THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB
How the BEAST was hired to build James Kopp’s beard
by Matt Taibbi
Light attracts moths. Fake beards attract comedians. Some laws of nature are simply immutable.
A few weeks ago, BEAST reporter and head coach Slidell Montgomery called me in a panic. He was manic, barely understandable on the phone. The right fake beard story will do that to a professional humorist. “Did you fucking read the newspaper?” he said. “They’re going to put Kopp in a fake beard for the lineup!”
“What?” I said.
“James Kopp, the guy accused of shooting the abortion doctor Slepian…”
“I know who he is,” I snapped. “What’s this about a fake beard?”
Slidell slowed down and explained the story, by now well-known to most everybody in this city. Kopp was to be placed in a lineup wearing a fake beard, fake mustache, and dyed hair to simulate what police say his appearance was four years ago, before he fled in anticipation of arrest for Dr. Barnett Slepian’s murder.
The decision by Erie County judge Michael D’Amico was immediately called “highly controversial” in the press for the predictable reason that the defense, led by legendary attorney Paul Cambria, considered the wholescale alteration of a suspect’s appearance for a lineup somewhat, er, prejudicial. After all, if you follow the reasoning behind this kind of technique to its logical end, you could conceivably end up with prosecutors dressing up suspects as the Hamburglar, and asking witnesses to pick the criminal out of the lineup. The whole idea seemed shaky, to say the least.
The lineup idea was made even more controversial by the delicate legal gymnastics needed to justify it. Whether or not it actually intended to do so, the prosecution, led by District Attorney Frank Clark and Assistant DA Joe Marusak, could not say that it wanted to make Kopp up to look like the witness descriptions of the person seen outside Dr. Slepian’s house in the days before the shooting. That would be prejudicial on its face, so to speak. And the idea of making him up to look like his pictures and mugshots from previous arrests seemed equally ridiculous. That concept reminded me of the old Joseph Heller joke from We Bombed in New Haven:
General to Lieutenant: We’re going to bomb them right off the map.
Lieutenant: Why don’t we just bomb the map?
If you’re making him up to look like a picture, why not just show the picture? And in general the whole idea of having a lineup after four years of intense press coverage of the case, coverage that had the infamous mugshots of Kopp on front pages and on national television about once every five minutes or so, seems ridiculous; it would appear an easy matter for a defense attorney to argue on appeal that the witnesses would not have been able to not know instantly which of the bearded men in the lineup was James Kopp, suspect.
But all of these were abstract legal questions that attorneys on both sides would doubtless argue over for years to come. The questions that came to our minds when we heard about the lineup were more immediate and concrete: Where the hell does an Erie County prosecutor go to find a fake beard? and On a scale of one to ten, exactly how outrageously funny-looking will Kopp’s beard be when they finally wheel it out for the lineup?
The range of possibilities was intriguing to consider. Independent of each other, Slidell and I had both immediately focused on the preposterous prop used by Woody Allen in the movie Bananas, in which the Allen character fleeces the entire world, including the analytical department of the CIA, by sporting a three-dollar costume store fake beard as he assumes the identity of a Latin American dictator. We both imagined Kopp in the guise of Allen’s Fielding Mellish character, nervously blowing the fake mustache strands off of his lips as he warmed up the United Nations crowd with a joke before a speech: “As I stand here before you today, I am reminded of the farmer who had incestuous relations with his daughter…”
There was also the Abe Lincoln model, an option that seemed too absurd to consider but would later prove not too far off the mark…
Law enforcement and clever disguise have always been contradictions in terms. There is no creature on earth less qualified to avoid the pitfalls of unintentional comedy than a middle-aged policeman or prosecutor grappling with the nuances of wigs and makeup. In all of literature there is perhaps no funnier passage than the section of G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography, Will, in which
Liddy describes the “disguises” he and fellow White House henchman Howard Hunt used before their break-in into the office of Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist for Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
Liddy and Hunt contrived to wear polyester lounge clothes and special braces on their feet that would make them appear to be walking with limps. Apparently this disguise in the garb of handicapped Floridan tourists would make them less conspicuous as they went about their business of burglarizing a California physician’s office at night.
