In 1999, David Grann, who had just joined The New Yorker as a staff writer, was fascinated by the story of a 78-year old man who’d been arrested for robbing a bank. Turned out that man was Forrest Tucker, a legendary bank robber, and escape artist. He once broke out of San Quentin in a kayak. Grann convinced Tucker to be the focus of his first pitch to the magazine.
Now that story, The Old Man & the Gun, has been adapted to film by Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story director David Lowery. Robert Redford stars as Tucker — in what could be his last starring role — while Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits in supporting roles.
Here’s the true story of Forrest Tucker, the anti-hero of The Old Man & the Gun.
The Story of Forrest Tucker
The sad truth is that society failed Forrest Tucker. His father abandoned the family when Tucker was a child. Tucker was sent to live with his grandmother. His first imprisonment, and his first escape, came in the spring of 1936, when he was 15, after he was arrested for stealing a car. Panicked and fearful, Tucker fled when the jailer removed his chains. He was captured a few days later and sent to reform school.
The pattern of Tucker’s life was set. As one of his childhood friends reflected, “My sense is he spent his life in jail for stealing a bicycle and simply trying to escape. If he became bad, it was only because the system made him that way.”
Tucker reinvented himself as an outlaw in the classic style. He dressed in chalk-striped suits and two-tone shoes. He thought amateurs relied on the gun as a weapon; it was useful only to persuade tellers to give him money. He also wore what appeared to be a hearing aid, and which was really an earphone connected to a police scanner which allowed him to know if a silent alarm had been tripped.
Tucker always wanted to be a legend; he was inspired by figures such as Bonnie and Clyde. But he also considered his true vocation to be not a bank robber, but an escape artist. He became a contortionist, allowing him to perform creative, even incredible escape attempts.
As he observed, “The more security, the more bizarre the method of escape must be.” For example, in 1956 Tucker complained of kidney pain. He was rushed to the hospital. When no one was looking, he stabbed his ankle with a pencil; seeing the wound, the guards removed his leg irons. While on the way the X-ray room, Tucker sprang off the gurney and ran out the door.
Tucker’s most famous escape was in 1979, when he broke out of San Quentin, a maximum security facility that juts out into San Francisco Bay. Tucker and confederates secretly built a kayak; Tucker mocked up sailor hats and sweatshirts and decorated them with the logo of the Marin Yacht Club. One night, when the guards weren’t looking, they put out to water. Things got hairy when stormy waves capsized the boat. A tower guard saw the prisoners kicking to shore, and asked if they needed help. They said they were fine; he didn’t realize they were escapees, even sharing a joke with them.
He Will Be Remembered
Tucker’s story continued — a cycle of robbery, arrest, and escape, punctuated only by occasional love affairs. Eventually, it was age that truly caught up to Tucker. In 1986 he underwent a quadruple bypass while imprisoned in San Quentin.
The felon also found the love of his life, but married under an assumed name. She only learned the truth about his history after he was arrested, again. But they stayed together, and in 1993 Tucker resolved to settle down. He dedicated himself to turning his life story into a film… and also gave saxophone and clarinet lessons for twenty-five dollars an hour. But the criminal life was hard to let go. In 1999, at age 78, he robbed his last bank, and was arrested.
And so we’re back to the beginning. “When I die, no one will remember me,” Tucker told Grann on one of the journalist’s last visits to his cell. By that point, he seemed consumed with regret, most notably for disappointing his wife and not being there for his children. Forrest Tucker died in prison in 2004. The bittersweet irony is that he got that movie after all. He’ll be remembered.
The Old Man & The Gun opens on September 28.