Premise: An abused child, bounced around the foster system – institutionalised by his 9th birthday – James Hydrick hits the road age 16. Living hand-to-mouth, getting by only with the aid of petty crime, he dedicates himself to learning martial arts, and sleight-of-hand, in a bid to build a better life for himself. A bid to get away from the brutality of his hick, South Carolina, childhood.
Reinventing himself as a TV psychic, at 23 years old James’ natural charm and showmanship takes the American media, and indeed the world, by storm.
However, that innate showmanship, the earned distrust of authority – including The Church – along with his troubled past, threaten to strip everything away again from this young maverick. Wealthy hoaxers, established in the legal and religious communities – the likes of Peter Popoff, Sylvia Browne, and an up-and-coming young Yuri Gellar – swindle with abandon from behind their barricades; as pillars of the community. Yet Hydrick remains an outsider, simultaneously proclaimed to be a dangerous, Eastern mystic, and an uneducated, violent, South Carolina hick.
Whilst the former profit at the expense of countless vulnerable people, James’ very freedom is at stake.
Envisioned stylistically as a piece akin to THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT. Carried by a charismatic lead, it’s a serious tale, with appropriate humour and heart. Some of the humour is satirical, some of it dark. One goal is to take the audience through a very specific journey. A journey whereby they initially see Hydrick as a hustler, and swindler. As such, they are happy to be introduced to him failing spectacularly on That’s My Line under the scrutiny of THE AMAZING RANDI. However, as his difficult past is uncovered, and his warm personality shines, the audience cross over to his side; becoming supporters of this engaging, self-taught, showman. Randi himself has sympathy towards the talented young trickster.
Finally, the audience should be torn – questioning themselves – when Hydrick’s criminal convictions are actually revealed to them; the sexual offense nature. James has always plead a certain innocence. The system is out to get him, which has been demonstrated. But is Hydrick duping us all, now? They should start to also question beyond the sentence served for those crimes, and to his continued (current) incarceration. Some audience will think, hot on the heels of this betrayal, let him rot in jail. Others will think he’s entirely innocent. Others yet will think, time-served for crimes committed; but his continued incarceration is a miscarriage of justice.
James’ story is a fascinating one, and a great vehicle for insight on 80’s media, American conservative values, corruption, and the human condition in general.
Treatment: Hydrick: The Rise And Fall Of ‘Sir James’ – A true story.
EXT. HANK’S HONKY-TONK AND GRILL, AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA. 1965. – NIGHT
A young James sleeps in the back of his father’s station-waggon, his father working the late-shift for Hank. A boozy patron is ejected. He approaches the car. Spotting James, he engages with him. Shows him a simple sleight-of-hand trick. James is impressed. The stranger tells him to keep the coin / thimble / card.
OPENING CREDITS (to Magic Carpet Ride, or suitable piece for the period)
A montage of the times passing; media of the 60s, 70s, up to the early 80s * Dare to discipline book * Manson trial * Bruce Lee dies * Alphabet bomber * Bob Crane murdered – Sylvia Browne’s relationship * Reagan assassination attempt – Tamara Rand hoax * Randi releases his first books on Uri Gellar * Popoff-esque recordings; faith healer caught using radio to hoodwink his audience; laughing at cancer patients, being overtly racist with his cohorts
INT. THAT’S MY LINE RECORDING, STAGE. 1981 – DAY Now an adult, James tries to perform one of his trademark tricks – claiming it as a psychic power. It’s a trick he’s performed already on the show, some months back: turning telephone book pages with his ‘mind’. This time, however, The Amazing Randi has set some conditions in an attempt to debunk the fraud. Under those, James is – of course – unable to reproduce the results. He looks to the audience. His heart pounds with the pressure he feels, the stares and hot lights.
INT. JAMES’ CHILDHOOD SCHOOL – DAY – FLASHBACK A similar high-pressure event from James’ youth. He’s laughed at by the rest of the class. He doesn’t fit in; a freak.
