We’ve Seen This Before Somewhere: How Pop Culture May Have Influenced Tony Kiritsis
By Mark Enochs
Throughout the 5-year development of Dead Man's Line, we were often caught off guard by an unexpected detail or a connection to something that seemed unrelated at first glance. Sometimes we didn't anticipate these parallels because 1977 was such a long-haul time trip from 2018. We were in the second grade that winter, so there was a lot we had forgotten or never knew to begin with.
Once we immersed ourselves in that era, we became increasingly aware of certain things Tony said, did or believed that seemed to refer to television shows and movies of that time, so much so in some instances that it was hard to accept them as mere coincidences.
We’ve gathered 6 such possible influences on Tony here, and if they’re not influences, they are at least some interesting reflections on the Kiritsis incident and the times he and Dick Hall lived in.
Half of these possible connections involve police. Four include a misunderstood protagonist trying to set something right — in other words, a hero. One even paints an intriguing portrait of the media at the time and their relationship with the American viewer. But what they all have in common is they depict a world in the midst of leviathan changes in society, where the folks who cherished the Eisenhower era were seeing things they never imagined possible, where the rich were becoming even richer, and where everybody, from time to time, felt like civilization teetered on the brink of anarchic collapse.
The ‘70s weren’t all fun.
1) Kojak (1973-1978)
In several places (for example, during his conversations with Fred Heckman or the Thursday Night News Conference), you can hear Tony add "baby" to the end of his statements, and though by no means was Theofilides Kojak the only person who said "baby," it was the TV character’s catchphrase, as in: "Who loves you, baby?"
Telly Savalas, the actor who played Kojak, was famous in America at the time and was known for three things: He had a shaved head, he had a penchant for lollipops, and he said “baby” A LOT. People identified Savalas so closely with Kojak’s catchphrase that Savalas often included the term of endearment in the commercials he appeared in.
Another influential detail here: Telly Savalas was a strong Greek-American male, often the wiseass, ethnic minority in the films he'd made before landing the TV show he'd be associated with most. Savalas/Kojak was someone Tony would be very likely to identify with. His mother and father had both immigrated to America from Greece, so any positive Greek role may have captured Tony's attention and admiration.
2) Taxi Driver (1976)
Perhaps a more subtle influence, protagonist Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, seems lost in a dirty, terrible world that he no longer recognizes — quite similar to Tony Kiritsis' view of the world in late ‘76 and into '77.
From court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Iver Small’s evaluation of Tony in late August/early September 1977:
“His described life style is unusual. There is considerable loneliness, fighting, and alienation from other people. Few have been able to stay with Tony over the years; most have dropped him…
The period of time from November 1, 1976 through February 8, 1977 is a crucial one. He became more isolated, fearful, obsessed, forgetful, full of physical complaints. He seems to have changed a good deal during this time, if his description is correct. He describes a state of decompensation that could be considered at least severely neurotic and probably psychotic.”
In Taxi Driver, Bickle sets out on an awkward journey of gradual decompensation to discover some kind of purpose for his life, to take action and make a difference, to set things right. In essence, Travis wants to be a hero for all the little people, the regular people, the powerless, much the same as Tony, though his heroism was entirely self-serving. The solution both men arrive at, a vigilante rampage, is obviously problematic in the real world, though it’s not difficult to identify with certain kinds of revenge. And revenge is what lies at the heart of Kiritsis’ and Bickle’s motives, revenge in the name of saving some innocent from the world's rotten people. In the movie, that's Jodie Foster’s character, Iris. In the Kiritsis incident, it's Tony Kiritsis.
One connection that’s probably coincidence is the homemade quickdraw gadget Bickle attaches to his arm, made famous in the mirror scene where he practices pulling a gun on somebody. Just like Tony, Bickle created a device no one would expect and that would give him an immediate upper hand. There’s something about ingenuity and desperation at work here.
But what did either man really achieve?
Considering the violence involved, it's hard to argue that Bickle's "good outcome" is a joyful note of hope, but it's much easier doing that than it is to find some greater motive in Tony than protecting his own reputation as a person who could manage things, fix things. I can see where Bickle and Kiritsis felt hemmed in on all sides by a world they no longer identified with. But Bickle became an accidental hero; it was dumb luck that he survived the gauntlet he charged through. Tony set out to be a hero. That's how he saw himself. Why wouldn't the public see it that way too?
And many of them did.
3) Hawaii Five-0 (1968-1980)
During his interview, Don Campbell, retired IPD detective, brought to our attention what is clearly the least coincidental influence of the bunch. In the 1968 episode, “The Double Wall” of the popular police drama Hawaii Five-0, a prison inmate takes another man hostage (the latter played by Sorrell Booke, the actor best known as Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard) and attaches a gun to the man's neck using a whole bunch of masking tape. Tony’s rig was a significantly more robust contraption, but Five-0 must have sparked his imagination first.
