He'll always have Cleveland
He was born July 18, 1937 in Chicago. His mother was U.S. born and his father was born in England. "In fact he had a cockney accent and I didn't realize it until I was about 20."
He is Les Roberts, renowned author of, among other things, the Milan Jacovich mystery series. If that, somehow, is not enough, there is a lot more to Les and we are about to explore those other avenues.
From the age of 6 Les knew he wanted to write. He would go to the movies with his parents and loved the make-believe world the big screen opened up for him. His parents read stories to him and he made up his own stories.
He learned to type quite well on his old Smith Corona. "The stories were pretty much the same. A boy. His dog. A walk in the woods. Monsters. I'm still writing the same story, just a little more sophisticated."
When he was about 19 he left for New York to try his hand at acting. "I had a very good family life and loved my family. It's not like I hated my home. It was wonderful." But he wanted independence and wanted to see what the world held in store for him.
He also knew he somehow wanted to make an impact in the arts and New York was the place to make that happen. He performed in numerous plays and Summer Stock. It was also in New York that he started writing professionally.
At the age of 29 he knew his next adventure would be television and film, and for that he needed to be in Hollywood. So he was off to California and would spend the next 24 years there.
"Life was easier back then". He was working for Peter Quigley Productions as a writer for a game show called The Big Showdown. It was only on the air for 15 weeks and was to be replaced by a brand new show, Hollywood Squares.
He remembers exactly the way he was asked about this new show "Do you wanna hang around on a new show and be a producer, kid?" He wasn't sure at the time what the producer did, but he knew he wanted to do it and became the very first producer of Hollywood Squares.
As a comedy writer, which is what he was at the time, he wrote jokes for the players. Those same jokes that are still circulating the internet and get sent every couple months in an email were written by Les. Paul Lynde, Charlie Weaver, Wally Cox, Vincent Price and others got their Hollywood Squares comedy lines from him.
He also became good friends with people like Paul Lynde and Charlie Weaver. It never bothered Les that other people were getting laughs on his lines, that's what he signed on for as a comedy writer. "I would listen to Paul Lynde or one of the others deliver the line and it was so much funnier when they said it then when I wrote it."
He also wrote many of the scripts for The Lucy Show, Andy Griffith and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In addition he wrote a number of movies including Foxbat (1977) which he wrote while he was in Hong Kong.
"I never considered this serious writing though, because it was all just for cash. Someone would say here's $20,000 write something. And I would."
Les Roberts with daughter Valerie Thompson
But then things began to change. He was asked to write about 8 pages for Private Eye Magazine - which he did. Private Eye liked it and asked him to turn it into a movie and be in the movie, but at no additional fee. He decided instead to write it and take it to Universal himself.
"About twenty pages into it a voice inside my head kept saying "Do a Book!". He listened to the voice in his head and wrote his first mystery story for a would-be Hollywood movie producer. It became "An Infinite Number of Monkeys" which won the "best First Private Eye Novel Contest." In the book his hero is Los Angeles Actor-turned Detective, Saxon. He proceeded to write five more books based on Saxon.
Also while in Los Angeles Les began to play piano and sing professionally. He did this quite successfully for about 10 years and played "every sleazy joint in Los Angeles when I first started." He loved the Cole Porter/Gershwin type music. He did not and does not like rock and roll. So the places he played were geared toward an older group of people with an ambiance that fit his music.
In 1987 Les came to Cleveland for what was supposed to be 3 months. The Ohio Lottery wanted a new show, Cash Explosion, and they contacted Les to get the show on its feet.
"I absolutely fell in love with the city!"
He went back to Los Angeles and told his publisher that he wanted to do a series set in Cleveland. He knew to get the real feel of a Cleveland based story he would need to live here. He also knew he wanted his character to be Eastern European and after much research in the city decided Slovenian was the perfect touch.
Les Roberts with daughter Valerie Thompson and granddaughter Shea Thompson
Les did a tremendous amount of research and found certain "truisms" about the Slovenian people. "For example if a Slovenian man takes a woman to dinner, she is welcome to have whatever she wants. He will have the $7.95 special. I also learned that Slovenian men loose their hair faster than Serbs." He also found Slovenians to be people of honor and character and rich in tradition.
"I had been working for the lottery so I built the first novel (Pepper Pike) around the lottery." Almost everyone in his books is someone he knows, or has met or has seen. "We may have never spoken, but something will stand out and I will include it in a book. It may be an interesting face and then someday it will show up in a book."
His main character is "Milan Jacovich". If the novels ever became a television series he pictures someone like Michael Madsen (Sin City) playing the lead role. He now has 13 books in the Milan Jacovich series and has no plans on retiring the detective. "I have so many books inside me, clawing to come out. When I have finished those I will most likely bring Milan back."
He draws on Cleveland experiences and places and refers to them throughout his books. He talks about the landmarks, like The Flats, Cedar Hill, Murray Hill or the West Side Market and the more obscure local hangouts like Skinny's or Danny's and our sports teams including the Cavs, the Indians and the Browns.
Milan's favorite hangout in the books is a place called Vuk's, which is not a genuine Cleveland spot but "There's a place on 38th and St. Clair that inspired him." "Some of the people or places are compilations rather than specifics."
