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INTERVIEW: JOSEPH WAMBAUGH and THE ONION FIELD

By • Aug 2nd, 2010 •

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Once upon the fabled time in the golden age of the LAPD there was entrenched in its mean streets an officer with a keen and watchful eye.

Born in the steel mill town of East Pittsburgh, PA, the family embarked upon a journey fourteen years later to the sun of Southern California for a funeral and decided to take up permanent residence. With four years of college and three years of Marine Corp service by age 23, and plans to spend the year garnering teaching credentials, fate intervened. “I just happened to see an ad in the paper, the LAPD was hiring at $489.00 per month, more than teachers were making and more than I ever made. I thought I should try this for a while and I just loved it.”

And so, Joseph Wambaugh took an oath to protect and serve. Then to write.

The world in which he patrolled and investigated could read like classic film noir a la TOUCH OF EVIL with Orson Welles’ smooth assuring voice, ” With his gun loaded and badge number 178 gleaming in the neon…” or perhaps more like CHINATOWN with Jack Nicholson’s drawl delivery, “…the cop starts writing away as the dame retells her story packed full of lies.” The time and the place during Mr. Wambaugh’s service presented him with a unique trip into a world like no other. The societal division in the geographic area that the LAPD serves encompasses the wealthiest power wielders and the lowliest street urchins. Quite a cast of characters, embroiled in an area with an ever un-mending rift between the police and its citizens, many high profile criminal cases, and continual gang warfare. Hollywood is a place where dreams are fouled. An actress is murdered while another is thrown overboard, a star athlete commits double homicide, and a director rapes a child. In this magical land reality is marred, proof is irrelevant and money nixes convictions.

He acquired a large collection of notes from crime scenes, vice busts, and investigations in this world. From that he spun manuscripts that found themselves snatched by publishers. Wambaugh’s storytelling talent to create best selling novels, non-fiction, and compelling crime and detective novels, has allotted him permanent residence on bookshelves for four decades. His first six published works all became theatrical movies or made-for-television features: THE NEW CENTURIANS, THE BLUE KNIGHT, THE ONION FIELD, THE CHOIRBOYS, THE BLACK MARBLE, and THE GLITTER DOME. Cast in these productions were actors such as George C. Scott, William Holden, Louis Gossett Jr., James Woods, Ted Danson, Harry Dean Stanton, and John Lithgow.

THE ONION FIELD was a non-fiction account of two Los Angeles Detectives, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, who, upon making a traffic stop, were held at gunpoint and taken hostage to an onion field in Bakersfield by Gregory Ulas Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith. Powell reneged on his promise to strand the cops and Detective Campbell was murdered. Detective Hettinger successfully fled. The story then centers on Hettinger’s psychological damage and the abuse he suffered at the hands of the LAPD as the apprehended criminals take on the criminal justice system for several years.

THE ONION FIELD staked its claim on The New York Times Best Seller List. Alongside it were published works slated for future film and TV projects. Pentimento, authored by Lillian Hellman, became the Oscar winning JULIA starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. JOY OF SEX tanked as a failed comedy by director Martha Coolidge. SYBIL became a TV special starring Sally Field and PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE found its way on television years later in 1990.

THE ONION FIELD reached the number eight spot on Gene Siskel’s 1979 Top 10 List.

So during a hot steamy New York summer afternoon where the streets are empty and the air hangs heavy, I am honored to discuss THT ONION FIELD with screenwriter/novelist/producer/TV show creator/former detective Joseph Wambaugh via telephone from his home in Southern California.

As Officer Wambaugh took the streets, did you always aspire to be a writer?

I majored in English. So everybody in the world who ever majored in English has at least a secret aspiration to be a writer, whether they admit it or not. I was a closet writer as a cop. I sent stories off to all the magazines in America and got them all rejected and eventually it led to something.

Many city agencies do not like their employees writing about their on the job exploits. The police department is no exception. Is this the reason that you wrote on the QT?

Maybe that was part of it. Reality was that I would probably never get published. What’s the point of advertising myself as a failure? So, I just kept it to myself. Finally after being rejected by everybody, I decided to send a short story to a literary magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic Monthly kind of discovered me and suggested that I try a novel and the first novel was ‘The New Centurions,’ which became a movie with George C Scott, the biggest movie star of the day.

