Serpico - A Personal Recollection
|In the fall of 2003 I made the acquaintance
of Frank Serpico, who was portrayed by Al Pacino in the 1974 movie
"Serpico." Here I've written a reminiscence of him and
assembled some links for further reading.
|From a 2003 production of "The Time of your Life," by William Saroyan - the harmonica- playing Arab (Frank Serpico, left); Wesley the pianist (Franklin Micare) and the would-be comic and dancer Harry ( Paul Carter).|
The man had not signed up for private harmonica lessons with me under his
real last name. It didn't take me long to figure out that he was someone
famous who might have good reason use an alias,
On the phone Frank O. had explained that he was to appear in a production of William Saroyan's 1939 play "The Time of Your Life," and that his role called for a brief performance on the harmonica. Sure, I'd be happy to help him prepare for the show, I said. When could he come for a lesson? We set up a time, and he arrived at my studio in Albany, NY, on a Wednesday afternoon and sat down in a chair facing the music stand.
The bearded, 60ish man looked like an old hippie-very lean, and wearing a magnifying glass pendant over a blue velvet shirt. I like to know something about the people I teach, and asked him a few questions.
"So, Frank, what do you do in life?"
Even though he had played a bit when he was younger, he was more or less a beginner on harmonica. We covered some basics, and as he was getting ready to leave, I asked him where he was from.
"You mean way back?," he asked.
The following week when he showed up for the lesson, I didn't let on that I had figured out his identity-maybe he was still in hiding, I had reasoned. After 30 years it didn't seem likely anyone would still want him dead, but I supposed you couldn't be too cautious when it came to your life. But we did talk further about other things, and it turned out that we shared interests in mystical philosophies like Zen, Sufism, and Yoga as well as progressive politics and the arts. I had studied meditation with a Hindu monk in India in the 1970's; he told me he had been to Mecca during the time he was out of the country. The conversation revealed him to be a well-read, warm, and colorful person. Having seen the movie about him, I respected him greatly - I don't think many people in his position would have been so tenaciously principled in refusing the bribes and other favors so many cops in New York City routinely accepted.
At the next lesson I let him know I had penetrated his alias-there are, after all, any number of recent photos of him online, and I had one with me. Serpico owned up to it, but the clock was ticking and we needed to work on the tune he had to prepare - the old weeper "Rocking Alone in an Old Rocking Chair." Unable to contain my curiosity, I probed him during the moments of small talk that punctuated the lessons. Evidently his personal safety was still a concern, for he had recently turned down a book deal that would have required him to appear at series of signing with the author. "I don't want anyone to know where I'm going to be," he admitted.
As the lessons went on over about an eight-week course, I read Peter Maas's book on him and researched his life story online. I learned Frank Serpico has paid a high price for the courage he dislplayed as a lone honest cop. He had to give up his career as a detective after getting shot in the face by a drug dealer while on the job (he feels he was set up for this, as none of the other cops at the scene called in an "officer down" alert) and then finding there was a mafia contract out on him. He was deafened in his left ear by the bullet, which severed an auditory nerve, and has suffered chronic pain from fragments lodged in his brain. Worse, when he tried to start a new life in Europe, his 29-year old wife whom he had met there died of cancer. In probable consequence of all this, he has had to cope with long term depression.
Someone had made a web page for Frank at one point, but it was no longer up (a new one has been created, though-see the link below). So I collected several Web links on him and put this little page together as a tribute to a remarkable man I have had honor of knowing.
The New York Times articles are first and chronicle the events that made him famous. There are also links to Amazon.com, where you can get both the book Serpico and the movie of the same name on DVD. In 1997 Frank reappeared on the public stage to speak out about the Abner Luima and Amadou Diallo cases, and his reemergence made headlines. He has since continued to comment on law enforcement issues such as police corruptions and brutality, stun weapons, and the Patriot Act. Links to stories about Frank's activism and other stories about him are last.
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