Wednesday, February 27, 2013

High Mass: Whitey Bulger, LSD and a Devil's Deal

Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger? Yup, the actor who played Dillinger in "Public Enemies" is going to play another crime icon, and the movie is slated for release next year. More about that later.

Dick Lehr, a former Boston Globe reporter and co-author of a new book about the life of James "Whitey" Bulger was in L.A. last night, and he brought along screenwriter Mark Mallouk who has adapted Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's previous tome, "Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal" for a movie that is to begin filming in Boston this summer. Depp and director Barry Levinson are both attached. Levinson is also in pre-production with "Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father."

James "Whitey" Bulger, 1956
Whitey, the crime boss who went on the lam and got busted here in Santa Monica, was an outstanding figure among underworld bosses, said Lehr. "His gang had reach." Whitey not only controlled Boston rackets, he had a hand in fixing horse races up and down the East Coast, and had a money skimming scam netting him $10,000 per week from World Jai Alai. He is a suspect in 19 homicides, including that of World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler.

Lehr read from his latest book, recounting Whitey's prison years in Atlanta in the 1950s, where he volunteered to participate in studies on what was a new drug in the United States, LSD. Psychiatrists thought that LSD might be a useful tool in the study of criminal psychopaths. However, Lehr says the CIA also got into the act and tested numerous other drugs on prisoners. We'll likely never know which substances were used in the testing because all records were destroyed. As you might expect, the agency's shadowy behavior during that study resulted in quite a scandal.

Whitey is probably most noted for having compromised the nation's leading law enforcement agency, the FBI. The G-Men protected him from prosecution for the crimes he committed in return for information he provided that helped smash Boston Mafioso operations. FBI agent John Connolly, who came from Whitey's South Boston neighborhood, was instrumental in setting up the quid pro quo deal between Whitey and the FBI. Connolly said of his first meeting with the infamous Whitey, "It was like meeting Ted Williams," the legendary Red Sox slugger.

Lehr noted that, aside from the FBI, Whitey conned other notable figures into helping him sidestep the penalties due to him, including speaker of the U.S. House John McCormack, and Father Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest and dean of Boston College Law School, who would later become a Massachusetts congressman.

"McCormack's fingerprints are all over Whitey's records," noted Lehr. The House speaker stepped up to the plate for Whitey, as did Drinan, and saw to his early release from detention, including two years served in Alcatraz when the norm for most inmates was an eight year stretch.

Whitey's most commonly heard refrain was, I'm no angel, but I'm not ... fill in the blanks: As bad as they say. A drug pusher. A murderer. Of course, his self-assessment was dubious at best.

Ed Harris, left, Whitey, right
As for the movie, both Lehr and Mallouk have no control over casting, so they can't be blamed for the choices that have been made. While I like Johnny Depp, I can think of few actors less suited to play Whitey -- how about Ed Harris instead? Of course, Harris doesn't have Depp's A-List credentials, and in Hollywood that's the only thing that counts. I thought Depp was also miscast as Dillinger, and of course the movie bombed. But in tinseltown, A-Listers are allowed to repeat their mistakes -- until they're no longer A-Listers.

Whitey, being the notorious narcissist that he is, is undoubtedly aware of and concerned about the movie project. Someone last night asked Lehr if a special screening is in the cards for Whitey, who is sitting in a Plymouth County jail cell awaiting trial. "Whitey isn't going to be having any special screenings," the author said.


  1. Some upcoming noir classics that may tickle your interests:

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