Was the LAPD pleased with you?

I got in my most trouble with the police department because they had a rule needing permission to publish. And I didn’t seek permission because I knew I wouldn’t get it for ‘The New Centurions,’ and I just took a chance and we published. Before publication, it was a full selection from the Book of the Month Club. Way back in those days that was a huge deal. Today it’s not much. Those days it was big because we were a reading public more so than we are now. The Book of the Month Club paid a huge amount of money and it guaranteed best sellerdom. At that time, I told my bosses and the Office of Chief of Police that I had a book coming out and that’s when I got in trouble. The Chief of Police foolishly wrote a letter, addressed to me or the L.A. Times, I forget which, saying that I would be looking for another job. And all the press came to my defense under the 1st Amendment grounds, and the Chief of Police had to back down. Then I could write whatever I chose to, and I did.

While Wambaugh’s The New Centurions spent 32 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, it shared company with other titles by various authors destined for the big screen and television: The Exorcist, The Day of the Jackal, The Other, and The Bell Jar.

When did you first hear about the onion field murders?

I was working as a vice cop at Wilshire Division, and Hollywood Division was right next to us. I was on duty that night when the so-called felony car was found empty at the intersection of Carlos and Gower in Hollywood. Everyone was looking for the cops. The entire police department, of course, was absolutely focused on this. The next day the whole story came out.

When did you decide that this is a story that you would like to write about?

I used to see Karl Hettinger when he was appointed as a driver for the Chief of Police, perhaps because of all that he had gone through the night of the onion field. They were sort of giving him an assignment that might be a cushy assignment. After that, he went to a pickpocket detail and that’s where the kleptomania started, or perhaps it started before that. When he was caught stealing ridiculous items, he resigned from the PD. It seemed clear to me that kleptomania may have had its beginning out there in that onion field. There wasn’t anything said in those days about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, let alone as it affects police officers. Nobody talked about that, but I was thinking about it, there has got to be a story here. This honest cop is running around stealing everything he can get his hands on. Sounds to me like guilt crying out for punishment. I thought if I ever become a writer, I’d sure like to look into this.

THE ONION FIELD was not your first writing effort. When did you make a conscious effort to realize your desire to write it?

Capote was the first person I told the story of the onion field to. We met on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show when it was still in New York. My wife and I were invited by him to his home in Palm Springs where we spent one hot summer day out by his pool and he and I talked about this case for over an hour. I just related to him this case and told him how much I wanted to write it and hoped that I could do it in the same style that he did In Cold Blood. When I told him the story, he said, ” I wish I could write that.” When he told me that, I knew that I would write it. After that, I took the leave of absence. Capote read the galley proofs of the book and gave me a glowing jacket quote on the book, which was very helpful to me. My wife and I saw him over the years a few times before he died. He was very supportive and influential when it came to the onion field story.

How did you start writing The Onion Field?

After I published my first two books, I was still a cop. I stayed on at the police department through two best sellers, The New Centurions and The Blue Knight. The Blue Knight became America’s first mini-series. (Starring William Holden and Lee Remick.)

I had a great deal of name recognition at that time and I started contacting people involved in the onion field case including Karl Hettinger. I took a six month leave of absence from the police department, and interviewed 45 or 48 people and read about 40,000 pages of court transcript, but I am a fast worker, and finished it all in three months. I went back after only three months and stayed on another year.

Joseph Wambaugh and director Harold Becker on the set of THE ONION FIELD.

Did you interview the two convicted in the case, Jimmy Lee Smith and Gregory Ulas Powell?

I went to Folsom Prison to interview Jimmy Lee Smith and I went to San Quentin to interview Gregory Ulas Powell. I had Powell’s lawyer with me at San Quentin.