Liddy and Hunt were the best and the brightest in the American security apparatus at the time. If that was what White House first-teamers will come up with in the area of appearance alteration, one can only imagine what an Erie County prosecutor will do when faced with the assignment of finding a fake beard. Unless someone stepped in to save the day, we thought, it was only a matter of time before someone caught Frank Clark roaming the aisles of a Spencer Gift store, rummaging for beards under a pile of magic 8-balls.
We at the BEAST were curious to see how desperate the situation was at the DA’s office. So we decided one afternoon last week to put in an exploratory phone call to Marusak, the prosecutor in charge of trying the Kopp case. As it turned out, affairs in their office were in such chaos that what started out as a simple phone gag, spurred by mere curiosity, ended in one of the more surreal episodes in our journalistic careers–with the District Attorney offering us, in a formal face-to-face interview, the job of making up the face of James Kopp.
In our initial phone call, we decided to just throw a few things against the wall, just to see what would stick. As is becoming increasingly evident, walls are very sticky in this town when it comes to pranks. Posing as “Aaron Wolfsheim,” a vacationing Hollywood makeup artist, I spoke first to a switchboard operator, then to attorney Jeff Hagen, and finally to Marusak, to whom I cordially offered my services:
Marusak: Joe Marusak.
BEAST: Hello, Mr. Marusak?
BEAST: Hi, my name is Aaron Wolfsheim. I’m a makeup artist.
BEAST: I’m actually a Buffalo native, but I work in Los Angeles.
BEAST: I’ve done a lot of work in movies. I worked on Planet of the Apes. I don’t know if you saw the recent movie, but I did Helena Bonham Carter’s makeup.
Marusak: [skeptically] Okay…
BEAST: And I’m home visiting relatives, and I was reading about this Kopp trial. And I was wondering if you’d found someone to do the makeup for the lineup, and if you’d be interested in seeing some of my work.
Marusak: Yeah! I would! In fact, it’s ironic that you called, because we’re in the process right now of trying to, uh, use someone. I had someone that I used on a criminal case, oh, God, it must have been ten years ago. And the telephone numbers that I have for her are no longer valid, so…
BEAST: So you haven’t found anybody, huh?
Marusak: So we struck out there.
A decade of Law and Order episodes had not prepared me for the reality of a District Attorney who stops at dialing an old telephone number when searching for someone who is not hiding. It seemed to me that any adult American male over the age of twenty who has ever been so hard up for sex that he’s been forced to look up an old girlfriend would know how to proceed past the “old telephone number no longer works” problem. Momentarily unnerved, I pressed on:
Marusak: We’re in the process of looking, so yeah, I would definitely like to see something, uh, that you’ve done.
BEAST: Well, if you just want something for a preliminary look, you can see some of the movies that I’ve done. I was in Splash 3, I did all of the costumes for that…
There never was a Splash 3. Marusak was unfazed:
BEAST: And, like I said, I did Planet of the Apes, I did Helena Bonham Carter… and, uh [scrambling to think], I worked for Dino Di Laurentis for many years.
Marusak: [impressed] Oh!
BEAST: So I’m just home for a couple of weeks…
Marusak: Oh, perfect!
BEAST: I could come by any time.
Marusak: Do you have your materials with you?
BEAST: Yeah, I have a kit. I’m working on some models while I’m here.
Genuinely freaked out by this point, I decided, in a panic almost, to throw something else out there:
BEAST: There might be some things that I’m missing, but… I’m good. I’m so good, if I did you, they’d pick you out of the lineup.
Marusak: [again impressed] Wowwwww!
BEAST: [laughing] So when would be a good time for me to come by?
Marusak: Well, how about… well, let’s see. Let’s take a peek about my calendar… Today is the 23rd. How is Thursday, the 25th?
