“Based on a True Story” Movie Subjects: Where Are They Now?


It’s a big week for murderers whose stories became movies — both Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black in Richard Linklater’s Bernie) and Michael Alig (played by Macaulay Culkin in Party Monster) are now free men, reminding us that when films are based on true stories, the lives that inspired them continue after the credits roll. Here’s a look at what became of Tiede and Alig, and several other real people who became Hollywood fodder.

Bernie Tiede (Bernie)

Of all the “where are they now”s we’ve come across, this is certainly the strangest — and the one most directly tied to Hollywood interpretation (and intervention). Beloved Texas funeral director Bernie Tiede befriended, and was eventually employed by, rich widow Marjorie Nugent. But when their relationship went sour, he shot and killed her, hiding her body and continuing to spend her money. His story caught the attention of Texas Monthly’s Skip Hollander, and Hollander’s account in turn caught the attention of Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater, who adapted it into the 2011 film Bernie. And that film caught the attention of attorney Jodi Cole, who investigated the case further, discovered heretofore unmentioned indications of sexual abuse in Tiede’s childhood, and caused prosecutors to re-examine their case and recommend reducing Tiede’s life sentence to time served. And as part of his release, director Linklater has promised that he will provide accommodations to Tiede — whom he befriended while making the film — in his garage apartment in Austin. And truth is stranger than fiction, etc., etc.

Michael Alig (Party Monster)

The story of the “Club Kid Murder” of Andre “Angel” Melendez by his roommate Michael Alig inspired not only the book Disco Bloodbath, but two films: a documentary (Party Monster: The Shockumentary) and a dramatization, titled simply Party Monster, with former kid star Macauley Culkin as Alig. Unlike Tiede, the movie didn’t do Alig any favors; rumor has it that a viewing of the film influenced parole officers to deny his first parole request in 2006. Subsequent requests were also denied, but on Monday, Alig left prison and went out for a celebratory dinner with friends from the old days. It was hardly old times, though; in accordance with his parole curfew, the evening ended before 9pm.

Rubin Carter (The Hurricane)

The story of middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, wrongfully imprisoned for murder for nearly two decades, inspired the hit Bob Dylan song and Norman Jewison biopic The Hurricane. Carter spent his life after release living in Canada and working for the defense and release of the wrongfully imprisoned — with Carter receiving a sharp reminder of the sloppiness of racial profiling when he was arrested again, in 1996, by officers who mistook him for a suspect in a drug sting. (The suspect was in his 30s; Carter was 59.) In 2012, Carter was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, which finally took his life on April 20 of this year. But he spent his final days fighting for the release of a Brooklyn man named David MacCallum, imprisoned in 1985 — the year Carter was finally granted his freedom.

Henry Hill (GoodFellas)

One of the many memorable elements of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece is its less-than-happy ending; our protagonist, Henry Hill, is bored stiff in the suburbs, living a regular life “like a schnook.” The real-life Hill couldn’t do it. Before the film was even released, he’d been arrested on narcotics charges and had separated from his wife Karen; both were dismissed from witness protection due to his crimes. Said crimes didn’t stop, either; he was arrested in Nebraska for drug paraphernalia in 2005, serving 180 days, placed in probation in 2009, and arrested for disorderly conduct later that year. In the meantime, he made the most of his Goodfellas notoriety, making multiple appearances on The Howard Stern Show, opening a restaurant in Connecticut, and selling spaghetti sauce over the Internet. All of this was done without incurring the wrath of the wiseguys he “ratted” on; when Hill died in 2012, it was not at the hands of organized crime, but of a heart attack.

Frank Rosenthal (Casino)

Scorsese’s spiritual sequel to Goodfellas, 1995’s Casino, starred Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a Jewish bookkeeper and handicapper brought in by the Mob to run the Tangiers casino in Vegas. Rothstein was based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who ran several casinos for the Chicago mob, married (and lost much of his money) to a troubled woman, and survived a car bombing attempt. After the film’s release, Rosenthal moved to Florida, and though he could no longer gamble at (or even enter) casinos, he soon found a way to continue his life’s work: running a sports betting website, and consulting for various offshore sports books. Rosenthal died in 2008 of natural causes; he was 79 years old.

Erin Brockovich (Erin Brockovich)

Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the California legal assistant who helped the residents of Hinkley, California take on Pacific Gas & Electric for unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium in local groundwater, leading to a $333 million settlement. Her subsequent anti-pollution work was only bolstered by the high profile of the hit film, and she went on to investigate cases of pollution in Missouri, Texas, and Louisiana. She’s also hosted two television shows, written a bestselling book, and continues to work as a consultant for several law firms.

Will Jimeno (World Trade Center)

The story of Port Authority Police Officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, the last two men rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center after the attack of September 11, was the basis for Oliver Stone’s 2006 film, with Nicolas Cage playing McLoughlin and Michael Peña as Jimeno. But that wasn’t the end of Jimeno’s good fortune; in 2008, he appeared as a contestant on Deal or No Deal, taking home $271,000.

Julie Powell (Julie & Julia)

Nora Ephron’s 2008 comedy Julie & Julia intermingled Julia Child’s autobiography My Life in France with Julie Powell’s memoir, based on her Julie/Julia Project blog, in which she attempts to cook all the recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. One of the film’s major characters is Powell’s husband Eric (played by Chris Messina), whose skepticism ultimately gives way to patience, understanding, and a happy ending. So it was a bit of a shocker to read Powell’s follow-up book Cleaving, and discover that in the ensuing years, both she and Eric had long-term affairs that nearly destroyed the marriage (with hers described, in explicit detail, in the book). But they’re still together, and at last check-in, Powell is working as a butcher and writing a novel.