Volume 15, No. 2, Summer 1999
by Stuart M. Kaminsky (Sarasota, Florida)
I grew up in Chicago. I edged into distinct middle
age in Chicago. I know the neighborhoods, streets and people of
Chicago almost as well as my characters Abe Lieberman and Bill
Hanrahan. My first short story, written when I was 13, was "Christ
Lives in a Chicago Hotel." It went unpublished.
My favorite mystery writer when I was young was Thomas Dewey, a
wonderful but relatively forgotten author who created a private
eye named Mack who roamed the noir nights of the city I already
knew so well. I wanted to write a Mack novel. Years later I was
thrilled when Carl Kolchak, the night stalker, came to television
and sloshed through the sewers, skyscrapers, museums, and
graveyards of my city. The work of Barbara D'Amato, Hugh Holton,
Sara Paretsky, and many others bring me back to memories of Old
Town, Hyde Park, North Avenue, the Loop, Chinatown and the dark
despair of the West and South Side inner city.
My Lieberman novels probe the ethnic heart of the city.
Haitians, Mexicans, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Indians (from
India) spring to life as I write and remember the range of voices,
the restaurants, the smell of each neighborhood, the looming dark
An experience I had in a crowded Chicago housing project led me
to write a movie, Enemy Territory. All of my memories of the city
are not affirmative but they are strong, real. I remember not
being able to go one block south of the primarily Jewish ghetto in
which my family lived on the West Side. To venture south of 19th
street meant encountering the stares, warnings, and pushing of the
Poles who protected their turf. I was beaten up by a boy named
Willie who caught me taking a short cut through his neighborhood
to get to a basketball game. When I was an adult, I was hit from
behind with a Coke bottle while I was eating a hot dog at a
counter. The assailant, bearded, insane, was quickly caught and
could give no sane reason why he chose to attack me. All of this
shows up in my work.
I don't want to get too poetic, but I'm writing about the city
where my mother, son, granddaughter, sister, nieces, nephews,
cousins still live. The lure of Chicago was so strong for my son
that he left a more than good job as a lawyer in Rockville,
Maryland, to return to the shore of Lake Michigan.
I went to grade school and high school on Chicago's tough West
Side. Just writing this reminds me that my high school, John
Marshall, was a perennial basketball power producing many college
players, a good number of whom went on to the NBA. A story idea.
Lieberman, who went to Marshall and played basketball, encounters
a former player, tall, black, educated, and in trouble. Yes, I'll
use that. It will take me back to Kedzie Avenue and that massive,
ancient red brick school. Memory leaps, ideas dance. Chicago
inspires. Or how about this, Lieberman describes playing
basketball against a much taller and highly aggressive Jesse
Jackson at the University of Chicago gym. Lieberman wins. This is
fiction. I did play with and against Jesse Jackson. He was far
better than I. But Lieberman can win. In the Chicago I create,
Lieberman can win.
Even my new central figure who will appear shortly in a novel
called Vengeance (Forge, September 1999) came from
Chicago though he now lives, as I do, in Sarasota, Florida. Even
Toby Peters found himself in Chicago in You Bet Your Life
(1979). The power of the myth of Capone and Nitti made me take
him there, walk down Wabash past Colosimo's Restuarant which was
still standing in 1942. It was torn down, I believe in the '60s,
but not before I got to see it. I worked off of 22nd Street, also
known as Cermak Road, near Wabash. I was an office boy in a
mob-owned company that made punch boards, those games of chance in
which you paid your nickel or dime or even a dollar, and punched a
piece of paper out of a round hole in the hope that you would
unroll it and find that you had won twenty bucks. The punchboards
were ingeniously hidden inside of fake cigar boxes, candy boxes,
briefcases, books, and framed photographs for transporting over
the Illinois border into every state in the union. Hey, yes, I'll
use that too. A young man who rises in the criminal world after
starting as an office boy in... you get the idea. Chicago and my
memories of it trigger my memory and imagination and always will.