EXT. JAMES’ GARDEN – THAT EVENING Young James sleeps in the family chicken coop. There’s the start of a loud scene back in the house – his violent father, possibly being arrested.
INT. THAT’S MY LINE RECORDING, STAGE. 1981 – DAY The pressure continues. James makes excuses. Randi, somewhat sarcastically, asks do the measures in place prevent him from doing the trick. He stressed the word, “trick” – not “powers” or “talents”.
EXT. JAMES’ GARDEN – DAY James is tied to a tree in the garden, fed outside, and referred to by his step-mother as “Spot”. Indications are given that, offscreen, his brother is savagely beaten. The family pig bullies
James and finishes off his food for him. James sobs to himself at the unfairness of his existence – this 7 year-old boy.
The story sticks with young James for a while now. The audience are privy to him visiting his father in jail, and being told not to trust the cops. He’s to go live with his aunt. James pleads to go live with his mum instead, and is matter-of-factly informed she doesn’t want him.
At his aunt’s he continues to be considered a burden, and subject to physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse. He’s tied over a barrel and beaten at one point – escaping to his fantasies to block out the pain: wandering the Savannah River in Georgia with a Tibetan monk learning kung fu and other martial arts disciplines.
Before long he’s whisked off to Whitten Center, Clinton; an institution for the retarded, despite actually being quite astute mentally. It’s a place of electroshock therapy, forced medication, chemical castration. It makes Ken Kesey’s Oregon psychiatric hospital look like a Butlins holiday park! On the ride out there, James passes his father working on a chain gang.
During his stay, key aspects of James’ character are revealed. Unlike most of those around him, he’s not racist towards the negro population – considering them his social peers. He displays a crush for one of his teachers there, and an awkwardness towards women which still haunts him in adulthood. Unfortunately, he also finds himself on the wrong side of a gang of older, trouble-maker boys. One of whom is lined up for chemical sterilisation if he’s involved in any more violence. All the young players involved don’t appreciate the gravity of this prognosis. About to receive a beating, James turns in desperation to his tricks. The gang enjoy his performance. He’s not brought into the fold, but he is – for the moment – left in peace.
1975 sees James leave Whitten. He travels down to Georgia and bounces around the foster system there for a couple of years. In this he meets well-meaning Crime Prevention Officer, Frank Delate. Frank is associated with the church of James’ current foster parents. This is perhaps, finally, the support and direction James needs. However, flat-broke and desperate, Hydrick receives some stolen goods… and gets busted for the crime.
INT. A GEORGIA JAIL. 1975 – DAY James sits alone in a barred cell of the rudimentary jail. He toys with a coin, practicing. The Officer on duty gives only a sporadic, cursory, glance towards him. He has no real interest in his duties. In fact, he’s neglected to actually lock the cell. James practices, alternating his attention between the coin, his guard, the unlocked door. The phone rings. The Officer takes the call.
James stands up. He casually swings the cell door open. And walks out.
EXT. EDGE OF TOWN. – EVENING Hydrick walks along the road, nothing but a satchel over his shoulder and the clothes on his bones. Signposts indicate the road leads West, to the Coast, and Los Angeles, after enough
time. A van pulls up, one working brakelight flashing red. The driver motions James to the back of the vehicle. The rear doors open, and James gets in to join the two men already in there.
INT. THAT’S MY LINE RECORDING, STAGE. 1981 – DAY The host / crew offer up, “Maybe we should break for lunch”. James refuses, “No, I can do this”. But the others call break and walk off.
INT. LA COURT BUILDING. 1977 – DAY We’re introduced to Bob Peterson, a cop destined for Sgt position, a straight-laced Mormon. James is one of his prisoners, along with the others from the van. James tries to amuse his compatriots, cheekily, and somewhat at Peterson’s expense. Peterson takes a dislike to James, with a threat of “let’s see how funny you think a few years in County sounds?”
INT. LA COURTROOM. – DAY The tail-end of a sentencing. Hydrick is, indeed, convicted on kidnap and torture charges. He can’t understand it. His lawyer swiftly packs up, unperturbed, and leaves. James is escorted away again by a grinning Peterson.
