American Gangster

By on May 15, 2010

Following the death of his employer and mentor, Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas establishes himself as the number one importer of heroin in the Harlem district of Manhattan. He does so by buying heroin directly from the source in South East Asia, coming up with unique way of importing the drugs into the US, and establishing a reputation as having the purest, highest quality product at the lowest possible prices. At his peak, Frank Lucas claimed his organization was taking in 1 Million a day. Forging an alliance with the New York Mafia only further guarantees his position as an underworld kingpin. It is also the story of a dedicated and honest policeman, Richie Roberts, who heads up a joint narcotics task force with the Federal government. Based on a true story.

Antoine Fuqua was originally set to direct this project in 2004 with Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro starring, but production was halted one month before shooting after Universal Pictures canceled the film over budget concerns.

Dania Ramirez was originally cast in the film when Antoine Fuqua was still directing the production.

After Terry George’s screenplay was turned down, Steven Zaillian was re-hired to write another draft of his own screenplay.

When Terry George was set to direct the film with Don Cheadle in the leading role, Joaquin Phoenix was a definite consideration for the role of Richie Roberts. Phoenix previously co-starred with Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000), which was also directed by Ridley Scott.

Russell Crowe requested tape recordings of Richie Roberts speaking in order to match his voice mannerisms accurately.

During the very first stages of production, this film had a number of different titles, such as “Tru Blu” and “The Return of Superfly”.

Screenwriter Terry George was brought on to rewrite the script in order to downsize the project’s budget to $50 million when it was first revitalized in March 2005. George had planned on reuniting with his Hotel Rwanda (2004) lead, Don Cheadle, to portray Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin kingpin.

When director Antoine Fuqua was attached to the project, he pursued Ray Liotta and John C. Reilly for supporting roles. This was one of many budget-related concerns that lead to Universal’s cancellation of this production while it was under Fuqua’s management.

When this project was canceled by Universal, actors Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro received their salaries nonetheless. A pay-or-play deal was stipulated in both of their contracts that Universal would pay Washington $20 million and Del Toro $5 million regardless of whether the film was made or not. Once this project was green-lit by Universal a second time, under Ridley Scott’s direction, Washington returned to the project without an upfront fee. He also received half of his $20 million salary for the previous year’s Inside Man (2006), another Imagine Entertainment production.

While filming on-location in the Chiang Mai province of Thailand, Ridley Scott hired many extras from the local villages, some of whom were actual participants in the drug-running operation of Frank Lucas during the Vietnam War.

Director Ridley Scott had read the first draft of Steven Zaillian’s screenplay before filming Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and instantly became interested in directing it. While filming his next feature, A Good Year (2006), Scott and Russell Crowe extensively discussed the project, which ultimately led to them signing on.

Russell Crowe and Brad Pitt were director Ridley Scott and producer Brian Grazer’s first two choices to portray Richie Roberts. Crowe was ultimately cast in the role.


James Gandolfini was offered the role of Detective Trupo, but turned it down.

Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts were on-set consultants to director Ridley Scott and the crew throughout filming.

The story was first inspired by an article in New York Magazine written by Mark Jacobson. He was introduced to the real Frank Lucas by author Nicholas Pileggi. Not long afterwards, Pileggi encouraged Steven Zaillian to write an adaptation of Jacobson’s article. While Zaillian was working on this, producer Brian Grazer bought the rights to the project.

Ridley Scott recalls that this production was one of the most massive undertakings of his career. There were 360 scenes filmed in over 180 different locations.

Clarence Williams III portrays Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson in an uncredited appearance. Williams was in another Harlem crime drama, Hoodlum (1997), which was about ‘Bumpy’ Johnson. In that, he played a gangster named ‘Bub’ Hewlett.

The car driven by Richie Roberts is a Volkswagen 1600 Variant (Type 3). There was a dual-carbureted, air-cooled engine installed underneath the rear trunk.

In the much-forgotten sci-fi action thriller, Virtuosity (1995), Denzel Washington starred as a heroic policeman while a then-unknown Russell Crowe was cast as the villain.

Even though he plays his father, Common is only eight years older than T.I. in real life.

In the late 1980s, screenwriter Thomas Lee Wright wrote an outline of The Godfather: Part III (1990) for Francis Ford Coppola. Included in Wright’s version was a character based off of famed Harlem gangster, Leroy ‘Nicky’ Barnes (portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in this film). During the time that Coppola was considering this idea, Wright discussed the role with Eddie Murphy, who immediately accepted the role without reading a script.

In this movie the French Connection is mentioned at least two times. At first we hear about in Rossi’s voice-over when Trupo and his squad gets the heroin from the evidence room. Rossi talks about Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. This were the real-life officers which busted the real French Connection between Octobre 1961 and February 1962. The second time is when Trupo visits Richie Roberts in his HQ he mentions again The French Connection and Fernando Rey. Fernando Rey was the actor portraying the french drug-kingpin Alain Charnier in William Friedkin ‘s blockbuster The French Connection (1971).

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Huey Lucas) and John Ortiz (Javier Rivera) both went on to play the title role in stage productions of Othello; Ejiofor in 2007 in London and Ortiz in 2009 in New York City.

‘Peter Berg’ met briefly with producers to direct this and was given the okay by Denzel Washington.

Not only did the real Richie Roberts serve as Frank Lucas’s lawyer after he went into private practice, he was godfather to Lucas’s son.

In the Madison Garden Sequence, only 650 of the spectators on camera were real extras, the other 1500 were inflatable dummies.



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