You’ve heard of “based on a true story,” but how true is the story? Here, I fact-checked some famous Hollywood characters for the now-defunct Maxim Magazine.
JOE PISTONE. Movie based on his life: “Donnie Brasco” (1997), short-lived CBS TV series, Falcone.”
A special agent for the FBI who spoke Italian and knew how to drive 18-wheelers, Pistone was the perfect man for a near-impossible job: infiltrate New York’s Bonanno crime family. In September, 1976, Joe Pistone disappeared and emerged as Donnie Brasco, jewel thief. He lived the mob life for six years, tutored in their ways by Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero. He stayed a mobster until two days before he was to fill a contract murder on the son of a mob boss. Those six years led to more than 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of high-ranking mobsters and placed a $500,000 price on Pistone’s head. A head replaced by Johnny Depp in the film based on his 1987 memoir, “Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia.”
Fact check: The movie implies that Lefty (played by Al Pacino) gets whacked for bringing Brasco into the fold. In fact, Pistone had the FBI arrest him before the mob could finish him off. Lefty later died of a heart attack.
ED ZIGO. He was a Brooklyn Homicide Detective hunting down a serial killer who held the city of New York hostage. Between July, 1976 and June, 1977, the killer who dubbed himself “The Son of Sam” murdered five young women and a man, targeting couples parked along lovers’ lanes. Working off a hunch, Zigo requested all parking tickets written within a 20 block radius of that final shooting. The targeted neighborhoods were predominately Italian and Catholic, so when Zigo spotted a ticket written to David Berkowitz he gave it a hard look. That led to the capture and arrest of the city’s most notorious serial killer, still serving a life sentence behind the bars of Attica.
In 1985, a CBS movie, “Out of the Darkness,” brought the story of Ed Zigo and the manhunt for “The Son of Sam” to the small screen, with Martin Sheen playing the soft-spoken but determined detective (and featuring the first on-screen appearance by Charlie Sheen).
Fact check: Zigo served as a technical consultant on the movie to help insure its accuracy. He retired from the force soon after and embarked on a second career as a movie consultant.
EDDIE EGAN. One-half of the famous NYPD team who broke The French Connection (seizing 112 pounds of heroin worth $32 million in 1961). The 1971 film, with Gene Hackman portraying the gruff and driven “Popeye,” went on to win 5 Academy Awards.
In 1973, Robert Duvall took a crack at playing New York’s toughest cop in “Badge 373” and then, in 1975, Hackman returned as Egan in “The French Connection II,” continuing the chase through the streets of Marseilles. In 1986, Ed O’Neill brought Egan to television with the weekly series, “Popeye Doyle.”
Fact Check: Three of the most famous scenes in “The French Connection” (based on Robin Moore’s best-seller) never happened: (a) there was no high-speed car vs. elevated subway chase; (b) Popeye never killed a suspect on the subway steps and (c) he did not kill an FBI agent.
In his teens, Egan played Triple AAA baseball for the New York Yankees farm team. He was replaced in centerfield by a player who would not become a cop—Mickey Mantle.
RICHIE ROBERTS. He was an Essex County Detective who ventured across the river into New York and took down Harlem’s Frank Lucas, the most notorious and successful drug lord in America. In 2007, Roberts was portrayed by Russell Crowe in “American Gangster,” with Denzel Washington in the role of Lucas, a dealer who had his drugs shipped stateside in the sealed coffins of soldiers killed fighting in Vietnam. Following his capture, Lucas supplied Roberts with enough information to convict the top echelon of New York’s drug trade.
Fact Check: Roberts went to law school and became an Essex County Prosecutor. When he left that position, he turned into a defense attorney. Frank Lucas was his first client.
FRANK SERPICO. He was the first officer in history to testify about wide-spread and pervasive corruption in the New York Police Department, the take brought in by dirty badges totaling in the millions. He first spoke to the New York Times in 1970 which, in turn, led to the Knapp Commission and the end of a culture of corruption in place for decades.
For his efforts, he was shunned and when a Brooklyn tenement drug bust went sour in the winter of 1971, Serpico found himself with a bullet to the face and his fellow officers standing next to his bleeding body, refusing to come to his aid. An elderly tenant made the emergency call and stayed with Serpico until the ambulance arrived.
In 1973, Sidney Lumet directed “Serpico,” based on Peter Maas’ three million copy best-seller, starring Al Pacino, who turned in one of his signature performances. In 1976, David Birney starred in both an NBC movie and series, also called “Serpico.”
Serpico was awarded the Medal of Honor and left the department. He lives in upstate New York, still suffering from the lingering effects of his wound, helping others cope with the weight of corruption they witness.
Fact Check: To insure his performance come close to the truth, Pacino and Serpico lived together for several weeks in a rented house prior to filming.