BEAST: Sounds good.
Marusak: What’s good for you?
BEAST: How about sometime after noon?
Marusak: Okay. Let’s shoot for two o’clock.
As soon as this phone call was over (Marusak spent an inordinate amount of time giving me directions not only to his office building, but from the elevator on his floor to his office), I hung up the phone and sat for a moment in stunned silence. There seemed to be no question that I actually had to go in to Marusak’s office for the interview. God’s vengeance is unerring when such rare opportunities as these are squandered. Little as I liked the idea of waltzing into the District Attorney’s office to pull this kind of stunt, I knew there was no way out.
But what would I do if he actually offered me the job? That was a trickier question, but after a heated discussion in the BEAST offices, we settled on a plan for that, too. In the meantime, we had a serious task before us: we had less than 48 hours to turn me into a plausible candidate for a job in a million-dollar, internationally celebrated criminal trial.
One of the ironic things about this story is that within about twenty minutes after our call to Marusak, we at the BEAST managed to track down a qualified professional makeup artist, with a degree in industrial design that included training in makeup and effects, who was willing to teach us the ropes of fake beard application. This was clearly the first order of business. If I was going to go in to the DA’s office and interview for the Kopp makeup job, I needed to sound like I knew what I was talking about.
It seemed impossible that a bunch of slackers running a two-bit humor newspaper would be able to instantly find the right guy for the job right here in Buffalo, when a mighty state apparatus with an unlimited budget couldn’t manage to find anyone, anywhere, qualified or not, in any length of time. But this was apparently the case.
While I met with the Expert for my beard tutorial, our designers set to work making up the necessary props for Aaron Wolfsheim’s resume. Pressed for time, we focused on the essentials. Any reputable special effects artist, we knew, would want first and foremost to be able to show a picture of himself on the cover of Fangoria magazine, that blood-spattered Bible of the effects industry. We dug up an old back issue at Queen City Bookstore that featured a mangled latex head from the movie F/X; our nymphomaniac trailer-trash designer Velma Stark scanned it in, adding in one corner a doctored photo that featured my face on the body of an effects artist with a truly spectacular early-90s mullet. The picture could not possibly have been more ridiculous, but there was no question of not trying to use it. Underneath the photo, we added the dramatic headline: AARON WOLFSHEIM BREAKS THE MOLD.
Next step: the obligatory photo of a slightly older Aaron Wolfsheim with his arm around Robert Englund, a.k.a. Freddie Krueger. The original photo we found featured Englund with his arms around a man in his late thirties who had the awful haircut and hideously unhealthy body of a top-flight Hollywood cosmetic artist. I posed for a picture that imitated the expression on the man’s face, looking in mock fright down and to my right at Englund’s famous razor-bladed fingers resting on my shoulder. Velma morphed that picture onto the original, and there I was, sporting a prominent set of middle-aged man-titties and standing with my arms around Freddie Krueger.
We made a few other pictures, including an 8×11 still of Helena Bonham-Carter in ape costume, which I was going to point to as my “crowning achievement” (I also planned to drop hints that I’d had an affair with the actress, but, sadly, the opportunity never arose). Then we drew up a set of campy business cards with a Planet of the Apes theme (Aaron worked for a company called “Modern Prosthetics” that specialized in “Meeting the economic prosthetic, mask, makeup, realistic recreation and effects needs of the motion picture, film, video and theater industries”), and set to work sketching out a believable biography for Mssr. Wolfsheim. Among other things, I planned to have him take credit for building the Sasquatch costume from a Carlsberg commercial from the early nineties, one which “didn’t get a lot of airplay” but was “well-received by people in the business.”
I got a good night’s sleep the night before the meeting. Then, in the morning, I met Velma to gather up the sight gags before retiring to our offices in the luxurious Statler Towers to get mentally prepared.
On the way out the door just before two, I realized I’d made a serious error. The previous evening, one of our other designers, who’d been in charge of making the business cards, had called me to ask what telephone number to put under Aaron’s name.
