N.Y. Newspaperman Jumps on New Beat: `Cop Land' Novel: Reporter Adds Gritty Facts to Fiction

By Arnold, Gary | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

N.Y. Newspaperman Jumps on New Beat: `Cop Land' Novel: Reporter Adds Gritty Facts to Fiction


Arnold, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


"The stuff in the movies is so tame compared to real life," observes Mike McAlary, whose beats at the New York Post and New York Daily News for the past 15 years have familiarized him with several facets of organized criminal endeavor, particularly police corruption. "To really hear these guys confide all their guilty secrets astounds you."

On the face of things, a Manhattan newspaper reporter and columnist seems a quixotic choice to be traveling to Washington and other major cities on behalf of a movie, even a movie about crooked cops.

It's not as if the cast of "Cop Land," opening nationally today, weren't kind of loaded: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel, Janeane Garofalo, Annabella Sciorra, Peter Berg, John Spencer, Cathy Moriarty and Michael Rapaport.

Mr. Stallone, of course, is handling the big media appearances. He deferred an eight-figure salary to play the protagonist: a tortoisey, middle-aged sheriff named Freddy Heflin who suffers from a formidable inferiority complex while keeping the peace in a deceptively serene little New Jersey town, Garrison, a residential haven for New York City police officers.

Mr. Stallone seems to have noticed promising affinities between Freddy and his immortal downtrodden pug, Rocky Balboa. The invention of a young writer-director named James Mangold, Freddy also owes obvious debts to a tradition of doggedly valorous, melancholy lawmen that extends from Gary Cooper in "High Noon" to Bill Paxton in "One False Move."

Mr. McAlary's connection with the film was belated and tangential. He was approached by Miramax, the distribution company, to write the novelized version of the screenplay for Hyperion Press, a publishing subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. Mr. McAlary had published three nonfiction chronicles of crime and punishment within the NYPD that no doubt rang harmonious bells: "Buddy Boys," "Cop Shot" and "Good Cop, Bad Cop."

The movie people caught him at a susceptible moment, turning 40 and hoping to acquire some facility at narrative fiction.

"I don't know how you are," Mr. McAlary remarks during a conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel, "but I've been doing a column for 10 years, mostly about municipal politics, whatever's big any given week, and I've done nonfiction books that sold well enough. Millions of people in the city have read me, but in the back of my knucklehead there's this voice that says, `You're not really a writer. You haven't written a novel.' "

Nagged by this voice and embarked on the early drafts of a first novel, Mr. McAlary agreed to the Miramax-Hyperion deal. He had arranged to cut his Daily News column to a weekly fixture. He worked from the final draft of Mr. Mangold's screenplay while the movie itself already was in production last summer. His novel, also called "Cop Land," comes out in bookstores today.

Dailies and production photographs helped update Mr. McAlary on the realization of the written script, which inevitably changed. He wasn't obliged to incorporate the changes, but he was instrumental in contriving a reasonable explanation for one of the movie's wobbly starting points: the sheer existence of an NYPD bedroom community across the George Washington Bridge in Jersey. This explanatory note was added to the opening voice-over narration entrusted to Mr. De Niro, cast as a sarcastic Internal Affairs sleuth named Moe Tilden.

"You hope to bring a certain credibility to whatever job you're hired for," Mr. McAlary says. "I thought James had written a tremendous movie story. In fact, it aroused the typical working journalist's reaction: I was instantly jealous. But he had New York City cops living in Jersey, which they can't do. You can't live out of state. There have been cops who commuted from way upstate - Saratoga in one case that I know of. But not from Jersey. So I fixed that problem. Or what was a problem for me. …

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