Stuart Kaminsky's Lieberman series started with Lieberman's
Folly (IvyBooks, 1992).
The Legend was born over a game of golf. Of course, like
most legends, this one was conceived in real life, in heroic deeds
performed, dangers courageously faced and overcome, principles of
law defended, corruption withstood, and justice upheld. But it
gestated for over two decades and was not actually born until
1955, on a golf course in New York, where a struggling businessman
named Eliot Ness met a UPI sportswriter named Oscar Fraley.
Ness was trying to persuade Fraley to buy stock in his paper
company. Fraley wasn't interested in the investment opportunity,
but, over cocktails at the Waldorf-Astoria after the game, he was
interested to learn that, prior to going into private business,
Ness had been quite a big noise in the world of law enforcement.
He'd been the leader of a special team of federal agents who'd
helped put away Al Capone. Later, appointed Cleveland's Director
of Public Safety at the age of 34, he'd been the youngest major
city police chief in the country. During World War II, he'd been
head of the Federal Social Protection Agency, essentially the US
government's top vice cop, suppressing prostitution near military
bases in an effort to keep sexually transmitted diseases from
decimating the country's armed forces.
Warming to his subject, Ness regaled Fraley with thrilling
tales of death threats, gun battles, one-way rides, and late night
stakeouts. Five hours later, the veteran journalist was convinced
that Ness's exploits would make a hell of a book. A book on which
he'd be glad to collaborate, if Ness was interested.
Ness provided Fraley with a short written account of his part
in the Capone investigation, along with boxes of newspaper
clippings, case files, financial reports, and other souvenirs of
the period. Fraley slowly fleshed this material out into a
book-length manuscript, The Untouchables (Messner, 1957),
which appeared some two years after that fateful golf course
meeting. The Legend was still in its infancy.
Contrary to subsequent reports, the book was not an immediate
best-seller. Initial sales were respectable, but hardly
spectacular. One of the people who did read it when it first came
out was a television producer named Desi Arnaz.
The TV Show
Arnaz, known to America as "Mr. Lucille Ball" for
his portrayal of bandleader Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy, was the business genius behind the success of Desilu Productions. He was
trying to branch out from situation comedies and had convinced his
network, CBS, to schedule a dramatic anthology series, Desilu
Playhouse, for the 1958-59 season. Sponsored by
Westinghouse, this was to be Arnaz's bid for the kind of prestige
and critical acclaim routinely garnered by shows like US
Steel Hour, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and
Alcoa Hour. Arnaz thought that The
Untouchables would be perfect as an entry in this new
venture. Indeed, if he stretched it out into two one-hour
chapters, he'd be able to sell it abroad as a theatrical feature
film as well as a domestic TV production. He immediately secured
Originally, Arnaz intended the plum lead role of Ness to go to
Van Johnson, but at the last moment, Johnson started dickering for
more money. Arnaz, in no mood for haggling, simply looked around
for a replacement and, only days before filming was due to start,
hired Robert Stack to portray the incorruptible G-Man. The late
William DeAndrea called this "the most perfect bit of casting
since Basil Rathbone became Sherlock Holmes."
Airing late in April 1959, The Untouchables was a national
sensation, prefiguring the kind of coast-to-coast attention that
would be paid to such later broadcast "events" as the final
episode of The Fugitive, the "Who Shot J.R.?" sequence on
Dallas, and serialized TV-movies like Rich
Man, Poor Man or Roots. One of the people who took note of
the national Ness craze was the president of ABC, who contacted
Arnaz and suggested that a series about Ness and his squad be
developed. The Legend was reaching full maturity.
CBS, the network on which Ness had been introduced to a
soon-to-be-adoring public, had been snookered. In effect, they'd
aired the pilot for a series that would debut on a competing
network the following fall.
