Sentenced to Hollywood

Eddie Bunker was a con. Now he's a writer and tinseltown player. So what's new? By Tom Dewe Matthews
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The Independent Culture
Maybe the heavens knew that Eddie Bunker would become a legendary writer - certainly nobody else knew. Conceived during an earthquake, in and out of reform schools from the age of seven, Bunker was thrown naked into a cell at nine and handcuffed to a jail drainpipe at 15 - whereupon three cops took it in turns to beat him up. A year later - and 29 days into freedom - he was caught trying to rob a liquor store. After stabbing a guard at the detention centre, Eddie saw the inside of a series of "state monasteries" - the last of which he escaped from. By now, however, Eddie's luck had run out. He was sentenced to a six-months-to-10-year term in San Quentin, where, despite being the youngest inmate, he soon found himself banged up in "the hole". Right across the way was Death Row and from there the young con could hear San Quentin's most famous inmate, the murderer Caryl Chessman, clacking away on a typewriter. Eddie thought, "Man, if this guy can do it, why can't I?" Thus the writer, if not the man, was born.

Now Eddie Bunker is established as part of the new wave of exceptional crime writers coming out of the US. Fellow noir novelist James Elroy heralded Bunker's first book No Beast So Fierce as "a criminal classic", and the eminent author William Styron says the latest - Dog Eat Dog - is "a novel of excruciating authenticity, with great moral and social resonance". But at the time of his first adult incarceration, Bunker says, "I didn't realise it would take 17 years and six books before I'd get one published. I had to sell my blood to get the postage."

In a gravelly voice that sounds more as if it's coming out of an ashtray than over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, the 62-year-old ex- convict recalls his dual apprenticeship in robbing and writing. "Once you've been locked up, you're locked out. With a background like mine, there was no way I was going to succeed in society. I realised at 19 that I either had to make it writing or make it stealing. So I did one or the other. I wrote in prison and stole when I got out."

So, in tandem with his study of elementary grammar in the "joint", Bunker honed his criminal skills on the outside. Graduating as a fine-fingered expert of the "short con", he then moved on to forgery, safebreaking and marching managers from the front of stores back out to where they kept their safes. "Unlike today's gangbangers," Eddie comments, "I never had to fire a shot," but then pauses, ", no, I take that back. I fired a shot once over somebody's head to make them go back around a building. But," he emphasises, "I never tried to shoot anybody."

But Eddie also had ample opportunity to develop his alternative profession as a writer. For he soon returned to his alma mater San Quentin - this time, for seven years on a "forgery beef". "In a Californian maximum security prison," he remembers, "they lock you in a cell at 4.30 in the afternoon and let you out at eight in the morning. So, whattya gonna do? You got a lot of time to read and write. I read all the books on How to Be a Commercial Writer and all the gimmicks, you know, but I hadn't sold anything, so I said, 'Fuck it, I'm just gonna write a book from the viewpoint of a thief, a criminal, a robber - and tell the truth.' Because most books about criminals are still the writer analysing the criminal and talking from a societal view, like observing him. But No Beast So Fierce is the criminal observing society."

While waiting upon word from his New York publisher, Eddie was released on parole. Unfortunately, however, he decided in the meantime to return to southern California to rob "a prosperous little Beverly Hills bank". "I didn't realise the cops were on to me. They thought I'd come to LA to pick up some drugs, so they wired up my car with a beeper and followed me with a helicopter and five carloads of narcs." Outside the front door of the bank, pandemonium broke out as the thwarted robber was suddenly recognised. Bunker leapt into his car and a long chase ensued. "I kept losing them and I couldn't understand why they kept getting back on my tail. They eventually got me."

At this point it looked as if the 36-year-old prison veteran - and "three- time loser" - would be permanently encased in concrete. But while he was waiting for trial in 1973, Bunker's sixth novel, No Beast So Fierce, was finally published and immediately won him considerable acclaim. Even the trial judge was impressed enough by the book's notices to hand down a minimum sentence of five years. A corner had been turned. The world outside now wanted Eddie Bunker; indeed the world in the shape of Hollywood was coming to him. For who should be knocking at the door of his cell but Dustin Hoffman in search of the movie rights to No Beast. Suddenly Eddie Bunker had three legitimate careers: he was co-writing the screenplay of No Beast (which was to become the 1978 movie Straight Time) in the prison waiting-room with the writer Alvin Sargent; and then, once he was on the outside again, he not only became the film's technical consultant but also landed a small part in a scene with Hoffman.

Nowadays, Eddie is a Hollywood player. He co-wrote the script of the white-knuckle convict movie Runaway Train in 1984. Since then he's been a technical consultant on various crime movies. His new novel, Dog Eat Dog, has already been optioned for the screen by the producer Ed Pressman, and he's done enough work as an actor to qualify for a union pension. What's more, his status in "the business" took a quantum leap four years ago when he became a Reservoir Dog.

Cast as "Mr Blue" in Quentin Tarantino's first film, Eddie had mixed feelings about the movie-mad director when he first arrived on the set. "There's a goofus quality about him that reminded me of guys in the joint who're usually into some way-out crime. You know, those criminal geniuses with the big plan." Also, he thought that the film was likely to suffer from a lack of professional veracity. "I mean it was absurd. There was these guys going to pull this big robbery and they're sitting in a coffee shop all dressed alike. Also, if you have that many people in a gang, you're gonna get caught because somebody's gonna talk to his wife."

But when he saw the "actual product", Eddie couldn't help but be impressed. "I've got to tell you," he says, "I've learnt things about writing movies from watching Reservoir Dogs. When you read the script, you can't visualise the movie - so it couldn't have been made by anybody else. It had to be made by the guy who wrote it."

In spite of his belief that "you can trust a thief more than you can trust movie agents", Eddie has put his roots down in Hollywood. Maybe that's because he is a true child of the "city of lights". Back in the days of his terrifyingly short-lived childhood, his father was a studio stage hand, while his mother performed as a chorus girl in Busby Berkeley movies.

Now Eddie has his own child - a two-year-old son - and, as he starts to talk about the boy, he suddenly repeats a line from one of his own books: "that's the point of children, to have someone to pin hope to"."It's special," he then says, and, for the first and last time in the conversation, a trace of softness enters his voice.

n Eddie Bunker will be giving talks on the following dates: 7.30pm tonight, at the National Film Theatre,Upper Ground, London SE1 (introducing 'Runaway Train'), booking 0171-928 3232; and 7pm on 23 July, at the Cameo Cinema, 13 Hope Street, Edinburgh (introducing 'Straight Time'), booking 0131- 556 3034

n 'Dog Eat Dog' is published on 29 July by the No Exit Press