More than three decades ago, shortly after being offered a promotion at his high-profile corporate law firm, Paul Levine resigned his partnership. “The head of litigation called me, and I could hear in his voice he was excited,” Levine recalls. “He wanted me to head the team to defend all of the asbestos cases east of the Mississippi River for a client.”

Levine ’69 Com had long wrestled with his place as a corporate attorney. But given what he knew about the asbestos industry and its alleged attempts to cover up medical dangers, this was a bridge too far. “I came of age at Penn State during the Vietnam War when we protested Dow Chemical dropping napalm on civilians,” he says. “It didn’t compute.”

And so Levine, who had started his career as a reporter at the Miami Herald before going to law school, made another radical career move: He quit his day job to write a novel. He’s written nearly two dozen since, including the series that features one of the most enduring characters—and certainly the best-known former Penn State linebacker turned lawyer—in modern crime fiction. Levine’s first novel, To Speak for the Dead (published in 1990), starred an ex-jock turned attorney named Jake Lassiter, who played for two legendary coaches—Joe Paterno and the Miami Dolphins’ Don Shula—before becoming a flamboyant lawyer in the wild and wooly setting of south Florida.

Now, after 15 Jake Lassiter novels, the Hughesville, Pa., native has made another radical decision: His very last Lassiter novel, Early Grave, was published in January. In it, Lassiter, suffering from brain trauma brought on by his playing career, must come to terms with the inherent violence of the sport.

We spoke to Levine by phone from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., about the decision to stop writing Lassiter novels, his unique career arc—and its many Penn State connections—and what comes next.

Penn Stater: How did you create the character of Jake Lassiter?
The loose inspiration for Jake was (former Miami Dolphins linebacker) Nick Buoniconti. Nick went to law school when he was done with his playing days and actually practiced law. And I remember him in criminal court in Miami, representing a couple of players who had gotten into trouble with cocaine. The difference is that Buoniconti was a bona fide star, and Jake Lassiter was never blessed with great natural ability. He was a walk-on at Penn State. Paterno, he says, considered him his problem child. He was never a star. He says, “Shula parked me so far down the bench that my ass was in Hialeah.”


PS: How did Lassiter’s experience at Penn State compare to your own?
I wish I was that cool. I was huddled over a typewriter in the basement office of the Daily Collegian. I covered the football team in 1967 and 1968. But you hang around long enough, and it’s like you become part of the program. Joe would invite me to watch practice, and [after I graduated and moved to Florida], when he came to Miami to recruit, I’d pick him up at the airport. And then later, I’d go to away games and I’d be the spotter for Fran Fisher. I had the names of all the players taped to an old Monopoly board, and I’d point to whoever made the tackle.

sepia photo of Levine working for the Daily Collegian, courtesy
AN EDITOR'S EYE: Levine's journalism career began as an undergrad at the Daily Collegian, where he served as editor in chief in 1968. Courtesy.


PS: There’s a long tradition of crime and noir fiction emerging from Miami, from contemporaries of yours like Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry to legends like Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford. How did you embrace that tradition in your own writing?
John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee series of books are mostly set in Florida. In one of those books, Cinnamon Skin, I read the opening line, which is elegant and brilliant and beautiful and concise: There are no hundred percent heroes. And I tacked that up on my wall when I started writing Jake Lassiter. He’s not going to win every case. He’s going to lose. As Jake says in Bum Deal, “If my clients knew my real winning percentage, they’d either cop a plea or jump bail and flee to Argentina.”

Miami is very fertile ground for crime and weirdness. But most of the others were not bringing it into the courtroom. And maybe I took some of that weirdness and gave it to the judges in my books, because sometimes their incompetence can be quite humorous.


PS: How has Lassiter evolved over the years?
There are certainly differences between the character in To Speak for the Dead and Early Grave. Some crime fiction series keep their hero the same age, but I think it makes the character more real to be aging. But it’s not just aging, in the sense that he has this physical ailment that’s apparently CTE. Aging is something that a writer like me, who is now 74, knows something about. I’ve had three knee surgeries and a torn rotator cuff. By giving that dose of reality to a protagonist, it makes him more real.


PS: How did that evolution change the kinds of stories you wanted to tell?
If you look at the last two books, Cheater’s Game was set against the backdrop of the college admissions scandal, which is still going on. And that gave me the opportunity to talk about the difference between morality and the law and issues of class and entitlement. Because when I looked at it, I thought, these wealthy parents, what are they thinking? What kinds of messages are they sending? Things that are really going on now are more interesting to me than who killed whom. And that’s certainly true in Early Grave, where I take this character who loves football and have him reckon with the inherent dangers of the sport. Filing a lawsuit to abolish high school football as a “public nuisance” is not easy for Lassiter.


PS: As a huge football fan yourself, how are you reckoning with the future of the game?
Did you see that the NFL’s Pro Bowl game in 2023 is gonna be a flag football game? I would have loved to have been in the conference room when that was decided. Did somebody say, “This could be a slippery slope. Maybe the high schools are gonna go to flag football, and then where will we be?” But they did it. And 10 years from now, I wonder, will there be tackle high school football? And then what happens to college football? And what happens to the NFL? My gut tells me in 10 or 15 years it’s going to be a very different game.

