Edward Bunker

Bank robber turned crime writer and actor

Saturday 06 August 2005 00:00
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Edward Bunker achieved notoriety a number of times in a life that was rarely less than eventful: as a juvenile delinquent, bank robber and convict, and later as a hard-boiled crime writer and part-time actor - most famously as Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino's violent 1992 heist-gone-spectacularly-wrong movie, Reservoir Dogs.

Bunker was born in Hollywood to parents who were on the fringes of showbiz - his alcoholic father was a stagehand, his mother a chorus girl in vaudeville: they divorced when Bunker was four. Thereafter, his youth was spent in foster homes and reform schools, from which he frequently absconded.

Even in his teens, he was a voracious reader and, at one stage, while at the McKinley Home for Boys, had the luck to be taken up by Louise Wallis, the noted benefactress wife of the Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, who supplied him with a portable typewriter, dictionary and thesaurus (the latter became much-thumbed), as well as introducing him to Tennessee Williams and the British expatriate novelist Aldous Huxley. Bunker later enrolled in a correspondence course in English from UCLA, selling his blood each time he needed to pay the postage.

Even so, crime seemed an easier option than writing. But, after stabbing a guard at a youth detention centre and then escaping from Los Angeles County jail, he was incarcerated in one of California's toughest jails, San Quentin, at 17 its youngest inmate.

Characterised by a prison psychologist as "pitiful, tormented and tormenting", he later served time at one of America's most notorious penitentiaries, Folsom Jail, for bank robbery, as well as other prisons for cheque forgery, drug dealing, assault and general felony.

Bunker began to write seriously in prison, spurred on by the example of a fellow San Quentin inmate, Caryl Chessman, whose best-selling autobiography was written and published while Chessman was on death row. In 1973, while he was still behind bars, Bunker's first novel, No Beast So Fierce, a tense and violent thriller about a paroled thief whose life spirals out of control, was published to wide critical acclaim, especially from the dean of modern, hard-boiled, noir, crime fiction, James Ellroy - "quite simply one of the great crime novels of the past 30 years: perhaps the best novel of the LA underworld ever written".

The book was turned into the 1973 vehicle for Dustin Hoffman (who also co-directed) Straight Time, on which Bunker shared writing credits with Alvin Sargent and Jeffrey Boam. In 1985, he helped, again as co-writer (with Paul Zindel and Djordje Milicevic), bring a bought, paid-for, but never-used movie treatment by the great Akira Kurosawa to cinematic life: Runaway Train, a tense thriller about two cons on the lam played by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. In 2000, he also co-wrote (with John Steppling) the adaptation of his own, brutal, 1977, "big house" drama, The Animal Factory (starring Willem Dafoe), which his friend the actor Steve Buscemi directed.

He wrote other uncompromisingly tough novels and screenplays and found a third career as actor, invariably playing small-time hoods and heisters (in this, his generally villainous mien was helped rather than hindered by a knife scar, from 1953, which extended down one side of his face from forehead to lip).

Although his role as Mr Blue in the opening scenes of Reservoir Dogs was memorable, a good deal of his subsequent footage was edited out by Tarantino and we never see him, unlike most of the other robbers, offed - a character towards the closing moments reveals that Mr Blue is "dead as Dillinger".

His last two books were volumes of gritty autobiography, Mr Blue: memoirs of a renegade (1999; winner of the CWA award for non-fiction) and Education of a Felon (2000), with a preface by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron, who admitted that Bunker had a "unique and compelling voice".

Edward Bunker's view of criminality and prison life was by no means a romantic one, perhaps best summed up by the title of his 1996 novel, Dog Eat Dog. After his work began to be published, he never went back inside.

Jack Adrian

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