Clive Cussler: “If It Ain’t Fun, It Ain’t Worth Doing”

Clive Cussler: “If It Ain’t Fun, It Ain’t Worth Doing”

By Di Freeze

“Dirk Pitt enjoyed working with his hands on things mechanical, especially on the old classic automobiles in his collection in Washington. Adventure was his narcotic. He was in paradise when flying antique aircraft or diving on historic shipwrecks.”

Excerpted from “Sahara”

Clive Cussler poses with his 1957 Lincoln Premiere convertible and rare 1930 Cord L-29 town car at Denver’s Lakeside Amusement Park.

Clive Cussler poses with his 1957 Lincoln Premiere convertible and rare 1930 Cord L-29 town car at Denver’s Lakeside Amusement Park.

The mere mention of bestselling author Clive Cussler, “the grand master of adventure,” and Dirk Pitt, his famous protagonist, prompts a list of similarities, especially since both collect classic automobiles and love looking for shipwrecks. The fact that the author, who has always considered himself an “entertainer” more than a writer, has endowed Pitt with his passions has undoubtedly fueled Cussler’s popularity.

“I try very hard to make my books fun and different by introducing the elements of old cars, shipwrecks and, yes, even an old derelict like me,” said Cussler, whose fans have looked forward to his “Hitchcock-like walk-ons over the years.

As far as other similarities, they both quit smoking years ago, and when Cussler went from drinking Cutty Sark scotch to Bombay Gin, Pitt did too. They also both developed a taste for Don Julio anejo tequila at about the same time.

But there is one big difference between Cussler and Pitt. Pitt, a major in the Air Force, is a pilot; although Cussler also served in the Air Force, he isn’t a pilot.

Since he isn’t, it’s intriguing that his character lives in an aircraft hangar in Washington, D.C., at Washington International Airport. No hangar would be complete without aircraft, and Pitt has two: a Ford Trimotor “Tin Goose” and a Messerschmitt 262 “Swallow” jet fighter.

Since he’s not a pilot, it’s not surprising that Cussler doesn’t own any planes himself, but he actually did try to buy an old Trimotor once.

“The elderly fellow who owned the aircraft wanted $2 million dollars for it, and I barely had enough to buy the landing wheels,” he reflected.

Pitt’s hangar houses his transportation collection, including a Pullman Railroad car and nearly 50 cars. Cussler, who splits his time between Colorado and Arizona, houses a vast collection of automobiles in Colorado. But don’t go looking for them at your local airport.

“Mine are stored in a warehouse near Denver,” he said.

The beginning

Clive Cussler was born in Aurora, Ill., on July 15, 1931, but spent his early childhood growing up across the upper Midwest in Minneapolis, Minn.; Terre Haute, Ind.; and Louisville, Ky. As he was about to start kindergarten, his family moved back to Minneapolis.

When Clive almost died from a severe case of pneumonia, his father decided to accept a position in Los Angeles in the winter of 1937. They settled in Alhambra, Calif. where they remained for the next 23 years.

After a year at Pasadena City College, during the summer of 1950, Cussler and an old school friend took off in a 1939 Ford convertible and toured the country. They were so caught up in their adventure that they paid little attention to the news. When they returned, they were shocked to discover that all their friends had enlisted in the military, due to the Korean conflict.

The two rushed to sign up for flight training, in the Air Force or Navy, but discovered that flight schools had a nine-month backlog, due to the many college students that had enlisted that summer. Although they wouldn’t be flying, they did sign up with the Air Force.

Cussler completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Already a “car nut,” he requested the motor pool, but the job classification sergeant assigned him to aircraft maintenance instead.

Cussler said the Air Force had the irrational notion that because he loved rebuilding old automobiles, he’d “simply adore” maintaining C-97 Boeing Stratocruisers. But that wasn’t the case.

“I guess I worked on them for almost two years and then they needed some flight engineers,” Cussler said. “I already knew how to run up engines and the whole bit, so then it was just a short course on actually flying over long distances.”

Cussler made a number of trips to Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco.

“We would carry critical (medical) supplies over,” he said. “Then we’d fly the wounded back to the West Coast.”

