The True Story Behind “The Old Man and the Gun”

In the last film he made before his retirement, acting legend Robert Redford portrayed Forrest Tucker in The Old Man and the Gun. He played an elderly bank robber nearing the end of his run, but most people didn’t know that the movie was based on a real criminal named Forrest Tucker.

Forrest Tucker, Robert Redford / Forrest Tucker / Sissy Spacek, Robert Redford / American dollar bills.
Source: Getty Images

The notorious criminal went to jail for the first time in 1935 at age 15. Tucker spent the rest of his life in and out of jail, escaping “18 times successfully and 12 times unsuccessfully.” He was apprehended for the final time in 2000 in his retirement community. This is the story behind The Old Man and the Gun.

The Final Heist

Shortly before Forrest Tucker’s 79th birthday, he left his Pompano Beach, Florida home that he and his wife purchased for their retirement. The peach-colored house next to the golf course was near their favorite prime rib restaurant and close to a place where they went dancing with other seniors on Saturday nights.

A dated portrait of a young Forest Tucker.
Forrest Tucker. Source: Pinterest

In the spring of 1999, Tucker drove to the Republic Security Bank in Jupiter, 50 miles from his home. He stopped at the ATM before pulling an ascot around his face and entering the bank. Tucker pulled out a gun and burst into the bank, telling the clerk, “Put your money on the counter. All of it.”

He Thanked Them

As Tucker gathered the stacks of money, he checked for exploding dye packets and hurried to the door with more than $5,000. He looked back at the tellers and politely thanked them, driving to a nearby lot where he parked the getaway vehicle that couldn’t be traced to him.

A portrait of Forrest Tucker.
Forrest Tucker. Source: Pinterest

He threw his belongings, which included a gun, two nylon caps, handcuffs, a police badge, a glass cutter, and his heart medicine, into the car without anyone noticing him. Tucker drove towards the golf course near his home when he noticed a car following him. He then spotted a police car.

He Tried to Escape

When Tucker realized the police car and unmarked car were following him, he floored it. He turned down several streets to escape but reached a dead end. The police car blocked the road, and there was no way out. However, Tucker noticed a gap between a wooden fence and the cop car.

A still of Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker driving a car.
Source: Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures

He sped forward towards the gap, but it didn’t help him. Tucker’s car skidded into the embankment and hit a palm tree. The airbags inflated, and he was stuck in the car. The police were stunned when they arrested Tucker because he looked like he came from the “early bird special.”

The End of His Career

Tucker’s arrest marked the end of his six-decade criminal career. Although he seemed like a well-dressed older man, Tucker was actually one of the most notorious stickup men of the 20th century. He was also one of the greatest escape artists of his generation, one who broke out of almost every prison.

A photo from Forrest Tucker’s arrest.
Forrest Tucker. Source: YouTube

The then 79-year-old committed his first crime when he was a teenager, but he got too old to pull his old stunts. When Tucker was arrested for the final time in 2000, his long criminal history became a hot topic and the subject of 2018’s The Old Man and the Gun.

Starting Early

Born in Florida in 1920, Tucker’s father abandoned him during his childhood. He didn’t have a strong role model in his life, leading to Tucker landing in jail for the first time at age 15. Tucker’s grandmother raised him, but she couldn’t stop him from getting into trouble.

A dated image of cars parked on the beach.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

During his first incarceration for car theft, Tucker escaped the detention center in 1936. He said he stole the car “just for a thrill,” but as he sat in jail, panic set in, and he made a run for it. Tucker was captured a few days later in an orange grove.

He Got Away Again

Tucker was then sent to a reform school, but he smuggled in hacksaw blades during the transfer. He escaped the first night after sawing through a bar and squeezing himself through the small opening. Tucker knew the area well, but the police recaptured him an hour later.

A dated photo of police officers.
Photo by Moviepix/Getty Images

It might have been brief, but the second escape gained him notoriety. Tucker’s story spread throughout the town, and by his 16th birthday, his rap sheet included breaking and entering and larceny. His reform school escape got him transferred to a harsher prison in Georgia.

Cast Out by Society

Tucker was released after six months, but it didn’t take long for him to commit another crime. He stole a car and went back to prison. By 17, Tucker was “thoroughly cast out by society,” continuously pushed through the legal process without the benefit of counsel.

