In what may be his final role before retiring from acting, Robert Redford plays Forrest Tucker, a man who was never interested in retirement. Tucker’s line of work consisted of robbing banks, occasionally getting caught, and then devising elaborate plans to escape. He was first arrested at the age of 15 for stealing a bicycle and went on to steal millions of dollars and to successfully escape from prison 18 times. The film is largely based on journalist David Grann’s profile of Tucker, which was published in the New Yorker under the same title in 2003. A year after the piece was published, Tucker died of natural causes in a Fort Worth prison.
While both the film and the profile tell the story of a charming escape artist who in a single year committed at least 60 robberies without using violence, the film diverges from the piece and reality on several points. The main difference between the two portrayals of Tucker’s life is what they focus on. The movie is, unsurprisingly, more interested in Tucker’s heists than in the time he spent in prison, even though Tucker spent most of his life behind bars. But it also changes some key details and invents many others, as even the movie admits, saying in an opening title card that “this story is mostly true.”
So what’s straight from the bank robber’s real story, and what is artistic license? We consulted the reporting of Grann and others to break it down below.
Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford)
As in the movie, the real-life Tucker was a man who was capable of robbing large sums of money without ever pulling the trigger. He saw his gun more as a prop and believed “violence is the first sign of an amateur.” Yet he always carried a gun during all of his operations and did threaten people with it. The movie, on the other hand, pushes the narrative of a charming and gentlemanly criminal to the extreme, and you never see him actually carrying a gun. He threatens bank managers and tellers with little more than a note and a smile, none of them ever recalls seeing a gun, and they all leave with a positive impression of the man. Regardless, both the movie and the profile agree on how gracious a criminal he was. According to the piece, “even a juror who helped convict him once remarked, ‘You got to hand it to the guy—he’s got style.’ ” This very line is used in the movie.
The real-life Tucker also physically resembled the Redford of the movie more than viewers might expect. Grann describes Tucker as “a striking-looking man, with intense blue eyes,” and he really was always impeccably dressed. The biggest difference might be that the real Tucker opted for less discreet suits, like an all-white ensemble with an ascot, which he would pull up to cover his face during a heist. As in the movie, he also wore, in his later years, a “hearing aid” that was actually a police scanner.
Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck)
John Hunt played a more minor role in the piece and in Tucker’s actual story. In reality, he was not a detective from Dallas but a sergeant with the Austin police. The movie provides him with a wife and two kids and several dramatic scenes that appear to be invented, such as a chance encounter between Hunt and Tucker in a diner restroom and another in which Tucker leaves Hunt a taunting (if characteristically friendly) note on a stolen $100 bill. One of the movie’s most memorable quotes, however, comes straight from the New Yorker article, in which Hunt tells Grann, “They had more experience in robbery than we had catching them.”
Jewel (Sissy Spacek)
Though Sissy Spacek’s character is based on Tucker’s third wife, Jewell (spelled in real life with two Ls) Centers, her story and their relationship differs significantly from reality. The real Tucker and Centers did actually meet in the early ’80s, but it happened at a private club called the Whale and Porpoise in Fort Lauderdale. She was not a farmer with a ranch straight out of a Western but “an heiress to a modest moving-company fortune who looked, in her youth, a bit like Marilyn Monroe.” While movie Jewel doesn’t know for certain what Tucker does for a living, she does get some clues here and there, including finding a gun in his glove compartment. The real-life Jewell knew Tucker as Bob Callahan and thought he was a stockbroker. She told Grann that when investigators first told her “Callahan” was actually a bank robber, she didn’t believe them.
Tucker did have two children, a boy and girl, as the movie shows. But his daughter’s real name is Gaile Tucker, not Dorothy, the name of the daughter played in the movie by Elisabeth Moss. The children also have different mothers. In Grann’s New Yorker article, we only get the story of the boy, whose name is Richard Bellew Jr. His mother, Shirley Storz, is described as a blond woman who believed she was married to a songwriter by the name of Richard Bellew. They got married in 1951, but she annulled it two years later, shortly after he got arrested and sent to Alcatraz. Tucker’s children didn’t know about each other until they were much older.
In the movie, Tucker hands Jewel a list detailing his prison escapes, just as the real Tucker did to the New Yorker reporter, and the viewer is then taken through a series of flashbacks. While the list in the movie counts up to 17, the real list actually tallied 19 escapes. In both cases, the last one is left blank, for his planned grand finale.
However fantastical the escapes may seem, they are largely true to life. Tucker’s first escape, as a teenage boy, was simple: As his jailer got distracted while removing his chains, the boy ran away. His plans became more elaborate with time, going from sawing his cell bars with chisels and files to faking appendicitis so he’d be rushed to the hospital, where he could more easily escape. After that it was Alcatraz, where he arrived in 1953, at the age of 33. There, he met Teddy Green, the man played in the movie by Danny Glover. The night before he was supposed to appear in court, he was transferred to a county jail, where he faked kidney pain and again managed to escape from the hospital.
Then he was placed in San Quentin, from which he mounted his most legendary escape. At the Bay Area prison, Tucker met John Waller, who is played in the movie by Tom Waits. The two escaped along with another inmate, William McGirk, in a boat Tucker built with wood scraps and tape, which, as in the movie, he painted with the words Rub-a-Dub-Dub. According to Grann, the boat was later placed in a prison museum.
The Over-the-Hill Gang
The three elderly bank robbers were indeed dubbed the Over-the-Hill Gang, though it is uncertain which of Tucker’s friends actually belonged to the gang. It is true that he remained in touch with Teddy Green after Alcatraz and, as the movie shows, as Tucker went to visit his friend one day, the police waited for him there, and he believed his friend had ratted him out. As for Waller, there is no indication that the two men were in contact after their escape from San Quentin.
In the movie and in reality, the police did catch Tucker after they ambushed him at Teddy Green’s house. As they chased him, he was shot three times. In real life, as in the movie, he stayed put until he was released a decade later, when he was 73. Real Tucker went back to Florida to live with his wife, who had waited for him, just as Jewel waits for him in the movie. And just as in the movie, he never did get used to having a normal, quiet, law-abiding life, and it wasn’t long before he went back to his old ways.