A Silver Screen Version of an 85mm Life: How the story of an LA cop wound up a major motion picture, as told by his granddaughter

gangster-squad-january-2013

Reddit: Thank you to all who have taken the time to read this article. I had no idea it would get so huge, I’m quite surprised! A few people have been commenting about a change of tone between this blog and the title of my Reddit post. To make it clear, I wrote this blog before I’d seen the movie, before I knew just how violent and inaccurate the movie was.  When I wrote this article, I’d had some idea about how much they changed the story, but I had no idea HOW much. It may be a few gunshots to you, but seeing a man playing your grandfather kill people is a weird feeling. I plan on writing a review of the movie soon, as well as an account of the premiere. I’ve written a short update here.

It’s 9pm and I’m still on the plane. I’ve finished my book and played as many iPhone games as humanly possible before going crazy and I have no new photos to edit so I’ve decided I may as well get started with the blog I’d promised I’d keep about this week.

As those who are reading this probably know, I am off on a twelve day trip with my mother to California. This is not the first of this kind, I have been to California at least thirty times in my life. This trip is different because we are not doing one of our usual formatted California vacations. We’re going to California not for a road trip or to see family or even go to Disneyland- we’re going because we’re going to a movie premiere. No, I’m not some heiress of a producer or the cousin of a director. This is all new to me. We’re going to a movie premiere because Warner Brothers pictures is releasing a star studded blockbuster about a squad of undercover LA cops in the 1940’s, lead by a cop named John “Jack” O’Mara.

And Jack O’Mara happens to be my grandfather.

Maybe you’re really curious as to how this all happened. Or maybe you really do not care at all all and just want to read the part where I meet the famous people (which has not happened yet, by the way.) But If I’m going to write this and tell you everything I may as well start at the very beginning.

It all began when I was seven. Or eight. Or nine. I really do not remember. All I remember is my mom mentioning that a journalist named Paul Leiberman was writing an article about grandpa and he was going to interview her. I vaguely remember him coming over and talking to my mom. And for about a week it was a really big deal in the house, with phone calls and discussions about the article and excitement. But then the next week, and the eight years after that, it wasn’t mentioned besides the occasional “I wonder how that article is going” or “is it ever going to get finished?”

My grandfather Jack passed away when I was ten.

Fast forward to Junior year of high school. I came downstairs one morning and my mom was on the phone with one of her cousins in California. And she was incredibly excited. She was pacing around the house, saying things like “NINE PARTS?” and “we need four copies of each”. I was confused. When she got off the phone she excitedly explained to me that the little article about grandpa had finally come out. Except it wasn’t a little article. It was a nine part historical special for the LA times, and it was on the front page. The LA Times Online even had a special section dedicated to the articles, complete with interactive charts of everyone in the stories and their photos.

It was called “La Noire: Tales of the Gangster Squad” (you can read it here). In the 1940’s there was a very powerful Jewish gangster called Mickey Cohen who terrorized Los Angeles. The LAPD, trying to combat his actions, created a team of undercover cops to take him down. They included my grandfather, Jack, his partner Jerry Wooters, and a handful of other men. These men were brilliant. They went undercover, without badges. They pretended to be TV repairmen and planted bugs (tiny microphones) in Mickey Cohen’s television. They threatened his allies. They were the most ingenious cops of their times. And, I would like to mention, they never killed a single person. They hardly used their guns at all. In fact, my mother has stated to me that my grandfather shot one bullet in his whole career in the LAPD. And that was a warning shot. I’m going to get more into the violence thing later when I talk about the movie.

A few months after the articles came out I went downstairs to a similar scene with my mom. Except instead of her being really excited she was more confused. She was on her laptop and she was reading an article on TMZ. The title read something like “Gangster Squad article rights bought by Warner Brothers producer”. The only details of the article I really remember is that some producer was in an airport, picked up an LA times and read one of the Gangster Squad articles. He decided right then and there that, as he put it, “the stories were meant to be movies.” And a few days later he bought the rights. And that was that.

For a while my mom was really skeptical. “It probably won’t even get made” my mom said. “Movies get picked up all the time and never made. It’s cool…but really, I don’t think anything is going to come of it sweetie.” I was more hopeful.

From then on I turned out to be more and right and my mom’s speculations turned out to be more and more false. First they set a release date. Then they cast the director, then the actors. It really seemed real when they cast the character of my grandfather as Josh Brolin and my grandmother as Mirelle Enos. Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Sean Penn were cast next.