4) Network (1976)
There's a moment early on in our documentary where WISH-TV cameraman Bill Fisher, down on East Market, tips his camera up and films a bank of windows several floors up with all these people looking down at the street. The first time I saw this footage, it reminded me immediately of a scene in Network where the Peter Finch character, Howard Beale, famously had everyone yelling out their windows, "I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!" Upon watching the film again recently, I was a little surprised by how closely themes in Network seemed to apply to the Kiritsis incident.
Like Taxi Driver, the world view in Network is pretty grim. Little people get destroyed by big companies, wealthy executives, and society at large. I can imagine that Tony approved of the public outrage that Beale stirs up when he refuses to do his usual news bit on a national TV network and begins to talk about real things, true things, ugly ways human society has perhaps lost sight of its humanity. Beale becomes incredibly popular with the viewing audience, and based on the explosive ratings he’s getting, he forces the network to let him speak to his fan base in the candid way they crave.
Eventually Beale is wronged by the infotainment machine he had helped create as an alternative medium for truth, and the old boss simply co-opts Beale’s run as a template for his future replacements, a little like the Architect does with Neo in the Matrix Trilogy, where the chosen one, the mad prophet must be controlled by the powerful, something we know Tony took great exception to.
Of course, there is also the media connection, in two major ways:
- Beale uses the media to get his message out to the public much like Tony did with WIBC’s Fred Heckman.
- The producers who run Beale’s program have to decide whether they should televise an increasingly charged situation that seems to encourage the inevitable lethal act.
Which brings me to an anti-parallel between Network and Kiritsis:
Somebody shoots Beale on live TV. A violent, unwinnable solution broadcast straight into millions of homes as it happened. Sounds familiar. This conclusion was always a possible ending for Kiritsis and Hall.
Network opened in theaters in late November 1976, but it’s unlikely Tony would have seen it before February 8, 1977. He was broke at this point and rarely left his apartment during those three months. I include Network here mostly because of the strong parallels to Tony’s story and the commentary on the media’s responsibility to the public. All the same, the times that Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay depicts ring true in Tony’s world.
5) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
One of the greatest mysteries about the Kiritsis incident was what happened to Tony after he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He could have gone home right away if he had only submitted to another mental health evaluation, but he instead refused and spent nearly 11 years in various mental health facilities. Why?
During the physical and psychological evaluations performed on him before the trial, Tony would easily answer whatever questions he was asked. He was a very talkative guy, but that’s not to say that he liked being subjected to these interviews. He was suspicious of the psychiatrists, tried to read their notes, and made accusations about a conspiracy to “put him away” in the “nut house.”
Dr. Iver Small summed up Tony’s mistrust of and aversion to psychiatric evaluation: “As it is currently established, it is unlikely that ordinary psychiatric treatment will have any effect. Further, the stigma associated with it renders it anathema to the prisoner.”
As ’76 turned into ’77, Tony became increasingly paranoid about a number of threats from the very real March 1st payment of his loan to more fantastical entities like Mafia hitmen. Everyone was out to get him, and after the trial when asked why he didn’t want to submit to more psychiatric interviews and tests, Tony seemed concerned about possible treatments that might be forced on him. He didn’t want to be drugged, for example, but he also happened to mention something about lobotomies, an odd thing to be thinking about in 1977. Lobotomies had fallen out of favor in the 1950s, and unlike shock treatment which does resurface every so often, no credible psychologist in the late ‘70s would discuss what they regarded as a barbarous and outdated procedure.
And then I thought of Cuckoo's Nest, one of my favorite movies. The film probably has the scene most associated with the practice of treating mental disorders by surgically severing the frontal lobe of the patient's brain.
When we talked with Emily Liffick, the daughter of Kiritsis defense psychologist Dr. Thomas F. Liffick, she had surprisingly drawn the same conclusion. A psychiatry specialist in her own right working in the Indianapolis area, Emily has done a lot of research on Kiritsis, culminating in a presentation she still uses today for various psychiatric law classes, and she agreed with us that apart from Tony’s general aversion to being controlled by the court system or the mental health community, his fear of lobotomy seems like the most plausible reason why he chose incarceration over submitting to an evaluation and freedom.
Put yourself in Tony’s shoes for a moment. Tony had just been found insane in a court of law. In his mind, what would stop the courts and their psychiatrists from trying to treat that supposed insanity with any means possible? Including lobotomy, the worst possible thing Tony could think of?
In Cuckoo’s nest, McMurphy, the Jack Nicholson character, is also an underdog hero — tragic and considered mentally ill but only because the system didn't know what else to do with him. The misunderstood rebel was a character Tony would have identified with, and that scene near the end where McMurphy’s eyes are open but nobody’s home… that would have been true horror to Tony.
6) Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
A brilliant movie based on a true 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery featuring a gripping performance from Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon was quite successful and became a cultural touchstone. Pacino's Sonny Wortzik also parallels Kiritsis in a couple key ways.
One obvious link is that a heartless bank is the readymade villain. In Dog Day, some of the tellers think their employer can afford whatever Sonny takes. They're rolling in the cash, which is exactly what Kiritsis assumed about M.L. Hall, chairman of Meridian Mortgage, that he could easily afford to pay Tony $5 million for the release of M.L.’s son, Dick.
