October 30, 2007 / 8:28 PM / 11 years ago

"American Gangster" watched Washington on set daily

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Almost every day that Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington filmed scenes for his latest movie, “American Gangster,” he was closely watched on the set by an old man in a wheelchair — the drug lord he was portraying.

Denzel Washington poses at the Los Angeles premiere of his new film "American Gangster" in Hollywood,California October 29, 2007. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Both Washington and former Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas emerged from the experience saying how impressed they were with each other.

Washington acknowledged that Lucas, now in his 70s, was a criminal who was responsible for many deaths. But he told a group of reporters recently he believed the drug lord would have been successful regardless of what career he chose.

“Had he gotten a formal education, had he gone in another direction, had he had different influences, I think he still would have been a leader or a very successful man,” he said.

“I don’t want to just say he’s a product of his environment but I guess to a degree we all are,” said Washington, who won a best actor Academy Award in 2002 for “Training Day” and best supporting actor Oscar for “Glory” in 1990.

Lucas, who was paid for his story, approved of Washington’s performance, telling “New York” magazine in a recent interview, “He did a hell of a job. Nobody in the world’s as good as Denzel.”

The film, opening in theaters on Friday, follows Lucas’ rise and fall. His empire undercut the price and quality of heroin sold by the mafia and when he was caught, Lucas turned informant.

Russell Crowe, who plays police officer Richie Roberts in the film, agreed with Washington that Lucas was smart. “He used the things that he learned to the best of his ability to change his life and change the lives of his family at that time.”

Asked by Entertainment Weekly, what it was like to have Lucas on the set, Crowe said: “It’s incredible when you’ve actually got the source, still alive, still erudite, still willing to discuss things with you.”

The film grew from a “New York” magazine article in 2000 by journalist Mark Jacobson. Lucas said he turned to crime after seeing the Ku Klux Klan kill his young cousin in North Carolina.

Lucas told the magazine at the time he had no choice. “Kind of sonofabitch I saw myself being, money I wanted to make, I’d have to be on Wall Street,” he said. “On Wall Street, from the giddy-up. But I couldn’t have even gotten a job being a ... janitor on Wall Street.”

His empire fell apart after a police raid in 1975. He was convicted in 1976 and sentenced to 70 years in prison. The following year, according to The New York Times, he began giving evidence that helped convict more than 100 people on drug charges.

As a result, in 1981 his prison term was reduced to time served plus lifetime parole. But in 1984, he was convicted on a new drug charge and spent another seven years in prison.

Director Ridley Scott said that after deciding to make the movie, which was filmed in Thailand and about 180 locations around New York City, he spent more than five hours talking with Lucas. When Scott was asked by reporters if Lucas had regrets about his career path, Scott said, “Never.”

“As far as he’s concerned that was (the drug addicts’) fault, that was their problem,” Scott said.

“Frank barely smoked, he didn’t drink and never, ever even considered taking the drug.”

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