Metro-East Living

Don’t expect cold, hard facts in ‘Fargo’

By Roger Schlueter

Cristin Milioti played homemaker and crime scene investigator Betsy Solverson on season two of FX’s “Fargo.”
Cristin Milioti played homemaker and crime scene investigator Betsy Solverson on season two of FX’s “Fargo.” FX

Q: I watched both seasons of “Fargo” on the FX channel. Both seasons claimed the story was true. Were they?

R.B.L., of Swansea

A: If, as they say, you can’t believe everything you read in the papers and on the Internet, you certainly shouldn’t believe everything you see on movie and TV screens.

So take it as gospel when the Answer Man tells you the show’s based-on-fact claim is merely a playful deception that’s been going on in Fargo for 20 years now.

The prank started even before the premiere of the original 1996 movie. During the prerelease hype, Ethan and Joel Coen, the film’s producer-director-writers, managed to keep a straight face while telling Premiere magazine, “We wanted to try something based on a real story, and tell it in a way that was very pared down.” The script, they swore (with fingers crossed), was “pretty close” to the actual event.

So, the average moviegoer had no reason to doubt it when the movie opened with the following title sequence: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Indeed, the plot itself seemed stranger than fiction: Pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) investigates five murders resulting from a kidnapping gone haywire and eventually stumbles on a criminal stuffing his partner’s body into a wood chipper. Even most reputable critics apparently failed to do their due diligence in checking the facts before repeating the claim in their reviews.

They should have known better. Anyone the least bit familiar with the Coen brothers — even in such early works as “Raising Arizona,” and “The Hudsucker Proxy” — should be well aware of the quirky little touches they like to add to films to make them more enjoyable.

Need an example of their mischief? If you haven’t noticed it already, stick around and watch Fargo’s casting credits the next time you see the film. Along with McDormand, William H. Macy, etc., you’ll find the character “Man in Field” was played by a squiggle that looks very much like the symbol that the musician Prince once used as his stage name.

Did Prince make a cameo as a corpse? Nope. If you look closely, the Coens actually laid the symbol on its side (like the dead character lying in the field) and added a smiley face. Turns out it was a little in-joke because both Prince and the Coen brothers grew up in the Minneapolis, Minn., area. The “Man in Field” actually was played by J. Todd Anderson, one of the Coens’ storyboard artists.

So anyone taking the true-story claim at face value should have felt one of his legs getting a hard yank. When a few intrepid critics (e.g., the late Roger Ebert) looked into it, they came to the same conclusion as Barbara Mikkelson at snopes.com: “Nothing so much as vaguely resembling that level of carnage had occurred in Minnesota. Not in 1987. Not ever.”

This is not to say that the film’s grisly climax couldn’t have been inspired by actual events. Perhaps the Coens had run across the ghastly case of Helle Crafts, of Newton, Conn. In 1986, the Danish flight attendant had begun divorce proceedings against her philandering husband, Richard, when she mysteriously disappeared shortly before Thanksgiving.

During the investigation, a snowplow driver who was a friend of her husband told police he had seen Richard using a wood-chipper late at night on Nov. 19 during a severe snowstorm. When police searched the area, they found a tooth with unique dental work, a toenail with pink nail polish, 2,660 bleached, blonde human hairs and O-type blood, the same type as Helle Crafts’.

In all, it amounted to fewer than 3 ounces of human remains, but it was enough for police to conclude that Richard had killed his wife and put her body through the chipper. The death led to the first murder conviction in Connecticut in which a body was never found. Richard is now halfway through serving a 50-year sentence, although he will be eligible for parole in 2021.

Some Minnesota residents suspect the Coens also may have been influenced by T. Eugene Thompson. He was a St. Paul attorney who, in 1963, hired a hit man to kill his wife and subsequently served 20 years of a life sentence.

But when Thompson died on his 88th birthday last August, Joel Coen denied that Thompson’s crime played any part in the creation of “Fargo,” saying the story was completely made up. As it turns out, it was the same assertion the Coens had made 20 years before at the end of the introduction to their published screenplay: “(The film) aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true.”

So all the while they claimed otherwise, they were simply enjoying a little laugh at their interviewers’ expense. Now, the TV show is carrying on the gag because, showrunner Noah Hawley says, it allows him to “tell a story in a new way.” But if you look at the final credits, you’ll likely still find much the same universal disclaimer you saw at the end of the movie: “The persons and events portrayed in this production are fictitious. No similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.”

Today’s trivia

What TV soap opera was the first to use plastic surgery to explain a major change in its cast?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Who hosted the very first telethon on television? Mr. Television himself — Mendel Berlinger, better known, of course, as Milton Berle. On April 9, 1949, Berle took to the airwaves for 16 straight hours to raise a reported $1.1 million for New York’s Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund. In newspapers the next day you would have found the term “telethon” published for the first time. If you had tuned in, you also would have seen a brash, young comedian named Jerry Lewis, who would go on to headline his own Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon from 1966 to 2010. To see pictures from Berle’s 1951 telethon, go to www.collections.mcny.org and search for “Berle telethon.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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