For both Sonny and Tony, the plan starts with subterfuge. For Sonny, it’s a long flower box concealing a full-size shotgun, while Tony hid his sawed-off .12-gauge in a suit box from a department store, but as with Kiritsis, Sonny's plan goes awry early on when one of his accomplices flees. From then on, Sonny's improvising as he goes, and like Tony, he gets pretty goddamn far.
Sonny fiercely takes over the bank, and though he’s very aggressive with the tellers and bank staff initially, it becomes obvious that Sonny doesn’t take to violence well. No, he's doing this for some other reason, something that's very important to him and has driven him to such a desperate act.
Turns out Sonny has a dream at stake, a dream just as life-changing as Tony’s real estate dream. Like Sonny, Tony had a lot riding on achieving his ultimate goal, as recounted here by defense psychiatrist Dr. Thomas F. Liffick, who evaluated Kiritsis in September 1977:
“For him [Tony] the property was not merely a business venture as he consciously maintains but instead a symbol of his life, his work, his ability to succeed. It received his entire devotion, devotion which would normally have been directed to family and friends. But they had shunned him, in fact exiled him. Through his devotion to the property, he hoped to gain reconciliation.”
Then there are the scenes where Sonny comes outside the bank's front doors and negotiates with police, quickly realizing he has much more to gain by addressing the crowd of onlookers surrounding the bank. He chants, "Attica! Attica!" referring to a real-life prison riot where prison guards were taken hostage in 1971. The crowd cheers and applauds. He can feel his resolve amplified by the energy he gets from his adoring fans.
Much of the same thing happened with Tony. The city was glued to WIBC throughout the event, and when Tony got in touch with the news director Fred Heckman and began making his grievances known over the air waves, an enormous amount of public sympathy rose to the surface. People called the radio station as well as Tony’s own phone number to show their support because how could anyone be on the bank’s side? Sure, Tony kidnapped somebody. But it was a banker. Conventional wisdom seemed to be blunt: Banks hurt regular people, so Meridian Mortgage has to be guilty of all the things Tony accused them of.
Another parallel takes place toward the end of Dog Day. Reality vs. the dream, and how the dream can cloud your vision.
In the movie, Sonny starts to disregard the police as a threat and ignores the laws of probability, that his position was never winnable to begin with, that he kind of always knew that, but he had to try something, he had to make some kind of statement or just give up and vanish back into the routine of a life that brought him no joy, no ambition, no purpose. And now as the police agree to his demands, Sonny’s so exhausted (just like Tony in the final hours of the standoff) and so close to the end, so close to his dream, that he takes his eye off the ball.
The climax of Dog Day resembles Tony's finale, his wide-eyed disbelief that after releasing Hall he wasn't going to get his immunity or his $5 million. Like Sonny, Tony had kept believing in the dream long after it was out of his reach and he had nothing left to negotiate with.
And the police in Dog Day rush in and shoot Sonny’s remaining accomplice, Sal, dead.
I can’t say for sure that Tony saw this movie, and even if he had, I don’t know that it would have given him any ideas he didn’t already have about appealing to the public. But there are some parallels. Noted by critics for its anti-establishment themes, the greatest difference between Sonny and Tony is that Sonny risked his life for someone else, someone he loved. Tony did it all for his own motives, his need to get even.
One last odd connection. The real-life Sonny, a man named John Wojtowicz, served 6 of 20 years in prison and died an old man in January 2006 one year after Tony Kiritsis died in January 2005.
With the Hawaii Five-0 episode aside, we can't be absolutely sure if these well-known shows and movies actually shaped what Tony thought, said or did, but timing-wise, it’s plausible as they all occurred within the months and years leading up to February 1977. We know Tony watched a lot of TV, and he would have been aware of these movies that have since become fixtures in American pop culture.
At the very least, we think these influences ground the viewer in the era. The TV series suggest not just Tony’s but the viewing audience’s fascination with crime dramas and strong protagonists who carry out justice. The movies give you an excellent sense of what ’77 felt like in America. There was a palpable hopelessness and cynicism, a mass disappointment that our best days were behind us. Don’t forget that Watergate was still looming in the rearview mirror. In fact, the infamous Frost/Nixon interviews aired in May 1977, where once again the former president couldn’t quite come clean and own his fall from power.
As reflections of ‘70s life, the films we’ve selected don’t flatter the powerful. In Network and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the hero is destroyed by the Forces That Be. In Dog Day Afternoon, the hero is tricked into believing in something that will never be possible. And the same is true in Taxi Driver, except here the hero wins and still nothing seems to get better, a hollow victory at best.
When you paint the backdrop of the Kiritsis story with all that, it’s not terribly hard to see how Tony came to feel trapped and helpless, and while it’s impossible to justify the actions he took to address his helplessness, Tony was a product and reflection of the deteriorating world he saw around him.