Watching the Detectives
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."
Partnered on the job, they quickly excelled at workers'-comp cases, the meat and potatoes of P.I. casework, but a job that basically entailed 15-hour shifts in a parked Suburban listening to Books on Tape and waiting for some guy to mow his lawn, proving his injury and the claim based on it were invalid. ("We'd see more miracles than Billy Graham," remembers Valis.) When Hanks was denied a P.I. license due to his baroque prison record (his rap sheet stretches to eight pages), this former jailhouse lawyer sued the California Licensing Board and won -- only to forgo the license itself. All told, they estimate they have worked on, conservatively, 5,000 cases in their career -- 3,000 of them insurance cases, which they often racked up at the rate of 20 a week.
Get them going, and the stories come fast and furious. There was the fireman out on disability whom they filmed on the golf course. When they showed the film to the district attorney, two of the others in his foursome also turned out to be firemen out on disability. Once the case went to trial, the fourth turned out to be the presiding judge.
There was the guy who was supposed to be totally incapacitated, up on his roof cleaning leaves out of his gutter, who on camera walked into a power line with a rake handle and electrocuted himself. "I get back to the client," says Hanks, "I say, 'Well, I've got some good news and some bad news.'"
"Good news is, the claim is bogus," adds Valis, serving up the well-oiled punch line. "Bad news is, you've got to pay the $10,000 accidental death clause."
And there was the Pacific Gas & Electric claim -- one of seven -- where they could never catch the insured at his stated address, and arranged a doctor's appointment for him, with the express purpose of seeing where he went afterward.
"We start following him north on the 101," begins Hanks, using the admixture of present tense, run-on sentences and slow-boil delivery with which they routinely tag-team their audience. "He drives north on the 101 for five hours -- almost to the Oregon border, a brand-new town that's being graded for roads. We realize that the other seven guys who are missing are all there, with all kinds of bulldozers and backhoe machines and cable on spools, doing the same thing they used to do for PG&E. They had stolen an entire electric company. Power plant, everything, and it was providing the electricity for this town."
"They were wiring the homes," Valis adds. "I mean, they stole the poles, the trucks, everything. It was like Sergeant Bilko."
Finally, bored with the long hours and craving bigger thrills, Valis and Hanks decided to up the stakes. Coming across an article in Playboy in the early '80s on a DEA plan to recruit private citizens for narcotics stings, paying them off the books and in cash, Valis and Hanks went down to the Federal Building in San Francisco and effectively enlisted. "We walked in and said, 'We want to sell you some dope dealers,'" remembers Valis. And so began a decade spent undercover for both the DEA and FBI, which only ä came to an end when they appeared on 60 Minutes, and their cover was blown for good.
Valis in person bears a marked similarity to magician Ricky Jay, including a fondness for the phrase "Pay me my money." He is also, to be charitable about it, abrasive bordering on corrosive. He prides himself on his repertoire of racial epithets, which he uses to push people's buttons, and on his ability to play the lovable rogue or the asshole. ("You've never met anybody as unracist as I am," he says. "But you'll hear a giant sucking sound come right out of the room when I say shit.") Valis grew up on 161st Street and 46th Avenue in Queens, in a Czech-speaking household, only to learn years later that he was actually Austrian, due to the family's origins in a small Carpathian border town that had changed hands and allegiances untold times throughout the century. A legacy that no doubt aided him in his future endeavors.
After a stint in the Navy aboard a nuclear submarine, he spent a year as co-chairman of the Weather Underground for the state of New York -- a period he is understandably vague about. (He now considers himself "ultra- ultraconservative," although he does retain a propensity for quoting Frank Zappa.) Married to the same woman, a registered nurse, for 32 years, he has two daughters who grew up in a home with a loaded gun in the refrigerator, just in case the outside world ever intruded. ("Here, let's talk about this," he says, re-creating an imaginary scenario. "Let me get you a beer.") Although he admits to having been arrested over 50 times, his official record is virtually spotless, save for the false items planted when he went undercover for the FBI, and which he now can't get rid of. "It was all this really nasty shit," he explains. "Explosives, machine guns -- Frank Nitti kind of shit." In fact, he claims the nickname "Mad Dog" came courtesy of a capo in the East Coast Gambino family, for whom he had once done a favor as a teenager, and whom he prevailed upon for a mobbed-up reference once he was on the inside.