After they finished casting was when it all hit me that this movie about grandpa was actually happening. I tried so hard to tell people because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. Except I found that it was hard to talk about to those I wasn’t really close with. Because whenever I did I had to explain so much. And people didn’t understand. I don’t blame them. This whole situation is weird, it’s so unreal and bigger than I can comprehend. All I can describe it as is that I imagine this is how people feel who have a famous best friend. Suddenly something you love and treasure is being written about in glossy magazines and advertised in the cinema. There isn’t a way to explain how it feels to see something so personal plastered on posters all over New York City. That the strikingly handsome man on the billboard next to Ryan Gosling is portraying the man who raised your mother. That he’s the man you remember eating ice cream with at the retirement home. The one who you got to see every time you got on the big plane to California, at least twice a year from when you were two to the year he passed away. And that even though I was so young when my grandfather passed and I didn’t get it at the time all this premiere has made me want to do is go back to the retirement home and remember all the things he said to me.

I would feel my first post to be incomplete if I didn’t mention something that’s been in the back of my mind since I first saw the trailer, and when I was alluding to when I mentioned the gun thing. You probably figured that the movie was Hollywood-tized, but I feel like it’s my duty to confirm that fact. (Most of) the characters are real, yes, the situation is real, yes, but the violence in the movie is outlandish and bears no accuracy to the reality of the Gangster Squad’s actions. My mom likes to say “they didn’t use bullets. They used their brains.” Yet violence sells more than cleverness, so unsurprisingly violence won. I guess this is why my mother is a little reserved about the movie, and while I am ecstatic to see the premiere and to experience everything to come, I am too. It is weird knowing millions of people will watch a movie and all of a sudden think your grandfather was a ruthless gun lover when that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It does help a little bit that in the movie they call grandpa by his formal name, John, instead of his nickname, Jack. I think that detail gives my family a little piece to keep for ourselves. I encourage you to be as excited about this movie as I am. Yet all I ask is to keep that in the back of your mind: the real Jack O’Mara fired his gun once. And only once. 

I also need to mention that Paul Leiberman, the author of the articles, had been working on the book version of the Gangster Squad’s stories ever since he released his series to the LA Times. It’s called, you guessed it, Gangster Squad (here’s a link to the book). It’s the accurate depiction of Jack O’Mara’s life, and is described on the cover as “the book that inspired the movie!” with an extra emphasis on “INSPIRED.” It’s really good. Maybe I’m biased because it’s about my grandparents and my grandad’s crime fighting adventures and even my MOM’s childhood but hey, I think the book is quite interesting. I encourage everyone interested in LA Noire and crime and American history to read it. It’s been under the “bestsellers” shelf of every bookstore I’ve visited in the last three months, which is a good sign I think. I hope just as many people read the book as watch the movie. Maybe that’s too much to ask…but I can hope, right?

The next five days leading up to the premiere is going to be a lot of nerves, shopping, excessing, and pretending to be fabulous and jaded to the world of celebrity when in fact my palms are sweaty and my recurring daydreams of shaking hands with Ryan Gosling have not gone away.

How do you explain properly in a blog post all the emotions you are feeling? I’m trying my best, but I still feel I fall short. I guess the only thing I can do is wait and see.

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John O’Mara as depicted in the Gangster Squad

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grandpa Jack during his days as an LAPD member (center)

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Grandpa Jack as I remember him: Grandpa, me and my brothers at my house

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The “book that inspired the movie” The Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman

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31 thoughts on “A Silver Screen Version of an 85mm Life: How the story of an LA cop wound up a major motion picture, as told by his granddaughter

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie as I remember your Grandpa Jack and Grandma Connie very well. My twin sister, Cheryl, and I lived across the street from them when we were children and were best friends with your Aunt Maureen, I’m making the assumption you’re Marty’s daughter not Maureen’s.. Your grandpa took the three of us girls to POP one time and, after several rides on the roller coaster and a black cherry ice cream cone before the drive home I’m sure he was sorry he offered to do that, especially in his brand new car. Not only did I have the misfortune of getting sick in his brand new car but I also backed out of our driveway into the side of his car shortly after getting my driver’s license . Must have been something I had against his cars because I always thought the world of your grandpa and agree he would have never shot a gun.