In jail Hydrick is exposed to some cultish behaviour and recruiting, but he doesn’t join. Also, Peterson has planted a suggestion amongst the populous that James is in for child-abuse / rape charges. Ultimately, the staff put him in solitary confinement ostensibly for his own protection. Reminded of his times back in the chicken coop, Hydrick lets out a furious, howl. At the other side of his tiny cell, the pages of his regulation issue bible flutter. The telephone book trick is invented. James serves 18-months in solitary.
The story changes tact here, whilst James serves his time and hones his early skills. It focusses on the career at this time of The Amazing Randi, and the founding of Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Randi, as noted, has some sympathy for James when their paths eventually cross. James is a simple, talented hustler, who perhaps reminds Randi of his own days as a performing illusionist. Randi and his friends are used as a device to show the flip-side of the psychic game to that Hydrick tries to run. Associates include friends Martin Gardner and Ray Hyman, as well as committee members Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Paul Kurtz. During this segment, the audience bear witness to the sheer malice of Popoff, Gellar, Browne. These are Randi’s real targets, and the true (offscreen) villains of the film. These people demonstrate a very real threat to society, and a very real private greed. Media events of the time are also referenced, reminding everyone of the stakes in play, and the dangers of the period; Bob Crane and Harvey Milk’s murders, for instance.
Randi is invited out to California to record an episode of Happy Days. Though record shows he does go, the segment ends with him uncertain about the trip, remarking that things out there are really dangerous at the moment.
INT. LA COUNTY JAIL. 1978 – DAY
Hydrick is released from solitary. He uses his charm much as he did at Whitten, to divert other inmates violence away from him. He spends time with the Chaplain, who helps try teach him how to actually read the words in the bible he’s been using as a prop all this time.
In order to repay this kindness, James makes a vow to help build up congregation numbers. The bible trick, his sense of humour, smile, and quiet sense of innocent all work to achieve this. As an unexpected side-effect, other inmates start to treat him with a respect, an awe, sometimes even fear. They mistake his tricks and personality as some sort of mystical power. James thinks this is hilarious, and can’t resist hamming it up. It reaches the point that he is even able to intimidate Peterson’s guard friend with his “powers”, which he does merely to amuse a fellow inmate and while away the time.
Now able to read and write, Hydrick writes back to his last foster home. He tells them he is well, famous, and working in films – like Bruce Lee.
1979 sees Randi travel to Italy to interview four people who claim an ability to “dowse”, with $10k available to anyone who could successfully prove their claim. On his way, he bumps into Steve Bo Keeley – a fascinating man, a bit of a nut, who is wrapping up a successful raquetball career in order to push his mind, body, spirit to its very limits. This is the audience’s introduction to a man who changes James’ trajectory in an unimaginable way.
Upon release from prison, Hydrick finds his way to Salt Lake City. Almost immediately he has a chance meeting with Steve Keeley. They fast become friends, and flatmates. Steve’s encouragement, and feats of endurance, lead James to open up a kung-fu dojo. He reinvents himself fully, first as – I kid you not – James Sum Chai, and later becomes known by students and Media alike as just Sir James. However, from outside, James is seen as a bad influence on Keeley by the latter’s conservative family, especially his Minister brother. James’ relationship with his young students also comes across as off-kilter. And that of his rich adoptive mother, often mistaken as his much senior girlfriend. There are also rumblings of Hydrick students being involved in petty crime; thefts, black-market firearms, etc. The Keeley family contact Danny Korem, a Christian and magician, turned investigative reporter, to look into this potential Sum Chai cult.
In October, 1980, 21-year-old James Sum Chai – dressed as a “Chinaman” – strolls into the offices of The Salt Lake Tribune, and proclaims he can move things with the power of his mind.
INT. THAT’S MY LINE RECORDING, STAGE. 1981 – DAY James cannot complete the trick. They wrap up shooting. Offscreen, Randi gives him a quick word of encouragement and a genuinely warm smile.
