American Hustle arrives in limited release this weekend, and it’s definitely a movie you need to watch (read my review). It’s pretty much required viewing for all you dreamers and schemers out there, or for anyone who needs advice on how to rock a crazy comb-over. While the film labels itself a fictionalized version of real-life events, American Hustle is very much based on the Abscam scandal of the late ’70s, and Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfield is based on the guy at the very center of that scandal, Mel Weinberg.
In the fall of 1977, Weinberg was a con man from Long Island who was about to go to prison. He had been charged with 10 counts of fraud, and he was done. They had a mountain of evidence on the guy. But in a weird twist of fate, an FBI field office in Long Island picked up on the case and thought maybe this guy could help them get other guys like him. At first, that’s exactly what they did — until the rough, brash, cigar-wielding Weinberg concocted a scheme involving fictitious Arab sheiks that they would then use to bust greedy politicians on the take.
It worked, as you’ll see in the movie, except Weinberg wasn’t really the best man for a job like this. In fact, this shouldn’t have even been a job in the first place, and eventually it would come out that Weinberg was breaking several laws in the way he conducted himself — coaching marks on what to say and how to act; taking bribes, etc. — to the point where it seemed like Weinberg was scamming the FBI while they were scamming the politicians.
Details of the bribes Weinberg took would eventually make their way to the media where a vicious war of words broke out between him and his wife Marie (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie), who would eventually take her own life and blame Weinberg in the suicide note.
Weinberg is now 89 years old and lives in Florida. He spent three days with Christian Bale while the actor was preparing for the role, telling Inside Jersey, “Nice guy, but I’m from the Bronx and he’s from England. That’s Hollywood.”
Video of Weinberg and his wife Marie is scarce, save for these two brief clips from a 1982 episode of 20/20 that dealt with the bribes Weinberg was accused of taking during the operation. Sadly, Marie took her life one week after filming this interview.