An image from a prison cell.
Photo by General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was sentenced to ten years in jail, which made him angry. He served seven years of his sentence, and when he came out, Tucker was different. He had this need to prove he was someone special, but the legal system put him in a box.

He Had Ambitions

When Tucker was 24, he moved to Miami, looking to play the saxophone in a band. He taught himself how to play as a child and wanted to become the next Glenn Miller. After a brief failed marriage, Tucker gave up his saxophone dreams and returned to a life of crime.

An aerial view of the Miami coastline.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He bought himself a gun and followed in the footsteps of many famous outlaws. Tucker grew up during the Great Depression with many legendary bank robbers. However, most of those legends had already been gunned down when Tucker became an outlaw.

He Copied Them

In the late 1940s, Tucker started dressing like famous bank robbers from his childhood. He wore chalk-striped suits and two-toned shoes. He would stand in front of a mirror, pointing a gun at his reflection because he thought he was cool.

Two police officers lie in wait for a bank robber in a scene from a movie.
Photo by Vintage Images/Getty Images

After building his confidence, Tucker went into a Miami bank on September 22, 1950, with a handkerchief tied over his face and his gun drawn. He walked into the bank and left with $1,278. Tucker then returned a few days later for the entire safe.

He Looked for the “Weak Spot”

When Tucker was arrested, it didn’t matter if he was sentenced to five, ten, or 50 years; he claimed he was an “escape artist” and would find a way out. He looked for the “weak spot” in the prison after he was arrested for the Miami robbery.

A movie still of Robert Redford walking, holding his hat.
Source: Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Around Christmas 1950, Tucker hadn’t found the weak spot, but that didn’t matter because he was rushed to the hospital. He had to have his appendix removed, which was a “small price to pay” because it gave him a way out.

Escaping to the West Coast

While in the hospital, Tucker started working on the shackles. He had taught himself how to pick locks, so it only took him a few minutes to free himself and walk out of the hospital unnoticed. He then made his way to California.

An aerial view of California.
Photo by American Stock/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Tucker went on a spree of robberies when he got to the West Coast. He jumped over counters, pointed his gun at tellers, and shouted, “I mean business.” Tucker was flashy in his bright checkered suits and fast getaway cars. He thought he was a character in a movie.

He Found a Partner

Tucker wanted to get more money from the banks, but he knew he needed help. He decided to find a partner, but he had to be careful that the person wouldn’t turn him in. Tucker enlisted the help of ex-con Richard Bellew.

A pile of American dollars.
Photo by Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images

Bellew was tall, handsome, and smart. He modeled himself after the stickup men of the ‘30s, like Tucker, so they were a perfect match. Tucker also liked him because Bellew let him count the money. They formed a quick bond, and Tucker didn’t mind that Bellew brought along his girlfriend.

The Subject of Every Headline

Tucker and Bellew hit several banks, with one witness saying the last thing they saw was a row of suits in the getaway car. Over the next two years, the duo’s heists were the subject of every headline, sometimes overtaking coverage of the 1952 elections.

A newspaper clipping of Forrest Tucker crimes.
Source: Pinterest

The two were described as “armed men” who “terrorized” citizens. Tucker and Bellew were also depicted as “dramatically attired stickup artists” who were experienced robbers. They had one getaway car, which was never traced back to either. Unfortunately, Tucker’s past caught up with him.

He Got Caught… Again

A little over two years after Tucker’s escape, FBI agents surrounded him on March 20, 1953. When they caught him, he was retrieving money from a safety deposit box in San Francisco. The authorities searched the apartment listed as his residence, but the woman living there had never heard of Tucker.

An image of FBI agents carrying a box of money.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Instead, she said she and her husband, Richard Bellew, had just moved there with their five-month-old son. The agents showed the woman a photo of Tucker, and she broke down when she realized Tucker had been his friend’s name.

The Inescapable Prison

On September 3, 1953, Tucker was sentenced to 30 years in Alcatraz. The famous prison was built to be inescapable, surrounded by the icy waters of the San Francisco Bay with its deadly currents. Criminals like George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, and Al Capone had been imprisoned there.