When I went to interview Jimmy Lee Smith, my wife was waiting in the car outside Folsom Prison up near Sacramento and that is a grim place. I believe I went there on a Sunday evening on our way back from San Francisco where I had interviewed Powell at San Quentin. I stopped outside the prison very late and went up and stopped to talk to the corrections officer at the gate. I identified myself as an LAPD detective, which I was, and I wanted to interview a prisoner Jimmy Lee Smith and wondered if it could be done after hours. I wanted to talk about the murder case, which is true, I didn’t tell any lies. They didn’t recognize me as the cop author or maybe they would have turned me away. I got admitted, the lieutenant on the watch took me into his office and said, “If you would like to interview him we can get him out here.” and they brought him in. I had been writing to Smith, so Smith knew who I was, but nobody there knew, and Smith walked in and had a big grin on his face and said, “Hey, how ya doin’?” I said, “Shut up and sit down.” I am playing this like a detective investigating a current murder case and Smith, of course, was so street wise that he caught on right away and he just said, “Yes, sir.” and he just sat down. The lieutenant went out and left us alone and I had a very good long interview with him. He had already sent me a manuscript about a book that he wrote about the case and I acknowledged that in my book. I acknowledged his contribution, which was immense, because he wrote in detail about his relationship with Gregory Ulas Powell. Smith was very valuable to me for that book and the movie.

Was the manuscript that Smith gave you written at an elementary school level since he appeared to have been an uneducated street criminal?

Smith was poorly educated but was not stupid, by any means. He was a good storyteller and his book was well expressed.

Do you believe that Smith and Powell made a mockery of the justice system with the years of proceedings or was it within their constitutional rights to do so?

Yes to both halves of the question.

At any time, did you feel an ounce of compassion for Powell or Smith?

I think that the characters were treated fairly and with considerable understanding. Of course, Jimmy Lee Smith, in the movie and book, was a more sympathetic character.

Dostoevsky created characters whose criminal acts triggered some serious soul searching. Did either Powell or Smith fit into this mold?

They are classic sociopaths, which means they have poorly developed superegos or consciences. They do not have normal empathy for others.

Christopher Lloyd’s character suggested to Smith that he should use Powell to his advantage. Thus, a sexual relationship was initiated. Was there ever a true bond between the two? When the two were separated and eventually Smith was released, did they keep in contact?

They had no “true bond.” They used each other. No, they did not keep in contact.

What was the LAPD’s perception of this novel?

They didn’t know how to handle The Onion Field. I think the police department didn’t know how quite to read it. They didn’t get it at first, that it was a profoundly pro-police document if the police in question were the officers in that onion field, particularly the surviving officer Karl Hettinger, because the book and the movie become more about him than the incident in the onion field. The aftermath is more important than the incident itself. The public understood, the critics understood, and pretty soon I believe the Chief of Police understood, but they didn’t want to comment on it because of the shabby way that Hettinger was treated by his own police department. Although they didn’t mean to do it! It was just ignorance. Sending that guy to roll calls and making him describe how he “screwed up” that night by surrendering his weapon. That kind of thing was probably more destructive to his psyche than the killing in the onion field. And that’s what nearly destroyed him was the way that he was treated by the PD, but with no ill will and no malice. They didn’t know what they were doing to the guy, it was just ignorance.

Was there a great deal involved in shaping the screenplay from the novel?

I structured the movie the same way I structured the book. I began with a mysterious gardener in an idyllic peaceful setting mowing some lawns in a pricey section of Los Angeles. There is a long pan shot with beautiful background music by Eumir Deodato. As the gardener comes in for a close up, he stops mowing the lawn and picks up a newspaper with an onion field headline, and it dissolves into a flashback at a Hollywood police station when Hettinger and Campbell meet in the defunct basement jail where Campbell is practicing his bagpipes.

The film’s climatic point isn’t the murder. The characters evolve more as the drama develops. The story continues running parallel “survival” stories of Officer Hettinger and even of Smith and, to some degree, Powell.

I knew that it was going to have to be a story mostly of the aftermath of the crime and not the crime itself. If it’s interesting enough, the audience of the book and movie are going to stay with this guy and sees what happens to him, even though the big action in the film takes place before the halfway point when Campbell is killed.

Quite a feat that you have accomplished is that you are possibly the only screenwriter to have total control over the film in terms of the script. According to legend, nobody could alter a single word without your consent.