      • Hi to you Maureen, I haven’t seen the movie or read the book but just knowing it’s out there brings back fond memories of you and your family. Can’t believe how many years it’s been since we last saw each other.

  2. Great post…I love historical movies and after watching them always wonder to myself how much of the movie is real and how much is fiction created by Hollywood to entertain the masses. I plan on seeing this movie and its nice to know the truth. Thank you.

  3. This was a great read – thank you!
    I saw the movie yesterday, and have to say I loved it (but then hard-boiled action movies are my thing!). However, I have learnt with Hollywood to always question how true to life their films are; especially when touted as ‘based on real events’ or similar. And so I also love movies like this for another reason – I can’t wait to get home and Google the real story…
    And whilst I like my movies big and brash, I like my books to be thoughtful character studies, full of detail and above all, the truth. I’ll pick up Leiberman’s book and get stuck in to the real story straight away – and don’t worry, I’ll set everyone I know straight and make sure that they appreciate the real Jack O’Mara!

  4. Thank you for taking your time to write this post. I didn’t even see the trailer but now you’ve made me very curious. :D I’m surely gonna watch the movie.
    I’m looking forward to more posts,opinions and impressions about your experience. ^^

  5. What an interesting account. I’d love to hear an update of your thoughts now. Grandpa Jack sounds like an amazing guy. I had a grandfather named Jack. This makes me think of him.

  6. Really nice to hear. I saw this film last weekend and wondered about all the violence and how it seemed….fictionalized? Anyways, Your grandfather was a good, steadfast man. I’m sure even he would think the movie was pretty cool :)

    Sincerely,

    Oliver.

  7. I am getting ready to go see Gangster Squad this coming weekend with some friends. I just wanted you to know that I was browsing Reddit (which I hardly ever do) and came upon this page. I read the entire post and I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated it. I often wonder about movies that are made and how much is taken out of proportion and how much is fact. This has shed some light on the history of the movie and for that I am very thankful. I will in fact go into the movie and think about how only one shot was fired by your Grandfather. He seems like such a sweet and brave man. Thank you.

  8. I’m hope you’re planning to write your personal review of the film. As Jack’s granddaughter, you have a unique viewing perspective that those of us who are drawn to historical accuracy would find particularly applicable.

    Thanks for writing!

  9. I saw it last night and I thought it was pretty good. But one thing you said, “Yet violence sells more than cleverness, so unsurprisingly violence won.” That is unfortunate because if it was portrayed that they outsmarted them rather than shoot them all I think it would have been cooler.

  10. This piece was truly illuminating–a real feat for someone just out of university. I’m a writer too, and if you’d like to share your story more broadly, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me on Twitter @kmeyerTO. I read Marti’s “A Good Life”, and am really fascinated with the chasm between Jack’s career and how it’s portrayed in Gangster Squad.

  11. Loved your post. You have a wonderful way with words. When I watch a movie, especially a “based on a true story ” type, I always take the time to research the real facts. It’s unfortunate that the truth gets lost in the “glamour” and violence of Hollywood. Oftentimes, it’s this same aspect of Hollywood movies that will attract more audiences who will hopefully be inspired to learn the real story of your grandfather. You are very fortunate to have known such a great man.

  12. Pingback: The Truth Behind the Real-Life ‘Gangster Squad’ | NextMovie

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  14. Jerry thomas, “the professor” was my grandfather, I am just learning about all this too….
    My dad and aunt remember most of the original eight, and i heard stories about dinners, and other events. It may be interesting for some of the siblings to connect and share. My grandmother did not even know her husband was on the “squad” beliving he was working the intelligence division.

  15. Pingback: A Belated Gangster Squad Review | AP Gabriel's writings

  16. Hi, I do think this is an excellent blog. I stumbledupon it ;) I may revisit once again since i have book-marked it.
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  17. Pingback: Damsels in Distress, L.A. Gangsters & Dick Tracy Redux. | This Is My Happy Place

  18. While you may be right on some points about violence , they clearly stated that the movie was inspired by a true story. I personally very much enjoyed the movie, and half in hour ago was the second time watching it. As someone said above, this is a movie not a documentary.
    On the other hand, it seems your grandpa did his job and I am pretty sure he was a good man in real life too.
    By the way, you said you’ve been write a short review about the movie. Can I have the link?
    Thanks!

  19. I really enjoy the movie and I know movies companies always make it there own way but the actor did a great job. But over all I am going to read the book and you wrote a nice article for your grandfather.

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