"He told them I was a torpedo who had hit 13 people out in New York, and I was hiding out in California," says Valis. "He told them my name was 'Mad Dog' Valis -- from the Bogey movie, I guess [Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in High Sierra]. But from that minute on, they were all terrified of me. They'd say, 'He'll eat a chili dog and blow your brains out while he's doing it.'"
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Dan Hanks (formerly Portley), a gentle giant who just happens to be heavily armed, grew up one of 10 kids in an Irish-Catholic household north of San Diego. Following the suicide of his father when he was 2 months old, he spent his youthful nights out of the house to avoid an abusive stepfather and quickly developed an aptitude for breaking and entering. This talent served him well during his 18 months in Vietnam, where he secretly placed wiretaps for Naval Intelligence, before being wounded and receiving an honorable discharge. Armed with a new skill set, he embarked on a career of vaguely comical scams, for which he spent the next decade in and out of prison, and which he still recalls with an adolescent glee: He would open up a checking account, then print blank deposit slips with his account number on the bottom and leave a stack of them in the bank lobby, so that all deposits would automatically default to his account. Or he would tap into the phone box behind an office building and call-forward random lines to a private 976-number with a per-minute charge, which the businesses wouldn't realize until they received their monthly statement.
"I never did burglaries for the money," he claims. "I did burglaries because I was one of these thrill guys that liked to go in."
Through a Green Beret buddy's dad, an exFBI agent, Hanks was introduced to Murray Chotiner, Richard Nixon's former law partner and unofficial "bagman." Of all the Byzantine figures surrounding the Nixon White House, Chotiner remains one of the most elusive: Prior to his testimony at the Watergate hearings, he broke his leg in an automobile accident and was taken to Bethesda Hospital in Maryland (home of Kennedy's infamous autopsy), where he mysteriously died of an alleged embolism. Hanks claims he performed three break-ins for Chotiner: the Teamster headquarters in Las Vegas, where he photographed files and placed bugs which were used to blackmail union officials for future campaign donations, and two more involving national security: "Both of them were offices at aircraft factories, and they had to do with government contracts" is all he will say.
After he was transferred to Terminal Island Federal Prison, Hanks used his skills as a jailhouse lawyer to write a successful habeas corpus brief, based on a technicality, whereupon the district court reversed his burglary conviction. The inevitable government appeal took three years to wend its way through the system -- long after he had found legitimate employment as a private investigator -- and he was forced to return to prison for two and a half months (as the only male prisoner at a formerly all-women's prison, where he ran a booming business turning tape-deck motors into vibrators), before his case was successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. During the interim, he appeared on a game show, Celebrity Sweepstakes, becoming its second all-time highest money winner. He was spotted on TV by an old cellmate from San Quentin, who tried to blackmail him into helping set up a string of halfway houses for prison parolees, to be run by the Mexican mafia, which had been looking for Hanks ever since he used educational video equipment to tape a bloody prison riot at Lompoc, footage of which is still used as a Bureau of Prisons Training film to this day.
"It's probably some of my best camerawork," he says modestly.
But then, that's another story.
DUMBER THAN ROCKS
WORKING UNDERCOVER FOR THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT Agency as C.I.'s, or "confidential informants," Hanks and Valis targeted primarily small-time coke dealers, and were paid off the books in the amount of $2,000 per kilo seized and $2,000 per warm body -- arrested, not convicted.
"These guys would go, 'We're gonna bring some of our friends,'" says Valis. "We'd say, 'Good idea. Bring the whole baseball team.'"
"Yeah," says Hanks. "Bring your cousins. Bring everybody."
They draw a distinction between those who do this professionally -- "bounty hunters for drugs" -- and snitches, or those who get caught and roll over on their associates. "There's probably less than 50 people who do what we do," says Hanks. "There are all kinds of people working off beefs."
They perfected a technique whereby their designated target would "accidentally" run into the guy with the money. When the drug dealer invariably suggested cutting Hanks and Valis out of the deal -- and they always would -- the pair had the perfect alibi once their money man turned out to be a Fed. "Eventually, they get wise, because everyone you know goes to jail," says Valis. "But they're dumber than rocks."