Stack was kept on as Ness, of course. Bruce Gordon, as Capone's
still-at-large right-hand man, Frank Nitti, was also persuaded to
continue. Gossip columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell,
who'd added a touch of period authenticity as the narrator of the
pilot, would serve the same function in the series. Aside from
Stack, the only other returning Untouchable was Abel Fernandez as
Bill Youngfellow (the fictional analog for real-life Agent Bill
Gardner). Other members of the squad were either re-cast or
dropped from the roster altogether. Ironically, Nicholas Georgiade
and Paul Picerni, who'd played swarthy Mediterranean hoods in the
pilot, wound up playing swarthy Mediterranean Feds in the
An immediate critical and ratings hit, The Untouchables
television series was also an immediate controversy. In its four
years on the air, the show would be accused of anti-Italian bias
(in fact, the Italian Anti-Defamation League was formed in
response to this show), of engendering violence (forty years later
it's still one of the most violent shows ever broadcast), and of
playing fast and loose with the facts.
This last accusation was not unfounded. The pilot had pretty
much stuck to history, but it ended with Capone being jailed,
which left comparatively little real life on which to base the
subsequent series. And the longer the series lasted, the farther
from real life it strayed. No longer merely an operative of the
Justice Department's Prohibition Bureau, as he had been in real
life, in the book, and in the Desilu Playhouse
presentation, Ness was now referred to as simply a generic
"Federal Agent," an all-purpose investigator who not only knocked
over breweries and speakeasies, as the real-life Ness did, but was
in charge of cracking any kind of crime whatsoever that the US
Government might take an interest in. In the course of the series,
Ness would tangle with such diverse federal offenders as narcotics
traffickers, interstate truck hijackers, bank robbers, white
slavers, postal train robbers, counterfeiters, kidnappers, and
even, in one fanciful episode, Nazi spies.
And, as if getting Capone wasn't enough, the series would
credit Ness with ending the careers of Ma Barker and her boys,
Dutch Schultz, Walter Leganza, Mad Dog Coll, and Legs Diamond,
among many others. When the writers ran out of real-life bad guys
to pit against Ness, they simply started making up fictional ones.
The Legend was being transformed into Myth.
Stack's tough, flinty performance as the no-nonsense Ness is
what most people remember from the series. Indeed, to this day,
Stack is Ness to most people. It's hard to recall that he started
his career as the boyish romantic lead in movies like First
Love or To Be or Not To Be, so identified is
he with hard, taciturn crime-busters. In fact, his Ness was so
definitive that he's been saddled with the image ever since,
spoofing it on programs like The Lucy Show, or,
essentially, repeating it in later series like Most
Wanted (in which he played a tough, incorruptible
policeman who commanded of an elite squad of special
investigators), Strike Force (in which he played a
tough, incorruptible policeman who commanded of an elite squad of
special investigators), or The Name of the Game (in
which he played a former federal agent who'd left law enforcement
to edit a true crime magazine; Eliot Ness as journalist). As the
host of Unsolved Mysteries, he continued to trade on
his Ness image, introducing stories in the same clipped, macho
tones he'd used decades earlier to announce that some born-sorry
scum was under arrest. In 1991, he finally surrendered to the
inevitable and, in a made-for-TV "reunion" movie entitled
The Return of Eliot Ness, he resumed the role
that he'd made famous. That he'd made Legendary.
For, make no mistake, Stack is the person most responsible for
nurturing the Legend of Eliot Ness. Fraley, Arnaz, line producer
Quinn Martin (who'd start his own company, QM Productions, on the
strength of his work on The Untouchables) all would
play their parts, but not even Ness himself had as big a hand in
the Legend as Stack did. Show most people a picture of Stack in a
gray, three-piece suit, snap-brim fedora, and shoulder holster,
and they'll say "Eliot Ness." Show most people a picture of the
genuine article and they'll say "Who's that?"
