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:
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:
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