Flush with cash, Valis bought a horse ranch in Bentonville, Virginia, while Hanks relocated to Ft. Myers, Florida, where the DEA assigned him a new partner who, he says, didn't let guilt or innocence get in the way of a good dope bust. Soon enough, Hanks rejoined his former partner up in Virginia. It was there, working out of the Baltimore DEA office, that they first ran afoul of the U.S. government. A guy they met in a bar there had a cousin in the Coast Guard in St. Petersburg, Florida, who had been supplying AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) schedules to drug dealers, who would then smuggle cocaine out of Belize into Miami in shrimp boats.
"We go and we tell our control agents in Baltimore," says Hanks. "A thousand kilos a week. And they give us this, 'Well, that's interesting, but what about this two-kilo deal we've got going in Baltimore?' I'm going, 'Are you listening to me? What the fuck is this?'"
Sensing a conflict of interest, they determined who controlled the purse strings and contacted the head counsel of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Hayden Gregory -- who, surprisingly, knew their story before they told it.
"He says, 'Yeah, we've been looking into that, and we haven't gotten anywhere with the DEA either,'" says Hanks. "'We think it's a CIA operation, in conjunction with the DEA.'"
"What they were doing," adds Valis, "is they were bringing the drugs into Florida, giving it to the 2506, the Cuban guys from the Bay of Pigs. They were selling it on the street, taking the cash, getting an end-user certificate out of Australia and buying guns from Interarms in England, and then taking them by Hasenfus Airways and dropping them in to the contras. They were using the drug money to buy the guns."
Deciding their best protection was media exposure, they put the word out that they had a story to tell. Eventually, they got a call from West 57th Street, a new CBS spinoff of 60 Minutes. Within days, they were attending meetings in the field wearing a DEA wire on one side and a CBS wire on the other. But before the story could run, the series was abruptly canceled. Three months later, the story broke in the press, and the world first heard the name Oliver North.
Foreseeing the inevitable day when they would be the first ones through the door and their backup would mysteriously disappear --Serpico-style -- the pair decided to sever their ties with the DEA. Soon after, Hanks got a call from an old friend in Victorville, California, offering him a job placing some wiretaps. He came out west to investigate. The client turned out to be Kale Kalustian, a Beverly Hills bookmaker suspicious of one of his underlings. Hanks was quickly kicked up the ladder to Ron "The Cigar" Sacco, who at the time controlled a billion-dollar-a-year California-based bookmaking operation affiliated with John Gotti's Gambino crime family. Soon he and Valis were double-dipping in the employee-benefits packages of both the mob and the FBI.
And once again, when the heat came down, they opted for the witness-protection program of prime-time television.
Although the FBI and DEA systematically decline comment on any of their paid undercover sources, a tape of 60 Minutes dated July 18, 1993, shows Ron Sacco himself, sporting a salt-and-pepper Godfather mustache and waving a hand-rolled cigar, his lawyer by his side, saying, "You really want me to tell you what they are? Two pieces of puke. How low is that?" And then there they are on camera -- Valis in a leather trench coat and slicked-back ponytail, Hanks in the horizontal stripes that gentlemen of ample girth should know better than to favor (but rarely do). The voice-over describes them as "trusted phone mechanics" and electronics "geniuses," whose undercover work brought down "the biggest and most successful bookmaking operation in history." And yet to us, they look like Robert De Niro Day at Disneyland -- walking cartoons, sitcom wise guys straight out of Central Casting -- proving that mobsters, like the rest of us, probably watch too much television.
"You were getting paid by the FBI, you were getting paid by the bookies, and you were stealing from the bookies," comes the offscreen query, the camera zooming in tight for the kill.
"No, that's part of the pay," says Valis. "We prefer to think of that as temporarily misdirecting funds."
Even veteran newsman Steve Kroft can't keep from smiling.
THE MAN WITH THE TAPE
AND AS OFTEN HAPPENS TO BUDDING HOPEFULS in bit television parts, soon enough they got the nod from a big Hollywood producer: Peter Brennan, one of the hard-boiled Australians who brought the tabloid gospel from Rupert Murdoch to the Fox network in the mid-'80s. With Valis still undercover in the Gambino family, Hanks approached A Current Affair, the show Brennan had only recently created, with a bootleg video of Willie Nelson's road crew holding a beauty contest in drag -- acquired during the team's brief tenure as on-the-road security for a number of San Francisco rock bands. Brennan responded by hiring Hanks as his personal investigator, and took him along when he left months later to join the staff at Hard Copy. After Valis testified before the grand jury as the star witness in the Sacco case, he signed on as well.
