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Nicholas Pileggi on How He Made ‘American Gangster’ Happen

Photo: Patrick McMullan; Courtesy of Universal

Among hardened crime reporters and jealous aspiring screenwriters alike, Nicholas Pileggi is that bastard writer who managed to turn his book, Wiseguy, about the rise of a mob underling, into a Martin Scorsese movie: Goodfellas. You may have heard of it. But to our colleague Mark Jacobson, Pileggi’s the generous buddy who gave him the idea for a story about Manhattan heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, which Mark then wrote for this magazine and managed to turn into a Ridley Scott movie, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, out November 2.

The first time Pileggi met Frank Lucas, he told us when we spoke to him earlier this week, was 1981. “I realized it really was a great story, but he was in prison, so what could you do?” Once Lucas got out of jail in 2001, Pileggi says, he put him together with Jacobson, and the two reporters took a curious trip to L.A. to sell the movie rights, accompanied by the stars of the story. “It was wild. It was just so unusual. The three people who went out there were Mark Jacobson, who I don’t think had ever been to a Hollywood meeting before; Frank Lucas, who was a just-gotten-out-of-prison drug dealer; and Richie Roberts, the cop who put him in prison and then helped get him out because he cooperated so well. Lucas and Roberts are closest pals! It was very funny. But it worked.” —Jada Yuan

Earlier: Is ‘American Gangster’ the Black ‘Godfather’?
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Nicholas Pileggi on How He Made ‘American Gangster’ Happen