The Fugitive Life Sparks Its Own Celebrity

Life on the run can turn a criminal into a legend, in real life and reel life.

October 01, 2009, 3:25 AM

Oct. 1, 2009 -- Hollywood loves to glamorize criminals on the run. Without life on the lam, we'd have no "Bonnie and Clyde," "Catch Me If You Can," "Public Enemies" or "Les Miserables."

Even the life of "The Fugitive" (both the 1960s television series and the 1993 Harrison Ford film) has strong similarities to the case of Sam Sheppard, a doctor who was cleared of murdering his wife after serving over ten years in prison.

Director and actor Roman Polanski is nearly as famous for his 1978 flight from California criminal court for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor as he is for his legendary films, such as "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown."

Polanski's status as a French citizen proved helpful because France has limited extradition laws with the U.S. Despite being unable to return to the U.S., Polanski has maintained a steady and successful directing career. While abroad, he has directed several films, including the Academy Award-winning 2002 film "The Pianist."

Polanski was arrested last Saturday after walking into a trap at the Zurich airport on his way to receive an award at the Zurich Film Festival. Swiss authorities who arrested him maintained they were acting on a request from the United States to bring a fugitive to justice.

Alexander Kelly went from being a Darien, Conn., high school athlete and petty criminal to true crime movie of the week when he skipped out of the U.S. while awaiting trial for the 1987 rapes of two young women.

While on the run, Kelly spent years living the high life on the ski slopes of Europe, his family allegedly supporting him financially and emotionally in secret. In 1996, he turned himself in to Swiss authorities and returned to the U.S. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The trial and its details of wealth and injustice were dramatized in various television movies and true crime series episodes. In 2007, Kelly was released from prison on "good behavior."

Fugitive Cult Heros

In the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Timothy Leary gained international fame for his advocacy of LSD therapy and his famous phrase, "Turn on, tune in, drop out," which he coined at a San Francisco Be-In. He landed in jail in 1970 on drug charges but managed to escape prison. With the help of the Weatherman and other radicals, Leary and his wife were smuggled into Algeria.

Leary spent the next two years moving around Europe, from Switzerland to Vienna and finally to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was arrested in 1973 before getting off a plane.

The man Richard Nixon dubbed "the most dangerous man in America" served time in California's Folsom prison, where he continued to write books until he was released in 1976.

South Boston criminal and alleged Irish mob leader James J. "Whitey" Bulger has been on the FBI's top 10 Most Wanted list for the past 10 years for crimes including racketeering, murder and extortion. He's reportedly been spotted all over Europe, from Dublin to Venice since he went on the run in 1995.

Now 80, there's a $2 million price on his head and some think he may never be found.

Like many famous criminals of his stature, he's inspired books and films, including Jack Nicholson's character Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese's 2006 film "The Departed."

His complex relationship with his brother William Bulger, a former president of the Massachusetts state senate, was the inspiration for the Showtime series "Brotherhood," which lasted three seasons.

Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, was a New York City newspaper headline staple in the 1970s. A former member of the Black Liberation Party and the Black Panthers, Shakur was convicted of multiple felonies, including armed robbery, attempted murder and murder for her involvement in a shootout with police. She was sprung from prison in 1979 by sympathizers and has been living under political asylum in Cuba since 1984.

Shakur has been the subject of documentaries and made a hero by such hip hop stars as Common, Public Enemy, Mos Def and her stepnephew Tupac Shakur.

Unjust Fugitive

Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson suffered more deeply from racism than any blow he may have felt in the ring during his turbulent career in 1908-1910. He won fights while newspapers vilified him, crowds shouted cruel epithets at him and people called for a "Great White Hope" to defeat him.

Though wildly controversial, he was a huge star in his day and made headlines for racing cars, his vibrant social life and roles in early film and radio. However, his involvement with two white women, one of whom he married, landed him in jail in 1913 under the Mann Act. He fled to Mexico with his wife and did not return until 1920. He served a year in jail and left prison a hero to his many admirers.

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