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First look: 'American Gangster'

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe talk about their roles in the provocative movie 'American Gangster,' about a real-life Harlem heroin kingpin's rise and fall

Harlem in the 1970s has been called the worst period in the history of this famed neighborhood – with abject poverty, abandoned tenements, and drugs. Lots of drugs.

It now forms the vivid backdrop for 'American Gangster' -- the new movie from Universal Pictures, which is owned by the same company as NBC. The film is an explosive tale burning with politically -- and emotionally -- charged themes, and not without controversy. At its center is Frank Lucas, a black man from the south who became one of Harlem's most notorious drug lords.

Denzel Washington: Frank ran 85 percent of the business, the heroin business in the tri-state area.Matt Lauer: Tell me about Frank Lucas.Denzel Washington: He didn't have an education. He came from extreme poverty. He saw some very violent acts in his life as a youth. Now I'm not to say-- not to say those were excuses for what he became. But they are a part of why he became what he became. And he became very good at it.

We recently brought the film's two stars back to the historic Lenox lounge in Harlem, where part of "American Gangster" was shot.

Denzel Washington: Initially he became a thief to feed-- help feed his family. He went from stealing chickens to stealing pigs to robbing people. And moved up the line. Came to New York and ran across the most notorious gangster in Harlem who became his mentor. So he's got his-- did his undergraduate work in North Carolina and his graduate-- with his PhD. Work--Russell Crowe: Got his Ph.D. in the streets of Harlem.Denzel Washington: Exactly.Matt Lauer: He was ingenious when it came to business, and yet his plan was like a business plan you would use for any other product. It was, "give people the best possible quality at a lower price than your competition."Denzel Washington: There you go! Matt Lauer: Why was that so revolutionary at the time?Denzel Washington: The bottom line was he found a supply at a price much cheaper than anyone else because he was willing to go directly to the source.Matt Lauer: Here is a guy who's selling dope to the kids on the street and killing them. And yet Thanksgiving rolls around, he's opening up a truck and handing them turkey. So on the one hand he's giving, the other hand he's taking away their lives. Did he see the contradiction in that?Denzel Washington: Of course. Of course. And paid the price for it. You know, it's a dirty business.

Russell Crowe: You've got to understand, this bloke sells heroin.Matt Lauer: I know, but you know--Russell Crowe: He kills people--Denzel Washington: That's right.Russell Crowe: --nine to five during the course of his week.Matt Lauer: However-- however, he's more likeable at sometimes in this movie because of the way he conducts his life than your character is.Russell Crowe: Right, just goes to show just because you take mum to church every Sunday doesn't mean you're a great man. You know? Life's really complex, Matt. And you look at it, you know, the situation where-- where Frank came from and the ambitions that Frank had. If he'd been in a different situation, if he'd grown up in a different situation, you'd be talking about a guy who they'd name universities after!Matt Lauer: Yeah.Russell Crowe: You'd be talking about a really smart bloke who moved African Americans in this country had, you know, fought, you know, for the greater good. But he's not in a situation where he's got that opportunity. The opportunity that he had was to do this. And the thing about his personality is that it did this really very well.Matt Lauer: Yeah, as we talked about before--Denzel Washington: I'm running with that now. That's mine now. I took that all down!

Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, a cop-turned-prosecutor who is an honest lone wolf in a police force rife with corruption. It's left to him to take on the task of taking down Lucas.

Matt Lauer: Tell me about Richie.Russell Crowe: Well, Richie's a-- to me, I think he's a-- he's a patriot. But he's the right sort of patriot. He's a patriot that understands that there's got to be a balance in this country. And somebody's always going to ask the questions. (Clip from the film "American Gangster")

Matt Lauer: My take on him when I was watching this, not he doesn't do the right thing in his life because he doesn't want to. He's distracted.Russell Crowe: He's kind of a funny bloke, because he said to me, "Look, I don't want to be portrayed in this movie as a womanizer, you know." And he said-- "OK, cool." So then like about two breaths later he's telling me about how this one time during a supreme court case, you know. OK, Richie. Not a problem.Denzel Washington: Did he win the case?Russell Crowe: But the thing is-- he did.

