Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth

The Ness Legend

The creation of the Ness legend began with Eliot himself. The Untouchables, the book by Ness and writer Oscar Fraley was for the most part true, but things embarrassing to Ness were left out and the recounting of the war against Capone was hyped and exaggerated. Ness did not think it was necessary to burden his readers with two failed marriages, a number of business failures and his abrupt resignation as Cleveland's safety director after his automobile accident. In fact, he allowed his readers to think that Betty Ness was the only wife he ever had.

While these details were not horribly serious in a commercial biography, they nonetheless were the first major written deviation from the facts of his life. Subsequent creative works would go far beyond the fact bending that existed in the Ness autobiography.

Betty Ness holds up picture of Robert Stack of television Untouchables fame.
Betty Ness holds up picture of
Robert Stack of television
Untouchables fame.

The sales of The Untouchables were modest at first when the book was published in 1957, a few months after the death of Ness on May 16 of that year. Book sales rose dramatically when Desilu Studios did a pilot for the weekly 1-hour show that would be broadcast on ABC. Legend making began on a major scale. The Untouchables covered two and a half years of Eliot's life in Chicago from the time he began his battle against the Capone empire until 1932 when Capone was sent to jail. There was simply not enough action and adventure in those two and a half years to fill a weekly series that ran for 114 episodes over four television seasons. The writers started to make up material almost immediately.

In addition to the action and adventure-packed episodes, the series had two real advantages. One was actor Robert Stack who made a forceful showing as a tough guy gangbuster. The other was Walter Winchell who gave an authentic documentary style narrative to each episode. Never mind that hard-boiled, grim character that Stack played was quite different than polished and energetic real Eliot Ness: the gangbuster hero was forever formed in American folklore.

Just as fanciful was the 1987 Paramount Pictures movie also called The Untouchables. Aside from the facts that a man named Eliot Ness battled against the criminal empire of Al Capone, very little else in the film is true. However fictional the popular movie was, it did capture the personality of Eliot Ness much more accurately than the television series. These two presentations of Eliot's personality are radically different: the television version as the steely, intense, humorless character portrayed by Robert Stack; and the movie version of a quiet, thoughtful, na´ve hero portrayed by Kevin Costner. Kevin Costner's characterization of Eliot Ness is much closer to the real man.

In recent years, the legend of Eliot Ness has once again been taken to the television screen. After the highly successful Paramount movie, Robert Stack starred in two made-for-television movies as Eliot Ness. He also narrated an episode for the television series "Unsolved Mysteries," which featured the Kingsbury Run murder case. A low budget television series called The Untouchables ran on cable television in the early 1990's. It was just as factual as its predecessor was. Subsequently, there have been episodes of Arts and Entertainment's Biography series that provided the public a rare glimpse of the real Eliot Ness.

Most recently, on January 21, 1998, a new world-premiere musical was announced in the Denver Post. On Friday, January 30, 1998, "Eliot Cleveland" opened in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Representing an investment of $2.5 million, the musical culminates a four-year cooperative effort between the DCPA, Hal Prince and the Directors Company of New York. The focal point of the musical is the officially unsolved Kingsbury Run murder case.

Another recent public celebration of Eliot Ness took place in Cleveland in early September of 1997. A heavily televised ceremony was held to honor Eliot Ness. His ashes, along with the ashes of Betty Anderson Ness and his son Robert Warren Ness, were scattered in an artificial lake in Lake View Cemetery. After several decades, the city of Cleveland, along with its police and fire departments, publicly acknowledged the contributions of the man who left an indelible mark on the city of Cleveland.

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