As James leaves the Los Angeles studio, he is arrested by his old adversary – now Sgt – Bob Peterson.. over allegations about the theft of a $75 record player, prior to his time in County.
Hydrick does manage to return home to Utah, and the dojo, but in relative disgrace after the arrest and the public failure to perform. There, courting the Media more than ever, he agrees to a series of interviews with Korem; for a documentary Danny is putting together. At the dojo, James reveals some of his techniques. Korem – likely with best, albeit conservative, will in the world – believes he is genuinely uncovering a monster here. His treatment of James about what is on and off record, as well as digging up James’ family past, strikes a mean contrast against Randi’s almost resigned approach. In an early session, Hydrick confesses to Korem that he had developed his page-turn trick in prison, and that he had not learned it from a Chinese master as he originally claimed. James confesses, “My whole idea behind this in the first place was to see how dumb America was. How dumb the world is.”
The session finishes. Korem leaves. James locks up to go home, and never sets foot in his beloved dojo again.
The next interview takes place in the Salt Lake City jail. James is incarcerated there on firearms possession charges, no longer permitted his Chinaman look – the moustache is gone, he sports a mullet. He reveals / claims to have had the weapons just to help out his students; to help them from trouble much as his final foster parents had tried to with him. However, a bitterness previously unseen in James comes out, about his situation, his past, his lot in life. It’s quite unbecoming of his character. He reverts back to his charming self, laughing with Korem when questioned about suicide-watch. He spins the tale of how he faked hanging himself to freak the guards out, mimicking the technique for the reporter – the levitation technique Criss Angel is famous for.
The narrative switches to playback of the final scene of Korem’s documentary; Hydrick received a 0 to 5 year sentence and was placed in the Utah State Prison. On October 23, 1982, Hydrick escaped… And he has not been found.
He escapes by pole-vaulting the wall.
INT. DIRTY APARTMENT, AIKEN, DECEMBER 25th. 1982 – DAY Hydrick sits alone, back in his home town. Hiding out. He feels stitched up by Korem, and by the Mormons. He’d returned here looking for a connection of some sort, but there is none. Being the holiday season, he has an epiphany. Nevertheless, he remains wary of the local institutions, the Churches, and now also elements of the Media.
A few days later he does an interview with State a newspaper. He vows to turn himself in.. but only to the FBI. Come the new year, he actually does make good this promise. It’s a relatively high-profile affair, which – given the ghosts of his mystic past, his prior escapes, and exaggerations about both – does him no favours. He’s forcibly doped for transit back to jail.
Feb 1986 sees Poppoff publically exposed by Randi on the Johnny Carson Show. It’s a crowning moment for Randi, witnessed on television by James. But Hydrick considers that part
of his life behind him. He’s gone straight. Served his time. Living a hard, simple, but honest life in Aiken – where he feels he belongs, or at least deserves. So, of course, he’s pulled over by an overzealous cop for a minor traffic infraction and incarcerated once more. Back in a local ramshackle jail, his cellmates find a weakness in the wall. They use the frame of their cots to weaken it further, creating a man-sized hole, and leave. Hydrick considers his options, how going straight has worked out for him, and the likelihood he’ll only be held accountable for the others’ actions if he stays. He bolts.
The narrative returns to Randi. The MacArthur Foundation is formed. Counter to what one might expect after the Carson-Poppoff episode, Randi is at something of a low, though. He has to invest $270k in various lawsuits defending himself against Uri Gellar, and claims his books have made against the man. He does, however, meet Jose – who would go on to become his husband in 2013. Together their Carlos character is born. The FBI investigate Sylvia Browne. She files for bankruptcy. Randi leaves to tour internationally with Jose, and their Carlos act.
By June 1987 Hydrick has gravitated back to California; Huntington Beach. There he hangs out with the local kids, teaching them kung-fu, and in his eyes trying to help the disadvantaged. His means are suspect though, including staged muggings against his students. Engagements in which the students use their martial arts to “beat” their assailants, scaring them off. Having crossed State lines – and unable to live a life of restraint – James interviews with Kung-fu Magazine. He makes bold claims about no jail being able to hold him, punching down prison walls, etc, etc, “Hydrick Escapes With His Life: No Guard Could Break Him, No Prison Could Hold Him.”
