As I said in my film review of 'Bernie', currently in UK cinemas, his story is one that sounds ridiculously far-fetched, something that tickles the writer of the screenplay, Skip Hollandsworth.
Jack Black "got to sing, dance, play a sociopathic killer" as Bernie Tiede
"I started writing the notes for this in 1997. I became obsessed," he tells me cheerfully - because he knew he was on to something the moment he read a two-paragraph article about Bernie Tiede in a Dallas newspaper. "That afternoon, I was on my way to Carthage. I just knew something was up."
EXCLUSIVE: Watch the clip above of 'Bernie'
What spurred the writer to get in his car and drive to where Bernie was in prison awaiting trial for the murder of Marjorie Nugent, one of the richest but least-loved characters of that little town?
"I was amazed. People wanted to keep him out of prison. And every time anybody bumped into the District Attorney in the local store, they swore to him they would acquit him if they had their chance on the jury," he reports. "I saw them with my own eyes, talking to DA Danny Buck Davidson, telling him that Bernie was the most loved man in town."
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) befriended Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) before he shot her
"So the DA filed for a change of venue in a different country. In America, it's always the defence attorney who does that to ensure a fair trial, but this case was different. Everybody wanted him to go free."
And thus the seed of Hollandsworth's gripping screenplay was sown, with lines in the film spoken by real-life residents of Carthage, having to audition to appear as themselves. "Actors can't play East Texas," he explains. "But the conceit of my original magazine story was to have Bernie and Mrs Nugent talked about by this chicken pride of small town gossips. I didn't have to invent many of the lines. I'd heard them all myself."
Matthew McConaughey on fire as DA Danny Buck
The central roles in the film - Bernie, Marjorie Nugent and DA Danny Buck - are played joyfully by Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey respectively. "We wrote the script back in 1998, it sat on a shelf for years and by the time it came to pass, Jack was ready. He'd agreed to the role with Richard (Linklater, director and co-writer) a long time before when they filmed 'School of Rock'.
"In the film, he got to sing, to dance, he was a vicious, sociopathic killer... it was a great role."
Ah, yes, because in between singing, dancing and charming the tap-shoes off his neighbours, Bernie, to quote Hollandsworth quoting DA Buck, "didn't just shoot Mrs Nugent, he back-shot her" before tucking her in the deep-freeze of her garage - a particularly gruesome crime from somebody described as Christ-like by many who know him well. So what are we to think, Mr Hollandsworth, of Bernie Tiede, currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison?
"I'm straight down the middle.," he reflects today. "Bernie is delightful, a genuine, loving, gentle man. He's the model prisoner. He teaches anger management to other inmates. He still cares about his calling, which is comforting others when they lose loved ones. He spends his day in the craft room making macramé memorials for families back in Carthage."
And, according to Hollandsworth, it seems that, bizarrely, Bernie Tiede has not seen the film enjoyed by so many others. "In the Texas prison system, you're not allowed to send a DVD to an inmate. Rick tried to have a screening for him, but the prison wouldn't let him.
"He's probably the only person in Texas who has not seen the movie, the only hope he has will be walking past the day room with it on a re-run. And he'll see how well thought of he was, and continues to be."
It does raise an interesting dilemma. His friends visit him all the time, and there's a petition for his release, leaving all of us, including Hollandsworth to wonder, as he puts it... "The town says, shouldn't we forgive him for doing a bad thing, because the victim was someone no one liked? Shouldn't we forgive a very good man for doing a very bad thing?"
Bernie is in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailer below...
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