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Watching the Detectives 

How a couple of middle-aged P.I.'s and world-class raconteurs survived the DEA, the mob and the tabloid wars to take on their most elusive target yet -- Hollywood

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002
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Photos by Greg Bojorquez

RESIDUALS IS A NEIGHBORHOOD BAR IN A STUDIO CITY STRIP MALL, WHERE an actor's residual check for less than a dollar used to get you a free drink. It's here, surrounded by barflies, chippies and unacknowledged talents, that you can find a lardy Irishman holding court.

"This guy was a fucking gorilla," he's saying. "A bouncer in San Rafael. He was like 6-foot-7 or something. Huge. And he was giving me shit over a girl that he knew. He'd insulted her. I said, 'You know, that's no way to talk to a woman.' And he said, 'I'll talk to her any way I want.' The guy comes up to me, and he's got his hand like this, right here on my chest, like he's going to grab me by the throat. I said, 'You're acting like a real badass. You got a gun on you or something?' He says, 'No, I don't have a gun. Why?' And I said, 'Because I do.' And I pulled out a .25 and stuck it right up under his chin."

This is Dan Hanks, one-half of the unofficial partnership known as the Backstreet Detectives. Across from him sits his cohort, Fred Valis, a junkyard dog with a studied Bronx growl and a fondness for Serpico-style disguises. Huddled beneath a framed portrait of a sprawling Marlon Brando -- the greatest actor of them all caught unawares filling up his SUV at a gas station -- they regale anyone within listening distance with an endless stream of improbable stories and crafted anecdotes, spinning them out like blown-glass palaces into the air above them.

"I used the telephoto lens there," says Hanks, with a nod toward Brando. "I think that came out pretty good."

Fred "Mad Dog" Valis and Dan "Danno" Hanks -- private investigators, First Amendment absolutists and world-class raconteurs -- are a couple of inveterate weisenheimers in their mid-50s who look like they wandered off the set of The Rockford Files and have been waiting here for their call time ever since. For over a quarter-century, living by the same feral wits and shaved reaction time they cultivated as teenagers on the mean streets of Queens or amid the suburban sprawl of Orange County, respectively, they have duped, outsmarted and evaded discovery by some of the most dangerous or desperate characters on the planet.

The way they tell it, from their early forays into petty crime or political militancy, through undercover work for both the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, to paid surveillance work for every major tabloid, both TV and print, they have crossed paths with the Nixon White House, the Weather Underground, the Iran-Contra Secret Team, the Colombian cartels, the Sicilian Mafia, the Russian mafia, the Mexican mafia not to mention the cumulative infamy of Amy Fisher, Heidi Fleiss, the Menendez brothers and O.J. And having slipped between the raindrops of these threats, real or imagined, they provide an unofficial history of the times.

Their unflagging theatricality has also brought them to the attention of Hollywood. So far, their professional acting roles have been limited to cameos in movies like Band of the Hand, a Michael Mann production shot in south Florida at the same time as Miami Vice (where the stories they told had a way of winding up in future episodes). But the industry is now circling their story in the form of a pilot commitment from Ted Turner's TBS network, looking to trade in its historical reenactments for some of that Sopranos juice.

Watching the pair in pitch mode, ricocheting off of each other's tropes and syncopations like the classic good cop/bad cop or grifters working the master con, you get the feeling this latest milieu is just one more pasteboard backdrop against which they can spin their endless yarns, tightening them into unseen snares as their well-fed quarry look on, rapt and oblivious.

"We're storytellers," says Hanks, 55, whose precarious size contains a built-in delicacy of carriage reminiscent of Jackie Gleason in his "away we go" pose. "We'll sit around and tell you stories all day long. But guys who do what we do and come into a situation are called 'actors.' There are a lot of cops that can't do that. Even cops that do undercover, you'll find very few that are really suited for it. You really are a specialist in doing what you do. You are doing improvisational theater at the point of a gun."

"You only get take one," adds Valis, 53. "Drop your line, miss your mark, you get killed."

MORE MIRACLES THAN BILLY GRAHAM

VALIS AND HANKS FIRST MET IN 1977 IN THE EMploy of Jack Immendorf, a San Francisco private investigator with a weakness for the mutts of society. Coming from a long history in Bay Area politics, Immendorf claims to have trained more than a hundred investigators in his time, and prides himself on his tact and expediency. Yet these skills are obviously put to the test at the mention of his onetime protégés. "I can tell you that both Fred and Dan are not what you call garden variety," he says. "But in my business, we don't deal with church choirs, so I don't hire choirboys. These guys were hard to control, and eventually they grew their own wings and decided they were gonna do their own thing."

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