Inevitably the real lives of two complex men -- a notorious drug-dealer and his straight-arrow pursuer -- clash in an explosive way.

Director Ridley Scott: What you're doing is evolving two little universes of two paradoxical characters who are going to gradually come together. And you know it's inevitable.

During the '70s the neighborhood around Eighth Avenue and 116th Street in Harlem was called a supermarket for illicit drugs. And one of its chief proprietors was heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, now played by Denzel Washington in the new movie "American Gangster."

Matt Lauer: What do you remember of that time? You were growing up not far from Harlem. You were in Mt. Vernon.Denzel Washington: Yeah. My mother was raised not far from here. I remember the four square blocks that Frank Lucas used to run right on 116th Street. I didn't know who Frank Lucas was.Matt Lauer: Right.Denzel Washington: I knew that that's where there were thousands of junkies.

While filming the actor came up with several ways to help him get inside the Frank Lucas character.

Matt Lauer: Is it true you put something from the Bible on your script that you wrote at one point on the script-- from Isaiah 48:22, "There is no peace, sayeth the lord—Denzel Washington: Right.Matt Lauer: --unto the wicked."Denzel Washington: That's right.Matt Lauer: Why? Why-- why did you put that down?Denzel Washington: Because it meant something to me.Matt Lauer: Well, just-- can you-- can you share that?Denzel Washington: No. That's personal. (laughter)Russell Crowe: Where'd you get it from?Matt Lauer: That's personal. (laughs) Somebody told me about it.Denzel Washington: Yeah, yeah.Matt Lauer: Maybe he did.Denzel Washington: Yeah, yeah, I did, you know. And-- and I-- I always just look for-- just a way in, just a part of my process.

Another part of his process was talking with Frank Lucas himself. Now 77 years old, and ailing after years behind bars, Lucas is a far cry from the imposing heavy who once owned the streets.

Frank Lucas: All you got to do is see that movie and every word is true.

He came out of the Jim Crow south, arriving in New York City when he was just a teenager -- where he began his life of crime.

Frank Lucas: I got off the bus there. I said, "Hello, Harlem U.S.A." because I was there then, you know. And I-- from there, I did what any red-blooded American kid would do, I guess. Started robbing and stealing and doing everything I could to survive to eat the next day.

He soon hooked up with the legendary Harlem gangster "Bumpy" Johnson, becoming his right hand man. It was a job with some duties Lucas refuses to detail. While considered a ruthless murderer by many in law enforcement, Lucas himself won't own up to killing anyone.

Frank Lucas: Let me explain something to you. Let me tell you right here, right now. So you know where I'm going'. I don't care when you kill somebody, there's no-- there's no-- no statute of limitation on that. If you killed someone 100 years ago, they can put you in jail right now and charge you for that crime. So don't ask me about killing. Because I don't know nothing about killing.

Lucas took over the operation when "Bumpy" Johnson died in 1968 and decided to break away from the Italian mobsters who had dominated the narcotics trade.

Frank Lucas: Bumpy was rich, but he wasn't white man rich. See, he wasn't wealthy. He didn't own his own company, he thought he did, but he didn't. He just managed it. White man owned it, so they owned him … Nobody owns me though.

Lucas was now a family man -- both at home, with a young wife and children, and in his business, bringing his brothers up from the south to work for him.

By the late '60s American society was being torn apart as never before. Leaders like Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were gunned down in plain sight; racial tension was engulfing American cities. It was a turbulent time, perfect for a man like Frank Lucas to seize the moment. He now set his sights on his own supply of heroin, and Vietnam would provide the key.

Mark Jacobson wrote the New York magazine article that inspired "American Gangster."

Mark Jacobson: American soldiers, they were getting addicted to heroin or close to being addicted to heroin. When Frank heard about that he said, "Well, they must have pretty good dope over there." So that got his attention.

Lucas hopped a plane to Bangkok himself, as seen in this photograph. He made connections in the remote jungles of Thailand.