“Put Artvoice’s number on there,” I’d said reflexively, not even thinking.
“Done,” he’d said.
Now I had a stack of those cards in hand and I realized that they all bore numbers with 716 area codes–which didn’t exactly fit the profile of a Los Angeles-based effects artist. In a panic, I took a pen and frantically crossed out all of the 716′s as I walked across Niagara Square, replacing them all with the more appropriate 323 area code.
Confidence momentarily rattled, I walked into the DA’s office at 25 Delaware, passed through the metal detector, and headed for the third floor. I needed to take a leak, but I was afraid to ask anyone where the bathroom was. I was sure that the fraud was written on my face so clearly that the first word out of my mouth would get me shot with a Taser gun and dragged into custody. But I wasn’t able to stall for long before a short bald man in shirtsleeves and a tie caught me meandering in the third-floor hallway.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking for Joe Marusak.”
“And you are?” he asked.
“Aaron Wolfsheim,” I said. “I’m a makeup artist… I have an appointment.”
“Oh, hello, Aaron,” he said, shaking my hand. “I’m Jeff Hagen. We spoke on the phone. He’s expecting you.”
“Uh-huh. Do you have a rest room?” I blurted out.
Hagen led me to a rest room, right up to the door. For a moment I thought he was going to come in with me. But he backed away at the last moment, then waited in the hallway… When I came out a moment later, he led me into his office for what I quickly gathered would be some kind of pre-interview.
“Joe’s on the phone,” he explained. “In the meantime, I’ll just need to ask you a few questions.”
Hagen pulled out a fresh yellow legal pad and glared at me with a blank expression.
“So what’s your connection to Buffalo, Aaron?” he said, not smiling.
It took me about two seconds to grasp the perilous dynamics of the situation. On the phone, Hagen’s boss, Marusak, sounded exactly like what one would expect a grandstanding trial prosecutor would sound like: comically bombastic in tone, megalomaniacal, none too bright, and consumed with a fairly narrow range of predictably vulgar political ambitions, a man who, in all likelihood, owns four sharp suits and a carefully-attended anchorman haircut. Behind every such man in this world there is a less photogenic man who is usefully paranoid and is the real brains of the operation. This was the person who was interrogating me now.
I volleyed back each of his questions with my lame preconceived answers: I was born in the Buffalo area, but moved to Massachusetts as a small child. After retirement, my father had moved back to the city and settled in Allentown, where I was now staying for a two-week visit. I gave him an address and a telephone number, the former bogus, the latter belonging to co-editor Kevin McElwee’s mobile account.
“Do you have a business card?” he asked, still not smiling.
I handed him my card. “You’ll see the area code is crossed out…” I began.
“Why?” he asked.
“They added a new area code in LA,” I said. “My number used to be… in the 213 area.”
Hagen examined it, then put it aside before sitting up straight to face me.
“You understand the reason I’m asking you all of these questions,” he said. “You know the nature of this case?”
“Yes,” I said. “But only what I read in the papers.”
“Well, you see, the thing is, you know, there are some people who might want to create a provocation,” he said. “And you know, you called us, we didn’t call you. So obviously we have to check…”
“Obviously,” I said. “I understand, this is a sensitive case…you have to be wary.”
Hagen flipped closed the legal pad. A chilling idea which had occurred vaguely to me at the start of the meeting now rose violently to the surface of my thoughts. If Hagen did not join in during the meeting with Marusak, would he excuse himself to start conducting his background check right away? One phone call to the fictitious number on my business card, and I was dead meat. Again the visions: Marusak’s door bursting open, more Taser guns, dogs, carpet burns, the exposed out-of-shape journalist clutching wildly at a desk leg as he is dragged off…
“I think Joe’s off the phone,” Hagen said suddenly, interrupting my fantasies. “Please, come on in.”
Hagen and I walked into the office next door, and he closed the door behind us. He wasn’t going anywhere; I was safe.