After graduating from mechanic school, Cussler’s first duty assignment was Hickham Field, Hawaii. Although he had already learned to love the sea in California, he said that hours spent skin diving off the island of Oahu with friends “enhanced it.”

He also continued to work on cars. He bought old ones, fixed them up and sold them to the troops arriving for service in the islands, as a supplement to the $130 a month he made as a buck sergeant.

At one point, he and two other friends decided to learn to fly and bought an aircraft.

“It was a little, light plane called a Luscombe,” Cussler said. “We repaired it and then we hired an instructor. It was a lot cheaper that way.”

But Cussler’s desire to learn to fly was quickly extinguished.

“I had about three hour’s solo time,” he said. “One day, I was just practicing a little bit. Then the engine quit. I managed to dead-stick, because it was a very easy plane to fly, down into a road in the middle of a pineapple field. Just as the tail came down, the left gear hit a pothole and the plane made a perfect 90-degree left turn. The wheels ran over about three or four of the pineapple irrigation ditches before they caught.”

The plane slowly nosed over, but Cussler said all it did was break the wooden prop.

“I remember just sitting in there, cursing,” he recalled. “All the workers came over and pulled the plane back up. I went and got my car and towed it back to the little airport where we kept it. I sold my interest, and that was it.”

Cussler said that like school, he and the Air Force “never really hit it off.” So he was thrilled when after three years, nine months and 16 days, he was discharged and could return to California. He celebrated the occasion by buying an XK120. But he would end up selling the classy modified Jaguar when he became engaged to Barbara Knight. He opted for a Nash Rambler station wagon instead, deciding it was the practical thing to do.

Cussler and Knight met in October 1951, and corresponded while he was overseas. They married in 1955, and moved into a small duplex in Alhambra. Barbara worked in the personnel department of the Southern California Gas Company. Clive pumped gas in a Union station in Los Angeles.

Six months later, he became partners with longtime friend, Dick Klein, in Clive & Dick’s Petrol Emporium, a Mobil Oil Station they leased on Ramona Boulevard and Garvey Avenue in Alhambra. Cussler said he and his partner were promoters, and came up with various schemes to get people to frequent their establishment. Those schemes worked, and the station was soon pumping 40,000 gallons a month.

Cussler celebrated by buying a triplex, and he and Klein talked about either buying or leasing a fleet of service stations, but when Mobil said no, they ended up selling out. The timing couldn’t have been better, because six months after they did, Garvey Boulevard was closed off to build the Long Beach Freeway, and the gallonage at the station soon plummeted to 11,000 a month.

After that, Cussler “drifted” for a while, selling the Encyclopedia Britannica, Lincoln-Mercury automobiles and a newspaper cartoon service to retail merchants, but he didn’t think he was good at sales. He soon found his niche, however, when Richard’s Lido Market, a plush supermarket in Newport Beach, Calif., hired him as advertising manager. He said all the necessary ingredients were there: “A devious mind combined with an industrious talent for innuendo, duplicity and hokum.”

Within six months, he was winning awards for creative advertising. The Cusslers, which now included a daughter, Teri, moved from their triplex in Alhambra to a rented apartment on the beach in Newport. The location made it easy for Cussler to body-surf in the morning before bicycling to his office at the supermarket.

Eighteen months later, they bought a small tract home in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Bestgen & Cussler

When he felt it was time for a change, Cussler left Richard’s to form a small advertising agency, Bestgen & Cussler, with Leo Bestgen. With Barbara home with their daughter and a new addition to the family, Dirk, who was born in 1961, Cussler made ends meet by working evenings in a liquor store in Laguna Beach.

Although the advertising agency had prospered, the two men decided to sell their accounts and close the doors after just three years. Cussler said Bestgen had a great artistic talent and preferred doing illustrations over “laying out mundane ads.” His dream, which he fulfilled, was to become involved in design and illustration. Cussler had decided he wanted to become a copywriter at a big-time advertising agency.

During the next several years, Cussler went to work at three national advertising agencies on Wilshire and Sunset boulevards, gradually working up to creative director. He worked on several accounts for well-known products including Budweiser, Ajax detergent, Royal Crown cola and Bank of America.

