become a franchise for him, like Indiana Jones was for Harrison Ford. He envisioned a whole slew of Dick Tracy follow up movies. Now Beatty himself owned the rights to the Dick Tracy character for television and film, but Disney said no. They had no interest in continuing the Dick Tracy franchise with Beatty.

And that’s the origin story for one of the weirdest petty revenge stories in Hollywood.

Warren Beatty had purchased the Television and Film rights to the Dick Tracy character in 1985 from Tribune Media Services. Well after the Dick Tracy film in 1990, Beatty had plans for a sequel, wanting the thing to turn into a franchise of films. But nobody wanted to work with him on it. Disney, who had optioned the original film, said no.

Years went by without another Dick Tracy project. Until 2002, when Tribune Media Services tried to regain the rights to the character and take it to Disney without Warren Beatty. The whole thing got turned into a messy legal battle which “clouded the title” and ownership of the rights and according to Beatty, made it impossible to make any sort of Dick Tracy project in the future. He tried to settle with Tribune in 2004, but they wouldn’t agree. In 2005, Disney, gave most of the rights back to Beatty, because they didn’t think Tribune’s claim held up. Meanwhile, Tribune was moving forward on a live-action television series with the character. Beatty sued Tribune Media for $30 million dollars and an official declaration over the rights. What happened then was a few years of incredibly complicated legal battles back and forth and I won’t get into all that here, because what I’m interested in is the result. First of all, after 4 years of court cases, Tribune Media went bankrupt, but in the final ruling by a judge, Beatty could retain the TV and Film rights to Dick Tracy as long as he produced some sort of film or television project every so often using the character. In other words, he couldn’t just squat on it and do nothing with the rights. 

And that’s how we got to where we are now. Warren Beatty is now 86 years old and still appearing as Dick Tracy. But most people have never seen it. That’s because every 14 years or so, Beatty puts on the iconic pastel yellow trench coat and hat to do a bizarre appearance as Dick Tracy. It’s usually aired late at night on TV in an interview format and it’s purely done so Beatty can keep legal rights to the character. He’s 86. He’s not going to make another Dick Tracy movie. He’s always teased the idea of doing so. But what he’s really doing is his damndest to ensure no one else will ever make a Dick Tracy film. So he’s essentially hoarding the character for himself in a decades-long trolling job.

In 2009, Turner Classic Movies aired the Dick Tracy Special. They showed the 1990 film and had Film Critic, Leonard Maltin talk with Beatty who was in character as Dick Tracy. I watched it and its…really strange. Keep in mind, this is Leonard Maltin interviewing Dick Tracy, being played by Warren Beatty. Beatty’s in character here as Tracy- talking about…Warren Beatty. The whole thing is just super bizarre and low budget.

Then, 14 years later in 2023, we get another obscure appearance. At the age of 86, Beatty appeared in Dick Tracy Zooms In, which was another thing similar to the Dick Tracy special. This was a half-hour television program aired in the middle of the night. It featured interviews with both Warren Beatty and Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy talking with Ben Mankiewicz and Leonard Maltin. He looks old. He looks tired. And the whole thing with Dick Tracy happens over zoom, while the interview segments with Beatty as himself are filmed in-studio. At one point, they’ve got Dick Tracy as a picture in picture doing commentary on the 1990 film and he’s just saying stuff like “no, no, no, no that’s not good.” There are jump cuts in the Dick Tracy portions showing that it took some editing work to make it happen, and even then it comes off as just bizarre. It’s worth googling “Dick Tracy Zooms In.” It’s pretty bad. But it’s not meant to be good.

And that’s why this is so brilliant. One Twitter user called it an “Andy Kauffman-level trolling job.” He’s not doing these TV appearances to make a good product. He’s only doing it to say F-you to anyone like Tribune who wants the rights to the character. He’s also keeping it from being public domain. It’s sort of revenge. What’s he’s doing is essentially squatting on the intellectual property. And whether or not you agree with what he’s doing, it’s pretty crazy to see this octogenarian on TV reliving a 1930s character he played in a film over 30 years ago. It’s a crazy story of petty revenge and The Internet Says it’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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