Hollywood and the U.S. Marshals

The relationship between the U.S. Marshals Service and Hollywood has changed from its original position. Although westerns regularly portrayed our personnel in the movies —involvement with USMS personnel was virtually non-existent. In the early 1970s, U.S. Marshal Gaylord Campbell of the Central District of California was approached about a television show similar to the crime drama Dragnet. He wrote Director Wayne B. Colburn on October 20, 1971, forwarding a proposal from Four Star International, Inc.—which he noted “was headed by [actor] Dick Powell.”

Regardless of the organizational head, the U.S. Marshals Service shied away from agency led publicity during this period. The changes in the organization were rapid, and independent publicity was in its infancy. Hollywood had plenty of Western-themed series, such as James Arness’ Gunsmoke. However, Hollywood never verified that there ever was a U.S. Marshal in Dodge City or the fact it was a district-based system.

As the seventies and eighties brought about increasing interest, there was a greater need to divide reality from far-fetched fantasy. By the 1990s, the veritable floodgates opened with the success of The Fugitive. Since then there have been a number of movies and the occasional television series. However, the movies from this period were inspired by blockbuster adventure films. Some had tie-ins with real events. Here are some examples and brief commentary:

Here are some examples & brief commentary:

Outland (1981)

Sean Connery, Peter Boyle. Connery portrays a deputy U.S. marshal guarding titanium ore mines in this futuristic version. Given the tie to guarding federal property, this was an interesting take. It was still science fiction.

My Blue Heaven (1990)

Steve Martin, Rick Moranis. Moranis plays a Witness Security Inspector in this comedy. One of the many takes on the Witness Security/Protection Program—although a humorous and fictitious one.

Bird on a Wire (1990)

Mel Gibson, Goldie Hawn. Gibson is the protected witness, who “runs in” to his ex-fiancé. Given the nature of the program—this isn’t happening. Still, Hollywood stays interested.

The Fugitive (1993)

Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones. This is the one that broke open the public consciousness about chasing fugitives—and reviving the old series. The team worked with the U.S. Marshals Service which was extremely rare.

Eraser (1996)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vanessa Williams. This was another futuristic “Wit Sec” take—complete with a retina scan! It almost makes the previous ones more realistic. However, it shows the level of interest in our.

Con-Air (1997)

Nicholas Cage, John Cusack. Another film that we actually saw in script form before it was filmed. It’s unrealistic, but proved a blockbuster, about our prisoner transportation function.

U.S. Marshals (1998)

Tommy Lee Jones, Wesley Snipes. The sequel to The Fugitive, and aptly named. Aside from a scene alluding to the actual 1985 fugitive apprehension operation “Chicken Sting,” it was not as realistic as its

Out of Sight (1998)

Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney. Long before American Idol, this Elmore Leonard vehicle on witness protection introduced Deputy U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco. Later television brought her back—on the series Karen Sisco.

Whiteout (2009)

Kate Beckinsale, Tom Skerritt. Of all places, it places a deputy (Beckinsale) on a two-year detail in Antarctica! Last we heard retired Chief Deputy Jim Propotnick was the last full-time employee to set foot there on official

Shutter Island (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo. When approached, we didn’t even know it was a psychological thriller, but Director Martin Scorsese was asking all the right questions —including which badge to use. Set in the

Westerns made a comeback—at least new versions. True Grit (2010), with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, was a Coen Brothers vehicle (they also reprised a deputy marshal in their comedy, Burn After Reading) and really true to Charles Portis’ novel. Of course, John Wayne was larger than life in the original 1969 version. Wayne also played a deputy U.S. Marshal in Cahill, U.S. Marshal (1973). Elmore Leonard’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007), originally filmed in 1957, got Russell Crowe and Christian Bale as adversaries.

In the 1990s, television began a long trend towards the modern day U.S. Marshals occurred with The Marshal (1995), with Jeff Fahey playing Deputy U.S. Marshal Winston McBride. Produced by Don Johnson, who was involved with The Fugitive two years earlier, the show had promise. However, it ended after two seasons. Other examples of television series and brief commentary include:

Other examples of television series and brief commentary include:

Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force (From 2008)

Lenny DePaul, Roxanne Lopez. Looking back historically, reality television really worked out for the agency. For at least four full seasons, the New York/New Jersey Task Force has been on camera. It’s the adrenaline from the “ride along” effect—but a lot of publicity was garnered from this A&E program.

In Plain Sight (2008-2012)

Mary McCormack, Fred Weller. Aired on the USA cable channel, Deputy U.S. Marshal Molly Shannon a new version of Karen Sisco in this “Witsec” series. Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it had a good run.

 

While Hollywood largely focused on our role in the West before the 1990s, they embraced several key duty components in the past few decades. A nostalgic mix of both seems to tie our personnel to history—whether it’s guarding prisoners, protecting witnesses and the federal judiciary, or chasing fugitives. Hollywood can take literary license, but they also keep our name out there and that’s a good thing!.

By Dave Turk, USMS Historian