Mann soon found some direction as an aspiring novelist at University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s from London Film School. In Hollywood he found early success writing for TV shows before directing the TV prison movie “The Jericho Mile” in 1979. His feature debut came with 1981’s “Thief,” based on real-life criminal John Santucci – establishing a pattern of using real people as character inspiration.
“Santucci was a high-line pro jewel thief. He was a burglar. And I got very close to him. He never stopped being a thief, even when he was on camera,” says Mann, referring to Santucci’s brief career in film and TV. “Santucci was a sometime informant and a full-time professional thief.”
Portraying him was James Caan, who died last month at 82. “I loved him. He was outrageous,” Mann says, recalling the time Caan told a top film executive he should quit, “and then proceeded to list all the reasons why this particular executive ought to fire himself.”
From “Thief,” Mann moved on to classics like “Manhunter,” which introduced Hannibal Lecter to filmgoers, and “The Insider,” which earned him three Oscar nominations. “Thief,” “Heat” and 2004’s “Collateral” marked him out as a peerless chronicler of modern Los Angeles’ criminal underworld.
The most indelible scene in “Heat” is a casual meeting between McCauley and Hanna. In their first scene together, De Niro and Pacino play deadly adversaries who share a grudging respect for each other’s drive and professionalism. The scene is based on a real-life encounter described to Mann by detective Charlie Adamson, former partner to Dennis Farina, who left the Chicago Police Department to pursue a successful career in Hollywood.