Eventually, he produced award-winning radio and television commercials, but his enthusiasm began to fade, and he once again began thinking about other ways to earn a living. In the meantime, Barbara, who had worked off and on since having their children—which now included another daughter, Dayna, born in 1964—began working nights for the local police department as a clerk, dispatcher and matron for female prisoners.

A lack of companionship after dinner and putting the children to bed prompted Cussler to decide to write a “little paperback series.” But he knew he’d have stiff competition from already famous authors and their established protagonists. That meant he’d have to come up with something different.

He researched popular series heroes beginning with Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dumas, including Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Matt Helm and James Bond. His findings led him to rule out the possibility of writing about a secret agent, undercover investigator or detective. He also decided not to write murder mysteries.

Dirk Pitt

When his hero began to take shape in his mind, Cussler was inspired to name him after his son, who was often soundly sleeping while he banged away at an old typewriter. As far as a theme, Major Dirk Pitt’s adventures would be based on and under water.

Thirty-six when he was introduced to the world, Pitt was “a consummate man of action, courage and honor,” living by the moment and for the moment, “without regret.” Ruthless when necessary, he was the son of a United States senator who had graduated from the Air Force Academy.

His life of adventure began when Admiral James Sandecker, retired from the Navy, became the chief director of the U.S. National Underwater and Marine Agency and persuaded Pitt to leave the Air Force and help him form NUMA. The Washington, D.C.-based organization would eventually grow to include 5,000 scientists and employees.

Pitt, a marine engineer, is given the title of special projects director. Capt. Al Giordino, a friend since childhood who also attended the Air Force Academy and flight school with Pitt, and joined NUMA at the same time, can be counted on to always share his adventures.

Cussler began his first action/adventure novel, “Pacific Vortex,” in 1965 and wrapped it up in 1969. Then, a large advertising agency offered him the position of creative director on a major account, with the tempting salary of $2,500 a month.

Luckily, his wife had run across a job that was a better fit for Dirk Pitt’s creator. Despite the fact that it only paid $400 a month, she called his attention to an ad in a help-wanted column for a clerk in a dive shop.

The owners of the Aquatic Center in Newport Beach had three stores. Although Cussler was overqualified, they hired him to work as a behind-the-counter salesman in their Santa Ana store.

Within weeks, besides being in charge of the store, Cussler was also acting as dive master on expeditions to Santa Catalina. When business was slow, he’d write on a portable typewriter he kept hidden on a card table behind the counter.

A little over a year later, he completed “The Mediterranean Caper,” returned to advertising, and began searching for an agent. He now had two books to sell, and had already received several rejection letters on the first.

Cussler didn’t know a single literary agent, but he came up with a cheeky scheme. He collected names of 25 agents in New York. Then, he had a logo made and printed stationery bearing the name of “The Charles Winthrop Agency.” He borrowed his parents’ address in a “ritzier neighborhood” to add credibility.

Bestselling author Clive Cussler recently took time out from writing his own latest novel to sign copies of “Wheels: A Passion for Collecting Cars,” which features cars in his vast collection as well as others.

Bestselling author Clive Cussler recently took time out from writing his own latest novel to sign copies of “Wheels: A Passion for Collecting Cars,” which features cars in his vast collection as well as others.

The first letter went out to Peter Lampack with the William Morris Agency in Manhattan. It read: “Dear Peter: As you know, I primarily handle motion picture and television screenplays; however, I’ve run across a pair of book-length manuscripts I think have a great deal of potential. I would pursue them, but I am retiring soon. Would you like to take a look at them?” Signed Charlie Winthrop.

Cussler was surprised to get a reply a week later saying Lampack would take a look at the manuscripts. It would be years before the author, with great trepidation, would admit the ruse. When he did, Lampack laughed uncontrollably and confessed he had always thought Winthrop was someone he met when he was drunk at a cocktail party.

After reading the manuscripts, Lampack replied that the first was “only fair,” but the second looked good, and asked where he could sign the author. With Lampack as his agent, Cussler once again left the advertising world. He also felt it was time to escape the smog and traffic of Southern California.

“I just wanted to write,” Cussler recalled. “I knew I could live anywhere, basically. So we sold the house, stored the furniture and bought a new car and a tent trailer and off we went.”