The film was so true to the book because I insisted it be that way. It was my movie because I had the money. (laughs) That was probably the last movie, it may have been the first movie and the only movie in film history, where a screenwriter who was real lowly on the totem, where a screenwriter had total control of the movie. The reason I had total control was simple, I put up a big chunk of the money and raised the rest. I had total control of the money. We didn’t have a backer or a distributor. We were making a truly independent movie, the likes of which have seldom ever been made. It was all the money that mostly my wife raised. We put in a big chunk ourselves. We mortgaged our house. A lot of little people put money in that movie. By little, I mean some of our relatives and cop friends. I had final cut and authority but also terrible responsibility. I thought, “If I lose their money, will I ever be sleeping eight hours a night ever again?” It was a completely irresponsible and stupid thing to do, but I guess we didn’t know any better. It worked out. We, and more importantly, our investors made some money out of it. Luckily, for us, despite our naiveté in doing something that dumb, it paid off okay and we got a good movie out of it. Mostly, thanks to Harold Becker in my opinion.

Joseph Wambaugh during the filming of THE ONION FIELD in front of photos of the real life onion field killers and photos of the actors that portrayed them.   Top left photo is James Woods. Top Right photo is Gregory Ulas Powell.  Bottom left photo is Franklyn Seales.  Bottom Right photo is Jimmy Lee Smith.

Any hope for screenwriters out there that they might get a “Wambaugh” clause when a studio takes their script?

No studio is going to let a writer have control of a movie. It just isn’t going to happen.

At the time of production, other than your resume, no one else had a highlighted career.

We were all relative newcomers to this. Harold Becker had made one film in England,

THE RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER, that’s all he had done other than commercials. When full credit is given, I think Harold Becker deserves it for THE ONION FIELD. He’s the guy. I think he did a fantastic job. Since then, he became a distinguished director who is still working. With the little money we had, we hired little known actors. John Savage was the biggest name because he played in HAIR. James Woods had only done one movie. Ted Danson had never done anything. Franklyn Seales had never done anything. We kind of made it on a shoestring, $2.2 Million. It was quite an adventure. Harold Becker will tell you to this day that was a true experience of making an independent film. When people talk about independent films, it’s a bit different than what we did. We had no distributor, if we had failed and made a lousy movie, what we would have had was the world’s most expensive home movie. There was nothing behind us, nothing at all, it was really a gamble that I would never do again or recommend anyone else doing.

Can you gauge the success of the book vs. the success of the movie?

I knew the film could never be the commercial success that the book was. The book was aimed at a different audience. Dare I say a more serious audience, or maybe the education level of a non-fiction book audience might be a bit higher than that of the average popcorn eater that goes to summer films. The critical success of the film was enormous. It made a movie star out of James Woods. Look what it did for Ted Danson and Harold Becker. Sorry to say, Franklyn Seales, who was so brilliant as Jimmy Lee Smith, and that was his first film, died several years after.

Policing has changed since you were on the force. Any thoughts on this?

Political Correctness has changed the world and certainly the world of police.

The police had to learn to be more public relations conscience and realize that protecting the public and guarding the rights of the accused is more than just lip service. You have to balance the two nowadays and have to be careful of your own job. If you get a little too overzealous enforcing the law you can lose your job. It seems that people seem to distrust the police almost as much as they distrust the criminals sometimes, at least that is the way it seems to cops. The cops have that minority group syndrome where they are ‘blue,’ and no one that is not ‘blue’ can totally understand someone that is ‘blue.’

Do you subscribe to a particular writing regimen?

When I am writing a book, I do get up early and just write after I had my workout and work as long as I can. These days, it’s only four or five hours. I do that every single day.

What are you doing these days?

I will soon be copy editing my latest Hollywood novel. In recent years, since ’06, I have written Hollywood Station, Hollywood Crows, Hollywood Moon, and now Hollywood Hills, they are all about cops at Hollywood Station, a division of LAPD. A division is what you call a precinct in New York.

Photo Credit: Dee Wambaugh

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11 Responses »

  1. I find myself looking forward to Franco Frassetti’s interviews and comments His writing has excitement of a good book. His interviews are always with those who are top drawer. Thanks!

  2. Mr. Frassetti has a way of doing interviews that just seems to draw you into it, almost as if you are watching the interview live and hearing the questions and answers. I agree, his interviews always read like a good book, from his first words to his last. Thanks for another great one Mr. Frassetti!

