Frank Lucas, Drug Kingpin Played By Denzel Washington In ‘American Gangster,’ Dies At 88

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe at the 'American Gangster' premiere
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Frank Lucas, the famous New York City drug dealer of the 1970s who was famously portrayed by Denzel Washington in Ridley Scott’s 2007 film, American Gangster, died this week at the age of 88, The New York Times reported.

Lucas, according to legend (and the movie), became one of the nation’s most notable drug kingpins by smuggling drugs into the United States from Asia in the caskets of American servicemen returning from the Vietnam War. That story, however, has been questioned. Lucas structured his drug operation after the Italian Mafia, later challenging that outfit’s control of the drug trade in New York.

Arrested in 1975, Lucas was sentenced to 70 years in prison, although he later agreed to cooperate, providing evidence that convicted numerous other drug dealers. Lucas was released from prison in the early 1980s, although he was arrested and sentenced again a few years later, getting out of prison in 1991.

A native of North Carolina, Lucas committed crimes from a young age, eventually arriving in New York as a teenager. He eventually emerged as a major drug dealer in that city, depending on his family members and close friends from his native North Carolina. Lucas had a connection to import a strain of very pure heroin, known as “Blue Magic,” from Southeast Asia.

Lucas went on to amass real estate holdings, and to befriend such celebrities as Muhammad Ali and James Brown.

“Frank Lucas has probably destroyed more black lives than the K.K.K. could ever dream of,” Richard Roberts, who prosecuted Lucas and later became his friend and defense attorney, once said of Lucas, per The NYT. Two witnesses who testified against Lucas were later murdered, but he was convicted nonetheless.

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The Hollywood movie about Frank Lucas starred Denzel Washington as the kingpin, Russell Crowe as Roberts, Ruby Dee as Lucas’s mother, and Idris Elba as a rival drug dealer who Lucas shoots on a crowded street.

The American Gangster film, based on a magazine article from 2000, led to lots of criticism of its accuracy, per The New York Post, from its tendency to take Lucas’ claims at face value, to its underplaying of the Lucas character’s ruthlessness, to its depiction of Roberts, who had no children, in a custody battle. In addition, three former Drug Enforcement Agency agents sued the studio behind the film, to dispute their portrayal.

American Gangster earned two Academy Award nominations, although it was shut out of most major categories.