With the Legend now in full swing, Ness began to appear in
other media. Comic books, board games, bubble gum trading cards,
all cashed in on the famed gangbuster's notoriety. Desilu stitched
together two-part episodes of the series and released them to
theatres as feature-length films. Paperback reprints of the book
finally achieved the best-seller status that eluded the hardbound
edition, and Fraley cashed in on the success by writing two more
volumes about Ness, Four Against the Mob (Popular, 1961),
detailing Ness's later career with the Cleveland Police, and, in
collaboration with former Ness staffer Paul Robsky, The Last of
the Untouchables (River City, 1962), re-telling the story of
the government's war against Capone from the point of view of one
of the foot-soldiers rather than the general.
Ironically, Ness, who, during his crime-fighting days, had so
savored personal publicity that mobsters derisively referred to
him as "Eliot Press," never got to enjoy his renewed fame. He died
suddenly in 1957, just weeks before his book appeared in stores.
Stack's performance as Ness was masterful, but, to many who
knew the man in real life, it hit wide of the mark. Ness's
business partner, Bill Ayers has said, "I still get a little upset
when he's depicted as the John Wayne type. That wasn't Eliot's
style at all. He was very mild-mannered." Ness's widow, the former
Elizabeth Anderson, praised Stack's portrayal. "I like Robert
Stack in Eliot's role on TV," she said. But added, "Stack is so
grim-faced through it all, and you know Eliot wasn't like that."
The series remained immensely popular in syndicated
reruns, and, in the mid-80s, when Paramount Pictures (which had
taken over Desilu in 1967) reviewed its properties to see what
might be ripe for film development, The Untouchables
suddenly seemed just the thing on which to build a
big-budget movie. Brian DePalma was slated to direct, and Pulitzer
Prize-winning playwright David Mamet was hired to write the
screenplay. But who would play Ness? As the project worked its way
through "development hell," a number of possibilities were
mentioned, including Mel Gibson and Kevin Kline. But nobody the
producers could think of seemed capable of erasing Robert Stack
from the public memory. Ultimately, it was decided that, rather
than trying to recreate the Stack characterization, an actor
should be cast who could strike an entirely different note. Kevin
Costner, the young actor eventually hired to portray the ace
investigator, did just that.
The script depicted Ness as a somewhat callow youth,
inexperienced in the real world of rough-and-ready police work,
easily shocked by the casual corruption he finds in Capone's
Chicago, easily duped by brother law officers on the Outfit's pad.
This Ness is a novice who must learn the ropes before making any
headway against Capone's organization.
Sean Connery was cast as Jim Malone, a veteran, street-smart
beat cop who signs on as a federal agent and becomes Ness's
mentor, teaching him those ropes. This role that would win him an
Oscar. Robert DeNiro made a memorable Capone, who, though on
screen for less than ten minutes, seemed to dominate the entire
movie. Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith filled out the rest of
Retired Special Agent Al "Wallpaper" Wolff, the last surviving
member of Ness's real-life team, was hired as a consultant. He
advised Costner that Ness was "passive," and that's how Costner
played him. Far from the steely avenger portrayed by Stack,
Costner's Ness is almost bashful. Caught between the bravura
performances of Connery and DeNiro, Costner underplays so much
that he almost seems to disappear.
And the portrayal of Ness isn't the only way the film diverged
from the TV series. Colorful, and filmed in color, where the
series was atmospherically noir, and filmed in black and white;
epic, indeed almost operatic, where the TV series was gritty and
claustrophobic; filmed on location where the series had been
studio-shot; DePalma seemed to be almost deliberately avoiding any
similarities with the film's television source.
In the matter of straying from history, the movie more than
outdoes the series. Indeed, notorious though the TV show was for
its divergence from real life, it seemed a shining beacon of truth
compared to the film. Ness is portrayed as a husband and father
during a period when he was still single, as a Treasury Agent when
he worked (during the Capone investigation, at least) for the
Justice Department, as having a daughter when his only child was a
son, as being from out-of-town when he was a native Chicagoan. He
recruits his special squad by chance and luck rather than by
painstaking investigations of potential candidates' personal
histories. At one point, he murders an adversary and later states
that he is "content that I've done right."
