“Based On a True Story”: A History
A 1974 B-movie changed the way Hollywood, television and publishing think about—and sell—the truth.
By Jim Knipfel
When The Untouchables TV series premiered as a two-part episode of The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in April of 1959, host Desi Arnez and narrator Walter Winchell emphasized it was a true story based on Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir about his days fighting bootleggers as a treasury Department agent.
When the show became a regular weekly series shortly thereafter, the credits likewise read, “Based on the memoir by Eliot Ness.”
Not long after the series went into production, it was revealed that Ness’ ghostwriter Oscar Fraley had, oh, let’s just say embellished Ness’ story for the sake of the book. Sometimes wildly so. It was Fraley, for instance, who concocted the myth that Ness and his select team of stout-hearted crime fighters (they were really just strong-arm men) had brought Al Capone to justice after discovering he’d never paid taxes. The memoir, in short, was mostly fiction.
No longer shackled to the letter of the book, The Untouchables creative team, taking a cue from Fraley, began writing episodes in which Robert Stack’s Ness, chronology and geography be damned, single-handedly takes down every gangster in American history, from Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond to Mad Dog Coll and The Ma Barker Gang. When the writers ran out of gangsters, Ness began tackling Nazis, drug dealers, even would-be FDR assassin Giuseppe Zangara.
Over time the show’s opening credits quietly evolved a bit. Toward the end of the first season, “Based on the memoir by” became “Based on the book by.” Not long afterward they hedged further with “Based on the Novel by.” Eventually the original book was given its own card in the credits which included the added and seemingly redundant disclaimer: “Based on the novel by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, although certain events have been fictionalized.” Then toward the end of the second season, a two-part episode, in which Capone is sprung from prison to battle Ness yet again, opened with a confessional crawl in which the producers freely admitted they were just making the whole thing up, that nothing in that night’s episode ever really happened.
The compulsion to come clean may well have been an artifact of the late Eisenhower era, when the public remained sharp to the distinction between what was true and what was not. A decade later, that sense of compulsion had begun to fade. In the early 1970s, low-budget drive-in filmmakers learned the simple economic virtues of blurring the line between what Werner Herzog called “The Ecstatic Truth” versus “The Accountant’s Truth.”
In 1974, Max Baer Jr., an actor best known for playing Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies, released his directorial debut, a violent Southern-Fried thriller called Macon County Line. The movie, in which a racist sheriff terrorizes a trio of college students passing through his small Georgia town, seemed ready made for the drive-in crowd. The crowd, on the whole, disagreed.
Confused and frustrated by the tepid response, Baer yanked the film out of circulation and, taking a cue from director Charles Pierce’s 1972 faux documentary The Legend of Boggy Creek, modified the posters and opening credits to include the new tagline, “Based on a True Story.” Needless to say, it wasn’t.
When Macon County Line was re-released with the new tagline front and center a few months later, audiences suddenly began lining up. The film, which had been made for $225,000, eventually brought in an estimated $19 million. It became one of the highest-grossing drive-in films of all time, thanks to a little white lie.
The power of the “Based on a True Story” claim was undeniable. Over the years that followed, the tagline (as well as variants “Based on actual events” and the slightly less adamant “Inspired by actual events”) became ubiquitous, particularly among low-budget shockers. Ironically, in the 1970s, just as Americans had taken a sharp turn toward cynicism following Watergate, Vietnam and the death of the hippie movement, it was estimated that claiming a film recounted actual events that happened to real people (usually in the rural South) could effectively double or triple a picture’s box-office take. For some reason, moviegoers who were suspicious of anything that came out of an authority figure’s mouth were happy to believe Arkansas was rife with three-toed man apes.
There are countless examples of how the tagline has worked too well or failed miserably, but let’s jump ahead two decades. In 1996, the Coen Brothers released Fargo, their Oscar-winning comedy about a kidnapping scheme in the upper Midwest that gos terribly, horribly wrong. At the end of the opening credits, the Coens — who are extremely well-versed in film history — dropped in the simple line, “This is a true story.”
Instead of accepting it as a tongue-in-cheek nod to a cliched marketing gimmick, journalists around the country jumped on it. Making frantic phone calls and digging through newspaper archives, they proudly reported there had in fact been no pregnant sheriff, no woodchipper, and indeed no such crime, and they’d checked all up and down the Minnesota-North Dakota border to confirm this. When confronted with undeniable evidence their film was not, as claimed, a true story, Joel and Ethan Coen seemed both confused and delighted.
