Bank heist takes writer from stories to ‘Crime Beat’ podcast and now the movie ‘Finding Steve McQueen’

by in News

Sixteen years. It feels like forever.

I had reddish hair then. Today, it’s almost totally gray. My twins were 7 years old then, still wrestling with their dad and fretting over wiggly teeth. Today, Alison and Dylan just turned 23, and we wrestle with income tax forms. My other son, Trey, hadn’t yet been born.

Sometime in the beginning of 2003, a couple of months after the Angels won the World Series, I tracked down a guy named Harry Barber. He had played a prominent role in the biggest bank heist in U.S. history.

At first, he thought I worked for the FBI.

I had to explain to Harry, over dinner at Denny’s on Pathfinder Road in Diamond Bar (a location of the chain that no longer exists), that I am a journalist and a screenwriter, and I wanted to tell his story. I had no idea where that story would take us. I had no idea how following Harry through the details of his life would be such a wild ride.

Sixteen years later, I have rented my tuxedo. This week our movie premieres in Orange County and Los Angeles. I chose a blue velvet jacket. If you write a screenplay, choose the blue velvet. Basic black is for funerals.

Looking back over 16 years, my relationships with Harry and Frank Calley, the FBI agent who tracked him, helped spawn my tiny media industry.

The newspaper articles that sprang from those conversations with Harry were called “Bang For The Bucks” and it appeared as a 10-part series in the Orange County Register beginning on Feb. 24, 2003. I wrote a screenplay based on my research and I called it “Hail to the Thief” and later “The Youngstown Boys.”

The podcast that resulted from conversations with Harry is called “Crime Beat.” Sixteen years ago, I had never heard of a podcast. So far, the podcast is being heard in more than 50 countries and territories around the world.

The movie that will finally hit the big screen is called “Finding Steve McQueen.” The movie stars Forest Whitaker, Travis Fimmel, Rachael Taylor and William Fichtner. It opens in theaters and on streaming services Friday, March 15.

In 2003, I knew I had something good when my father called me after story No. 4 in the newspaper series. Tony Sharon (my dad is no longer with us) wanted to know how it ended. We laughed about how each installment had a cliffhanger ending. Then, in his stern, fatherly voice, he asked me to tell him if the crooks got away with Nixon’s money.

I told him he would have to read it to find out.

Movies have always been more than important in my family. My wife Nancy and I went on our first date April 27, 1986, to see “A Room With a View.”

I was the dad who got in trouble for letting Ali and Dylan see scary movies when they were 10 years old. In our house, we built a movie theater, with 11 real, red velvet seats with cup holders mailed from a bankrupt theater in Florida, bolted to the floor.

My kids were raised discussing dialog and conflict and the three-act structure. My daughter’s nickname on her first softball team was “The Terminator.”

In 2003, I wrote the screenplay about the bank heist feverishly because I knew Hollywood would be calling. I was right.

I appeared on a television program called “Masterminds,” in which I walked the audience through the scene of the crime. The United California Bank had been located at the corner of Crown Valley Parkway and Pacific Coast Highway.

Hollywood producer Anthony Mastromauro saw that episode and sent me an email. I told him I would buy him a beer if he could turn my newspaper series/screenplay into a movie.

Over the years, the story attracted the interest of actor Daniel Stern (the tall bad guy in “Home Alone”) and directors James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), Ericson Core (“Invincible” and “Point Break”) and others. But all of them dropped out.

Mastromauro was the one with the sticking power. He kept plugging away, trying to convince directors, actors and people with money to get involved with the movie.

Somewhere along the way, Mastromauro asked me to step aside. I had rewritten the story seemingly 50 times, and it seemed to be stalled. I couldn’t muster the creative energy to keep going.

So Ken Hixon (“Inventing the Abbotts” and “City by the Sea”) came in and rewrote my work. Hixon and I had dinner at the ESPN Zone in Anaheim and discussed the story. He’s the one who came up with the name “Finding Steve McQueen.” Harry had told me in one of our early interviews that Steve McQueen had always been a hero of his.