The film goes from merely being poorly researched to downright
ludicrous, bordering on surrealistic, during the scenes depicting
Capone's income tax trial. Juries are switched in the middle of
trials. Juries hear divorce cases. And they hear them in federal
courts. Capone's lawyer pleads his client guilty, and the plea is
accepted over the defendant's violent protests. A judge who, in
real life, had a well-deserved reputation for probity and
integrity, is depicted as a venal grafter.
As annoying as these discrepancies are to me, I do have to
confess that I love the film. For all its flaws, it's grand
entertainment, masterfully helmed by DePalma. And, while I
personally found Costner's performance as Ness lackluster, it must
be admitted that the role did catapult him to stardom. The Legend
now had alternate interpretations.
Like the TV series, the film was a big success, both critically
and commercially, and like the TV series, it spawned a new cycle
of Ness-related products that kept Chicago's most famous Fed in
the public eye. Mystery writers like Max Allan Collins wrote
novels fictionalizing Ness's real-life cases. Robert Stack resumed
the role in the previously mentioned TV-movie. All of Fraley's
Ness books were reprinted, yet again. TV documentaries attempted
to separate the facts of Ness's life from the fiction. Journalist
Paul Heimel did the same thing in a newly-published biography
entitled Eliot Ness -- The Real Story (Knox, 1997). The
Legend gained renewed strength,
And before too long there was a second TV series.
The 2nd TV Show
Syndicated to local stations, this new version of
The Untouchables debuted in 1993 as part of a
package deal with Paramount's latest Star Trek
spin-off, Deep Space Nine. It tried to synthesize
the best elements of the earlier series and the 1987 film.
As in the series (and real life for that matter), Ness recruits
his staff through careful examination of their backgrounds. As in
the film, the new show was shot on location in Chicago. As in the
series, many of the new TV Untouchables were based on real-life
counterparts. As in the film, the most prominent Untouchable, save
for Ness himself, was a totally fictional veteran Chicago cop
turned federal agent named Malone (Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies
taking over from Connery). Silhouettes of Ness and his men
introduced each "act" of the episode, recalling the similar logo
used in the original show. Ness's main adversary throughout the
run of the new series, as he had been the film, was Capone
himself, rather than a rotating cast of revolving "guest villains"
for Ness to contend with following Capone's imprisonment.
The new series began with Ness being assigned to get Capone. It
ended with Capone's conviction on tax evasion charges. As it
progressed, the steady movement towards a defined climax gave
viewers a greater sense of continuity than had been the case with
the more self-contained episodes of the original show.
The program was extraordinarily well-cast. Rhys-Davies's Malone
was every bit as interesting a character as Connery's had been.
William Forsythe portrayed Capone as an intelligent, articulate,
often contemplative man, capable of engendering sympathy from the
audience in a way previous Capone portrayers did not. This made
his sudden outbursts of anger and violence that much more
frightening. Paul Regina as Capone's right-hand man, Frank Nitti,
was neither the blustering, Damon Runyonesque character portrayed
by Bruce Gordon in the original series, nor the almost
supernaturally reptilian figure portrayed by Billy Drago in the
film, but simply a cold-blooded, supremely competent business
executive whose business happened to be crime.
Other cast members included Valentino Cimo, repeating the role
of Capone henchman Frankie Rio he had originated in the movie;
David John Elliott as Ness's wire-tap expert Paul Robbins (a
fictionalized version of Paul Robsky); and American Indian actor
Michael Horse as George Steelman (another fictional counterpart to
real-life Ness team member Bill Gardner). The squad was filled out
by John Haymes Newton and Shea Farrell. All handled their parts
with professional competence.