Then in 2001, a tragic human interest story quickly spread online and appeared in respectable newspapers all over the world. It seems an unstable young Japanese woman who took Fargo’s “true story” claim to heart, had studied the film obsessively frame-by-frame, becoming convinced she knew exactly where Steve Buscemi had buried that suitcase full of ransom money. Speaking no English and clutching a crude hand-drawn map, she arrived in North Dakota in the middle of winter, and was found frozen to death in a field a few days later. The story was reported widely, inspired a 2003 indie film, and continues to be repeated as true today, long after it was revealed the story was an urban legend. Although never proven, it’s suspected the story was a media hoax planted by the Coens themselves as a sly jab at those reporters who refused to accept the “true story” line for the nudge and wink it was intended to be. The wide and unquestioned dissemination of the hoax proved, I guess, that some lies are more truthful than others, or more valid somehow, or at least more entertaining.
So after the confessional 1950s and the willingly self-delusional ‘70s, by the early twenty-first century, what was accepted as “true” and “not true” was growing increasingly jumbled and arbitrary. When it came to the movie and TV industry, people didn’t really seem to care that much. I don’t think many people felt honestly duped and outraged to learn Fargo wasn’t really a true story. Things are different in the publishing industry. Readers, critics and publishers are funny creatures.
Four decades after the publication of Eliot Ness memoir, the scrupulous urge had swung back around. From the perspective of readers and publishers alike, the line between “memoir” and “novel” became very sharp. Not just sharp, in fact, but legal in nature. A strange neurosis seemed to sweep through the literary world demanding a clear distinction be made between books that were “true” and those that were “not true.” Failure on the author’s or publisher’s part to make that distinction clear could be very expensive.
It was more complicated than it sounds. Novelists by nature draw upon their own experiences and, to a greater or lesser degree, work them into the stories they’re trying to tell. This can become an issue when the author in question decides to write a novel in the first person. To cite just two examples out of thousands, Henry Miller and Louis-Ferdinand Celine both published novels which were unambiguously sold as fiction, yet were often read as autobiography. So much so, academics and critics have spent a little too much time carefully analyzing novels like Tropic of Capricorn and Journey to the End of the Night, gleefully pointing out those scenes which didn’t actually happen in real life — scouring novels in search of fiction.
That postmodernism shit’ll mess you up, I’m telling you.
While few outside the academy would likely care much if it was revealed, say, that Samuel Pepys fudged a few details, when it came to living writers on the bestseller lists, the righteous chest-thumping among readers and critics could be deafening. Although memoir scandals are plentiful, let me cite two prominent and telling examples.
Originally writing under the name “Terminator,” J.T, Leroy published three books of fiction — a novel, a short story collection, and a novella — between 1999 and 2005. Although clearly labeled fiction, readers and critics once again insisted on reading them as autobiography. Leroy’s stories detailed, it was accepted, his harrowing but strangely heartwarming early life as a drug-addicted cross-dressing underage truck stop whore pimped out by his mother.
He became an overnight literary sensation and a celebrity darling even though he only communicated by phone and email. In a flash, Leroy found himself writing for glossy magazines like Rolling Stone and Vogue, appearing in anthologies, editing anthologies and writing liner notes for some of the biggest bands around. Then Hollywood came knocking, and knocking hard. What a slam-bang picture this kid’s life would make, right?
Then in 2005 it was revealed that not only were Leroy’s novels and short fiction, um, fictional, but so was Leroy himself. The persona was the creation of writer Laura Albert, with the help of a couple friends.
This news made everyone very very mad. It didn’t matter that Albert had proven herself to be an excellent and compelling writer. This wasn’t about the writing, it was all about marketing and personality, which was far more important. Editors and publishers felt they’d been made to look like fools. So did those movie people who’d dropped a bundle obtaining the rights to shoot film adaptations of what they’d been led to believe were true stories. Readers were equally pissed to learn not only were these novels they loved works of fiction, but so was the author. Multiple lawsuits were filed.
(On a personal note, having dealt with “Leroy” quite a bit on the phone during his “Terminator” days, I can’t say the revelations exactly shocked me).
In 2003, smack in the midst of the Leroy lovefest, a young writer named James Frey published his first book, A Million Little Pieces, a memoir concerning his life as a drug addict and alcoholic, and his eventual salvation in a twelve-step treatment program. The book was hailed by critics, hit the bestseller lists, and was picked up by Oprah’s book Club which, if you were a young writer aiming to hit it big, was akin to getting a wet sloppy smooch from God.
Well, not long after the Oprah appearance it was revealed not every scene in Frey’s so-called “memoir” was one hundred percent true. Some things hadn’t occurred in exactly the way he had recounted them in the book, and some hadn’t even occurred at all. Overnight Frey became the most despised man on the planet, especially after Oprah publicly declared him a cheat and a liar who’d cheated and lied not only to her but two all of her fans and everyone in the world with his cheating and lying book, and that he might in fact be Satan himself. Once again attorneys were retained and lawsuits were filed against the publisher for deceiving readers in such a pernicious and devious way.
