Movies echo movies. Sometimes in the minds of the filmmakers: Conversations in sound and image across time and space. Sometimes in the viewer’s minds: Stories ping-ponging their way through a couple of thousand years of recorded history. More often than not, when a movie calls to mind another, it says more about the viewer than it does about the filmmakers.
What sticks and what doesn’t is a matter of experience, and few films have stuck as firmly in my mind as Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, which runs less than 60 minutes and covers more ground than you know what to do with. From life on the road with Neil Diamond to shooting a man over stolen tires, Prince has seen it all. He’s even resurrected a woman overdosed on heroin by stabbing her in the heart with an adrenaline needle. Sound familiar?
The stories might be, but if the name isn’t, you’re not alone: Prince’s intersection with pop culture was brief, albeit memorable. His most famous role came in 1976 in Taxi Driver as Easy Andy, the guy who sells Travis (Robert De Niro) his guns. He can also get you any drug you want and a Cadillac with the slip for $2,000.
It’s a quick scene, and Prince excels in it. He’s not acting; he is Easy Andy, on-screen and off. He was Scorsese’s friend, assistant, runner, whatever. When Mardik Martin (who co-wrote Mean Streets and Raging Bull) was asked about Prince, he replied simply: “He’s the guy with the gun.”
Prince was also an ace storyteller. That’s probably why Scorsese wanted to turn the camera on him, but it’s also fair to say that turning the camera on Prince was a way for Scorsese to turn the camera on himself. “Steven almost died several times,” Scorsese told Michael Henry Wilson in Scorsese on Scorsese. “And so did I. But we’re still here.”
Scorsese was riding high off Taxi Driver, but after the box-office failure and constant battles with the studio over 1977’s New York, New York, Scorsese was headed toward an emotional and cocaine-fueled collapse. It’s no wonder he turned to Prince hoping to find redemption—some sort of sign he might make it out alive. Watching American Boy, you get the feeling that Prince is Scorsese plus two years.
Few figures loom as large as Martin Scorsese in American cinema. For years, his student films and early documentaries were difficult to come by. Italianamerican, which Scorsese made about his parents in 1974, would occasionally crop up on television, while the rest would pop up on YouTube now and then. That’s how I saw them about seven or so years ago. And though the stories slipped my mind, Prince’s haunting and penetrating eyes never did. They betrayed a man on the brink of falling down that final rabbit hole. I assumed Prince had long since expired; his sunken and skeletal visage captured by Michael Chapman’s camera as his only remains.
But, he’s not: Prince is alive and well and living in Ojai, California—a small city north of Los Angeles, east of Santa Barbara—at the age of 70.
It’s been a while since I’ve thought about Prince or American Boy. That changed last week when I watched You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski and found myself once again spending a long evening in a Los Angeles apartment with a born raconteur. Though he drank a hell of a lot more, Charles Bukowski isn’t nearly as dramatic or scary as Prince. You’re never sure if Prince is going to let Scorsese out of the house alive, while the biggest threat Bukowski posses is that he might just fart real bad. Yet, they are cinematic brothers, in a way, and their two respective docs form a fascinating double feature. Two hour-long conversations full of tangents and diatribes and ramblings that show men lost in their legend.
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, as is Italianamerican. You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski is currently playing virtual theaters courtesy Slamdance and Kino Lorber.