Cussler recalled that his family looked at their “escape” in the summer of 1970 in the Mercury Monterey four-door sedan as a “big adventure.” Their destination was “a nice little resort area off the beaten path.” After an enjoyable summer, they settled in Estes Park, Colo., a small, beautiful community at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

There, he began writing “Iceberg” in a leased alpine house with a spectacular view. By the time he had finished it, he was still an unpublished author. While Lampack tried to find a publisher for his second two books, Cussler began looking for a temporary job.

He applied at three Denver advertising agencies that had openings for a copywriter. Both of the first two agencies said he was overqualified. He decided to play down his achievements when he visited the last agency. It worked, and Hull/Mefford hired him.

His first assignments took minimal creative effort, so he spent the majority of his days clandestinely working on his next book. When he tired of the 65-mile drive to work, he moved the family to the suburban community of Arvada.

“We bought a house on Lookout Mountain,” he said. “We lived in that house about 17 years.”

Jerry Lips, our publisher, recognized Cussler’s genius when Lips, working for Executive West Magazine, sold advertising space to Hull/Mefford, and Cussler was assigned the task of creating the four-part campaign, in 1973. One in particular stands out.

“Clive had placed himself in several ads,” Lips recalled. “In one, he’s standing over a television he’s taken a sledgehammer to. The headline read, ‘Do you ever feel that your ad bombed in Broomfield?'”

Cussler’s star began to rise at Hull/Mefford after he was given a shot at an advertising campaign for one of their largest accounts, a savings and loan. With the theme of going out of the way to call the customers by name, his story board focused on a mean old lady who everyone avoids, except when she comes into the savings and loan, where she is treated like royalty.

Cussler was able to convince Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” to play the little old lady. Following that, he produced a series of commercials featuring various other well-known character actors.

“I did some fun stuff,” he said.

While he was producing the TV commercials, he was also creating radio campaigns, resulting in several Cleos and International Broadcast Awards for the agency. When Hull/Mefford merged with another agency, Cussler benefited from the changes at first, receiving a raise and a new position as vice president of the creative department. However, his luck started to change when he turned down a promotion to executive vice president, and found that the first response between him and the man who took the role was “instant dislike.” A few months after that, he was told his “two-hour martini lunches” weren’t acceptable and he needed to clean out his desk.

It might’ve stung at the moment, but Cussler has never regretted being fired.

“Raise the Titanic!”

Perhaps his own boat being sunk might have caused him to look closely at the “Titanic” for the theme of his next book. He immediately began work on “Raise the Titanic!” in his “office,” which was a corner of his unfinished basement. For the book, he used a prelude based in the past for the first time. That would become common in future Pitt adventures.

In the meantime, Lampack’s persistence finally paid off. In 1973, “The Mediterranean Caper” was published by Pyramid Books, a small third-level paperback publisher, and the firm of Sphere Books in London, where it was titled “Mayday!” Pyramid paid Cussler $5,000 for the book, which sold for 75 cents retail.

Shortly after that, the Mystery Writers of America nominated the book as one of the five best paperback mysteries of 1973. He didn’t win, but Cussler was buoyed by the fact that his peers thought he could write. Less than a year later, Dodd Mead bought “Iceberg,” also for $5,000, for hard-cover publication.

However, Dodd Mead wasn’t as impressed with “Raise the Titanic!” They rejected it, and although Putnam was interested, Cussler refused the massive rewrite they wanted. That opened the door for Viking Press to acquire it. Cussler’s payment was $7,500.

What happened next brought Cussler another $22,000. While visiting a friend at Viking, an editor from Macmillan, in London, heard about “Raise the Titanic!” and asked for a copy of the manuscript to read. Although he liked it and wanted to buy it, Sphere, which had bought “Iceberg,” had the first paperback option. Sphere would end up owning “Raise the Titanic!” but only after a bidding war with Macmillan.

About that same time, Cussler did something unheard of in the industry. He succeeded in getting back the rights to “The Mediterranean Caper,” which had gone out of print, from Pyramid. As a result, Sphere and Bantam Books reintroduced that book simultaneously in 1977, after the success of “Raise the Titanic!”