Milan Jacovich, er, Les Roberts
at a Cleveland Heights coffee shop
Everyone wants to have their name or establishment listed in his books and he has graciously made this available to charities for auction. "I make it very clear to them that most of my characters are corrupt in one way or another so they may not like the character named after them. The only other rule is that I won't name a character after someone in the same profession.
So if a lawyer wins the auction bid, the character in the book will not be a lawyer. Even though the character will probably be corrupt, people still want to see their name in the book and still bid on it. So I am happy to oblige and help the charity."
There is a lot of Les in the character of Milan "but there is a lot of me in the murderers and the mob guys and the cops and the women too. A good writer cuts off little pieces of himself and includes it in his characters." He says Saxon was very much like him when he started. "I chased beautiful women, drank single malt Scotch and played the piano."
Les finds Cleveland to be very different on every level. "Cleveland has done its thing on me and I am now more Milan than Saxon".
Les Roberts with son Darren Roberts
Les was married and had two children. His son Darren lives in Los Angeles. His daughter, Valerie lives in Aspen with his only grandchild "The absolutely exquisite Shea."
Les Robert's granddaughter Shea Thompson
He was divorced in 1978 and has "a simply magical lady now, Holly. I have been with her for seven years and it will go on forever. She has gotten better every day. I don't know why she hangs out with me but she loves me and I love her and we will always be together."
Holly and Les will be doing a play together in February at Greater Unity in Shaker Heights. The play "Love Letters" is one they did together 2 years ago in the same venue and will do anywhere they are asked. Neither one is currently an actor; in fact this was Holly's very first role. "They asked me to do the play and I could think of no one better to do it with. She was terrific."
Les Roberts and Holly Albin
It is interesting to note that Milan has not and will not meet Holly in one of the books. "He would just screw it up. A private eye can't be married or committed to a relationship. Shall I have him call home before going into a dangerous situation to explain that he will be a little late? Plus the three women he has been involved with in various books all bored me. If they were really in my life I'd be bored and have to get rid of them. Since it was Milan's life I was able to write them out."
Gray Publishing put out the first 9 of the Milan series in paperback just last year. Next month they will complete the set. Also next month Les' first non-fiction book will come out. It is his own story, "We'll Always Have Cleveland".
"We'll always have Cleveland" book cover
It came about because the publisher asked him to write a Cleveland book from Milan's point of view. Since Milan is "nowhere near as social" as Les he decided he'd rather write it about his time in Cleveland; how Cleveland has affected him and how he has affected Cleveland.
"I'm afraid it's not nearly as personal as people are expecting, nor will it ever be. A lot of things I do, be they good bad or indifferent, are personal and will remain so."
In some ways Les Roberts has become the background character to Milan Jacovich and that does not bother him in the least. He recognizes that there is a cult following in addition to his main stream readers and that's just fine with him. What does concern him a little is that not everyone is able to make the distinction between the two.
"I remember being on the John Lanigan Show and the next day a woman called me asking me to help find her son. She couldn't understand that I was not a detective and Milan was not real."
He has no desire to try his hand at being a private detective either. "I once thought briefly about trying to tail someone. Then I thought if I got caught there could be terrible repercussions. If it was a woman, I could be accused of stalking. If it was a man - well that's another story. Plus the idea of just watching someone else lead their life does not interest me in the least."
Last year Les started a radio show on WHK with Ann Elder, a native Clevelander who spent many years in Hollywood as an actress (appearing on Laugh-In and other shows). The show, called Greenlight Reviews offers in depth movie reviews and can now be heard via podcast.
Les Roberts with radio partner Ann Elder
Although Les enjoys going to a movie (his favorite is Usual Suspects) he can usually figure out the plot in the very beginning. "That's what I do for a living. I should be able to figure it out."
Les just finished another book "Black Op", a suspense novel situated in ten different cities from Cleveland to Iraq. "I still don't use any real names but some of my own political feelings may have snuck into this one."
Les knows when it is time for a book to end. "I love to write and keep writing, but there comes a time when you must write THE END. Stephen King is simply a wonderful writer, but he needs to be edited. When I see a book as large as some of his I just don't bother to get involved."
Les Roberts grandson and Browns fan Parker Roberts born 10/1/08 in Los Angeles to Darren and Anne Roberts
He is a mild man who loves to laugh and be around the people he loves. "The good friends I have, my lover and my children - I would kill to protect. I say this as a person who has not hit someone in anger since I was 11 years old."
Holly Albin, son Darren Roberts,
Les Roberts and Darren's wife Anne
Les Roberts created a man that everyone in Cleveland knows. We have all met Milan at one time or another in our lives. His books have made such an impact on the city that former Mayor Jane Campbell made June 17th Milan Jacovich Day.
His books are special, not just because of the Cleveland references but because of the story line and character development he has mastered. Les Roberts himself is very special as well. He has adopted our city and we are proud to have him.
Photo of Les Roberts by Jonathan Wayne
courtesy of Gray & Company
He is distinguished-looking in the silver hair he has donned since he was 25 and his trademark leather jacket. He speaks of Milan as a friend and Cleveland as his home.
So many go to Los Angeles to find themselves or see what the world has to offer. Les Roberts did that before coming to Cleveland. He has done it all and seen it all and has remained true to himself and his family and friends.
We're glad that Cleveland has him now.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
Update: besides the addition of grandson Parker Roberts on 10/1/08, Les has released another in the Milan Jacovich series, King of the Holly Hop
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