Lucas now had his supply, but he needed a way to get it into the States. He and his crew came up with a shocking scheme: they would smuggle the bags of heroin inside the coffins of U.S. soldiers. It became known as 'the cadaver connection.'

One ring member would later speak to an NBC news reporter.

(News footage)

At the time, New Jersey narcotics Detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe in the film, had never seen anything like it.

Richie Roberts: We knew it was coming in from there, we didn't know how. And nobody could have thought he's going to come in body-bags. And the movies shows-- coffins. It doesn't show some of the more-- horrific ways it was brought in, body bags, body parts. It was pretty horrible.Richie Roberts: They were able to push the other dealers off the street, because people were asking, "I want blue magic. I want blue magic." And it killed a lot of people. People were not used to that kind of quality heroin in their veins. Frank Lucas: A junkie is going to buy the purest stuff. He don't care if he die, he's still going to buy the purest stuff, you know.Richie Roberts: It's hard for people to believe what it was like because it would-- they called it zombie-land. They were people-- were people just walking around and they were stoned junkies. They were out of it. They were dying human beings.Mark Jacobson: The difference between Lucas and all the other drug dealers, and probably one of the reasons why he made more money than a lot of guys is that he was basically under the radar.

Under the radar -- and underestimated by some of the higher-ups in law enforcement.

(from "American Gangster" movie) Richie Roberts: I would say that at the top, yeah, it was-- it was prejudice. And yes, there are people that say, "Well, no, a black can't possibly-- be that good to get the stuff."

Lucas' notoriety was growing and his flamboyant appearance – like wearing a flashy chinchilla coat at the famed "Fight of the Century" in 1971 between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier -- caught the eye of cops on the scene.

Frank Lucas: Yeah, well I-- but after 14 years, they didn't know my name. Making all that money. They didn't know my name. But I had to get-- I had to get dumb and go in a chinchilla coat to go to the fight. I wanted to be the best dressed and I was too. Richie Roberts: I think he was known before that. Certainly that did emphasize his persona. But people knew who he was, law enforcement knew who he was. He may think they didn't, but they did.

Richie Roberts had become a New Jersey prosecutor when he finally got Frank Lucas in his sights.

Richie Roberts: We were able to get an informant directly into Frank's operation. So we were able to pretty much learn where they went. Where they hid their stuff.

It was now a battle of wills as the hunter stalked his prey.

Richie Roberts: We were in the courtroom and he gave me a peculiar kind of look. So, you're the jerk who thinks he can beat me. Something like that. And I looked at him like saying, yeah, I guess I am.

It was a story that years later would be tailor made for two of Hollywood's top stars, and involve a critical choice for one of them.

Last week the historic Apollo Theater hosted a homecoming of sorts in Harlem.

Ruby Dee: It's so much about Harlem....

The premiere of "American Gangster" kicked off a night of celebration for the stars, the filmmakers, and the good guys.

While Richie Roberts basked in the limelight, another figure -- the American Gangster himself -- was conspicuously absent.

Frank Lucas reportedly drove up to check out the party thrown in his name. But, perhaps finding the lights of all those cameras a little too hot, he characteristically chose to stay under the radar, and drove on.

And with some questioning whether the movie wrongly glorifies Lucas and the gangster life, at least one of the film's stars stopped to address the issue.

Cuba Gooding, Jr.: There's been a little bit of controversy about glorifying negative gangsters in movies, but this is a slice of African American life that people need to know about.

Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays one of Lucas' rivals, Nicky Barnes.

Cuba Gooding, Jr.: These gangsters were the role models, and if there's a lesson to the movie it's "You live fast, you die fast."RZA: I think it's a real great movie for hip hop. It's America! It's American Gangster.

Hip hop artists RZA, Common and T.I. appear in the film, and the superstar Jay-Z who raps about his own former drug dealing days, says the world of "American Gangster" is a hard-knock life he knows well.

Jay-Z: That type of life, to live that life is very stressful because everyday could be your last.

The movie has even inspired Jay-Z to release an entire new album.

Jay-Z: Creatively, it just took me back to a lot of those emotions that I've seen, you know, as a kid growing up. And you know, some of the things I was drawn to. The emotions and the conflict in the complications of the characters.