Next, after being told Playboy Publications had offered $4,000 for the paperback rights to “Iceberg,” of which he’d get half, he asked if instead he could pay Dodd Mead $5,000 for those rights. Cussler laughingly recalled that when the check reached Dodd Mead, rushed deposits from loans hadn’t yet cleared the bank, and it initially bounced.

In the meantime, British interest in “Raise the Titanic!” “boomeranged back to America,” and Lampack officiated over an auction among American paperback publishers. That morning, Cussler jokingly told his wife to quit her job when the bidding reached $250,000. They were incredulous when Bantam Books placed the winning bid of $840,000.

Bantam paid Cussler an additional $40,000 apiece for “The Mediterranean Caper” and “Iceberg,” fearing he might sell them to another publisher. Soon after that, Lampack concluded negotiations to sell “Raise the Titanic!” to Marble Arch Productions to be made into a motion picture. By then, Cussler was his biggest client; that’s when the author chose to tell Lampack about the non-existent Charles Winthrop.

“Screw You”

Cussler completed “Vixen 03,” which was published in hardcover by Viking Press, in 1978. The book, which deals with governmental corruption and biological weapons, begins at Buckley Field, in Colorado.

When Viking Press was sold to Penguin, a foreign publisher that overturned the old management, several established authors left. Cussler was also soon searching for an out. But first, per his last book contract, he had to fulfill his obligation of offering the publisher an option on his next book.

Cussler did that by offering them “I Went to Denver but It Was Closed,” a “silly manuscript” on the Denver advertising follies he had written “as a catharsis to being fired.” The manuscript was rejected, and Cussler was free. Bantam, wanting to get into the hardcover market, published “Nightprobe!” in 1981.

With Cussler’s books all now high on the bestseller list, when his new editor at Bantam discovered that “Pacific Vortex” had never been published, Cussler did as requested and got it off the closet shelf. Although he thought it was a pretty good story, he did spend three months rewriting it.

His editor received it enthusiastically, but when it was about to hit the shelves, Lampack, convinced the book would bomb, chose to hide away in Jamaica. He couldn’t have been more surprised when a week later he received a telegram from Cussler that read: “Screw you; ‘Pacific Vortex’ just went number two on the New York Times paperback list.”

Simon & Schuster published Cussler’s next book, “Deep Six,” in 1984, when they offered a much higher amount than Bantam. The paperback edition followed the next year, published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Cussler followed “Deep Six” with “Cyclops,” “Treasure” and “Dragon.” In that book, Pitt attends a classic car concours, where he races an older gentleman named Clive Cussler. Although Cussler wrote it in as a joke, he began including himself in other scenes after hundreds of readers wrote in that they enjoyed seeing the author “inside” the novel.

The next Pitt adventure was “Sahara,” published in 1992. The novel begins in the past, near the end of the Civil War, when a Confederate ironclad named the “Texas” leaves Richmond carrying part of the Confederate treasury and the kidnapped Union president, Abraham Lincoln. Next, we are introduced to Kitty Mannock, a pioneer female aviator, who crashes her plane in Africa; her disappearance remains one of aviation’s great mysteries.

Jumping to the present, we’re shocked to find villagers attacking a tourist safari in Africa. It’s later discovered that the attackers have been exposed to chemicals in their water that made them go mad. Enter the beautiful Eva Rojas, a scientist with the World Health Organization, and Dirk Pitt, who comes to her rescue when she is targeted for assassination while searching for the source of toxic poison in Africa.

Pitt is soon smack in the middle of the intrigue, as well as Giordino and NUMA scientist Rudi Gunn, who race to save the day in a high-tech yacht named the “Calliope.”

“Sea Hunters”

Pitt had further adventures in “Inca Gold” and “Shock Wave,” before Cussler branched out into nonfiction with “The Sea Hunters; True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks,” in 1996. Co-written with Craig Dirgo, the book details the exploits of Cussler’s “real life” nonprofit foundation, the National Underwater and Marine Agency.

“Yes, Virginia, there really is a NUMA!” Cussler grins.