Behind the desk sat a dazed-looking man with an anchorman haircut, who even when sitting, appeared to be standing with his hands on his hips.
“Aaron Wolfsheim,” I said.
“Joe Marusak,” he answered.
There’s never been any question in my mind that life is stranger than fiction. That’s why I got into journalism. The material is so much more challenging.
In my pre-interview, Hagen had, by way of asking me how long the process of applying a fake beard would take, given me a hint as to their earlier progress in wrestling with the whole beard issue. He showed me a fax some out-of-town outfit had sent him that included rough diagrams of various beard shapes. The fax was grainy and nearly illegible; the “beards” looked like Rorschach tests.
“We understand this is sort of a drawn-out process,” he’d said. “These other people we’re talking to were saying that what you do is take an Abe Lincoln beard, and cut it down…”
The image of James Kopp, right-wing nut case, standing in a lineup with an Abe Lincoln beard nearly felled me from my chair. I recovered myself in time to affect a convincing sneer of professional disdain and begin to explain the actual process of making a professional-caliber fake beard. Hagen had sat quietly, taking notes.
Now, in the meeting with both attorneys, I entered into my speech again. Marusak, a fit-looking man with a vague and unfortunate resemblance to character actor Fred Ward, sat at his desk in a pose eerily reminiscent of the classic reverse cutaway shot used in TV journalism–the one where the TV journalist is shown sitting with his hands folded on his lap, nodding seriously as he listens to his interview subject. Those shots are sometimes done after the fact, but this one was happening in real time.
Amazingly, my nervous astonishment in looking at him suddenly translated into an impassioned and utterly believable imitation of a Hollywood effects pro.
“No professional would ever just stick on an actual fake beard,” I said. “A realistic beard is applied hair by hair. For a short beard, the process is fairly simple. You apply spirit gum to the face. Then you take a human-hair wig that matches the color you want, and cut the hairs into small strips. You take those strips and you roll them up lengthwise and wrap them in a little blanket, so that you end up with something that looks like a little cigar, or… sushi.”
“Sushi,” repeated Marusak.
“Then you take the sushi and you dab it onto the subject’s face,” I continued. “The hairs will tend to stick to the gum straight out. Once you’ve finished applying the hairs to the whole face, you comb it in the shape that you want, and you’ve got your beard.”
“I see,” Marusak said, sounding not all that interested in the particulars. “Well, he has a short bear-…”
“For a long beard,” I said, ignoring him. I was in a zone.”The process is more complex. You take this stuff called slush latex and you apply it to the face, so that you have a sort of thin rubber coating. Then, with a needle, you apply each individual hair strand by strand, sticking it into the latex. The process takes a long time. When you’re finished, you pull each of the hairs slightly, so that they come out of the latex a little. The effect is to make it more realistic, because those little tugs will leave tiny indentations in the latex that look like pores.”
“How long will this take?” Marusak said, showing me a picture of Kopp. “He had a fairly short beard…”
I didn’t have the faintest fucking idea. “About two hours,” I said confidently. “If you’re looking at something shorter, like in that other picture, about an hour and a half.” I paused, coming to the important question. “Do you want me to do just him, or everybody?”
Marusak shrugged. “Nah, they’re bellyaching about us just doing one person, you know, like it’ll be obvious if there’s just one guy in a fake beard…”
No kidding, I thought.
“…so we’re thinking we’re going to have at least one other clean-shaven person in the lineup who get s a fake beard, maybe two, I don’t know. Can you do that?”
“No problem,” I said.
Going in to the interview, I was extremely curious to find out exactly how they wanted Kopp made up. Was he supposed to be given the beard that he would have been wearing on the day in question? That would be tough to do, since no one knows what kind of beard he was wearing that day; there are no photos, no witnesses who saw him. (Witnesses saw someone in a car outside Slepian’s home in the days leading up to the shooting, but none of them knew for sure that it was James Kopp). He might not have been wearing a beard at all, for all anyone knows.