(Two years later Frey resurrected his career with the publication of a novel that made no claims to be anything but fiction. Of course, part of the redemption may have come about because the new novel’s release coincided with the J.T. Leroy scandal, and in contrast Frey didn’t seem so monstrous after all. At least he really existed.)
Yet, for all the hair-pulling over what was true and what was a filthy, filthy lie, it seems the public was fairly selective about what truths and falsehoods will upset them. When Hunter S. Thomson admitted Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a work of fiction, no one batted an eye. And when Chuck Barris, in his memoir Confessions of a Dangerous mind, claimed he was a CIA assassin at the same time he was hosting The Gong Show, people might have smirked a bit, but there was very little by way of moral outrage.
But let me back up to the James Frey case once more. See, there’s a dirty little secret in the publishing industry that might help explain things. Fact of the matter is, there isn’t a memoir on the market today — and there hasn’t been one for quite some years now — that’s one-hundred percent true and accurate. And you know why? It’s not simple self-aggrandizement or fallible human memory, though both may play a role. The real devil is libel lawyers. Every big publishing house in the country has one on staff, and they’re as much a threat to simple honesty as a major drug company’s marketing director.
Getting from a first draft to a finished book is a process that takes on average about a year. After months of being passed between editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, marketing executives and book designers, a manuscript is just about finished, and ready to be printed. In the case of a novel, that’s usually it, and all you have to do is sit back and wait for the book to come out. In the case of a non-fiction book, however, especially memoirs, the publisher, always wary of potential lawsuits, calls in the libel lawyer.
As illustrated above, we are living in absurdly litigious times, so on the one hand it’s understandable. But why publishers wait until a manuscript is edited, cleaned up and laid out before calling in the lawyers is beyond me, but there you go. From the author’s point of view, the libel lawyer is a far worse and more dangerous enemy than an incompetent editor or a spiteful critic.
What the libel lawyer will do, see, is go through the finished manuscript line by line, peering at each word with his beady, paranoid eyes, trying to imagine a reason to sue. Then he makes a list of all the things he feels should be changed “just to be on the safe side” — not just character names, but descriptions, locations, even events. And believe you me, if the author refuses to make those changes, the book will never see the light of day.
Celebrity memoirs get off a little easier than most. If you’re a celebrity, you’ll often end up writing about other celebrities. In legal terms, they’re considered public figures, so you’re free to say damn near anything you want about them. But if, like me, you’re not a celebrity, and aren’t surrounded by celebrity friends, you’re going to be writing about real people — schoolyard chums, family, crazy neighbors and monstrous bosses. That’s a problem, because non-public figures have a much easier time suing. It doesn’t matter if what you wrote is true. If it’s unflattering, they can sue. Unless you can present the libel lawyer with a signed letter of consent from each person you’ve written about, you will have to start making changes. And if you’ve written something unflattering about a complete stranger, someone you saw in a bar or passed on the street, look out.
Here’s a small but true example. In 1997, I wrote what I felt was as bluntly and painfully honest a memoir as I was capable of writing. A week before the book was set to go to the printers, I found myself on the phone for three days straight, eight hours a day, with the libel lawyer. In one instance, he was concerned that the location of one scene might be identifiable. If the location in Minneapolis could be identified, he said, the other person in the scene could sue. So what did I have to do? Not just make the location utterly vague — it was like I ran into this character in Purgatory — but at the end of the scene instead of walking back to my apartment (as I had done in real life), the lawyer had me get on a bus and ride aimlessly around Minneapolis for awhile. It made no sense whatsoever as far as the story went, but that didn’t matter.
In another book, the lawyer was worried that my description of a former professor could be construed as negative. Had I hinted that he was a child molester or an arsonist? No, in the scene we simply have an uncomfortable conversation after he visits me in the hospital. In legal terms, I didn’t present him as a bubbling fountain of warmth and comfort, so that was enough to justify a lawsuit. Not only did I need to change his name and physical description — I needed to change his occupation completely. Changing his occupation ruined a whole bunch of jokes, but since the book had already been laid out by this time, I couldn’t go back and change them, as it would throw off the page count. What’s more, given there was no time to make the requested changes to the manuscript before review copies went out, the review copies of that particular book went out heavily redacted.
Those are just two examples out of dozens. In the end, the libel lawyers turned two of my memoirs into novels, though they were still called “memoirs” when published.
Point being, in this day and age all memoirs are novels — which is why I felt so bad for Mr. Frey. As my wife pointed out many years ago (and which my own experience has proven true) — fiction is much more honest than non fiction. Funny thing is, I once wrote a novel in which everything was true. Character descriptions, events, long stretches of dialogue, locations — everything was as it really happened. The only thing I changed were the names. But because it was called a “novel” it never went to a libel lawyer, and was released as honest as it began.