In 1979, Cussler, whose hobbies included searching for historic shipwrecks, was part of an expedition to find John Paul Jones’ ship, the “Bonhomme Richard.”

“I formed the foundation that year,” he said. “An attorney from Texas suggested that if I’m going to keep looking for historic shipwrecks, I should incorporate a nonprofit foundation. We did, and the trustees insisted on calling it NUMA. We’re dedicated to finding shipwrecks of historic significance, so they can be studied before they’re lost and gone forever.”

With his crew of volunteers, Cussler has discovered more than 60 lost ships. After verifying their finds, NUMA turns the rights to the artifacts over to nonprofits, universities or government entities all over the world.

“Sea Hunter” featured nine of the searches NUMA had undertaken by that time. Fourteen more were featured in “Sea Hunters II,” published in 2002.

“Sea Hunters” reached number five on the New York Times hardcover bestsellers list, and the introduction of the paperback edition gave Cussler his first number one bestseller. Because of that work, the board of governors of the Maritime College, State University of New York considered “The Sea Hunters” in lieu of a Ph.D. thesis and awarded Cussler a doctor of letters degree in May 1997.

“The most exciting discovery has been the Confederate submarine “Hunley,” which they raised,” Dr. Cussler said. “It’s being conserved there in Charleston.”

In the “Sea Hunters,” Cussler tells about meeting an old wharf rat in a waterfront saloon who told him, “If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing.”

“My sentiments exactly,” he said.

Cussler says that he was turned on to “the challenge of the search” back when he was co-owner of Clive and Dick’s Petrol Emporium. At that time, he used a stripped down 1948 Mercury convertible to go out into the Southern California desert and look for gold mines, ghost towns and anything that early prospectors or Spanish explorers might’ve left behind.

Cussler is also a fellow in both the Explorers Club of New York and the Royal Geographic Society in London. He has been honored with the Lowell Thomas Award for outstanding underwater exploration.

Creator and protagonist “revealed”

Sahara” will be released April 8. It’s only the second popular Dirk Pitt adventure to be adapted to the big screen.

Sahara” will be released April 8. It’s only the second popular Dirk Pitt adventure to be adapted to the big screen.

In 1997, “Flood Tide” opened on the New York Times hardcover bestseller fiction list at number three. In a first for a Dirk Pitt novel, it moved to number one the following week.

To satisfy the curiosity of millions of fans, Pocket Books published “Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt Revealed” in 1998. The book is a “complete look” into the author, including his famous car collection, and “the universe of Dirk Pitt.”

The book creatively begins with Cussler attending a party at Pitt’s hangar/home. As he wanders through the hangar, he admires the rows of cars, and takes in the antique metal signs—advertising gasoline brands, car manufacturers and soft drinks—as well as an ornate iron circular staircase that winds up to Pitt’s nautical-themed apartment. During his stay, Cussler meets Admiral Sandecker, Albert Giordino and Rudi Gunn, as well as an assortment of love interests and villains that his readers have come to know over the years, and finally Pitt.

The book answers many questions about Cussler and Pitt, including why, up to that point, the author had only ever sold one book to Hollywood.

“Not after the way they botched ‘Raise the Titanic!'” is the answer.

The 1980 movie starred Richard Jordan as Dirk Pitt, Jason Robards as Admiral James Sandecker, and M. Emmett Walsh as Al Giordino. Cussler described the screenwriting as “simply awful,” the direction as “amateurish,” and the editing as “pathetic.”

“Only John Barry’s musical score and the special effects were first-rate,” he lamented.

Cussler said he hadn’t been looking for a blockbuster motion picture, but he was hoping for a “production of quality, more of a classic than a run-of-the-mill car chase with special-effects explosions every five minutes.”

A year after “Raise the Titanic!” came out in the theaters, Cussler saw “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“I almost cried,” the passionate author frankly admitted. “The manner in which Spielberg produced a fast-paced, nail-biting adventure was how I had envisioned the Pitt movie I never got.”

In the book, the author revealed that since “Raise the Titanic!” he and Lampack had received a multitude of offers, but had figured out that the producers in Hollywood were more interested in “the art of the deal than the art of creating a movie with scope and depth.”