A photo of a corridor cell in Alcatraz.
Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

When Tucker arrived, he was still wearing one of his flashy suits. He was stripped, and a medical attendant examined him to search for hidden tools or weapons. He was given a uniform and sent to his narrow, cold cell.

He Started Plotting

While in Alcatraz, Tucker started plotting his escape. Because he was known for escaping, the prison put several maximums on him, but it only made him think about more bizarre escape methods. Tucker thought of elaborate schemes involving another inmate.

A view of the tower in Alcatraz prison.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He and Teddy Green smuggled tools from their prison jobs. They would plant steel wool on other prisoners to set off the metal detectors, making the guards think they were broken so they could get their tools through. They hid the tools in their toilets and dug tunnels at night.

Tipped Off

Tucker and Green planned to escape through the basement, but their plans got out. A prisoner in solitary confinement told the guards to check cell toilets, causing a full-scale launch. The guards found Tucker’s tools and labeled him a “dangerous escape risk.”

An aerial view of Alcatraz Island.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He was locked in the Treatment Unit, otherwise known as “the hole.” The unit was cold and lonely and impossible to escape from. There was a small window, and Tucker said he heard children’s voices on Christmas Eve for the first time in years.

Learning the Law

Tucker had a lot of time on his hands, so he started studying law. He flooded the court with appeals, and although a prosecutor dismissed them as pure “fantasy,” he was granted a hearing in November 1956. The night before his court hearing, Tucker complained of kidney pain.

An interior shot of Alcatraz prison.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He was rushed to the hospital, and guards were stationed at every door. Although Tucker was shackled to the bed, he managed to find a pencil, break it, and stab himself in the ankle so the guard would remove his leg irons.

Short-Lived Freedom

When the guards removed his shackles, they handcuffed him to the bed. As Tucker was wheeled to the X-ray room, he broke free, overpowered two guards, and ran away. He enjoyed his freedom for a few hours, but police captured him still in his hospital gown.

An image of prison inmates leaving Alcatraz prison.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Tucker was tried and convicted for the escape, which enhanced his reputation as an escape artist. While it was impressive that he got away for even a short period, his greatest escape came 23 years later, after he was released and arrested again for armed robbery.

Months of Preparation

While imprisoned at San Quentin, a maximum-security facility known as “the gladiator school” by inmates, Tucker started working on his escape plans. With the help of fellow prisoners John Waller and William McGirk, he collected scraps of wood and sheets of Formica.

An image of a cell in San Quentin prison.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

They gathered different materials from their prison jobs and hid them under tarps and in boxes labeled “office supplies.” It took them months to complete their project, but it was finally ready on August 9, 1979. Waller and McGirk stood watch as Tucker fashioned the pieces into a 14-foot kayak.

His Greatest Escape

He quickly painted one side of the boat and made them sailor hats and sweatshirts with the logo of Marin Yacht Club. He had seen the logo on boats that sailed by. Tucker, Waller, and McGirk pushed the boat into the ocean when the guards weren’t looking and hopped in.

An exterior shot of San Quentin prison.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The boat was sturdy, but the strong waves overpowered it. It sank close to the shore, and a guard in one of the towers spotted them clinging to the boat, asking them if they needed help. McGirk said they were fine, and the guard returned to his lookout.

Back to a Life of Crime

When he spotted the men kicking to shore, the guard was unaware that three inmates were missing. Shortly after, California launched a statewide search. Simultaneously, Texas and Oklahoma started reporting a series of robberies with the same MO of three older men with guns demanding money at banks and stores.

An image of organized piles of dollar bills.
Photo by Lambert/Getty Images

Every witness told police that the robbers were noticeably old; one even had a hearing aid. Tucker said his skills peaked during this time, and by age 60, he finally mastered the art of a holdup. The three men were nicknamed the “Over-the-Hill Gang.”

They Defied Statistics

John Hunt, an Austin police sergeant, investigated the robberies made by the Over-the-Hill Gang. He said they were the “most professional, successful robbers” he had encountered during his 30-year career. Although there was more advanced security, the men defied their age and era.

