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Denzel Played Him. Now, a Drug Kingpin Dead at 88

Frank Lucas was inspiration for 'American Gangster'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 1, 2019 5:30 AM CDT
This Nov. 2, 2007, file photo shows Frank Lucas, the man Denzel Washington portrayed in the film "American Gangster," in New York.   (AP Photo/Jim Cooper, File)

(Newser) – Frank Lucas, the former Harlem drug kingpin whose life and lore inspired the 2007 movie American Gangster, has died, a relative said Friday. Lucas, who was 88, died Thursday in New Jersey, nephew Aldwan Lassiter said. Lucas had been in declining health, according to his former lawyer. Raised in North Carolina, Lucas climbed the ranks of crime in Harlem in the 1960s and '70s, becoming a major drug dealer known for supplying huge amounts of particularly potent heroin, per the AP. He said it netted him millions, and authorities seized over $500,000 in cash when they raided his house in Teaneck, NJ, in 1975. He was convicted and sentenced to decades in prison, but he turned informant and was released after about five years. Lucas was quickly arrested again for drug dealing, on a much smaller scale. He served seven more years, getting out again in 1991.

Lucas' story became the basis for the Ridley Scott-directed American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as Richard "Richie" Roberts. The film got awards buzz but also brought scrutiny of claims about Lucas' legend, particularly a portrayal of him smuggling drugs in US soldiers' caskets during the Vietnam War; he said in 2008 he transported heroin via coffin just once. There was also pushback on an assertion that Lucas rooted out law enforcement corruption, but a suit on that was thrown out. As for Lucas' unquestioned role in supplying heroin that killed some users, he told the AP in 2007 that he regretted it. "I did some terrible things. I'm awfully sorry that I did them. I really am," he said. Lucas had another brush with the law in 2012: He pleaded guilty to lying to try cashing in twice on a $17,000 federal disability benefit check. He was sentenced to five years' probation, with prosecutors saying they agreed to it due to his poor health and age. (Read more obituary stories.)

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