Monday, November 12, 2007

Spotlight on American Gangster

Frank Lucas, at 77 years old and wheelchair-bound, still has a small gang doting on him.

Sons, publicists and friends swirl around Lucas in nearly perpetual commotion, fetching him everything from pills to a cooling fan. A recent visitor is directed kindly -- though in no uncertain terms -- in and out of the room. There's still plenty of power left in Lucas's presence, even though his days as a Harlem drug lord are decades past, his millions long ago seized by the government.

Lucas is again in the spotlight because of "American Gangster," the Ridley Scott-directed film in which Denzel Washington portrays Lucas. A special as part of BET's "American Gangster" series also recently profiled him.

"If you can find one better than Denzel Washington, I want you to tell me," says Lucas, in a halting drawl similar to bluesman John Lee Hooker's. "What's their name? What's their name?" Video Watch Washington and Russell Crowe discuss the film »

Lucas's story is unbelievable even by Hollywood standards. After a childhood in North Carolina, he moved to New York, eventually becoming the driver for and pupil of Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a powerful Harlem gangster.
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After Johnson's death, Lucas, who went by the nickname "Superfly," took over his heroin dealing business, but made one audacious change: He established his own drug connection, cutting out the middleman and landing huge amounts of nearly pure heroin. Sold on the street as "Blue Magic," it netted him an incredible profit -- up to $1 million in revenue a day, Lucas claims.

He managed this by buying his dope in the jungles of Vietnam, tipped off by U.S. soldiers then fighting in the war. To get the drugs back to the States, Lucas established the infamous "cadaver connection," hiding the heroin in the caskets of dead soldiers.

Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, who prosecuted Lucas and played a major role in bringing him down, once called the operation "one of the most outrageous dope-smuggling gangs ever."

Lucas wasn't the only arrogant gangster in New York then. His rival, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the film) appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in an article titled "Mr. Untouchable" -- which prompted President Jimmy Carter to pressure for a crackdown.

In "American Gangster," Lucas is depicted to a certain degree as an entrepreneur who broke through the racial barriers of traditional organized crime. "That had nothing to do with it," says Lucas, who also sold his drugs to Italian mob families. "I saw an opening, a soft spot -- the soft part of the belly -- and I took advantage of it."

After Lucas was arrested in 1975, his sentences in New York and New Jersey added up to 70 years in prison and he quickly turned into a government informant, most notably against the then-corrupt Special Investigations Unit of the NYPD.

Out of 70 SIU officers, 52 were eventually either jailed or indicted. Lucas claims he only informed on corrupt police officers. He insists: "The only people I every ever informed on were them ... cops who took my money."

But prosecutors involved in the case have contradicted that. Richard "Richie" Roberts, who prosecuted the superseding indictment in New Jersey, says plainly: "Absolutely not. He gets mad every time I tell the truth."

Lucas's sentence was reduced to five years after his informant work. Once released, Lucas was quickly arrested again for drug dealing, but on a much smaller scale. He served seven more years and, when he got out of jail in 1991, Roberts came to his aid ("I couldn't buy a pack of cigarettes," says Lucas).

Today, they are good friends. Roberts is Lucas's defense attorney and the godfather to his 11-year-old son, Ray, whose education Roberts has paid for. "We've had our ups and downs over the years," says Roberts, speaking from his New Jersey law office. "The charm that Denzel exhibited in the movie was the way Frank was. Frank would probably shoot you and make you feel pretty good as you were dying."

Russell Crowe plays Roberts in the film, though the character is a composite of the many detectives and prosecutors who arrested and tried Lucas. Lucas for a moment hesitates to speak ill of his friend, but the inflated screen persona given to Roberts riles him.

"Richie Roberts and his crack crew couldn't catch a ... bad cold in Alaska in the wintertime," he says with undimmed competitiveness. "They were the bad-news cops."

It was originally Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote "Wiseguys," the book "Goodfellas" was based on) who brought attention to Lucas' story. He introduced Lucas to writer Mark Jacobson, whose 2000 New York Magazine article was the basis for "American Gangster."

Lucas, Roberts, Pileggi and Jacobson flew to L.A. together to meet with producer Brian Grazer, who Pileggi says, snapping his fingers, "bought it right in the room."

The stars of "American Gangster" and its writer, Steve Zaillian, consulted heavily with Lucas and Roberts. Lucas was present almost daily on the Harlem film set, lending Washington frequent advice on details like how he taped his gun.

On the BET special, Washington said about Lucas: "He'll have you working for him by the end of the day."

Of the slow pace of film productions, Lucas poetically says: "It was kind of like watching a flower grow in the nighttime." He then adds with phrasing rather alarming coming from a former gangster: "The way they do it is not according to Jim, you know what I mean? I usually am bang, bang, bang -- I'm gone."

Lucas, who lives with his wife and youngest son in Newark, New Jersey, says that the experience couldn't help but rekindle his memories. "You're back in the saaame thing," he says with a laugh. "The girls I knew, some of them came up claiming they got kids by me. Since I started making the movie, I got 10 more sons."

But Lucas says he's repentant. Aside from any murders he himself committed or had carried out, the strength of Lucas's potent heroin killed many young users. "I regret it very much so," he says. "I did some terrible things. I'm awfully sorry that I did them. I really am."

Many of those who lived through the events depicted in "American Gangster" worry the film could glamorize Lucas' drug-dealing days.

Pileggi, also an executive producer on the film, says he hopes "American Gangster" above all makes clear "that you're going to get caught, even if you're as clever and try to be as laid-back as (Lucas)."

"He can never redeem what he did, he can never bring those kids back or clean up the schoolyards, but there is rebirth or redemption in realizing what you did was bad," says Pileggi.
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Lucas now touts a charity founded by his daughter, Francine Lucas-Sinclair, that seeks to raise money for the children of incarcerated parents (http://yellowbrickroads.org).

"I always keep my eye on the prize," says Lucas. "The film, in three or four months, it'll be gone -- but I'll still be here. And I gotta keep the fire burning.

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