A police officer chats with his colleague in a police car.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Traditional bank robbers were a thing of the past, but Tucker, Waller, and McGirk were suspects in at least 60 robberies in Oklahoma and Texas of the course of one year. Headlines said, “Senior citizens strike again,” and they were believed responsible for holdups in New Mexico, Arizona, and Louisiana.

The Police Were Stumped

Hunt and 40 other officers from three states held a conference in December 1980. They came together to brainstorm how to capture the Over-the-Hill Gang. Meanwhile, Tucker couldn’t stop committing crimes no matter how much money he accumulated. It’s believed he stole millions.

A police officer drives a patrol car.
Photo by Bill Nation/Sygma/Getty Images

Earlier that year, Tucker plotted to rob a high-security bank in Massachusetts in broad daylight. He and his men pretended they were guards making a pickup in an armored car. On March 7, 1980, they donned wigs and fake mustaches, but the manager noticed one of the mustaches falling off.

He Was Identified

Tucker and his men locked the bank manager and two tellers in the vault, getting away with over $430,000. The police showed the tellers several mugshots, and for the first time, Tucker was identified. FBI agents, local police, and local sheriffs tried to find him.

A photo of a police siren.
Photo by Comstock/Getty Images

As everyone was on the hunt for him, Tucker hid in Florida. He talked to his old friend from Alcatraz, Teddy Green, daily. However, it might not have been the best idea because authorities were looking into all of his connections.

He Was Hit

Tucker went to visit Green in June 1983. When he pulled into Green’s garage, Tucker waited for his friend to approach the car. Suddenly, a man jumped out, identifying himself as the FBI. Agents surrounded the garage, and Tucker believed Green had turned him in.

An image of a man in handcuffs.
Photo by Digital Vision/Getty Images

One agent thought Tucker had a gun, so the agents started firing at the garage. They shattered the windshield and radiator, and Tucker was hit in his arms and leg. He ducked down and pushed the gas, crashing through the garage to escape.

No Way Out

The car was stuck, so Tucker got out and stumbled into the street. He was covered in blood, and a woman driving by thought Tucker had been hit by a car. She offered him a ride, but when he got in, she saw a man with a rifle in her rearview mirror.

An image of a police officer with handcuffs.
Photo by Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Tucker grabbed the wheel, saying he had a gun, and told her to drive. She drove for a half-mile before coming to a dead end. He realized he was stuck, so Tucker let the woman and her children get out before surrendering. Tucker got out and collapsed.

She Had No Idea

After his capture, the FBI went to the retirement community where they believed Tucker had been living. A woman answered the door, and they asked her about Forrest Tucker. She said she didn’t know the name and was married to a stockbroker named Bob Callahan.

An image of a burglar with a flashlight cracking a safe combination.
Photo by Comstock/Getty Images

The agents told her his real name was Forrest Tucker and explained that he was a criminal who had broken out of jail. She didn’t want to believe them, but Tucker came clean about his past when she visited him in jail.

He Promised to Change

While awaiting trial in Miami, Tucker attempted to escape again. However, his wife promised to stay with him if he promised to change his ways. Tucker loved her so much that he promised to reform and not try to escape. He was sent back to San Quentin.

A picture of a court gavel.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

He was seen as a legend at the prison, with people nicknaming him “the Captain” because of his boat escape. Tucker’s old age was finally showing, and he had to have a quadruple bypass in 1986. Guards were prepared for him to attempt and escape, but he didn’t.

Representing Himself

Tucker spent a lot of time studying law, and one of his appeals from his time in Alcatraz made its way to the Supreme Court. He successfully debated that a judge could not consider his prior convictions at sentencing because he didn’t have a lawyer.

An image of a library.
Source: Pixabay

He filed one appeal after another, getting his sentence reduced by more than half. Instead of planning an escape, Tucker spent the remainder of his sentence writing a movie script about his life as an outlaw. He wrote about all of his exploits.

He Shared His Stories

Tucker devoted 261 pages to his time in Alcatraz, titling the story Alcatraz: The True Story. He wrote, “No one could have written this inside story of the Rock and what happened there unless they personally lived it.” His second story was called The Can Opener.

A general view of Alcatraz prison from the sea.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Since Tucker promised his wife that he would change and finish his sentence, writing his stories helped him stay sane. He was obsessed with freedom, writing, “Each new ‘joint’ is a game, a game to outwit the authorities.” It was all he thought about.