But there’s another angle at play here. Fear of lawsuits is one factor, simple profits are another, and in publishing, when it comes to profits, labels can make all the difference.
At some point in the late ’90s, fiction sales began to plummet. People no longer wanted to read made-up stories about things that never happened, it seems, so publishers grew reluctant to put them out. At the same time, memoirs and other “true” stories began to sell very well. They also tended to receive more publicity, as mainstream media outlets were more interested in talking to authors about their real experiences than the imaginary experiences of some character they invented. Obviously, more publicity only helped sales further. So if a publisher can figure out a way to market a first-person narrative as a “memoir,” or as “true” in any way, they will.
Publishing essentially took a lesson from those low-budget filmmakers from the 70s. On a book jacket, the subhead “Based on a True Story” — or in publishing lingo, “A Memoir” — is guaranteed to sell two or three times what it would have had the same jacket carried the subhead, “A Novel.”
It later came out, not surprisingly, that James Frey had indeed originally approached his editor with a manuscript he referred to as “an autobiographical novel,” even before the libel lawyer got involved, but smelling brisker sales from a straight memoir, the editor pushed Frey to pitch it that way instead. And then the troubles began.
Let me drive this point into the ground with one more example.
In January of 2002, I spotted a tiny item in the newspaper about an improbable man who’d pulled off an improbable $5 million heist. The facts and details were scarce, but I thought it had potential. Over the next month, I wrote a novel inspired by that 250-word squib in the New York Post. No publisher was interested, however, telling me they felt the heist itself — the one factual thing in the book — was too, well, improbable.
I guess my mistake was calling it a novel from the start. When I was finally able to convince one publisher that it was indeed based on actual events, he suggested that instead of a novel, I write a true crime book. That was fine with me. Months of interviews and archival research followed. When I turned in the non-fiction manuscript, we learned that legally I could only write a true-crime book if I had been a journalist covering the case, or if I’d obtained the story rights from one of the involved parties, meaning I’d have to write the book from their perspective. To get around this, the editor suggested I “fiction it up a little,” while maintaining the core facts of the case. So I did. Taking a nod from Truman Capote, we were going to label it “A True-Crime Novel.”
When I turned in that draft, the editor suddenly began worrying that the people involved in the case — convicted criminals, mind you — might still recognize themselves.
So in came the libel lawyer. Apoplexy ensued. Once again, a week before the book was off to the printers, he had me further fictionalize the character names (which weren’t quite fictional enough) and change countless other details. The last thing he insisted I do was change the city where the second half of the book takes place. This was no small task, considering the unique character and geography of the original city played such a role in the story. I also had to make all those changes in such a way that it wouldn’t alter the page count. His final paranoid suggestion was dropping the “True Crime” from the subtitle, so as not to tip anyone off. The “True Crime Novel” label appeared on review copies, but vanished from the final published version. This was reflected in the sales. In the end, the finished book was further away from the “true story” than my original novel — and in retrospect that original novel (at least in legal terms) would’ve been just fine.
In more recent years, the old and charming “Based on a True Story” tagline has all but vanished, becoming a simple given as it morphed into genres like found footage films and reality TV. It doesn’t matter that as a term “reality TV” is as fraudulent as “memoir” is these days — millions of happy viewers still willingly believe. Harmless as that is, “Based on a True Story” has become a virus quietly infecting everything in the culture, from politics and religion to the news.
People still cling, and cling fiercely to notions of “true” and “false,” and in the current Post-Truth era cling more tightly than ever even as the terms have become arbitrary and meaningless. They need to believe those things they choose to believe are true, and anything in the world that contradicts what they believe is by definition a lie or, in the current vernacular, “Fake News.”
Time was, you could tell someone the story they just earnestly shared is an urban legend, or the events in Macon County Line didn’t really happen, or the emperor had no clothes, and they might be pissed, but pissed at their own gullibility. These days, tell a believer The Bachelorette is as carefully plotted and scripted well in advance as any other soap opera, or there is no Deep State run by Democratic Party pedophiles, or the emperor has no clothes, and you open yourself up to a beating, savage online harassment, or worse.
The grand fraudulence that lay at the heart of American culture, even when “true/false” distinctions had any real meaning, used to be a gentle hoax that held us together like an inside joke. Now it’s turned us into bloodthirsty factions at war over a selective ideal of a “truth” that no longer exists, if it ever did.
Jim Knipfel is the author of three memoirs, five novels, a short story collection and a volume of pop cultural sociology. His most recent book is Residue (Red Hen Press). He lives in Brooklyn.
Last edited: March 31, 2019
Author: Jim Knipfel
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: "Macon County Line" / EMI Film Dist. Lmtd.