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Frank Lucas, Former Kingpin Portrayed by Denzel Washington in ‘American Gangster,’ Dies at 88

Frank Lucas, the former heroin dealer and drug kingpin whose life became the subject of Ridley Scott’s 2007 film “American Gangster,” died Thursday. He was 88.

Lucas’ nephew, Aldwan Lassiter, confirmed the news to the New York Times. He said Lucas died of natural causes in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

Born in 1930, Lucas operated in Harlem during the 1960s and ’70s and created efficiencies in his drug trade by removing Mafia middlemen and buying heroin straight from suppliers in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. By his own account, he smuggled heroin into the United States using American service planes returning from the Vietnam War, which was depicted in “American Gangster,” featuring Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as the detective trying to catch him.

“American Gangster” was nominated for two Academy Awards for art direction and best supporting actress for Ruby Dee. The film, which presented a heavily fictionalized version of events, received criticism from those whose lives it was based on as a result. Several DEA agents sued Universal for defamation, though the case was eventually dismissed by a judge, who nevertheless chastised Universal for including a “wholly inaccurate” intertitle at the end of the film.

In 1975, Lucas’ New Jersey house was raided and he was arrested. After receiving a sentence of 70 years in prison, Lucas provided information that led to further arrests. In 1977, he and his family were placed into witness protection and in 1981, his sentence was reduced to time served plus lifetime parole.

Lucas is survived by four daughters, Francine Lucas-Sinclair and Ruby, Betty and Candace Lucas; two sons, Frank Jr. and Tony Walters; many grandchildren and great-grandchildren; two sisters, Mattie Lassiter and Emma Moye; and three brothers, Ezell, Lawrence and LeVon Lucas. His wife, Julie, and another son, Ray, died before him.

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