ROBERT LEUCI. Member of the most elite team in the New York Police Department—the Special Investigating Unit (SIU). They were free to roam the city, work any narcotics case in any borough. They broke major dope rings and chased down top-tier dealers, doing it with a style all their own: they wore expensive leather jackets, tailored slacks and $60 haircuts. They were, a judge announced, “Princes of the City.”
They were also the most corrupt cops in the history of the NYPD.
Seventy detectives were chosen to be members of SIU, starting in 1968. By 1976, 52 were indicted, two committed suicide and one, Leuci, turned against them, wore a wire and co-operated with authorities.
In 1978, former Deputy Police Commissioner Robert Daley wrote “Prince of the City,” detailing the corrupt tale of Leuci and the SIU. In 1981, the film version was released, starring Treat Williams as Leuci and Sidney Lumet directing yet another tale of police wrong-doing.
Leuci retired from the department with a full pension and went on to a second career as an author and TV writer, now living in Rhode Island.
FACT CHECK: Originally, the movie was to star Robert De Niro and be directed by Brian De Palma. Jerry Orbach’s powerful turn as a corrupt but un-bending detective led to his landing the role of Lenny Briscoe in “Law & Order.”
Treat Williams’s authentic performance was helped by the month he spent working out of the 23rd Precinct and living with Bob Leuci.
GERALD PETIEVICH. In 1970, he became a Secret Service Special Agent and spent the next 15 years protecting Presidents of the United States and going after the world’s best counterfeiters. In his down time, he wrote fiction.
One of his novels, “To Live and Die in L.A.,” made it to the screen in 1984, with William Peterson in the lead role of a Secret Service agent hell bent on bringing down ace counterfeiter Willem Dafoe. The movie, directed by William Friedkin of “The French Connection,” features a wild two-car chase against traffic on a busy LA freeway.
Two other Petievich books were also turned into features: “The Sentinal” with Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland in 2005 and “Money Men,” released as “Boiling Point” with Wesley Snipes, in 1993.
Petievich left the Service in 1985 and continues to write. He lives in Los Angeles.
Fact Check: “To Live and Die in L.A.” is taught in many film schools as a prime example of both a classic noir film and an accurate depiction of a special agent so obsessed with the cracking of a case he goes beyond the boundaries and loses his focus.
RICHARD “BO” DIETL. He didn’t so much work his cases while a member of the NYPD, he pounced on them. Two in particular sealed his reputation. The first was the vicious 1981 rape of an East Harlem nun by two men. Dietl, working off-duty and alone, scoured the streets of the neighborhood until he collared the two assailants in less than 48 hours. The second was the 1984 murders of ten men and women in their Brooklyn home, a killing spree quickly dubbed “The Palm Sunday Massacre” by the tabloids. Seventy-five detectives were assigned to the case. Only one cracked it—Dietl, again working at a non-stop clip.
He retired from the force in 1985 and set up his own firm, Beau Dietl and Associates (yes he spells the first name differently). He specializes in corporate investigations and numbers some of the largest companies in the world as clients. In 1998, Dietl published his memoir, “One Tough Cop,” which, in turn, became a movie with Stephen Baldwin taking on the role of the real life detective.
Fact check: Dietl served as technical consultant and worked closely with Baldwin to help insure the film be given the Bo stamp of approval.
GILBERT HILL. Hill was a Detroit detective who was asked to portray Inspector Todd in the three “Beverly Hills Cop” movies (starting with the first in 1984), acting as Eddie Murphy’s boss. In the films, he cursed like a Marine and all but busted a vein in his attempts to keep Murphy’s character, Axel Foley, in line. Hill was quick to note the similarities between reality and his on-screen persona: “The only difference between me and Inspector Todd is he curses more than I do,” he said.
After he left the department, Hill served as President of the Detroit City Council and later mounted an unsuccessful bid for Mayor.
Fact check: Hill never sent anyone, let alone a cop named Axel Foley, to Beverly Hills to do anything for anyone at anytime. Not ever.
The role of Foley was written for Sylvester Stallone who then passed, allowing Murphy to step in and turn the part into a star-making performance.
SONNY GROSSO. He is, quite possibly, the best detective to ever wear an NYPD shield. He holds the record for the most arrests made with the highest rate of convictions, a record still standing more than 30 years after his retirement. He was the second half of the famed “French Connection” duo portrayed in that iconic 1971 film by Roy Scheider. In 1973, Scheider once again took on the Sonny character in “The Seven-Ups,” a dark and gritty thriller based on a story written by Grosso.
