Eliot Ness: Man wasn't as untouchable as the Hollywood legend

Eliot Ness

File photo of federal agent Eliot Ness. (Chicago Tribune)

When I think of General George Armstrong Custer, which admittedly I rarely do, I think Errol Flynn.

Lou Gehrig? Why that would be Gary Cooper's face that comes to mind.

Abe Lincoln? Daniel Day-Lewis.

Mary Todd Lincoln? Sally Field.

Malcolm X? Denzel Washington.

What about Eliot Ness?

Now, that's a tough one because I've got two faces competing for my attention, those of Robert Stack and Kevin Costner. I also have the memories of stories my father related about meeting and playing poker with Ness when my dad was a young reporter and Ness was a Chicago crime fighter in the 1930s: "A bad poker player and boring to boot."

Movies and television have always taken liberties with reality, with real events and real people. This is necessary in order to create dramatic tension and to give us heroes and villains on which our hearts and heads and emotions can hang. You want the real thing? Go see a documentary. You want the truth? Read a credible biography. Hollywood is not in the business of giving us history lessons.

I bring up Ness because he is very much in the news, not only the subject of a soon-to-be-released biography but also causing an entertaining contretemps between well-known politicians.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently joined Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in proposing to rename the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters the Eliot Ness ATF Building in Washington, D.C.

Immediately Ed Burke, the City Council's resident historian and alderman of the 14th Ward, dismissed this idea, arguing that "Eliot Ness had a checkered career after leaving the federal government. I simply do not think his image matches the actual reality of his legacy."

On Tuesday, the Tribune editorial board weighed in: "you can say this for Ness: Even if the historical figure doesn't measure up to the crime-fighting hype, his integrity as a U.S. agent is unassailed. And he and his agents deserve credit, at least, for a historic assist.

"Reputation inflation is hardly confined to Eliot Ness," the editorial continued. "Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball. George Washington Carver didn't invent peanut butter. Thomas Edison didn't invent the light bulb.

"Yet they are justifiably celebrated for enormous contributions to this nation. As is Ness.

"Go ahead, put his name on the headquarters."

We have long lived in a world in which a good story will trump reality.

Ness has been dead since 1957. His Tribune obituary was but three paragraphs long, and nowhere in it or any previous stories of Ness' time in Chicago was there mention of the "Untouchables."

But as personified on the little and big screens by Stack and Costner, respectively, Ness sits vividly in the collective mind of a couple of generations as one of our greatest citizens, a hero to be sure, the "good" to Al Capone's "evil."

Stack (whose real name was Charles Langford Modini Stack) starred as Ness in "The Untouchables," an ABC network series that ran from 1959 to 1963. Costner (real name) portrayed Ness in Brian De Palma's 1987 film "The Untouchables." The snappy, inventive screenplay was written by Chicago's David Mamet and helped win Sean Connery an Academy Award for best supporting actor as cop Jimmy Malone (a fictional character). As Mamet said at the time, "The real history isn't all that dramatic."

(All but forgotten is Tom Amandes, the local actor who played Ness in the short-lived, 1993-94 syndicated TV series "The Untouchables.")

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