"He just loved that we could go find out shit," says Hanks. "And he didn't care how. But when [the 60 Minutes] piece came out, it changed the way people looked at us -- even at Hard Copy. Basically, it kind of let people know that we were legit."
Eventually, Hanks and Valis would work for all the tabloid TV shows and print outlets: from Hard Copy and A Current Affair to the New York Post and the Enquirer. They have infiltrated suburban brothels and Glendale sex-slave rings run by the Russian mob, run surveillance cams on criminal home-care workers and sadistic baby sitters, bribed Elizabeth Taylor's floor nurse and the Menendez brothers' jailer. They have given cameras to street kids, junkies and train-hopping runaways, confounding their superiors by producing unprecedented raw and intimate footage. ("We said, 'Here's a FedEx number; for every tape you send us, we will wire you $200,'" says Valis. "Man, they were guarding these cameras with their lives.")
They did much of the investigation and surveillance for two Fox reports that were subsequently nominated for Emmys -- "Coyote Commandos," about smuggling Mexican nationals across the border, and "Billionaire Drug Lords," about the Arellano-Felix brothers in Mexico. (Benjamin Arellano-Felix was finally captured last month.) As the New York Post reported, they narrowed the search for the Unabomber to a list of 20 suspects (including Ted Kaczynski) by cross-referencing students and staff at UC Berkeley with a lack of credit history, before learning the FBI already had him under surveillance. And working from 200 local newspapers every morning at Hard Copy, which they would comb religiously for controversial material, they built the saga of Joey Buttafuco and Amy Fisher -- "The Long Island Lolita" -- from a three-sentence story in the Long Island Press into an international joke.
And then, says Hanks, there was the mother lode: "There wasn't a reporter or freelance cameraman in town that wasn't working on O.J."
"Anyone who wrote for a high school newspaper was working on O.J.," says Valis.
"If two people had to die so that thousands could be employed for 18 months," Hanks jokes, " it's a small price to pay. It became a cottage fucking industry for almost two years."
They were the ones who found Keith Zlomsowich, the Aspen Mezzaluna manager who had been the subject of O.J.'s impolitic observation in the background of the 911 tapes: "But it's okay to suck Keith's dick, huh?" They had Mark Fuhrman's psychiatric report ("He tried for years to shrink out on a full disability," says Hanks -- "'I'm a Nazi, you don't want me here.'"). And they were the first ones with the names of all 12 jurors, which, after exhaustive database cross-indexes that produced the names of two or three, they ultimately got by calling up a juror who had been dismissed, inviting him and his family down to the House of Blues, and feeding him free drinks. They claim they sold the entire list to Rupert Murdoch for a $25,000 exclusive, then sold it three more times for $6,000 apiece after a partial list ran in the Post.
But probably the local story they had the most to do with was Heidi Fleiss. Because Hanks was the man behind the infamous Heidi Fleiss tapes.
"On the Heidi Fleiss thing, [Brennan] came to me, and he said, 'You know, there's talk about this Hollywood Madam,'" says Hanks. "I started putting Heidi under surveillance, and I saw all these celebrities coming and going. And then I decided to tap Heidi's phone. The wiretapping was not for Hard Copy. Heidi's competition had come to me -- Ivan Nagy [Fleiss' former lover and ongoing nemesis] -- and he said he'd pay me to get tapes of her telephone activity. But he didn't want it for anything other than he wanted her client list."
When Hard Copy's parent company, Paramount, ordered them off the story, Brennan continued paying Hanks out of his own pocket. The story was finally broken in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Shawn Hubler, who later identified Hanks in an accompanying sidebar as "The Man With the Tape." Hanks claims the Times paid him $2,000 to listen to all 13 hours and promised not to identify him in print.
According to Hubler: "the Times doesn't pay for information. [Hanks] had approached another reporter and tried to sell us the tapes for $10,000. But I also wanted to hear them, so I went to his apartment in the Valley. He had video cameras rigged to the door so he could see who was approaching. Jeopardy was on, and the whole time he was compulsively answering Jeopardy questions. I didn't listen to all of [the tapes]. Everything was so hinky, I couldn't use any of it. I initially promised [Hanks] I wouldn't use his name, and I didn't. Then later, I called him back and said that things had changed and he [talked] on the record. But I was honorable with him.
"That whole story was filled with this whole Hollywood demimonde that trades in gossip, intrigue and information gathering. This league of rogues. They were just two in a cast of hundreds of people who lived in that gray area. But they were a hoot."
Hanks later sold the tapes to Fleiss herself -- for $5,000 -- before turning them over to the FBI, after she subsequently threatened him as well.
"She called me up and said, 'I'm going to cut your throat and shit down your neck.'"
Fleiss also had her enforcer -- the mysterious Cookie, who director Nick Broomfield had been famously unable to identify in his documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam -- call Hanks and threaten him. He gleefully recounts his response:
"I said, 'Is this the same Cookie whose real name is Jacob Orgad, who lives at 1311 whatever, whose Social Security number is et cetera? Because if this is the same Cookie, try to remember: I ain't one of Heidi's girls that you've beaten up.' And I basically advised him that I'd been threatened by professionals. But just to cover my ass, I decided that just in case the guy did have the balls, I wanted to have a backup plan." Hence, the FBI.
"You know," Hanks adds, "it's a real sad thing to die unavenged."
VERMIN AND PESTILENCE
THESE DAYS, THE BACKSTREET DETECTIVES ARE still racking up coups, public or otherwise. (They recently broke up a ticket-scalping ring inside one of L.A.'s most exclusive annual parties, but refuse to talk about it out of deference to the client.) They still perform a fair amount of work for the British tabloids -- such as documenting Prince Andrew's sorties with high-priced hookers when he's in L.A. -- but the writing is clearly on the wall, as most of the domestic tabloids have inevitably learned about their proprietary databases and other trade secrets. And they estimate they have successfully optioned tabloid stories (generally as prospective made-for-TV movies) at least a dozen times through their own production company -- Hollywood Scam Artists Productions.
"I think this whole town is nothing but a scam," explains Valis. "It's truth in advertising."
Their Web site offers a dizzying array of services, many of which they once performed for the tabloids but now make available to the home consumer -- in a sense privatizing public surveillance. They will outfit virtually any household object to hide a digital camera, with which to supervise baby sitters, cleaning help, home-care services, children, etc. They now provide "sub rosa security" or "close protection" in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and last year they vetted all contestants for the ABC reality series The Mole. And then there are their CheckMate and CheckDate services, wherein a special women's auxiliary of ex-Playmates called the Backstreet Babes will test-drive the fidelity of a client's husband, boyfriend or potential date by showing up at the target's favorite bar and making themselves available for proposition -- a program they unofficially refer to as "Catch and Release."
But it's the possibility of a TV series, 10 years in development (through producer Gary Goodman and Goodman-Rosen Productions, in conjunction with producer David Permut), which currently preoccupies their enthusiasm. To be called Vermin and Pestilence, it will dramatize their undercover work for the FBI and DEA, beginning with the Ron Sacco story. (The name comes from their alleged underworld nicknames, as identified in the 60 Minutes report.) "It's a fictionalized series based on the stories we tell," says Valis, "but they're going to end up using our own names. Which is really nice if they do that, because it'll be good publicity."
The pilot will be written and directed by George Gallo, the man who ushered Robert De Niro into comedy with Midnight Run.
"Hollywood really seems to get a kick out of these kinds of people," Gallo says. "They are incredibly colorful guys. And they think like criminals. They were in rooms with lots of money, so they decided to take some of it. And the mob guy caught wind of this, and as a result, he loved them for it, because he knew they couldn't be with the FBI, because only another criminal would want to steal from him. And as a result, he brought them even more into the fold. They thought at one point they were gonna get whacked, because he took them for a ride, and he told them, 'I love you fuckin' guys. You stole from me, I knew you were all right.' You can't invent shit like that. I always said the show was like The Honeymooners with guns."
"You meet these guys for the first time," says producer Permut, "you say, 'Are they for real?' At first, I kind of thought it was all sizzle with no steak -- this business of weaving and spinning stories. These guys are funny and colorful and distinctive, but did this shit really happen? And for the purposes of my profession, whether it really happened or not is beside the point. If the story works, the story works. At least they make it feel credible, where you want to believe some of this stuff. But in actuality, I've come to realize that these guys actually are for real. They actually do live up to the sizzle."
"Plus they got me out of a couple of jams," confides Gallo. "I had a problem with somebody who I don't have a problem with anymore. They had a talk with him, and he just went away. They're great guys to have as friends and terrible guys to have as enemies."
Back at Residuals, Hanks and Valis continue their dual monologue. Speaking the lingo of their latest target, they merrily recount tales of series bonuses and pay-or-play and good-faith renegotiation clauses, how they leveraged some option renewal for more money or withheld key literary or feature rights from negotiations. Looking back over their odd peripatetic history, now entering their fifth act when most American lives supposedly don't even have two, they make the obvious comparisons between their many rivals.
"I'd rather deal with the mob anytime, because you can believe what the mob tells you," says Valis. "The difference with the mob is that there are set rules -- they're etched in stone. Hollywood is just full of crap. You can't believe a word they say."
"Well, actually, Mafiosi are a little bit more honorable than Hollywood agents and producers," concurs Hanks when asked independently. "I look at the average Mafioso as an amateur, compared to typical Hollywood agents."
But in fact, they've been telling these same stories for most of their half-century in harm's way -- first to the Queens or Orange County bullies who would otherwise have made short shrift of them; then to the spooks and black-ops cowboys they crossed paths with on the fringes of military intelligence; the radical politicos and prison hotheads they fell in with as Vietnam vets; the chiselers and shysters they rooted out as P.I.'s-in-training; the coke dealers and knuckleheads they bought from and sold to; the Mafia fucks who took to them as long-lost paisan; and now, finally, to Hollywood proper. The stories never change, except as they grow deeper and more resilient with time. Only the backdrops shift, as each new audience gets reeled in, and can't wait to revel in the gullibility of the last. The arbiters of Hollywood, especially, who like to imagine themselves from any number of these previous worlds, can never seem to get enough of guys like Dan and Fred, no matter how hardboiled or overheated they may come off to the rest of us. You have to look at the rules of whatever culture youre in and find the loopholes, and then give them a whole new spin again.
"There's something still kind of childlike about both of them," says Gallo. "Once you get to know them, they both have a little twinkle in their eyes; they're like devious kids. I mean, they definitely play by their own rules. But there are certain things they would never do. It's their own moral code."
For all their bluster and bending of the rules, Valis and Hanks have been partners for 27 years. They have no contract between them, and no legal binding in the company they run.
"We're like family," says Valis. "There's no other way to explain it. We're closer than family. My kids never knew a time when Uncle Dan wasn't around. It's a partnership, like two cops riding in the same car, where we're partners but we're not business partners. Where we share everything. And I trust Dan with anything I own -- my kids, my wife, my dog . . ."
"Fred's motto," says Hanks, "and he's taught me well, is: 'Do not eat the cow; milk the cow.'"
They claim to have only had two arguments in all their time together -- both of them over women, and both of them women that Hanks was involved with, whom Valis felt were unfairly exploiting his partner and threatening their delicate equilibrium. One of these was Hanks' three-year marriage, which finally ended in tragedy when his wife died of a heroin overdose. "I'm a callous son of a bitch," claims Valis. "But since his wife, I've taught him the no-baggage rule. In the words of the immortal Frank Zappa: 'Broken hearts are for assholes.'"
Valis credits the secret of their survival to a simple strategy that governed his life undercover: "Learn the rules, and find out how to pervert the rules and manipulate them to your benefit. You have to look at the rules of whatever culture you're in and find the loopholes, and then give them a whole new spin."
Now, as they prepare to dip once more into the warm bath of celebrity, to deal with the world-class hustlers that make their way to Hollywood for the stakes and the quarry, and to once again tell their secrets and hope that no one gives them up, this creed may be put to the test as never before.
"We've reinvented ourselves I don't know how many times," says Valis. "We've been really lucky."
"Yeah," says Hanks. "That's the strange thing."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.