  3. I see today in the Brazilian TV about Mr.Joseph Wambaugh. He is excellent profissional in talk and writer about criminal histories. Is possible send a message for Mr.Wambaugh in the Profissional E-mail address of him? I desire sent to him my personal history. In the year 2006, I was victime of crime in California-USA, until today-2010 the problem/case was not finish/conclude. I have any documents from Brazilian Government, US Government, photos, E-mails, Letters, any documents about the crime I suffer in CALIFORNIA-USA. I hope any day, the POLICE in USA resolve that CASE. I work in the Brazilian Government – in the House Representative-I am Legislative Analyst-33 years in this job. My husband was AMERICAN CITIZEN. We married in Brazilian and USA laws. He died in 2007, days before he dyin- I was in Brazil. Members of his family, change him from the hospital in California and take a particular airplane transferred him to the State of Georgia in the last week of his life. He was embedded in the state of the Georgia, and the family hiding the cause of the death in the “death certificate”. I am in Brazil and I desire to sent “my history” to him. He is a writer and a police man too – understand everything about crime! Perhaps who knows, he interest in my true personal history and even, bring inspiration for his criminal literature, “if the police not conclude the investigation of that crime, that involves this true history”. Tkank you for your attention.

  4. I was reading on a police website today about a man who has been incarcerated for killing 2 Northlake, Illinois police officers way back in 1967, who is still incarcerated in federal prison, 44 years later. His name is Henry Michael Gargano, and he and his accomplice, Ronald Del Raine, robbed a bank and shot and killed 2 police officers that day in 1967, and while reading about them, I saw the name of Gregory Powell. It immediately struck a cord in my brain, and I was trying to remember where I heard it, and then all of a sudden I remembered the name from the picture the “Onion Field”, the brilliant picture by the brilliant author and ex-policeman, Joseph Wambaurgh, also the director, I believe, of the TV serial “Police Story,” which I still believe was the greatest TV police picture of all time, perhaps tied with the FBI, starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. I then found out that Gregory Powell was still alive and in prison, unbelievably 48 years later. No man belongs in prison that long. It’s time he was paroled, as well as Henry Michael Gargano and Ronald Del Raine, who have each been in prison 44 years. I’m not a bleeding heart liberal, but periods of 44 and 48 years are long enough punsihment for anyone. I’d be willing to bet Joseph Wambaugh would agree with me on that.

  5. I am a police officer, and take exception to Mr. Stengal’s comment. I do not feel that 40+ years is long enough in prison. Let me ask you a question Mr. Stengal. How long is dead enough for Officer Campbell? How long is long enough for the living hell that Officer Hettinger lived, and probably died in? Get real. You are a bleeding heart liberal, and that must be a tough life setence to live under.

  6. So right you are, Bob G! Dead is forever. A life sentence, whether it is 40 days and dead or 99 years and dead should be a LIFE sentence. Bleeding hearts are all the same, they see things from the wrong side of right.

  7. I was a young recruit in the academy when this movie came out and I read the book in high school. I promised myself that I would be the first guy in the theater when this was made into a movie and I was. Today, I saw a news story that Gregory Ulas Powell was asking for a parole on the basis that he is dying. What a load of crap. This guy kidnapped and then shot Officer Ian Campbell WHILE HE WAS DOWN,ON HIS BACK and he has the audacity to ask for a COMPASSIONATE release? He could have just left those officers in that field & got away,
    but he chose to murder them instead. He WILL rot in hell, but it’s too bad he won’t live for another 48 years.

  8. Mr. Wambaugh is a very tallented writer and I hope that he continues to write more non-fiction stories about police work. One possibility is the killing of 4 CHP officers in one traffic stop in1970 near Newhaul, CA. There have been some doucumentary film on this subject but nothing that has captured the true violence of the incident.

  9. Gregory Powell is dead at last. Hell has been long deprived of his presence. The devil can now rejoice at his homecoming.

  10. if our bleeding heart Supreme Court hadn’t abolished the death penalty, then these two scumbag losers would be stone dead a long time ago, which they richly deserved. They got off rather nicely and Officer Campbell sure didn’t. Look what this incident did to poor Hettinger. He suffered a living death.

  11. it needed a very strong judge to deal with this matter….he needed to be firm and to dismiss the numerous and trivial motions which were put before the court.this in 1963 ,would not have been tolerated in the uk,,i dont think that there is any case where someone killing a police officer got away with it..

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