Despite all this, James cannot reach his former glory. Without his Utah friends, and dojo, he is constantly broke and unhappy. His relationship with the Huntington Beach kids takes a subtle, but definite, unsavoury turn – hints, innuendo, body-language. There are some accusations. James becomes a social outcast even here. The cops start sniffing around for him. He moves off again – towards the midwest.
In a bid to earn a few extra bucks, James agrees to go on Sally Jesse – a psychic special, Nov ‘88. There he states, “I do not claim to be a psychic. I know others have. I used to dabble in tricks, illusion. Now I teach the power of the mind over the body”. In the audience is an off-duty cop from Huntington. He eventually recognises James, not just from the beach, but as something of a nemesis for Sgt Peterson. He calls the latter up.
Everything goes to hell for Hydrick. He’s arrested on the escape charges, and transported across country to face other charges back in LA. His escorts are afraid of him by reputation. He’s beaten by some of them. His extradition halts in Arkansas enroute. The battered Hydrick is placed into the care of Sheriff Eddie L King. Hydrick, though a prisoner, spends Christmas with King and his young family. He plays with the kids. Everyone is sorry when, come the new year, his journey west continues.
On arrival back in California, Hydrick is earmarked as a troublemaker, and a flight risk. Unable to meet the $250k bail set, he’s housed on Death Row, and kept drugged up on Halodol. It’s under these conditions he makes an August plea, bargaining the sentence down from 33 years. The judge gives him 17 years behind bars: on 11 counts of molestation, and two counts of failing to register as a sex offender.
As James is deposited in his cell – his home for the next 17 years – the gravity of his situation clearly sinks in. His guard returns to the cell on a routine check, to find him hanging there from the ceiling; dangling by his sheets. The guard runs off, raising the alarm, yelling for medical assistance…
Recreations of interviews with James’ family follow, reminiscing.
His Hillbilly parents, interviewed with cans of beer in hand. Denials of any abuse by them; beatings sure, but that was just discipline.
His sister, going on about what a sweet kid he’d been – the pranks he pulled.
His foster parents, fond and quietly proud.
Frank Delate, “A good kid. Made the best out of the hand life dealt him”.
Sheriff King, “He was no child-molestor”.
The scene returns to James’ cell. He lets himself down, and crosses to the bars. “C’mon man, I was only messing with ya!” He laughs. Then looks around. A fear crosses him. “I don’t belong here man! This is not cool!”
In 2013 Sylvia Browne quietly passed from our plane of existence, at the age of 77; 11 years short of her own prediction (to Larry King). Having pled no-contest to felony charges of security fraud in the 80s, she served a year probation, but otherwise remained a free woman her entire life.
1989: Peter Popoff started a comeback – buying time on the Black Entertainment Television Network. In 2005 his ministry received more than $23 million; Peter himself netting nearly $1 million. In 2006 he changed Peter Popoff Ministries from a for-profit business to a religious organization, becoming tax exempt.
Uri Gellar – fraud – practices to this day. His estimated net worth is $10m
The Church of Latter Day Saints numbers continue to swell; hitting over 15 million in 2015
In January 2015 James Randi officially retired from his place at the James Randi Educational Foundation. As of 2017, despite having battled cancer, and being in his 88th year, he remains active on social media and regularly speaks at sceptic conventions. He seems a nice guy.
James Hydrick served his 17 year, 1989 conviction, in full. Nevertheless, as of 2017, he remains incarcerated in Coalinga State Hospital on that same charge. In a 2013 appeal, forensic psychologist Theodore Donaldson testified for the defence that Hydrick does not have a mental illness. The appeal was quashed. James is 58 years old.
The film-makers reached out to Sylvia Browne for a quote. So far, she has refused to comment.
I Fought The Law And The Law Won
plays over the CREDIT ROLL