Entertainment News

  • 28 February 2014, 8:09

Mel Weinberg: The Real American Hustler

The first thing you notice at Mel Weinberg's Florida home is the music.

"Every time I go into a room, I put it on," he tells me.

Such is the force of habit when bugs and wiretaps have been your way of life.

Whether anyone would secretly record him now, aged 89 and long retired, Mel Weinberg is every inch the man who inspired the Oscar favourite American Hustle.

A wildly successful conman, who made millions and lived a life of luxury, he turned those same skills over to the FBI to help snare a bunch of corrupt politicians in what became known as "Abscam".

Christian Bale has been nominated as best actor for his portrayal of Mel, complete with elaborate comb-over and the thick Brooklyn accent that the ageing conman still possesses.

The two men spent time together during the making of the film, even though Mel had not heard of Bale or seen any of his movies.

"I told him the last film I saw was Scarface with Al Pacino," he said

And to spend time with Mel Weinberg is to be taken back to a different era, one of "wise guys" and "schmucks" (and those are the printable terms), a who's who of gangsters and scams, some old-fashioned views and language and a remarkable story.

Just occasionally, with a shrug, a one-liner or a twinkle in his blue eyes, you see a flash of the old swindler.

And he can't disguise that he is enjoying the renewed attention.

He said: "I went food shopping yesterday and I gave the girl a dollar for bringing my groceries out to my truck. She said she'd rather have my autograph - I said you can have the buck and the autograph as long as you don't ask me to put it on a cheque."

Mel makes no apology for his life of crime. He began working for the government simply to avoid going to jail.

"I was a crook. I was a swindler. I did things that were wrong, you can't erase that, you can get religion or whatever but people are just going to see you for what you are."

The film, he says, changes little: "You are the same person you have always been, some people think you are a pretty decent guy, some people think you're no good, you're not going to change people's opinions."

His poor eyesight meant he could make out little of what was actually happening on the big screen - he is hoping to have better luck watching the DVD - but he likes the movie.

A long-time friend, a police chief in Chicago, phoned him after seeing the film. "He told me 'Mel, I seen your movie, I could have sworn it was you on the screen - he got you down to a tee'."

What is not accurate, Mel says, is the portrayal of his mistress of the time. Evelyn Knight, played by Amy Adams in the film, was not involved in any of his various cons.

The comb-over, though, was spot-on. "You'd grow your hair long on one side and then the barber put a lot of hairspray on it. Then you'd hit the wind and look like a sailboat going down the street."

There are photos of that 1970s-era Mel around his home, some giving interviews during the first flush of celebrity after Abscam.

The transcripts of the meetings that trapped so many senior politicians are stuffed in a cupboard in his garage.

He prefaces many of his off-camera comments with "This is not for print" and, as for those one-liners, this is the pick: "To be a good conman or work undercover for the government you have to have a good line of b******t and lie like a b*****d."

He is proud of the signed American Hustle poster above his bed.

And the man who used to say he would do "anything for a buck" makes no secret of why he sold his story.

"I did it strictly for the money"

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