A Normal Life

Upon his release in 1993, 73-year-old Tucker returned to his wife in Pompano Beach, Florida. He started giving clarinet and saxophone lessons in his home for $25 an hour. Tucker and his wife created a normal life. They went dancing, and he occasionally played at local jazz clubs.

A view of the bay at Pompano Beach, Florida.
Source: Pinterest

Although he got used to his freedom, Tucker’s manuscript about his life failed to gain interest. He called Clint Eastwood’s secretary, but no one would read it because he didn’t have an agent. He started to feel trapped in his ordinary life.

He Wanted the Thrill

At age 78, Tucker craved the adrenaline rush he used to get from robbing banks. In 1999, he robbed the Republic Security Bank for the first time. He wasn’t in it for the money because he had a nice home, a new car, and everything he needed; Tucker just wanted to be a legend.

An image of a bank robbery.
Source: Wikipedia

Tucker robbed the Republic Security Bank four times before he was apprehended in 2000. His wife said, “We had a wonderful life. He had all these talents that had been wasted all these years.”

Denied Bail

Although he was 78, police put Tucker in semi-isolation because they thought he would try to elude them again. His lawyers argued he could die in those conditions, but he was a flight risk. The judge denied him bail because Tucker proved he was incredibly agile for his age.

A picture of a prison cell.
Photo by Ron Lach/Pexels

On October 20, 2000, Tucker pled guilty shortly before his trial. He was sentenced to 13 years. With his declining health, he hoped he would be released early. However, Tucker knew there was a possibility he would die in prison.

He Left Behind Broken Families

While most people talked about his dramatic holdups and escapes, the Department of Corrections report painted a different picture of Tucker’s life. He had two children but wasn’t involved in their lives and didn’t know their whereabouts. His son, Rick, thought he had died in a car accident.

A movie still of Robert Redford in a scene in a bank.
Source: Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rick’s mother didn’t tell him the truth to protect him from Tucker. After reading about his arrest in 2000, Rick wrote him a letter to get answers. The two struck up a correspondence. Rick discovered he had a half-sister in Florida and got an apology from Tucker.

An Interesting Interview

Tucker was sent to a prison in Fort Worth, Texas. While there, David Grann from The New Yorker profiled Tucker in a piece titled The Old Man and the Gun. The two met for several days, in which Tucker detailed what he called “the true story of Forrest Tucker.”

A promotional portrait of Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun.
Source: Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Each day, Grann and Tucker walked to the vending machine to buy a drink. Grann dropped money during his last visit and noticed Tucker had used their visits to case the joint. He seemed to be looking for an escape route.

He Had Regrets

Tucker’s health declined during his last prison sentence. He had several strokes, and cardiologists said the blood clots were gradually cutting off oxygen to his brain. Grann said Tucker looked frail, and his hands trembled. He admitted that he regretted his life choices.

An image of American dollar bills.
Photo by Adam Gault/Getty Images

He realized that everyone would forget about him when he died. Tucker received a lot of attention after his arrest, but it faded. He told Grann, “I regret not being able to work steady and support my family.” He often thought about what he had lost.

His Health Failed

He was not doing well in prison and was nearing his mid-80s. During their final conversation, Tucker gave Grann a list of all his escapes. The list was numbered one through 19, even though he had only escaped 18 times. He left the space blank next to the number 19.

An image of a barbed wire fence.
Photo by Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Grann later realized that number 19 would be Tucker’s death. Grann published his profile on January 27, 2003. Tucker got to appreciate the renewed interest in his story before he died in prison on May 29, 2004, at age 83.

Turned Into a Movie

Grann’s piece about Tucker was turned into a film by the same name in 2018. Starring Robert Redford, Tom Waits, and Danny Glover, The Old Man and the Gun marked the end of Redford’s career before he retired. It wasn’t a box office hit, but it received positive reviews.

A promotional still of Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun.
Source: Copyright: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Critics said it was “a well-told story brought to life by a beautifully matched cast.” Reviews said Redford’s portrayal of Tucker was natural and effortless. Tucker got the notoriety he had always wanted nearly 15 years after his death.