To tell you the truth, I thought the project was dead.

In 2014, things started to fall in line. Director Mark Steven Johnson (“Ghost Rider” and “Daredevil”) agreed to direct. Johnson said he was attracted to the story, not because of the heist, but because of what happened to Harry Barber after he escaped, changed his name and fell in love.

Travis Fimmel agreed to play the starring role. He was the star of the History Channel series “Vikings.” He wanted to lighten up his image and played Harry Barber with a comic touch.

Still, in my mind, the film wasn’t real until Forest Whitaker got involved. Whitaker won an Oscar for “The Last King of Scotland.” His participation made it all real to me. I’ve been a fan since he was in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

So in 2016, the cast flew to Atlanta. They shot the film in Dallas, a little Georgia town. Johnson told me that the hard part about shooting there was that little Dallas, Georgia, had to pass as Laguna Niguel, Washington D.C., Youngstown and Brookville, Pennsylvania where Harry escaped.

Johnson bought a single palm tree and put it in the background of some of the Laguna Niguel scenes.

The world premiere of “Finding Steve McQueen” was at the Monaco Film Festival in March 2018. Actress Rachael Taylor told me that the audience cheered and laughed in all the right places, despite the subtitles and language differences.

I saw the finished film at a test screening in Pasadena in 2018. In my un-scientific opinion, the test audience loved it.

Inspired by my friend Amy Wilson at the Cincinnati Enquirer, where she served as editor for the podcast “Accused,” I asked Southern California News Group executive editor Frank Pine and senior editor Todd Harmonson if I could produce a podcast based on the bank heist story. They said yes.

I used my walk-in closet at home as my recording studio.

I interviewed Harry Barber and Frank Calley, hearing the details of the crime from their unique, and at times, diverging perspectives. I found people who knew Harry over the years. I went to the Nixon Library and pulled audio clips of the former president talking about shaking down the milk farmers.

We had a podcast AND a movie coming.

But then disaster struck. The distribution company, Open Road Pictures, went belly-up. “Finding Steve McQueen” lost its distribution deal. It sat on the shelf for almost a year.

The podcast was put on hold, too. There were times when I was sure the project was dead.

Then, at Christmastime, Mastromauro called to say a distribution company called EOne bought the rights to distribute. EOne farmed out the distribution to Momentum Pictures.

And Momentum set up theatrical runs in 10 cities and availability on streaming services.

I was thrilled.

Finally, audiences get a chance to see the movie that I have been dreaming about.

And finally, we finally had a reason to finish the “Crime Beat” podcast.

My little industry had new life.

My family and I were invited to a screening on Monday, March 11. We mingled with the cast and took a bunch of pictures. One highlight happened when I took my seat in the theater, I had been placed next to Harry Barber. He’s the same guy who had been telling me for months that he didn’t want to go to any Hollywood events.

With the stealthy instincts of a burglar, he surprised me.

“How’s your radio program?” he asked, referring to the podcast. I told him it was growing a big audience. I asked him if he had listened. “Not a word,” he said.

That’s Harry. After he saw “Finding Steve McQueen,” he met the cast and seemed to love the spotlight. He was still arguing over one detail in the movie. He swears he cleaned the dishes in the dishwasher. (When you see the film, you’ll know what I mean.)

My daughter Ali grew up got a degree in psychology and works with children who need help. She puts herself to bed at night listening to the “My Favorite Murder” podcast. My youngest son Trey watches “How to Train Your Dragon” over and over again.

My son Dylan caught the Hollywood bug from me. He wants to be an actor. The movies can be captivating. There are dreams to be chased.

Friday, Dylan will introduce me at The Frida Cinema. I couldn’t be prouder.

Sixteen years.

Time is gone in an instant.