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Mad Dog Coll

Mad Dog Coll

As an aspiring actor making a go of a life on the stage in New York City, Gene Hackman spent less time treading the boards than killing time in the company of other would-be actors. Along with friends Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Elliott Gould, James Caan and Jon Voight, Hackman kept his skills sharpened by participating in play reading parties that often devolved into rowdy sing-a-longs, with the attendees acting out off-color jokes for their collective amusement. The oldest of the bunch (which later included a handsome University of Colorado dropout named Robert Redford), Hackman had first studied his craft in his native California, after being discharged from the Marines. A student at the Pasadena Playhouse, he made his stage debut in The Curious Miss Caraway, starring silent screen legend Zasu Pitts. Hackman was a married man pushing thirty when he relocated to New York and began receiving good notices for his work in a string of Off-Broadway plays. He made his TV debut in April 1959 on an episode of The US Steel Hour, a series that offered him semi-regular employment through the next few years. Hackman's first child was born in 1960, the year he made his film debut in Mad Dog Coll (1961), a biopic of Prohibition era enforcer Vincent Coll, who was famously gunned down in the phone booth of a Manhattan drugstore on February 8, 1932.

Born Uinseann Ó Colla in County Donegal, Ireland, in 1908, Coll immigrated to the United States with his family the following year. Settled in the Bronx, the rebellious youth with a violent streak was expelled from one Catholic school after another before he joined The Gophers street gang. Founded by habitual criminal Owen "Oweney the Killer" Madden, the Gophers (so named for their tendency to meet underground, in tenement basements) engaged in petty crimes in and around the wharfs of "Hell's Kitchen," a largely Irish neighborhood on Manhattan's west side. While Vincent Coll became a magnet for hate on both sides of the law after he accidentally killed a young boy during a botched 1931 kidnapping (for which then-New York Mayor Jimmy Walker bestowed the brand of "Mad Dog" upon him), Madden achieved a measure of respectability as the owner of Harlem's elegant Cotton Club. In Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 film of the same name, the Liverpool-born Madden was played by Bob Hoskins, with Nicolas Cage cast in the smaller role of Vincent Coll (given the fictitious name Vincent Dwyer). The Cotton Club gives a fair approximation of the events that led to Coll's murder at the hands of hitmen who may have been working for Madden (who had put out a $50,000 bounty) or "beer baron" Dutch Schultz (aka Arthur Flegenheimer, Coll's former employer) or both.

Coll's exploits have been dramatized on screens big and small several times, beginning with an installment of the ABC series The Untouchables. In this November 1959 episode, Chicago-based Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) is required to road trip east to New York to block Coll's bid to "put the blocks to The Dutchman" by horse-napping a nag Schultz has running in the Kentucky Derby. Sporting a greasy Elvis Presly fetlock, Clu Gulager plays "Mad Dog" with a scenery-chewing intensity light years from the cool hand he would bring to his icy turn as a syndicate mechanic in Don Siegel's The Killers (1964). For some reason, the teleplay by Charles R. Marion and Palmer Thompson cooks up a fictitious backstory for the origin of Coll's infamous nickname, making it the creation of Dutch Schultz (a bewigged Lawrence Dobkin, in "legitimate" businessman mode) and related to nothing more than unruly, unpredictable behavior. (Gulager's apoplectic Coll doesn't kill any children but does point a loaded heater at a spunky street urchin and otherwise seems to put the cap in capricious.) Coll's true crime comeuppance is merely alluded to in Walter Winchell's end narration ("Vincent Mad Dog Coll died as he lived... in a hail of machinegun bullets..."), as the stymied horse killer is led away from Churchill Downs in handcuffs. "The Mad Dog Coll Story" was also the subject of a two-part episode in the third and final season of the NBC series The Lawless Years in the summer of 1961, with Robert Sampson in the title role.

Aiming for a greater fidelity to the facts, director Burt Balaban (a former combat cameraman with the Marines) and producer Edward Schreiber (a one-time publicist for the New York offices of Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox) shot their independently-produced Mad Dog Coll on the streets of Manhattan, where it actually happened. The pair had previously made the gritty Murder, Inc. (1960), which offered rising star Peter Falk an important early role as Abe "Kid Twist" Reles. (Falk's acceptance of the job kept him from starring in Allen Baron's long neglected noir gem Blast of Silence [1961].)

Principal photography for Mad Dog Coll began in October of 1960, with interiors lensed at Biltmore Studios on East 4th Street. Shot on the fly (and ultimately passed to Columbia for distribution), the film gave good roles to a number of up-and-coming actors, among them Brooke Hayward (daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan, who had taken her own life that January), Telly Savalas, Jerry Orbach and Vincent Gardenia (as Dutch Schultz). Cast as Coll was relative newcomer John Davis Chandler. The bohemian son of a prominent Charleston, West Virginia physician, Chandler quit his study of medicine at Princeton to become an actor and made a strong impression as a juvenile delinquent in John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages (1961). Although he was known principally at the time as a Broadway singer-dancer, Jerry Orbach would (like Savalas and Chandler) enjoy an association with dramatic criminality late in life due to his long tenure as NYPD Detective Lennie Briscoe on the hit NBC series Law & Order.

Mad Dog Coll gave Gene Hackman a mere walk-on as a cop but the actor was more interested at the time in stage work than making movies. Off-Broadway roles led to work on Broadway, supporting Robert Redford in the original run of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and a third-billed role in Muriel Resnik's Any Wednesday, opposite Jason Robards and Sandy Dennis. Hackman's crossover to movie work came when he was cast as Warren Beatty's brother in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Hackman scored the role of Buck Barrow through the kindness of Beatty, who had learned Hackman had been dropped from the cast of Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967). In the film that would make a star of pal Dustin Hoffman (picking up a role rejected by Robert Redford), Hackman had been slated to play Mr. Robinson, a role that went eventually to Murray Hamilton. True crime would continue to play a part in Hackman's ascendency to the rank of bona fide movie star when he was selected to be Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (a role turned down by James Caan) in William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971), a dramatization of the non-fiction book by Robin Moore. Twice nominated in the past for an Academy Award® as "Best Supporting Actor," Hackman took home "Best Actor" honors for his work in The French Connection, one of two Oscar® statuettes he would win during a long and distinguished career in films.

Producer: Edward Schreiber
Director: Burt Balaban
Screenplay: Leo Lieberman, Edward Schreiber
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert
Music: Stu Phillips
Film Editing: Ralph Rosenblum
Cast: Kay Doubleday (Clio), Brooke Hayward (Elizabeth), John Davis Chandler (Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll), Neil Nephew (Rocco), Jerry Orbach (Joe), Telly Savalas (Lt. Dawson), Joy Harmon (Caroline), Ron Weyand (Big Larry), Peggy Feury (Mother Coll), Vincent Gardenia (Dutch Schultz), Gilbert Leigh (The Official), Stephanie King (The Official's Wife).

by Richard Harland Smith

Gene Hackman by Michael Munn Gene Hackman/Dustin Hoffman interview by Jennifer Senior, The New York Times, October 12, 2003
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance by Cary D. Wintz, Paul Finkelman
The Charleston Daily Mail
The Internet Movie Database



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