I don’t have any of the answers to those questions, but I raise them in Early Grave. As Jake says in the book, “I would’ve run through brick walls for either Paterno or Shula. My doctors seem to think I have.” There’s a positive side to football, with the star players who get college scholarships. They play a team sport. They work hard. They show up on time for practice, which is good for showing up on time to your job. It’s good for camaraderie. For self-esteem. And the community benefits of bringing people together. Now, of course, on the other side, are we killing these children 30 to 40 years later? That’s a very difficult scale of justice to handle. I don’t know the answer.

Levine with Fran Fisher at a Penn State football game, courtesy
HELPING OUT THE VOICE OF THE LIONS: Levine occasionally served as a spotter for legendary Penn State football radio play-by-play man Fran Fisher. Courtesy.


PS: It seems like it all comes back to that bigger idea you were wrestling with at the end of your law career, about how to reconcile the limits of the system of law with the larger notion of justice itself.
Yes, of course. And the law really is ill-equipped to handle these gigantic social issues. I felt the conflict between the justice system and justice. As Jake says somewhere—which means I said somewhere—the justice system is this machine with a lot of moving parts, and flawed human beings are at the controls. Justice is an ideal. It’s not tangible. It’s a concept. And we hope it’s not just a myth.

When I practiced law, I did what’s called complex civil litigation, which generally means one giant corporation against another. And sometimes I’d have to represent a client who was taking positions that were purely legal. But morally, we were on the wrong side.


PS: And that’s obviously what led you to resign your partnership.
I suppose I could have said I don’t want the asbestos assignment, and they wouldn’t have fired me. But what would the next one be? And that fueled the creation of Lassiter, who is suspicious of the establishment and goes for the underdog, and who certainly never would have represented the asbestos manufacturers.


PS: As a young reporter in Miami, though, there must have been something that spurred you to quit journalism and go to law school.
I was 21 years old. Low man on the totem pole at the Miami Herald. I’m told, “You’re covering criminal court.” The previous criminal court reporter went to the National Enquirer, which tripled his salary. I said, “I’ve never actually been in a courtroom.” They said, “You’ll pick it up.” It was like a circus every morning—all these lawyers milling around, trying to talk to the prosecutor, calling out their witnesses’ names because they haven’t even met them. So it looked exciting. I thought, “This is pretty cool. It’s like a scene in a movie.”

Now, I didn’t see all the grind and night work that goes into getting ready for a trial. And I end up years later representing one giant corporation against another giant corporation in a suit over whether some widgets failed to work properly.

black and white photo of Levine in courtroom, courtesy
EXHIBIT A: The lawyer turned author posed in the Miami Courthouse for a 1990 publicity shot for his debut novel, To Speak for the DeadCourtesy.


PS: That’s where Lassiter’s cynicism comes from.
Yet he believes that the pursuit of justice is a noble calling. And he says somewhere—and this is a bit flowery, but I did write it—“Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. It cannot be bought, sold, or mass- produced. It is intangible and invisible. But if you spend your life in its pursuit, it’s best to believe it exists and that you can attain it.” And then he goes on to say, “When you fail to achieve justice, fight for the next best thing. Rough justice is better than none at all.”


PS: I wanted to ask you about another rather cynical industry that you dabbled in—television writing, where you worked with TV legend Donald Bellisario ’61 Com.
Levine: We were actually both serving on a board at the College of Communications. He had just written the pilot script for a show called JAG. He’s a genius at creating unique, fully imagined characters and writing scripts that appeal to a broad swath of America. I had just written a Lassiter book, and I swapped the book for his script, and he asked me to freelance a script for JAG. I had never actually written a script. I had to buy a book on screenwriting. But I did, and they shot it, and then next year, the same thing, and then I was a rookie writer in Hollywood at age 51.

Don and I created a show called First Monday, based very loosely on a novel I wrote about the Supreme Court. It only lasted one season, but I learned a lot. Writing for television definitely improved my novel writing, especially dialogue. And another book series of mine, Solomon and Lord—it’s a little lighter, more comedic—was recently optioned by NBC, so we’ll see if anything happens with that.


cover of Early Grave by Paul Levine, courtesyPS: What sort of reaction do you get from fellow Penn Staters about Lassiter?
I get some people who think he’s real. They ask, “Did he play with LaVar Arrington ’00 H&HD?” But, you know, Penn Staters have such a love for the place that anything that has a Penn State connection is heartwarming for them. A few years ago, Sue Paterno introduced me to Franco Harris ’72 H&HD and his wife, Dana Dokmanovich ’72 Edu, two of our fabled alumni who became friends. When Franco died suddenly, a gut punch to so many of us, Early Grave had gone to press, but I changed the dedication in the e-book edition to read: “To the memory of Franco Harris, a legendary football player whose lifetime of accomplishments exceeded even the most immaculate of receptions.”


PS: Did you ever speak to Paterno about Jake Lassiter, or did he ever read one of the books?
That’s a good question. I can’t remember. I remember him congratulating me on them. But I know Joe mostly read nonfiction.


PS: Now that you’re finished with Lassiter, what comes next?
I’m on hiatus for now. I have to think it over a bit. It’s really hard to start something new. But Lassiter’s had a good run. All I know is I’m going to keep writing.


Michael Weinreb is the author of four books, including Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.