On the run from the law?
A movie theater is great place to lay low, especially when they’re playing a movie about you.
There were two very new things about the 1932 movie I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang that Hollywood took on; social justice, and talking. In 1932 “talkies” were still extremely new, so were movies based on an actual escaped prisoner screwed over by the system. Setting aside the cultural and historic impact for a moment, the truly unique thing about this film is the main character’s real-life counterpart, Robert E. Burns, was still on the lam when the movie came out!
Like the movie’s long title, Burns was actually still a fugitive from a chain gang when he paid his ten cents to watch the movie about his own life up on the big screen. This feat was so miraculous it was portrayed in the 1987 Val Kilmer TV movie about Burns life called The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains on HBO.
I remember seeing that movie thinking how amazing that must have been, only to be blown away by another discovery. Burns wasn’t the only fugitive to see himself portrayed up on the big screen while on the run, not by a longshot. And I’m not talking obscure criminals either.
The hunt for Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi nicknamed the angel of death, went on for decades. He was never caught. Mengele, known for judging the selection process during arrivals at Auschwitz, as well as his sick experiments on twins, somehow managed to slip through the Allies fingers after the War ended.
Mengele’s escape from justice for his many crimes against humanity led him, like other Nazi’s, to a wonderful life hiding in South America. If you could call it hiding. After initially changing his identity, over time he became so convinced the world had stopped caring about finding Nazis he actually changed his name back to Mengele. He could be found in the phone book! It wasn’t until after the Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann did Mengele go back into hiding, where he would remain until his death from a stroke, in the ocean in 1979.
For a while in the 1970’s Mengele sightings held the same lore as Bigfoot, mostly due to the two films, both based on novels, that featured him as a prominent character. In The Boys From Brazil, 1978, Mengele is played by none other than Gregory Peck.
In Marathon Man, 1976, the character of Dr. Christian Szell, a thinly veiled Mengele composite, was played by Laurence Olivier.
Both films were released while Mengele was still alive. Both were extremely popular garnering Oscar nominations, including for Olivier’s portrayal of Szell. There is simply no way Mengele would not have known about it.
Can you imagine watching either film while sitting next to the angel of death chomping on popcorn?
Pablo Escobar, the undisputed boss of the Medellin Cartel, was hunted down and killed in December of 1993 so he never had the chance to see what a powerful film character he became. He was, however, still alive when the movie immortalizing him, Clear and Present Danger went into pre-production. Escobar knew what to expect from this film, as the movie’s source material, Tom Clancy’s extremely popular novel with the same name had come out four years earlier. Clancy’s character version of Escobar, the cleverly similar Ernesto Escobedo, was the author’s foil for his novel’s hero, Jack Ryan. Escobar was hiding in the jungle when the great character actor Miguel Sandoval was cast as the cinema version of himself but never lived long enough to see it hit theaters.
Which is a shame because Sandoval is really amazing as Escobedo. He even made him seem somewhat sympathetic. Sandoval would end up playing Escobar twice in the first two years after Pablo’s death. First, as Escobedo in Clear and Present Danger, and next for laughs, as Mr. Escobar (no need for an alias since Escobar’s death) in 1995’s Get Shorty starring John Travolta.
In more recent times Escobar has become big business on TV. His rise and fall were chronicled in the first two seasons of the smash Netflix series Narcos as well the wildly popular Columbian TV series Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal. Escobar has been played by Javier Bardem in Loving Pablo and used as a pivotal character in both American Made (Mauricio Mejia) with Tom Cruise and Blow (Cliff Curtis, aka: The actor who has portrayed every ethnicity) with Johnny Depp.
It may be for this very reason the notorious prison-breaking druglord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán sought out Oscar winning actor Sean Penn to perhaps play his own movie-self while he was still on the run in Mexico. In a stranger than fiction twist, El Chapo actually made contact with Penn who miraculously interviewed the famous kingpin for Rolling Stone magazine, all before being eventually re-captured and tried for his crimes.
El Chapo may not have seen the movie on his life while a fugitive from justice but he certainly began casting the lead. As of this writing it remains to be seen if Penn will ever decide to play the infamous drug lord but he gets mad-props for the ultimate in character research.
This next example is not one of a gangster on the run, but rather one who simply outlived all his friends. Meyer Lansky, has been portrayed in film and TV over a dozen times, including by some Oscar winning actors like Ben Kingsley, Richard Dreyfuss, and Dustin Hoffman.
Lansky, born in 1902 as Meier Suchowlanski, was a major figure in organized crime for decades. His association with Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel is the stuff of legend. It’s also mob movie gold. While several portrayals, including Anatol Yusef’s wonderful take on the character in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, were done long after Lansky died, it’s the one from 1974 that had the biggest impact.
The Godfather Part II was the first sequel to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. It continued the tale of the Corleone “Family” moviegoers were dying for. In the first Godfather film two years prior, the character of Moe Greene, clearly based on Lansky’s childhood friend and business partner Bugsy Siegel, set up the Corleone timeline to mirror real life mob history. So it only made sense to continue this trend in the sequel. Moe’s iconic death scene on the massage table is even referenced in Godfather Part II by the character Hyman Roth.
Hyman Roth, the elderly Jewish gangster statesman that was eerily similar to Lansky, plays a major role in the plot to the second Godfather, so much so it directly mirrored things he had recently gone through. In the film, Roth, played by legendary acting teacher Lee Strasburg, is denied entry into Israel as a means to escape the Corleone family vengeance. In real life, Lansky had a similar situation with Israel in which he was denied entry as a ‘Right of Return’ seeker in order to avoid facing charges in the United States. Legend has it after Godfather Part II hit the theaters, Lansky, who would have been in his early seventies at the time, phoned Strasburg to congratulate him on his performance.
In 1981, two years before Lansky’s death, the NBC mini-series The Gangster Chronicles hit the airwaves. It was a sweeping tale of mob history that included the characters of every infamous member of the mafia with one notable exception. Although the series had Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel, to name a few, Lansky’s character was the only one with a different name. Meyer Lanksy in the series became Michael Lasker. Even with Lansky’s failing health it seemed NBC didn’t want to make an enemy out of the wrong man.
This last fugitive may just be the most colorful of them all to watch himself portrayed on screen while in hiding. Notorious Irish mobster Whitey Bulger was recaptured and tried by the time Johnny Depp portrayed him in Black Mass in 2015.
However, like Pablo Escobar, he was still very much at large when the book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill was published in 2001. Bulger spent sixteen years on the run, twelve of which were on the FBI’s famous most wanted list. He was number two on the list only behind Osama Bin Laden. He was featured on the show America’s Most Wanted an astonishing sixteen times. Although Bulger was back inside by the time Depp portrayed him, he did get to watch none other than Jack Nicholson play the character of Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
Although The Departed is adapted from the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs it was widely reported Costello was more than loosely based on Bulger. Nicholson’s over-the-top portrayal of Costello held little back, including among other things, Bulger’s love of cruelty. Before he was eventually captured authorities sought him out, among many other places, at a screening of the film in San Diego thinking he might show. The Departed, like The Godfather Part II, won the Oscar for Best Picture. Bulger was murdered in prison in late October 2018. He was 89 years old.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2001. My movie theater of choice was in Santa Monica, a couple of blocks from where Bulger was living. I saw The Departed there. He could he have easily been sitting next to me.
And if you think that’s scary, he was also a twenty-five-minute cab ride from Jack Nicholson’s house.
Fred Shahadi is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles.
He is the author of the science fiction novel, Shoot the Moon.