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Edward Bunker

Edward Bunker

Edward Bunker was an American author of crime fiction, a screenwriter, and an actor. He wrote numerous books, some of which have been adapted into films.

Bunker was a bright but troublesome child, who spent much of his childhood in different foster homes and institutions. He started on a criminal career at a very early age, and continued on this path throughout the years, returning to prison again and again. He has been convicted of bank robbery, drug dealing, extortion, armed robbery, and forgery. A repeating pattern of convictions, paroles, releases and escapes, further crimes and new convictions continued until he was released yet again from prison in 1975, at which point he finally left his criminal days permanently behind and became a writer. He stayed out of jail thereafter, and instead focused on his career as a writer and actor.


Edward Bunker was born into a troubled family. His parents lived in a constant state of alcohol-fueled argument. When they divorced, Bunker ended up in a foster home at the age of five, but he felt profoundly unhappy and ran away. As a result, Bunker went through a progression of increasingly draconian institutions. Consistently rebellious and defiant, young Bunker was subjected to a harsh regime of discipline. He attended a military school for a few months, where peer pressure caused him to take up stealing, but eventually ran away again, ending up in a hobo camp 400 miles away. While Bunker was eventually accosted by the authorities, this established a pattern he would follow throughout his formative years.

Shoplifting and other crimes of similar scope eventually landed Bunker in Juvenile Hall, where he became acquainted with hardened young criminals. Although Bunker was younger and smaller than the other inmates, he was intelligent (with an estimated IQ of 152), streetwise and extremely literate. He soon learned to hide his fear and embraced the dog-eat-dog mentality that was the norm in his new surroundings. A long string of escapes, problems with the law and different institutions – including a mental hospital – followed.

At the age of fourteen, Bunker was paroled and sent to his aunt. However, the young man was already well on his way to a life of crime, and at the age of sixteen, he was caught on a parole violation. Instead of a reform school or some other institution designed for young offenders, Bunker was sent to prison. This did not chasten Bunker – to the contrary, the young offender was hard and vicious, and proud of it. Bunker believed that he could either be predator or prey, and did his best to establish himself in the former category, rather than the latter. In Los Angeles County Jail, he stabbed another inmate – a convicted murderer – in the showers, and soon gained a respectful reputation as a fearless young man. Some thought he was unhinged, but in his book Mr. Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade he stated that it was merely a protective mechanism designed to make people leave him alone.

In 1951, the seventeen-year-old Bunker had the dubious honor of being the youngest ever inmate in San Quentin prison. While spending time in solitary – known as the hole – he was situated close to the death row cell of Caryl Chessman, who was writing on a typewriter. He had already met Chessman earlier, and Chessman sent him an issue of Argosy magazine, in which the first chapter of his book Cell 2455 Death Row was published. Bunker already identified with Cervantes and Dostoyevsky, two writers who had written much of their work while in prison, and he was inspired.

When Louisa Wallis, a former star of the silent screen and the wife of motion picture producer Hal B. Wallis, with whom Bunker had already struck up a friendship during his earlier time on the outside and whom he still kept in contact with, arranged for him to have a typewriter, Bunker started to write. The resulting work was smuggled out to Wallis, who showed it to her friends. The work was considered to be unpublishable, but Bunker's talent had been recognized. (This manuscript eventually became No Beast So Fierce.)

Bunker was paroled in 1956. Now 22, Bunker was unable to adjust to living in normal society. As an ex-convict, he felt ostracized by normal people, although he managed to stay out of trouble for several years. Although Mrs. Wallis attempted to help him both with her connections and financially, her behaviour became increasingly erratic. She was diagnosed with a nervous breakdown, and her husband pronounced many of her former friends – including Bunker – persona non grata in the Wallis household. She died in 1962. For his part, Bunker held down various jobs for a while, including that of a used car salesman, but eventually returned to crime. He orchestrated robberies, although he didn't personally take part in the execution phase, forged checks and engaged in other criminal activities.

Bunker ended up back in jail for 90 days on a misdemeanor charge. He was sent to a low-security state work farm, but escaped almost immediately by climbing over a poorly guarded fence. He remained a fugitive for over a year, but eventually had to resort to armed robbery to survive. He was finally arrested after a failed bank heist and a high-speed car chase.

Bunker then attempted to stay out of jail by pretending to be insane (he went so far as to fake a suicide attempt and claim that the Catholic Church had inserted a radio into his head). The performance convinced the court, and he was declared criminally insane.

Although Bunker was eventually released, he continued a life of crime. His notoriety eventually landed him on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. In early 1970's, Bunker ran a profitable drug racket in San Francisco; he was arrested again when the police, who had put a tracking device on his car, followed him to a bank heist. (The police expected Bunker to lead them to a drug deal and were rather shocked by their stroke of luck.) Bunker anticipated a 20-year sentence, but thanks to the solicitations of influential friends and a lenient judge, he only got five years.

In prison, Bunker continued to write and finally had his first novel published. When he was paroled in 1975, Bunker had spent eighteen years of his life in various institutions. While he was still tempted by crime, he now found himself earning a living from writing and acting. He felt that his criminal career had been forced by circumstances; now that those circumstances had changed, he could stop being a criminal.

He published his second novel, Animal Factory to favorable reviews in 1977, and actor Dustin Hoffman had purchased the film rights to No Beast So Fierce. The end result, a 1978 movie called Straight Time, was not a critical nor commercial success, but Bunker participated in the drafting of the screenplay, and also got his first acting part in the movie. Like most of Bunker's parts, it was a fleeting cameo, but Bunker eventually appeared in numerous movies, such as The Running Man, Tango & Cash and Reservoir Dogs (as Mr Blue), as well as the film version of Animal Factory, for which he also wrote the screenplay.

In 1977, Bunker married a young lawyer, Jennifer. In 1994, their first son, Brendan, was born. A diabetic, Bunker died on July 19, 2005, following surgery to improve the circulation in his legs. He was 71.


Bunker's hard-boiled and unapologetic crime novels are informed by his personal experiences in a society of criminals in general and by his time in the penal system in particular. Little Boy Blue, in particular, draws heavily on Bunker's own life as a young man. While riveting and packed with believable details about life in prison and criminal undertakings, Bunker's novels are at times notoriously inconsistent and contradictory.

A common theme in his fiction is that of men being sucked into a circle of crime at a very young age and growing up in a vicious world where authorities are at worst cruel and at best incompetent and ineffectual, and those stuck in the system can be either be abusers or helpless victims, regardless of whether they're in jail or outside. Bunker maintains that much of his writing is based on actual events and people he has known.

In Bunker's work, there's often an element of envy and disdain towards the normal people who live outside of this cycle and hypocritically ensure that those caught in it have no way out. Most of Bunker's characters have no qualms about stealing or brutalizing others and as a rule, they prefer a life of crime over an honest job, in great part because the only honest career options are badly paying and low-class jobs in retail or manual labor.

His autobiography, Mr. Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade, was published in 1999.

Bunker worked as a technical Advisor for Director Michael Mann's movie Heat. Mann wanted everyone playing a criminal to read the book No Beast So Fierce.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2007.

Edward Bunker Facts

OccupationActor, Screenwriter, Writer
BirthdayDecember 31, 1933
BirthplaceHollywood, California, USA
Date of deathJuly 19, 2005 (Burbank, California, USA, age 71)

Selected Filmography

The Running Man
100 Yards Over the Rim
Reservoir Dogs
Runaway Train
Animal Factory
Miracle Mile
High Hopes
Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, Vol. 1
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