After his retirement, Grosso co-wrote two books, worked as a technical consultant on over 30 features and TV series (including “The Godfather” and “Kojak”) and then turned producer. His company, Grosso/Jacobson Entertainment, has produced over 40 TV series and movies (including “Out of the Darkness;” “Top Cops” and “Night Heat”). He is currently working on a series for the National Geographic Channel.
Fact check: “The Seven-Ups” was as detailed as a documentary with Grosso serving as both technical advisor and associate producer, the story taken from one of his cases. The lead driver in the film’s chase sequence (the same role he performed in the classic chases of both “Bullitt” and “The French Connection”) was Bill Hickman, the best wheel man this side of Steve McQueen.
The first and still the best criminal profiler in the world.
Brooklyn-born John Douglas joined the FBI in 1970 and, for a few years, worked as a sniper on a SWAT unit and as a lead hostage negotiator. Then, in 1977, he joined the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit and created the Criminal Profiling Program. Soon after, he was named Chief of the Investigative Support Unit.
Douglas has interviewed every convicted serial killer currently sitting behind bars, utilizing their answers to his probing questions to help determine their habits, the reasons behind the kill and the urge that drives them to murder again and again. He has helped in the capture of some of the most notorious serial killers in history, most notably Seattle’s infamous Green River Killer and Atlanta’s Child Murderer, Wayne Williams.
The work takes a toll, both physical (he nearly died of viral encephalitis while on the hunt for the Green River killer) and personal. “In many ways,” he says, “I felt like Tony Soprano. I had my own family I wanted to shield as much as I could from the horrors of the job. Then, I had to deal with the levels of bureaucracy within the FBI and then I went into each city to work with local authorities, many of whom didn’t want me there and some of whom didn’t believe in my theories until they saw the results.”
Douglas retired in 1995 and has co-written a number of best-selling books, lectures frequently and consults police departments the world over. He was the first to go on record clearing the Ramsey family of any wrong-doing in the death of their daughter, Jon Benet. Initially scoffed at, he was proven correct when they were later cleared by DNA evidence. He argued against police and prosecutors that the murders of “The West Memphis Three” (a trio of 8-year-old boys found murdered) had nothing to do with satanic rituals but were committed by someone with a personal link to the kids. Once again, Douglas was right.
Hollywood has embraced John Douglas.
He has been portrayed in three feature films—by William Peterson in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (1986); by Scott Glenn in the now-classic “The Silence of the Lambs”(1991); and by Edward Norton in “Red Dragon” (2002). Now, HBO is developing “Mindhunter” (based on his best-selling book) as a weekly series with David Fincher (“Seven”) working as director.
It doesn’t end there. A non-fiction series is in the works about Profilers with Douglas set to serve as on-camera host. And the character portrayed by Lance Henriksen in the TV series “Milennium” 1996) was a John Douglas clone as is the one portrayed each week by Joe Mantegna on the hit series, “Criminal Minds.”
The Hollywood work is fun, but Douglas’ mind never strays far from the reality of the serial killers in our midst. “I used to work as many as 100 cases at a time,” Douglas says, “and I would get death threats on a regular basis. These guys are media savvy; they read about themselves, follow the crime shows, the books, the news. They know what’s going on, it helps feed into who they like to think they are.
“One time, I was working at home, chasing down a serial killer murdering teenage girls. I have two daughters and they were around the age of the victims. This one night, I went upstairs and noticed the door to my daughter’s bedroom was open. I looked in and the bed was empty. I ran downstairs and the front door was ajar and I thought, ‘He found us. He reached into my home and grabbed one of my kids.’ I raced outside, jumped in the car, lights flashing, and sped around the neighborhood. It turned out she was out for a walk with a young boy from the area. It ended well, but it could have easily been the real deal.”
Statistics point out that more than half the unsolved homicides in the US can be attributed to serial killers. They are out there, preying on the innocent, ready to pounce when their craving for blood strikes.
As long as they lurk, John Douglas will be right there, hot on their trail. In the Bureau and out, he remains their greatest threat, the one obstacle none of them ever managed to defeat.
“They all fit a particular pattern,” Douglas says. “The key is to get into that mind-set, read the motives, think along the lines they do and know, sooner or later, they will make a mistake, leave an opening, and that’s when you move in and make the grab.”
It’s a unique combination of instinct and science, behavioral patterns coupled with a killer’s lust. One large, dangerous puzzle waiting to be put together before another innocent life is taken.
There are many working in the field, looking to bring down the evil souls that walk among us.
There is one that stands the tallest.
A serial killer’s worst nightmare.
Fact check: Douglas likes the mood and look of “Manhunter,” enjoyed the performances in “Red Dragon” and thinks “The Silence of the Lambs” is on target, except for one little detail. “Scott Glenn never smiled,” Douglas says. “Not once. Me? I’ve been known to smile now and then.”