“We’ve turned down many millions of dollars because I refuse to cheat my readers with another sloppy production,” he said at the time.

Cussler made it known that if he was to deal with Hollywood again, he wanted to have script and casting approval. One of his biggest concerns was that whoever played Dirk Pitt really fit the image he envisioned and had created for the readers. He was also convinced that whoever did play Pitt shouldn’t be a big box-office star, because the audience would only see the star, and not Pitt.

He believed that someday, someone would come along and sell him on the idea of adapting another one of his books, especially by giving him script, director and casting approval. Fans were thrilled when then found out in mid-2001 that Cussler had optioned the sought-after film rights to three books in the Dirk Pitt series, beginning with “Sahara.”

Finally, that movie hits the big screen April 8. It’s presented by Paramount Pictures and Bristol Bay Productions, the reorganized Crusader Entertainment, which was formed in 2000. The production firm is under the umbrella of the Anschutz Film Group, which was behind “Ray,” the award-winning movie that tells the life story of music legend Ray Charles. Walden Media is also under that umbrella.

But Cussler isn’t looking forward to the release.

“I don’t know whose book they were adapting, but I don’t think it was mine!” he said.

It’s hard not to feel heartbroken along with the author.

“They didn’t come anywhere near it!” he says of the adaptation. “Well, there are some similarities, but for the most part, they rewrote the whole story.”

Early last year, Cussler sued the production company, saying they ignored certain wishes he had for the movie. In his suit, Cussler said Crusader’s purchase of the motion picture rights gave him an unqualified right of approval over screenplays.

He told the “Denver Post” in 2004 that he approved a screenplay in 2001, but Crusader later changed the script without his approval. Cussler had asked the court to block the movie, saying Crusader violated his contract by making the film before he approved the script. The latest news is that a trial will take place this spring after the film’s release.

However, the script problem was just one disappointment. The project was originally scheduled to start in the fall of 2001, but it was postponed following Sept. 11. It was then rescheduled for the summer of 2002, then October 2002 and then January 2003. Production actually started in early February 2004.

The postponements resulted in Cussler losing out on his number one choice for who would play his beloved Dirk Pitt. That man was Hugh Jackman, who captured audiences as Logan/Wolverine in “X-Men” in 2000. Cussler thought he fit the image of the dark-haired, green-eyed Pitt perfectly.

But Jackman won’t be seen on the big screen as Dirk Pitt. When it finally came time to get down to business, he was unavailable.

“He was going to Broadway to do a play,” Cussler said.

By the time production actually began, Jackman had wrapped up “Someone Like You,” “Swordfish,” “Kate & Leopold,” and “X2.” Then, he began his run in “The Boy from Oz” on Broadway,” which officially opened in October 2003, and closed the following September.

However, several actors thought Jackman’s unavailability was great news. One of them was Matthew McConaughey, who ended up with the role. McConaughey has been seen in over 30 feature films, including starring roles in “A Time to Kill,” “Edtv,” “U-571,” “The Wedding Planner,” “Reign of Fire,” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

Most likely, knowing he wasn’t the author’s first pick, McConaughey did his best to change his mind. Since he was cast, Cussler has said the actor “could come off as a good Pitt.”

Cussler’s first choice for siren Eva Rojas, a scientist with the World Health Organization who becomes a target for assassination while searching for the source of toxic poison in Africa, was sultry Salma Hayek, but she won’t be seen in the movie either. Recent Tom Cruise love interest Penelope Cruz was cast as the beautiful doctor. Cruz’ past work includes “Vanilla Sky” and “Head in the Clouds.” Steve Zahn (“Employee of the Month” and “Daddy Day Care”) is Pitt’s sidekick Al Giordino, and William Macy (“Seabiscuit” and “Fargo”) plays Admiral James Sandecker.

“Sahara,” directed by Breck Eisner, was shot over five months in Morocco, Spain and Cameroon. Last month, Cussler couldn’t say if the movie was going to be a huge disappointment, since he hadn’t seen it. However, he has definitely given his stamp of approval to one cast member. His daughter, Dayna Cussler, plays aviatrix Kitty Mannock. And hopefully he’ll be pleasantly surprised regarding the other casting.