But the master stroke was casting a local Chicago stage actor,
Tom Amandes, as Ness. Technically superior as a performer to both
Stack and Costner, Amandes had the added advantage of a closer
physical resemblance to the real-life figure than either of his
predecessors. Tall, and slender almost to the point of gangliness,
Amandes in a three piece suit and snap-brim fedora reminded one of
a young James Stewart. He put this likeness to good use, managing
to bring a Stack-like resilience and self-assurance to the Ness
role, while still suggesting the kind of boyish idealism Costner
tried to put across.
With a fine cast, a lavish budget, and one of the most famous
real-life duels between lawman and law-breaker from which to draw
its stories, the new program seemed to have everything going for
it. Everything but scripts.
None of the episodes was badly written, and, in fact, some were
quite good. But few had the spark and juice that a typical episode
from the classic series had. And, though the producers bragged
that "this time" more attention would be paid to historical
accuracy, the new series was probably the most historically
inaccurate version yet.
Ness was, once again, incorrectly identified as a Treasury
Agent, rather than as the Justice Department operative he had been
in real life, or even as the vaguely defined "Federal Agent" he'd
been in the original show. And, while that original series had
broadened the scope of Ness's jurisdiction for its fictional
purposes, they at least made some effort to keep his activities
confined to violations of US law. Amandes's Ness had no such
restrictions. If he felt like investigating it, he investigated
it, whether it was a federal offense or not. In one episode he
goes after a serial killer. In another after the murderer of a
city cop. In a third, the machine-gunner of an altar boys'
Ness and Capone, who never met face-to-face in real life until
after Capone's conviction, met almost weekly in the series. In one
episode, they even strap on boxing gloves and step into a ring for
a toe-to-toe public bout in which Ness represents law enforcement
and Capone the forces of crime
In the two-part finale, Capone's trial for tax evasion takes
place in the midst of his campaign for a seat in the United States
Senate. My wife, hardly a student of Chicago's gangster history
(indeed a self-avowed non-student of Chicago's gangster history),
was nevertheless familiar enough with the era to know that was
ludicrous. As we watched Capone announce his candidacy, she turned
to me and asked, "Who writes this stuff?"
A good question. Many of the writers of the original series
(e.g. novelist W.R. Burnett, author of Little Caesar,
1929), had been there in Chicago while the real events had
been going on, and, however much they may have embellished the
truth for fictional purposes, their fiction was nonetheless
informed by real life, a real life they had lived through. This
gave even their scripts the bite of authenticity.
The writers of the new show, on the other hand, seemed to have
gained their knowledge of the period from movies. Indeed, where
the original show would often take real-life events and
fictionalize them by inserting Ness, the new series would adapt
famous movies (uncredited) and insert Ness into the familiar
plots. The aforementioned serial killer episode, a two-parter in
which Ness and Capone agree to work together to nail a murderer
preying on small children, was a remake of the famous German crime
film M. An episode in which Capone has Ness kidnapped and
brainwashed into thinking he's been in a coma for five years so
that he'll reveal the whereabouts of crucial evidence, was easily
recognizable as a rip-off of the 1962 espionage thriller 36
Hours. Other famous suspense films that inspired episodes
of the new series included Laura, The Day of
the Jackal, Stakeout, and Fatal Attraction.
Whatever its faults or virtues, the revival series deserves
credit for one transcendent moment that occurred early in the
series. Prior to being cast as Untouchables, Michael Horse had
played Tonto in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and
John Haymes Newton had portrayed the adolescent Clark Kent (and
his super-powered alter ego) for the syndicated TV show
Superboy. In the third or fourth episode of the
revived Untouchables series, Horse and Newton,
staked out at a mob stronghold, wind up in a blistering gun battle
with a couple of Capone's goons. As I watched this scene I turned
to my wife and asked, "Do you know what's going on here?"
"Sure," she said. "Another stupid, violent gunfight on some cop
"Not just any gunfight," I replied. "Superman and Tonto are
shooting it out with members of the Capone mob. Superman and Tonto
are working for Eliot Ness."
The Legend had grown beyond the proportions of mere Myth, and
had attained the status of Pop Culture Icon.
For some reason, she failed to understand the historical
importance of this event.