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Quirky Seal, quiet Arkansas town drew 'American Made' screenwriter

By DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published October 6, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise ) is accosted by narcotics kingpin Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) in Doug Liman’s American Made, the story of the Mena-based smuggler.

The real Barry Seal didn’t look all that much like Tom Cruise.



Barry Seal liked to use pay phones. He thought the authorities couldn't tap them.

He was wrong. Del Hahn, who worked as a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent out of Baton Rouge during Seal's final years, says the FBI learned about Seal's habit after the former TWA pilot turned drug runner for the Medellin cartel was arrested in Florida.

"We did surveillance on him for two or three months and found his most popular pay phones," Hahn says. "We had to limit them to 10 because we couldn't monitor every phone call. When he was out and about, he had rolls of quarters with him and a pager."

The Bureau called their pursuit of Seal, "Operation Coinroll."

Seal's phone protocol was part of what drew American Made screenwriter Gary Spinelli to his story. New York-based Spinelli hails from Jacksonville, Fla. He says Seal's phone habits, which star Tom Cruise replicates in the Spinelli-written film American Made, seemed familiar. As a bar owner, Spinelli's father often dealt in cash. And he often used pay phones.

"I was the kid in the back seat watching dad on the pay phone for two hours a day. I felt like I understood that world pretty well," Spinelli says, speaking from a Los Angeles hotel. It was a detail that gave him an entree into the reality of Seal's world.

"I've seen drug smuggling stories set in Miami," he says. "I've seen gangster stories set in New York and L.A., but I haven't see one of these done in a small town in the heartland [Arkansas]. That was the secret sauce."

The small town in the heartland Spinelli refers to is Mena, where Seal built an impressive smuggling operation that flew out of Intermountain Municipal Airport.

"Just the idea that the CIA was running an underground operation outside this tiny little town really fascinated me. And then there were a few murders, and that's when I first started researching. And then this same name kept popping up, this Barry Seal character. I thought this guy's pretty interesting, and then I kind of pivoted away from Mena and on to Barry, so that's the way into the movie," he recalls.

If Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal's life were as cut and dried as the product he delivered, maybe people wouldn't be making movies about him more than 30 years after his murder.

American Made stars Tom Cruise as the Baton Rouge-raised pilot who made millions bringing marijuana, cocaine and quaaludes to the States, dropping them in remote areas through what he called the "Million Dollar Door" in the bottom of his planes. While Seal spent most of his time on the ground in Louisiana, he built an impressive air corps that flew out of Intermountain Municipal Airport outside of Mena.

According to Spinelli, the town and the man who ran his illegal squadron from there were an irresistible source of inspiration. He even titled early versions of his script Mena -- a name that stuck to the project until January.

The Man Without A Plan

Seal operated with bravado, and with apparent impunity.

He even granted TV interviews while he was being pursued by federal and state investigators. He went out in public even after his former suppliers in Colombia's Medellin cartel knew he had snitched on them.

"He was very self-confident. He was a good pilot. When you're flying a plane like that you've got to have some confidence in yourself," says Hahn, who retired from the FBI shortly before Seal's death in 1986. (And who has written a book about Seal called Smuggler's End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal.)

"He wasn't hiding at all after he testified in Nevada and after he pled guilty here in Baton Rouge, he was around the town. He would not take witness protection. When he was outed in that Washington newspaper article (by Edmond Jacoby of The Washington Times, to be exact), he wasn't of anymore use to the DEA in an undercover capacity, and the drug lords knew who he was."

Witness protection might have seemed prudent.

"You know why he turned it down?" Spinelli asks. "It's because they told him he could never fly an airplane again."

Seal had learned how to fly at 15 and earned his license the next year.

"When he was 16, he flew a plane onto the 50 yard line of his high school football field during homecoming and asked the prom queen on a date, which is a great story," Spinelli says. "Unfortunately, we didn't portray him at that age."

Spinelli adds that "if ... you were a pilot in the 1950s to the 1970s" and "you weren't working for an airline, you were probably doing some shady stuff."

