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The Storyteller: Joseph Wambaugh

Thirty-five years ago Joseph Wambaugh forever changed the way that cops are portrayed in fiction. Now after a long hiatus, he's writing again about the "Blue Knights" of the LAPD.

October 01, 2007  |  by - Also by this author

POLICE: The labor intensive research Truman Capote did for "In Cold Blood" had a psychological impact on him. Did your months of research on "The Onion Field" have the most impact on you?

JW: Probably, it did. I was sort of living it and sweating out how the surviving officer, Karl Hettinger, would take it. Because when I interviewed him, he was so fragile. He certainly understood the kidnapping and murder of fellow officer Ian Campbell, but he didn't understand completely how that led to his overwhelming guilt complex.

Remember, this was prior to the days of anyone figuring out that police officers were perfect candidates for post-traumatic stress syndrome. In those days, there was no such term, least of all as it applied to police officers. So Hettinger didn't understand what had hit him. All he knew was that there was a period in his life when he had a bout of kleptomania and was running around stealing stupid things for no apparent reason and it all stopped the moment he was caught and punished in the worst possible way: losing his career, having to go to a job as a gardener. I knew I was dealing with a guy who was psychologically by no means recovered from all he'd gone through. I thought, if he reads this book how is he going to feel about it?

POLICE: How did he react to the book?

JW: I didn't hear from him for a couple weeks after I'd sent him the book. That really stressed me out. Finally, I had a phone call from him. I said, "Karl, I've been waiting to hear from you. Didn't you read the book right away?" He said, "Oh, yes. We were up in the High Sierras fishing with the family, so I didn't get a chance to call." I asked him how he felt about it. He said, "It didn't make me feel bad." To me, that was the greatest review that I have ever received and probably ever will receive when he said, "It didn't make me feel bad." It was the first night I was able to sleep well since I started the book.

POLICE: Onion Field cop killer Jimmy Lee Smith just passed away this year. What effect, if any, did his passing have on you?

JW: Well, nothing at all, except that he was destined to be in prison. It was inevitable that Jimmy Smith would die in prison. Every time he got out, he would shoot up a bunch of dope and go back in again. That was his life. So I didn't have any strong feeling either way.

POLICE: Would the officers you served with be able to recognize your characters as real guys they knew on the force?

JW: I think my characters are composites of different guys. Some people who read "The Choirboys" have asked me if Spermwhale Whalen wasn't over the top. I mean, he's an Air Force Reserve pilot, he flies combat missions to Vietnam, I mean c'mon, while he's still a full-time cop at Wilshire Division.

But there was one guy that I supervised at Newton Street who would string his nine days a month together so he would work 21 days straight and take nine days off together.  And then he'd go up to Edwards Air Force Base, and he'd fly a huge Globemaster airplane to Vietnam on combat pay and then come back to Newton Street at the end of the nine days and go to work. He never did make sergeant as a police officer, wasn't the type to, yet he was a major in the Air Force Reserve.

Guys in briefing would ask him where he went on his days off, and he'd say, "Oh, Da Nang is all."

Well, I took portions of his unbelievable life and I grafted it onto the character that became the character of Spermwhale Whalen in "The Choirboys."

POLICE: Your contempt for Robert Altman's adaptation of "The Choirboys" and your subsequent disassociation with the film is well known. Still, few authors this side of Grisham and King have had as many of their books adapted for the screen. Which of the films made from your books have worked best for you?

JW: That would be "The Onion Field" and "The Black Marble" because I made those films. There's also a pretty good mini-series of "Echoes in the Darkness," a true story about the murder of a school teacher. I wrote the mini-series and CBS did a darn good job because they kept it true.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

David Moore S-55 @ 11/22/2007 6:30 PM

First, I have always been a big fan of (Joseph Wambaugh) as he writes from the heart - like many of your articles and Police seems to be going in that direction as well, within the channels program...(The best ones with impact/meaning/lessons to remember and use)!!

These stand out to me; "They are human and their profession takes a toll on them as individuals (Police Officers/Law Enforcement, military, as it will always affect people who care about others and are trying their best to make a difference in our world each day)." Also the last three paragraphs of this article, I won't lie had some mist from within well-up!

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