Edward Bunker, 71; Ex-Con Wrote Realistic Novels About Crime

Times Staff Writer

Edward Bunker, the ex-con turned literary icon whose hard-edged crime novels reflected the equally hard edges of a life that included nearly two decades as an inmate in some of the country's toughest prisons, has died. He was 71.

Bunker, a diabetic, died Tuesday at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank of complications after surgery to improve the circulation in his legs, said a longtime friend, screenwriter Robert Dellinger.

A West Hollywood resident, Bunker had spent most of his rebellious and criminal youth in Los Angeles in a succession of foster homes and reform schools. Often homeless and living by his wits on the streets, he was 14 at the time of his first criminal conviction, for burglary, which launched what he later called his "full-scale war on authority."

Years later, a prison psychologist described Bunker the habitual criminal as a "pitiful, tormented and tormenting individual."

At 17, after stabbing a youth prison guard and later escaping from Los Angeles County Jail, where he was serving a sentence for another crime, Bunker became the youngest inmate at San Quentin.

There -- and at Folsom and other prisons during three terms behind bars that totaled 18 years for robbery, check forgery and other crimes -- he learned to write.

In 1973, still in prison and having written five unpublished novels and scores of unpublished short stories, he made his literary debut with "No Beast So Fierce," a gripping novel about a paroled thief whose attempt to reenter mainstream society fails.

James Ellroy, a master of crime fiction, called the book, firmly rooted in Bunker's experiences, "quite simply one of the great crime novels of the past 30 years; perhaps the best novel of the Los Angeles underworld ever written."

"No Beast So Fierce" was turned into the 1978 movie "Straight Time," starring Dustin Hoffman. The script was co-written by Bunker, who also played a small part in the film as a criminal who meets Hoffman in a bar and plans a heist for him.

After that, Bunker had parallel careers as an actor and writer.

He wrote three more uncompromisingly realistic novels of criminality and life behind bars, "The Animal Factory," "Little Boy Blue" and "Dog Eat Dog."

He also co-wrote the screenplay for "Runaway Train," a 1985 action drama about two escaped convicts played by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. And he co-wrote the adaptation of his novel for "Animal Factory," Steve Buscemi's 2000 prison drama starring Willem Dafoe and featuring Bunker in a small role.

With his soft, raspy voice, a nose broken in innumerable fights and a scar from a 1953 knife wound that ran from his forehead to his lip, the compact and muscular ex-con was ideal for typecasting as a big-screen thug.

Among the most notable of his nearly two dozen film roles was that of the criminal Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's 1992 crime drama "Reservoir Dogs." Most recently, he played a convict in the remake of "The Longest Yard."

Bunker's last published book is his 2000 memoir, "Education of a Felon," which features an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron, who praised the author as "an artist with a unique and compelling voice."

Bunker's memoir, according to a Times review by Anthony Day, "is a masterful summation of the hard and brutal life of crime and prison from which Edward Bunker chiseled the vigorous prose that marks him as America's foremost chronicler of prison life."

"He's the most successful and respected prison writer in America," said Dellinger, who met Bunker in 1973 at the federal prison on Terminal Island, where Dellinger was the inmate founder and teacher of the first creative writing class sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

At the time, Bunker was being held in an isolation cell while awaiting trial in connection with a Beverly Hills bank robbery.

"We've produced a lot of writers in prisons," Dellinger said, "but Bunker wrote with energy and a muscular style that very few people have, and his words just literally jump off the page."

On what propelled him to become a writer, Bunker once told an interviewer: "It has always been as if I carry chaos with me the way others carry typhoid. My purpose in writing is to transcend my existence by illuminating it."

An only child, Bunker was born in Hollywood in 1933. His mother was a chorus girl in vaudeville and Busby Berkeley musicals, and his alcoholic father was a stagehand and occasional studio grip.

After his parents divorced when Bunker was 4, he spent the next half a dozen years in and out of foster homes and military academies, from which he frequently ran away.

"I didn't hear about love except in movies when I was a kid," Bunker once told Dellinger.

By 12, he was living in the first of a series of juvenile reform schools.

While in reform schools, Bunker became a voracious reader; at San Quentin he again found escape "from the misery of my world" in books.

About a year after Bunker was sent to San Quentin, fellow inmate Caryl Chessman, the notorious "Red Light Bandit," published his book "Cell 2455, Death Row."

"It was a revelation to me," Bunker later said, "that a convict could write a book and have it published."

Although he had dropped out of school in seventh grade, Bunker committed himself to becoming a writer.

Louise Wallis, the wife of producer Hal Wallis and a prominent benefactor of the McKinley Home for Boys, befriended Bunker. She sent him a portable typewriter, a dictionary, a thesaurus and a subscription to the Sunday edition of the New York Times, whose Book Review he devoured.

He also subscribed to Writer's Digest and enrolled in a correspondence course in freshman English from the University of California, selling blood to pay for the postage.

Bunker never forgot the first line he wrote as a fledgling writer: "Two teenage boys went to rob a liquor store."

"When I met him, he was at war with the world and society, but he was loyal to his friends," Dellinger said. "If you said I need you, he'd never say why. He'd say where or when."

Dellinger, who helped Bunker in his transition from prison life to the mainstream, said Bunker "changed his attitude toward society and people after he got out and enjoyed success."

Bunker's marriage to Jennifer Steele ended in divorce. He is survived by their son, Brendan.

A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 10 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood.

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