If not exactly that beard, then, which one? Over the course of his life, Kopp wore beards of different lengths and hues. The mugshots of him show sharply various facial hair arrangements. Would they just pick one or the other? And if they did, choosing randomly, on the basis of nothing at all, how could that conceivably correspond to what he might have looked like on the day of the murder?
Marusak showed me a pair of old Kopp photos.
“Which one do you want me to do?” I asked.
Marusak shrugged. “Probably a combination of both,” he said.
I pointed to a photograph of Kopp wearing what looked to be a bright orange beard. “Is that a fake beard right there?” I asked.
“No,” Marusak said. “His hair color was usually described as reddish-brown… That’s his real hair.”
I shook my head. “The thing is, if I do that beard, it’s going to look like a fake beard, ” I said. “Not for any reason except that his actual beard looked like a fake.”
Marusak paused, then pointed to the photo of Kopp wearing a darker, more normal-looking beard. “Let’s go with that one,” he said.
Well, that settles that, I thought, taking in the depressing thought that Marusak might have just made me a witness at the trial. “Okay,” he said.
We talked a little bit more. Very quickly the conversation swung around to my
work. I opened a manila envelope and began handing Marusak my resume shots.
“This is me in, er, a less physically fit period of my life, standing with Robert Englund–you know, Freddie Krueger,” I said.
“Oh, great!” he said.
“I actually didn’t do his face,” I explained. “My job, believe it or not, was the sweater. It looks like an ordinary sweater, but it has all these moving parts inside.”
“Huh!” he said.
“And this is me on the cover of Fangoria magazine,” I said. “I had this great haircut back then. That bloody head I designed was my real career break.”
“Nice,” he said.
“And this, of course, is Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes,” I said. “That’s what I spent most of last year working on.”
‘So, what’s your timetable next week again?” Marusak asked.
Lost in professional pride, I didn’t hear him. “The funny thing about those masks,” I said. “The original Planet of the Apes masks were just masks. You stuck them on the face and that was it. But these new ones we designed are completely animatronic. There are little electronic parts in every section of the face. You move your upper lip, the upper lip moves.”
“That’s… interesting,” he said unconvincingly.
They asked me again about my schedule. It was clear I had the job. I told them that there was an outside chance that I’d have to be called back to L.A. immediately to do a project, but that, barring that, I was free to do it early the next week. Hagen told me that “we’re happy to have someone with your qualifications.”
“I hope we can all work together,” Marusak said.
“I think it will all work out,” I said, eyeing the exit.
We all shook hands and I left– in a hurry.
Don’t get me wrong. I hate those anti-abortion maniacs as much as anybody. As far as I’m concerned, if Kopp is guilty, he ought to be shot into space. And I think that every church in America ought to donate a million dollars apiece to Dr. Slepian’s family, so that even his great-grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives. Jesus Christ! Shooting a doctor in the name of God! What’s wrong with these people?
But what if the suspect wasn’t an asshole like Kopp? What if it’s you or me in a drug case? You put a bunch of people like this in charge of the lineup, and who isn’t going to pick out the suspect? Left to their own devices, Kopp would be standing there in an Abe Lincoln beard!
And even if the guy is guilty, trotting him out there like that seems like far from a public service. Any sane appeals court judge might take one look at the transcript, decide the witnesses have been tainted, and throw out the whole case. Next thing you know, some abortion doctor in Pittsburgh is getting shot in his backyard next to his Hibachi. The whole thing is so nuts, it’s almost hard to laugh about it.
A few hours after my interview, I called Hagen. He wasn’t in. I left a message on his machine, explaining that I was being called away to Baton Rouge, to shoot a movie called Crawslaught (about mutant crawfish run amok) and would be unable to do the lineup.
Five minutes later, Hagen called Kevin’s cell phone number. The latter explained that he didn’t know any Aaron Wolfsheim. He called back, apparently in the hope that he’d dialed wrong. Same deal. They apparently didn’t look very hard after that. Let’s hope they don’t read the BEAST…