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Pop Culture 101: SERPICO

"People who know me say that [Pacino] was more me than I was. Whatever that means. I mean, actors are actors." – Frank Serpico

According to a January 1974 article in New Republic, applicants for the qualifying exam to become a New York City police officer increased dramatically after the release of Serpico.

The film and Maas' book from which it was adapted were the basis for a television movie, Serpico: The Deadly Game (1976), and a TV series broadcast in the 1976-77 season, both starring David Birney as Serpico. Maas wrote the bulk of the episodes.

Serpico's story has remained a compelling one for the public and the media. Newspaper and magazine articles are still written about him periodically, and the Biography cable series featured an episode on his life.

According to some sources, the building Pacino stands outside when he asks Cornelia Sharpe (in the role of Leslie Lane) if she wants a ride on his motorcycle is the same one Pacino is looking at in the film Author! Author! (1982) when his character (Ivan) asks the homeless woman if he should wear a tie or not. The New York State Theater (where Serpico and Leslie go to see a ballet) was also used for scenes in two other later Pacino movies, Sea of Love (1989) and Looking for Richard (1996).

Critics Andrew Sarris and Tom Allen have noted the similarities in theme between Serpico.and Lumet's Prince of the City (1981), calling Serpico a "tone poem on New York police corruption that hints at the symphonic stature to come" in the later film.

Serpico probably had some influence on the 1970s television series Baretta about a maverick big city cop who also keeps an exotic bird for a pet. The lead was played by Robert Blake.

There is a punk metal band from Edinburgh, Scotland, named Serpico. Their debut album Neon Wasteland was released in May 2009.

In the film Saturday Night Fever (1977), the lead character Tony (John Travolta) has a poster for Serpico on his wall and fantasizes about his resemblance to Al Pacino.

In the movie Se7en (1995), the Brad Pitt character is referred to at one point as "Serpico."

The character in Boogie Nights (1997) played by Mark Wahlberg has a picture of Serpico in his room.

The name "Serpico" has been used in a number of movies and TV shows when characters comment on other characters' honesty or determination to expose corruption, ranging from the thriller Inside Man (2006) to the comedy Knocked Up (2007) to the TV sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Serpico's story and his example are frequently invoked when incidences of blatant police corruption or brutality are investigated and/or reported. In one such case - the brutalizing of suspect Abner Louima in 1997 - Frank Serpico was called on to testify before a New York City Council hearing on the case. The hearing was held around the same time that Maas' biography was reissued in paperback. Writing about the Louima case in the Village Voice in June 1998, Nat Hentoff noted that Maas had written a glowing article about the command of the New York City Police force under Commissioner Howard Safir and Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Hentoff commented: "not a word in the article about rampant police brutality on their watch. Peter Maas knows better."

Writer and cultural critic Nat Hentoff noted in 1998 that Serpico inspired Hentoff's son Nick, only 10 years old during the Knapp Commission hearings but very aware of what the real-life Frank Serpico had been through, to become a public defender.

by Rob Nixon

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