Whitey Bulger's former protege has been writing a movie about his captured mentor
For years, the ex-con and former drug kingpin John "Red" Shea would walk the streets dreaming of ways to exact revenge on Whitey Bulger, his onetime mentor in the notorious Winter Hill Gang. Shea had gone to jail for 12 years to protect his boss, only to find out later that Bulger had been regularly selling out fellow mob men to the FBI. Shea was tormented by the question of which distant locale Bulger might be hiding in.
As it turns out, it wasn't distant at all. Those streets Shea had often walked while obsessing about Bulger’s whereabouts were actually in Santa Monica, where he and Hollywood producer Ken Kokin, a longtime resident, were hashing out a screenplay about Shea's time with Bulger. As Shea walked, he was unwittingly roaming the same neighborhood that Bulger, arrested last week on suspicion of nearly two dozen murders, had called home for 16 years.
"All that time I'd been thinking about Whitey, and it was like 'Holy ... he's been right here,'" said Shea, 45, by phone Saturday. "But I don't think I ever passed him," he added. "I would have recognized those eyes.
At age 20, Shea met and became a prized protege to Bulger, who partly served as the model for Jack Nicholson's coolly sadistic Frank Costello in "The Departed." A Southie kid who showed preternatural ability in the boxing ring (he once knocked down Micky Ward in a bout), Shea had risen quickly through the mob ranks, learning quickly at the feet of Bulger. Within the space of five years, he was put in charge of a vast drug ring.
But in 1990, Shea's ascent ended abruptly when the FBI arrested him and charged the mobster with multiple counts of cocaine trafficking. Rather than shave years off his sentence with a plea deal, Shea refused to rat out Bulger or other associates, an act that would later earn him the moniker "South Boston's most honorable Irish mobster."
Shortly after he was released from prison in 2002, Shea wrote a book, "Rat Bastards," about his experiences with Bulger. The memoir had an unlikely champion: Mark Wahlberg, who wrote its foreword.
A hardscrabble Dorchester kid who had himself done time in prison, Wahlberg had tried to get in touch with Shea while the mobster was in jail. The actor had been sent a script about a gangster named “Johnny Blue Eyes,” a character based on Shea, and Wahlberg wanted to learn more about him. Although Shea declined to meet Wahlberg in prison — "I wasn't ready to talk about my story yet," he said — and the script was never made into a movie, the two wound up forging a friendship after Shea was released. Wahlberg would eventually bring Shea to the set of “The Departed” to educate him and other cast members about mob life.
They would also take long walks — on the beach, the pier, the Third Street Promenade — following routes that eerily paralleled Bulger's own strolls around the neighborhood. "Finding out that Whitey Bulger was living in Santa Monica just three blocks away from me was a little like looking frantically for your sunglasses only to find out they were on your head the whole time," Kokin noted wryly.
The screenplay they've spent three years working on is nearly finished, although Kokin and Shea say there will add a new epilogue in the wake of last week's events. (The film had previously traced an arc from Shea's upbringing through his release from prison.) The pair, who brought in a Boston attorney named Fran Hurley to write the script with them, see the movie as a kind of spin on the 1997 Johnny Depp-Al Pacino crime drama "Donnie Brasco," only this time it's the mentor who does the informing and a trusting protege who suffers the consequences.
"This is a story about the choices we make and how we live them," Kokin said. "John could have been a professional boxer, but he decided not to. And he could have ratted and saved himself, but he decided not to."
Kokin said that he doesn't want the film to whitewash Shea's crimes but does want to throw a light on what he believes is the disproportion of his punishment, especially given that other mobsters who ratted were handed shorter sentences for similar crimes.
As for Bulger, the pair say they imagine that the character may differ from some of cinema's other mobster icons. "People might say Don Corleone, but they're not that similar," Shea said. "Don was flamboyant, and Whitey wasn't. He wasn't a flashy guy, not a kiss-my-finger, kiss-my-ring kind of guy."
Wahlberg will be affiliated with in the film, Shea said, although he declined to say whether it would be as an actor or simply as a producer. Wahlberg is of course coming off the success of "The Fighter," which had more than its share of jail and drugs in working-class Boston. (A message left for the actor on Sunday was not immediately returned.)
Since the Bulger news broke, there has been a burst of interest among studios, financiers and directors in Shea's movie, Kokin said, declining to identify any by name. Shea added that he believed the movie could be financed and ready to shoot this year.
Hollywood producers hoping to make a film about the Whitey Bulger story have no shortage of material to draw from. In addition to "Rat Bastards," there have also been several books about the mob boss, including Kevin Weeks' "Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life in Whitey Bulger's Irish Mob" and Howie Carr's "The Brothers Bulger."
Shea's tale, however, does hold an advantage. A screenplay is finished, and the story contains a character rarely seen on screen: the busted mobster who refuses to turn state's witness. "'American Gangster' is about a rat, and 'Goodfellas' is about a rat, and pretty much every mob movie is about a rat," Kokin said. "This is maybe the first mob movie not told from the point of view of the informant."
Kokin said he remains fascinated by the Bulger case and said, perhaps only half-joking, that he is interested in renting the two-bedroom apartment at 1012 Third St. where Bulger had been hiding out.
For Shea, the news of that hideout initially brought vindication. But he said the feeling vanished once he learned the circumstances of Bulger's fugitive life. "It wasn't like he was locked up. He had a girlfriend who was younger than him, and he had a lot of good food and wine," Shea said. "Yes, he was looking over his shoulder. But Whitey was already used to that."
One might expect that authorities' prosecution of Bulger would bring a certain closure to someone who has spent years preoccupied with how he was let off the hook. But Shea said he feels only cold comfort at the events unfolding in a Massachusetts courtroom. "Justice for me is not Whitey being caught by the government," he said. "Real justice would be from his peers. It would come from the guys that he betrayed."
— Steven Zeitchik
Photos (top): A 1953 Boston police booking photo showing Whitey Bulger after an arrest. Credit: Boston Police Department via the Associated Press; middle, The "Rat Bastards" book jacket. Credit: HarperCollins. The Santa Monica apartment where Bulger had been living. Credit: Damian. Dovarganes/AP