Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Iceman: The story of Dumont hitman Richard Kuklinski comes to the big screen

May 2, 2013

Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski in 'The Iceman.'

Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski in 'The Iceman.'

Richard Kuklinski lived to see himself achieve infamy, thanks to an acclaimed book and a chilling HBO documentary that chronicled his decades as a hit man for the mob and a self-styled killer — who eventually earned the moniker “The Iceman” by freezing a victim’s body in an attempt to mask the time of death. All the while, Kuklinski was living a double life as a family man in Dumont.

Now, seven years after he died while serving two life sentences at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton  for four murders, he is about to hit the big screen in “The Iceman,” a $10 million film out Friday that should perpetuate his notoriety. (The film opens in Lincoln Square and Sunshine Cinema in New York.) The so-called “big guy” — Kuklinski was 6-foot-4, 270 pounds — is played by Michael Shannon, the 6-foot-4, considerably slimmer actor who is best known as Agent Van Alden on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

Although “The Iceman” was filmed almost entirely in Shreveport, La. – director Ariel Vromen says he wanted to make the movie in New Jersey, but Louisiana offered unbeatable financial incentives to shoot there — it is a thoroughly Garden State story. He was first hired as a hit man by Brooklyn mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta), but Kuklinski grew up, an abused child, in the Jersey City projects. Many of his victims were from, or dumped in, towns from North Bergen to West Milford. And it was a joint state and federal task force that took Kuklinski down, largely because of the work of Hackensack native and ATF undercover agent Dominick Polifrone, who used the alias Dominick Provenzano.

‘Had to play that game’

Polifrone — who retired from the ATF in 1998 and is now director of a youth drop-in center at Hackensack High School — has seen the movie twice and mostly gives it high grades. “I thought Michael Shannon was excellent. His demeanor, his eye contact, the way he spoke, the way he presented himself, the way he portrayed Kuklin­ski, the staring mode, his facial expressions,” Polifrone says. “The movie was violent and that’s the way it was back then, and I had to play that game.”

But seeing that violence on a big screen triggered memories. “All of a sudden I remember different things where he was telling me about these different murders,” Polifrone says. “I look back at this movie, and I’m saying to myself, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”

The screenplay, by Vromen and Morgan Land, is based on Jim Thebaut’s 1992 HBO documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations With a Killer,” and Anthony Bruno’s book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer.” The latter extensively covered the undercover operation that ended with Kuklinski’s arrest near his Sunset Street home in December 1986 — a fascinating tale given such short shrift in the film that many moviegoers may find the denouement confusing.

“When you have 18 or 19 years of stories, of so many characters, and a limitation of time and budget, you gotta choose what story you’re telling,” Vromen said at a recent press gathering in New York, when asked about the brevity of that important chapter. “I wanted to tell the love story. So I started the movie on a date and I end up on a separation.”

Calling Kuklinski’s relationship with his wife Barbara a “love story” may raise eyebrows. By many accounts, including her own, she was an abused woman, terrified that her husband would kill her and their three kids if she left.

Kuklinski’s family (all of whom are still alive) did not cooperate with the making of the film, and so Winona Ryder, who plays Barbara (rechristened “Deborah”), drew her own conclusions about Mrs. Kuklinski. Ryder says she was drawn to the project because of “the deep, deep denial that she was living in for so long … and the fact that she was flourishing on this blood money that I believe she knew was not clean money.”

Shannon says he watched the entire unedited 20-plus hours of HBO interviews, by himself, over and over, and concluded that Kuklinski “was a very sad person, a very lonely person, who was destined to lead a very bleak existence, then he met a woman and he fell in love and realized that he might have an opportunity to have a home and a family that he never really had. … But he could never really escape who he was.”

When Jay Giannone watched the HBO documentary, he zeroed in on Polifrone (known only as Provenzano in the film). “He’s such an interesting guy. He’s charismatic, and he’s cool. He’s hip,” says Giannone, a Boston native who tracked down Polifrone and peppered him with questions. “I said, ‘What was it like to actually sit across from Kuklinski, knowing what this guy was capable of doing any second?’ He told me, ‘I just went in confident. I had a lot of street credibility, and I used that to my advantage.’ He said sometimes he thought about what could happen … but he still had a job to do. He … was just so honorable.”

Polifrone, in turn, praised Giannone, saying he “played me well for the short time of it, and he reminded me of me as a young man when I first came on ATF.”

The part of the tale that moviegoers will not see (unless there’s a sequel): Polifrone started hanging out at a Kuklinski haunt, a front for illegal activity on McBride Avenue in Patersonknown as “the store.” Sporting flashy cars and lots of money, Polifrone — who had been working 15 years undercover, and had had great success infiltrating the New York mob — pretended to be Provenzano, a New York wiseguy.

It took a year before he finally met Kuklinski, at a Dunkin’ Donuts near the store. “I’m in my Lincoln, and he pulls up in the blue Camaro – I remember it just like it was five minutes ago — and he gets out and … Holy Christmas, this guy is huge. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Hey, Dom, be cool, you’ve done this a thousand times,’” Polifrone says.

Kuklinski (who later claimed to have killed 100 people) asked if Provenzano could get him pure cyanide, which had become his lethal weapon of choice. Kuklinski had killed his previous supplier, a fellow hit man and ice-cream truck driver named Robert Prongay, known as Mister Softee.

Polifrone — then living with his wife and three children in Hillsdale, less than five miles from Kuklinski’s home — was part of a team (a joint effort among the ATF, the state Attorney General’s Office and the state police) that had circumstantial evidence on Kuklinski, but needed direct evidence. With a tape recorder inside his leather jacket, Polifrone recorded their conversations, many of them at the Vince Lombardi Service Area.

Among other things, Kuklinski told him how he had put cyanide on the hamburger of a troublesome crew member (Gary Smith), then he and an accomplice (Danny Deppner, whom Kuklinski would later murder) watched in amusement as the guy took his time to die. “Richie’s laughing telling me the story,” recalls Polifrone, who also taped Kuklinski dishing about his signature kill. “He says, ‘I had a guy in a freezer for two years and they only thought he was dead for a week.’ He says, ‘When you want to freeze somebody, the best garbage bags to use are Glad, because they lasted for two years and kept the body beautiful.’"

The team knew from wiretaps that Kuklinski was planning to kill Provenzano next. They arrested him as he and his wife were driving away from their Dumont home on Dec. 17, 1986.

“I met him in September, so four months it took me to get the information and take him down,” Polifrone says. “That’s pretty good. I should get a star. But you know something? Dominick Polifrone better get counseling after seeing this movie. My kids are gonna go, ‘What in the world, Pops?’”


No comments: