By EW Staff
Updated October 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: David Lee

In the fall of 2004, this period crime drama was set to begin filming with Denzel Washington in the role of real-life 1970s Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas; Benicio Del Toro playing Richie Roberts, the cop who sought to bring him down; and Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) directing. But just weeks before cameras were to roll, Universal executives, fretting over the ballooning $90 million-plus budget, fired Fuqua and ordered a hit on the entire project. ”At those prices you have to be prepared, and it wasn’t prepared,” says Washington, who walked away with $20 million thanks to a pay-or-play deal. ”I was disappointed, but I didn’t disagree with the decision.”

Most in Hollywood assumed Gangster was gone for good, but producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) refused to let it die. ”I’m not anesthetized to the pain of a movie crashing,” he says. ”But I’m kind of used to having things crumble and having to start over.” Washington, who’d been approached about directing the movie himself but declined out of loyalty to Fuqua, was stunned to get a call from his agent after two years. ”He said, ‘Ridley Scott wants to do it,”’ Washington recalls. ”’It’ll be with either Russell Crowe or Brad Pitt.’ It turned out it was with Russell. That’s a hard one to say no to.”

Scott — who teamed with Crowe twice before, on the 2000 smash Gladiator and, less successfully, last year’s bucolic comedy A Good Year — was lured into Gangster by the paradoxes of its two adversaries: one a charming, self-made drug kingpin who smuggled heroin from Vietnam in the caskets of American soldiers, the other an incorruptible cop with a weakness for women. ”Frank Lucas had all the attributes of someone to be admired — a touch of genius in his business prowess, the balls of an elephant — yet he chose to peddle heroin,” says Scott. ”Richie Roberts was the antithesis of that: the paragon of morality in his work, but his private life could best be described as immature.” Setting those characters in opposition — with two of the screen’s most indomitable actors in the roles, during a beastly hot summer in Harlem — created a hard-charging vibe on the set. ”It was 105 degrees in the street,” says Scott. ”But you got so adrenalized that the days went by in a flash.” And no one’s likely to remember that getting there was such a different story.

American Gangster

  • Movie
  • R
  • 158 minutes
  • Ridley Scott