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The true story behind 'Heat'

A 40-year-old Neil McCauley as he appeared in his Alcatraz mugshot in 1954.
A 40-year-old Neil McCauley as he appeared in his Alcatraz mugshot in 1954.

In 1995, Michael Mann’s L.A. crime thriller Heat hit theaters, achieving both commercial and critical success. It marked the first time in which Oscar-winning actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the screen, but the film is best known for its bank robbery-shoot-out scene. The movie is driven by brilliant cinematography and strong performances by the entire cast.

The film’s plot centered on the actions of a professional thief (De Niro) and his crew as they’re pursued by a veteran detective (Pacino) and his men.

Heat is based on the true story of the Neil McCauley, a calculating criminal and ex-Alcatraz inmate who was tracked down by Det. Chuck Adamson in 1964.

McCauley was raised in Wisconsin where his father worked as steam fitter to provide a his family with a middle-class life. The normalcy of Neil’s youth faded following the adoption of another child and his father’s death in 1928. At 14, he quit school to find work to support his mother and five siblings. The McCauley’s soon relocated to Chicago.

In Chicago, McCauley began his criminal career after his mother began drinking heavily. By the time he was 20, he’d already done three stints in county jail for larceny.

In 1934 he and two accomplices robbed a drug store and shot the clerk. They also robbed a grocery store the same day. McCauley served eight years in Pontiac for the robberies before being paroled in March of 1942. Two months later he was convicted of robbery, auto theft, and housebreaking and sentenced to 20 years in Joliet Prison. He would not see the streets for the next decade.

Despite his mother’s death and new found freedom, an unreformed McCauley continued to take big scores. In 1953 McCauley, Stanley Tryanowski and John Elwell robbed two savings and loan associations of an estimated $7,000. The trio were caught and convicted. McCauley received 15 years. Because of their prior records, Tryanowski and McCauley were committed to Alcatraz directly from court in 1954. They became inmates 1095-AZ and 1096-AZ.

During his seven years on Alcatraz, McCauley held a near spotless conduct record and was regarded by the guards as one of the best inmate workers. He was the chief electrician and often worked without technical supervision.

His introspective nature, superior intelligence, journeyman work skills, and sheer ruthlessness are all well captured in Heat.

In 1961, McCauley was transferred from Alcatraz to McNeil and to Terre Haute where he was released in '62.

Upon his release, he immediately began planning new heists with ex-cons Michael Parille and William Pinkerton. They used bolt cutters and drills to burglarize a manufacturing company of diamond drill bits.

Adamson began keeping tabs on McCauley’s crew around this time. The two even met for coffee once, just as portrayed in the film. Their dialogue was almost exactly word for word. The next time the two would meet, guns would be drawn, just like the movie.

On March 25, 1964, McCauley, Parille, Russell Breaden, and Miklos Polesti followed an armored car that delivered money to a Chicago grocery store. Once the drop was made, three of the robbers entered the store. They threatened the clerks and stole money bags worth $10,000 before they sped off amid a hail of police gunfire.

McCauley’s crew was unaware that Adamson and eight other detectives had blocked off all potential exits.

When the getaway car turned down an alley and the bandits saw the blockade, they realized they were trapped. All four suspects exited the vehicle and began firing.

Breaden and Parille were slain in an alley while Polesti shot his way out and escaped. McCauley was shot to death on the lawn of a nearby home. He was 50-years-old and the prime suspect in several burglaries. Polesti was caught days later and sent to prison. He is still alive today.

Chuck Adamson retired from the Chicago police and became a television producer and screenwriter. He and director Michael Mann became friends and collaborated on the Heat project.

The film’s shoot-out scenes have been cited as inspiration for numerous robberies including the infamous 44-minute North Hollywood shoot-out in 1997.

Regardless of the notoriety, Heat is considered a modern classic and remains one of the best film adaptations of a true crime story.


Drew Morita is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @drewmorita


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