It’s 9 a.m. on an already hot July day, and Richard Stratton, a new TV exec, has finished up a half-hour of phone calls—TV, he’s learning, is endless calls, endless snags. The writers won’t arrive till 10—he’s learning that too—and in the meantime, he’s peeking at some recent episodes of his show, Street Time. Stratton isn’t tall, but he’s wide, taut, and, even at 57, imposing (to stay in shape, he does three sets of 70 push-ups every so often). He takes a spot on a small couch, the one piece of real furniture in the West 26th Street offices.
Rob Morrow appears on the TV screen. In Street Time, the former star of the quirky Northern Exposure plays an ex-con who spent five years in prison for smuggling pot and hash. Morrow’s character is likable, hippie-ish.
He’s gotten out of jail only to return to the drug business. He smuggles hash into New York in containers of dates. In the episode on the screen, someone has stolen most of his shipment; a container has been left at the docks for him to pick up. It may be a setup.
What will Morrow do? What’s realistic? That’s what the writers had asked. Stratton, though, always knew exactly what Morrow would do, and with good reason.
“This happened to me,” says Stratton, who spent eight years in prison for smuggling hash and pot. “The load was coming into Brooklyn. The DEA had stolen part of it. I saw this hash on the street that had my stamp on it. They’d left one container at the docks. It looked like a setup.” Stratton, though, decided to pick it up anyhow, which is what Morrow does in the show. “I loved to see that I was under surveillance and then to try to lose the guy,” Stratton explains. He sent a guy to get the load in a truck.
On the couch, Stratton’s usual expression, a kind of half-scowl, slips away. “I’m in a rental car waiting to see if they follow him,” he says, getting animated. “Sure enough, they were there. I pull up next to the truck, trying to signal that he had heat. I used all this for the show.” The tale seems to excite him. “We raced to the stash house,” Stratton says quickly. “We got lucky and lost them for about 45 minutes”Â—time enough to destroy a tracking device and unload the truck, just as it happened on the TV show. The cops eventually arrested Stratton in the truck, but by then the truck was empty.
“Where’s the hashish?” Stratton’s lawyer challenged the prosecutor in court, just as an actor playing a lawyer challenges the prosecutor during an episode of Street Time.
So it goes. Stratton watches episodes as if they’re home movies (with terrific production values). His intent look, the one where his forehead buckles over his brow, disappears. The strange doppelgänging of his life and his TV show produces delight. “That happened to me,” Stratton says every few minutes. (There onscreen is a character based on the guy who testified against him in real life. And the guy who ratted him out. And a guy sitting on a toilet in a prison cell: “This guy in my cell seemed to be taking the world’s biggest dump,” he says. Onscreen, the actor produces a baggie of heroin, which of course happened to Stratton. Did he do the heroin? Of course he did.) “When we get stuck,” explains one of the show’s writers, “Richard will start telling a story about jail or running drugs out of the Bekaa Valley or prison, and usually it finds its way into the script.”
Has there ever been a more creatively productive ex-con than Richard Stratton? In the thirteen years since the federal prison system let him go, he has consulted on the HBO prison documentary Thug Life in D.C., which won an Emmy, and produced Slam, an independent film that won awards at Sundance and Cannes. (Both were produced by Stratton’s partner, Marc Levin.) He’s started a magazine, Prison Life, with his wife, Kim Wozencraft—ex-cop, ex-con, author of the best-selling Rush, and mother of their three kids. He’s published a novel, Smack Goddess, about drug smuggling, and written journalism about prison for GQ and Esquire. Few have so chillingly, and movingly, captured the prisoner’s experience. And Street Time, the series on Showtime, may be his best work yet. This drama about parolees and their parole officers, which Stratton thought of as he was waiting to meet with a parole officer (“a prick” who was sure he’d return to prison), is a story of complicated people on both sides of the law struggling to do the right thing.
Says Rob Morrow, “On set, we joke that crime does pay.”
Stratton’s biography is irresistible, perhaps especially for showbiz people. (“He’s a superhero,” says one of the show’s writers. “A Hemingway character,” says one of the actors.) And yet what makes the outlaw résumé most intriguing is that for all his criminal experience, Stratton doesn’t seem like a criminal. As his wife puts it, “He’s a middle-class kid from Wellesley, Massachusetts.” He dropped out of Arizona State University to join the “hippie mafia,” the drug-running one. He hit the hippie highway, as he puts it, with stops along the way, notably in the Middle East. There, Stratton befriended some Lebanese Shiites, controllers of the hash trade. (“That was really my area of expertise: being able to get close to those people and get their trust. I tried to give them like a half-million in cash. But a load might cost 3 or 4 million.”) Soon, he was one of the country’s largest importers of high-quality pot and hash. (He provided samples to the magazine High Times for its monthly taste test. Later this year, events will come full circle when he becomes the magazine’s editor.)
Not long after he began smuggling, Stratton, also an aspiring writer, became pals with Norman Mailer in Cape Cod, where they both lived. “I was a little bit smarter and he was stronger,” says Mailer. “We drank, boxed, talked,” and, occasionally, head-butted. (Stratton’s forehead turned blue with bruises.) After he left prison, he sometimes stayed at Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights apartment. “I’d point down to the docks,” he recalls. “Right there,” he’d tell Mailer, indicating the spot where he’d brought in tons of hash hidden in shipments of dates.
By his twenties, Stratton was an international drug entrepreneur who controlled a trucking company, a warehouse—he actually sold the dates—4,000 acres in Texas, a horse farm in Maine (co-owned with Mailer), as well as a lodge there; the lodge and the Texas spread featured landing strips.
Mailer once wrote that the “hipster” ought to follow his orgasm—for Mailer, a middle-class kid, the middle class was “a barbed wire cocoon.” “I guess that’s what I was doing,” says Stratton. There certainly was lots of excitement. “It was a high waking up in the morning and thinking, Am I going to get arrested today, or am I going to make $4 million?” That was a real number. Stratton typically made $3 million to $5 million on a big load, which he’d bring three or four times a year.
And so, in addition to whatever else he was—hipster, hippie drug lord, man of action—there was also this: Stratton was rich. He seemed to have an endless supply of money. He bought Thoroughbred horses. He bred German shepherds. He had houses in New York, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Colorado, and probably $6 million in cash. “I spent a lot of it,” he says. He’d stay at the Plaza Hotel for months at a stretch, buying hookers and $100 bottles of Dom Perignon. Or else, he says, “I’d wake in the morning and say, ‘Hey, let’s got to France,’ and we’d hire a Lear jet and go to Paris.”