With a movie based on his life, “American Gangster,” as the number one film in country and with Oscar-winner Denzel Washington playing him, former drug kingpin Frank Lucas is enjoying a brief renaissance. For a man who has lived in the shadows for so long to finally be recognized for such infamous achievements has been both a blessing and a curse.
His rags to riches story began to takeoff when he met legendary Harlem crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson in the mid-1950s. For Lucas, that experience was life-changing. “You couldn’t find a better person in Harlem than Bumpy. He was the boss and everybody knew it. You couldn’t get any money in Harlem except through him.”
During this period, Johnson took the aspiring hustler under his wing schooling him to New York’s mean streets. “Bumpy taught me that it was just a business,” said Lucas. “He was not just a drug dealer or a hustler but a businessman and that’s how I ran my business.”
Lucas learned his lessons well and when his mentor died in 1968, he assumed control of his territory. Being anonymous had its benefits because Lucas was able to operate a thriving heroin business without federal intervention. Unfortunately for him, he committed one fatal flaw that would largely contribute to his ultimate downfall.
While attending the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier “Fight of the Century” in 1971, Lucas and an associate bet $500,000 and also received additional unwanted attention by not only sitting ringside in front of fellow mob associates, but wearing a garishly loud, chinchilla coat. “Once they were on me, I was never able to shake them off,” Lucas said in a defeated voice.
Once they identified the strength and scope of Lucas’ organization, his anonymity was gone forever. “I was out there 14 years before they knew my name. I wasn’t rah-hah riding or all that kind of stuff,” said Lucas.
In the early 1970s, competition in the drug game was fierce and profitable. Some accounts pegged that Lucas made as much as a million dollars a day. “The life is glamorous, but temporary,” said Lucas. During this period, Lucas enjoyed all of the trappings of success, buying expensive cars and traveling around the world.
“Of course I had the cars and all that stuff, but I didn’t show them. When I got ready to do that, I took the ‘hotwire’ to South East Asia or someplace over there. I went to the South Pacific a lot, Pango Pango, Fiji and down in South America a lot; that’s where I did my thing, not in Europe.”
His chief rival during that period was the flashy, charismatic, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes also known as “Mr. Untouchable.” “We were out there at the same time doing our thing,” said Lucas. While much has been made about the nature of their relationship, one thing that is clear is that both men then and now respect one another’s accomplishments and achievements. “Nicky and I was cool, we never had no problems.” When told that Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker has plans to make a film based on Barnes’ story, Lucas could hardly contain his excitement.
Soon the increased scrutiny from the Feds wore Lucas down. He was arrested in 1976 and sent to jail for 70 years. He was released in 1991 after serving 15 years. Just like “The Usual Suspects’,” Kaiser Soeze, Lucas seemed to disappear into thin air. He resurfaced in an interview in 2000 with New York Magazine and his story attracted the interest of film producers and a certain Oscar-winning star from nearby Mount Vernon – Denzel Washington.
While saying that the film is “85 percent accurate,” Lucas has nothing but praise for Washington’s performance. “Could you get any better than Denzel Washington? I think he has an excellent chance of winning Oscar for playing me. Besides, look what he had to work with!”
These days, Lucas gets around in a wheelchair, courtesy of two broken bones in his legs and minus the multi-millions taken from him by the government. When asked if he still has money, Lucas refuses to go into that saying that “ears are always listening.” He continues to refute the exact amount taken from him, but acknowledges that when released from prison, he was “broke.”
If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, Lucas has an equally passionate message for the youth who romanticize his and the names of other drug kingpins in the life. “There are only three things that can happen in that life: go to jail, end up dead or end up broke.”
He also works with his daughter with an organization called The Yellow Brick Road, which hopes to steer young people away from the life he lived. “I’m going from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York to spread a message to the kids to do anything but get in this life.”
Lucas wants his life to serve as a cautionary tale for those who dream of fast money with hard consequences. “Please stay out of the drug game, do anything, chop wood, sweep floors, clean up the bathroom but stay out of the drug game so you don’t wind up like me.”