Those complications are what also attracted Denzel Washington to the role. But he wanted to be perfectly clear to the filmmakers -- and to Frank Lucas -- about the kind of gangster he was willing to play.

Denzel Washington: When I met him he said, "You know, I want you to play me. And, you know, when you get Oscars--" And I said, "Frank, look, I'm not here to glorify you, man. You did a lot of dirt. And you paid the price. And you're still paying a price. I just happen to find that an interesting story."

Brian Grazer is one of the film's producers.

Matt Lauer: Let me ask about the reports that Denzel said, "I have some requirements of this character. And here we've got this drug lord, this murderer, and I don't want this to just be a glorification of this gangster."Brian Grazer: Correct.Matt Lauer: So how'd you handle that?Brian Grazer: Well, he really liked the character. He was very interested in the dimensionality of Frank Lucas. Frank Lucas was powerful. He demonstrated his power in a very elegant way … But he was selling heroin. So he said, "Look, this guy has to pay for that. I can't play this character unless there's a consequence.(from the movie "American Gangster")

With the film hitting theaters next week, some critics are anticipating that "American Gangster" will be the acting showdown of the fall between two of Hollywood's biggest, Oscar-winning heavyweights.

Matt Lauer: It sounds to me as if this would be a battle of egos, of resumes, of credentials. What's it like (laughs)-- you're laughing. What's it like --Denzel Washington: Yes, we both brought our resumes in. (laughter) Matt Lauer: How do you deal with it? Is it different going up against someone like Russell Crowe in a scene?Denzel Washington: It's like dancing. It's like saying you're going to dance with your partner, but it's a competition. You're dancing with your partner. Sometimes one flips the other one up in the air or vice-a versa. It's not a comp-- it's not a match--//Russell Crowe: You know, it only works if you've got two people who know the job, enjoy the job, come together. And he's going to do his thing. And I'll do my best to catch up. (laughter)Denzel Washington: And if the-- if the other person isn't good, you're not good. I want the other person to be good. I don't want to-- it's-- it's not like winning. It's like, "Oh, I'll do things to sabotage him." It's not like you leave and go, "Oh, I got him." (laughs)Matt Lauer: Right.Russell Crowe: I crushed him!Denzel Washington: "Wow, was a terrible scene. Yeah, but I got him though. Didn't make the movie. But I got him." (laughter)

(from the movie "American Gangster")Matt Lauer: If you looked, Denzel, at his resume, some of the movies he's made, like "Gladiator," "Beautiful Mind," "The Insider," "L.A. Confidential," if you could poach one, and I don't mean that in a bad way, if you could look at that and say, "you know what? That's one I'd like to have on my resume." Is there one of his movies that stands out?Denzel Washington: No. Because they stand out because he did them. Why would I want to change? That's what we like about it. If I said, "The Insider," it-- that's just a compliment. Because I liked what he did … That's why we're talking about this, why you mentioned those movies. Because he was good in them. And I don't think there's anybody else that could play those parts but him.Matt Lauer: That's a fabulous answer, it ruined my question to you. (laughter) Will you please poach a movie for me? So, "Glory," "Training day," "Philadelphia," "Remember the Titans,"--Denzel Washington: OK. All right. Wait, wait. But hold on. So you asked me is there a role that I would have done? Definitely "The Insider." All right, I'm done. (laughs)Matt Lauer: What about that list I gave you?Russell Crowe: My answer would be I could probably go all the way back to the beginning of Denzel's career as an actor. I'd probably want to do pretty much every one of his choices at some point. Because they're quality choices. It's simple as that. He makes really good movies. He puts things in front of him that are made to challenge him. I wouldn't stop at those four men, you know, there's "Malcolm X." There's a whole bunch of films in there that are just very, very special. That--Denzel Washington: I'd like to see you as Malcolm X.Russell Crowe: Dude, trust me.Denzel Washington: Just an opportunity.Russell Crowe: I would-- I would bring something!Denzel Washington: You'll bring something to it. Right. (laughs) That's right. Yeah. All right then!