Independent of each other and without much, if any prompting, the screenwriter and the retired FBI agent brush off rumors such as Seal having future President George H.W. Bush's personal phone number in his back pocket on the day of the murder or that he ran drugs for his son, Jeb Bush, who became governor of Florida.

Nonetheless, in American Made, artistic license abounds. For example, a fictional Arkansas attorney general named Dana Sibota (Jayma Mays) receives a phone call from "Bill," which leads her to drop charges against the pilot.

His book has whole chapters devoted to individual theories and why many don't hold up.

In the book, he laments, "During the entire time the Title III wire tap was in operation, there were no conversations between Seal, (conspiracy theorist and author) Terry Kent Reed, Bill Clinton, (Iran-Contra figure) Lt. Col. Oliver North or any representatives of the CIA."

"The stuff that was out there that came out after I retired was, in my opinion, just plain wrong. I didn't believe any of it," Hahn says. "I wanted to put my view out there and discuss our task force and the work we did and the results we got."

Hahn says Seal became a DEA informant, not because a mysterious figure named "Shafer" (played by Domnhall Gleeson) recruited him for CIA black ops, but for a more mundane, practical reason.

He didn't want to go to prison.

The Real Seal

While Hahn insists that the "real" Barry Seal story mightn't be that entertaining, there are plenty of colorful facts.

For example, Seal had a unique code for some of his contraband.

"From the drugs he was dealing with in Florida, he referred to them as 'Kawasaki' parts. 'I've got 200,000 Kawasaki parts.' You're going to think something's funny," Hahn says.

Spinelli talked with Seal's third wife, Debbie (called "Lucy" in the film and played by Sharon Wright), and some of Seal's pilots and partners in crime, and none of their stories sound dull, either.

"She has these great photos of visiting him down in a prison in Central America. They're cutting an anniversary cake with a machete," he says. "God only knows where that machete came from with the Colombian cartel."

Hahn links Seal to the CIA via a 1984 flight to Managua, Nicaragua, where Seal flew a cocaine shipment in a C-123 outfitted with cameras to prove that Nicaragua's Sandinista government was involved with the drug trade.

Seal sold that plane in 1985, and in October 1986, the plane was shot down in Nicaragua, killing two of the occupants. A third, Eugene Hasenfus, bailed out and was captured.

Soon, Iran-Contra, where the Reagan administration illegally supported Contra rebels against the Sandinista regime, was no longer a secret.

Incidentally, Doug Liman, the director of American Made, as well as Swingers and The Bourne Identity, is the son of the late Arthur H. Liman, who was chief counsel during the U.S. Senate hearings on Iran-Contra. Spinelli's script had made the prestigious Black List, which is awarded to un-produced scripts and says the younger Liman encouraged him to revise it to play up the political satire.

If Liman seems a natural pick for the story, Cruise is another matter. The action star bears no resemblance to Seal, whom his Medellin business partners dubbed "El Gordo," or "The Fat Guy."

Seal did, however, have a way of charming people the way Cruise has in movies such as Jerry Maguire.

"I had two conversations with him after I retired," Hahn says. "We just happened across each other, and he waved me down. We stopped, parked and got out of our cars and chatted, one time, for almost an hour. He was very friendly ...."

Spinelli has an anecdote that speaks to Seal's charisma.

"Another great story that Tom, Doug and I really loved that didn't make it into the movie ... is he landed at an airport and there was a friend of his who'd landed there with a brand new plane. Barry said, 'Your plane's amazing. Can I take it for a spin?' So Barry flew away and never came back. They guy was like, 'You know, I still loved him.'"

It probably doesn't hurt that, like Seal, Cruise is a pilot and that he's best known for playing the daring Navy aviator Maverick in Top Gun.

"(Tom and I) had many conversations about how this is the unauthorized sequel to Top Gun," Spinelli says. "He would laugh and laugh, and I really wanted a moment where right before he dies, he drives to a town and in the very corner of the frame you see Top Gun playing in a theater. But the problem is (Seal) dies in January of 1986, and the movie doesn't come out until July of 1986, so we can't do it."

MovieStyle on 10/06/2017

Print Headline: Quirky Seal, quiet Mena drew Made screenwriter

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