James Fogle, who created the iconic role portrayed by actor Matt Dillon in the acclaimed 1989 film "Drugstore Cowboy," died Thursday at the Monroe Correctional Complex. Fogle long battled lung ailments.
Shortly before he faced a judge for sentencing last year, as he’d done more than a dozen times in a life spent mostly behind bars, James Fogle predicted he wouldn’t live to see freedom again.
He had been convicted of robbing a Redmond pharmacy with a BB gun in May 2010, the final criminal act of a man whose felonious past was the basis of his autobiographical novel and a 1989 film, “Drugstore Cowboy.” Suffering from lung ailments that left him tethered to an oxygen tank, Mr. Fogle was sentenced by a King County judge to 16 years in prison.
“There isn’t much chance of getting out,” he told The Seattle Times during a jailhouse interview.
His words proved to be prophetic. Mr. Fogle, 75, died Thursday at the Monroe Correctional Complex. A close friend, Daniel Yost, attributed his death to mesothelioma and says he probably contracted it while working with asbestos behind bars during his 58 years in prisons up and down the West Coast.
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The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said Friday morning that Mr. Fogle’s death was likely due to malignant mesothelioma.
In the final weeks of his life, Mr. Fogle was emaciated and connected to a tangle of wires that led to several medical machines, says Yost. Though he was terminally ill and barely able to breathe, his sharp wit and creative drive were ever-present.
He urged Yost, one of his final visitors, to push to get another of his novels, the autobiographical “Doing It All,” onto the big screen.
“He was ready (to die). He knew it was coming for years. It’s amazing he was still writing,” Yost said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “He said he never killed anybody, and I don’t think he really hurt anybody. He was a person with a huge heart.”
Mr. Fogle had already spent half his life in prison when he wrote “Drugstore Cowboy,” based on his experiences in a band of addicts who roamed the Pacific Northwest robbing pharmacies to get their fixes.
Mr. Fogle was in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in 1989 when Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant took his tale and created the critically acclaimed movie starring Matt Dillon.
With only a sixth-grade education, Mr. Fogle started writing his autobiographical stories more than 40 years ago. Inspired by the novels he read in prison and his short life outside the razor wire, he occupied his lengthy prison lockups by writing a series of unpublished novels and screenplays, said Yost.
“In one of his screenplays he wrote that juvenile hall was school for learning how to be a thief. He wrote, ironically, that if you’re a doctor or lawyer you don’t throw away your years of education,” said Yost, who met Mr. Fogle while working as a journalist in Portland in the 1970s.
Speaking to The Times in 1989, Mr. Fogle remembered his writing inspiration.
“One day,” he remembered, “I told my old cell partner, ‘Hell, I can write a better book than this.’ It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I kept readin’ and tryin’ and studyin’ other people. But I’m a little lazy, you know? If I can’t get on the right trip, it’s hard to keep goin’.”
Mr. Fogle’s first short story, “Adventure in Madness,” was about a prisoner who rooms with a series of nasty cellmates. When one dies in the middle of the night, the narrator ties the corpse to a bed board and props him up to make it appear he’s still alive and avoid being sent a new cellmate.
In the end, the corpse is paroled and the narrator goes insane.
Novel after novel — “Needle in the Sky,” “Satan’s Sandbox” and “House of Worms,” among others — showed up in Yost’s mailbox. Yost rewrote each piece, with the promise he and Mr. Fogle would split the proceeds 50-50 if they were ever published.
Mr. Fogle wrote his only published novel, “Drugstore Cowboy,” in six weeks while serving a 20-year sentence for a Cowlitz County pharmacy robbery. Van Sant joined forces with Yost to write the screenplay.
“The characters were fascinating. They were anti-establishment, living their own lives, and wanted to be left alone,” said Yost. “That’s true with all of Mr. Fogle’s characters: They’re living under different rules.”
Mr. Fogle quietly cherished the film’s success in prison. Beneath his bed he kept an envelope of press clippings about the movie, many of which mentioned his name. Journalists from as far away as New Zealand showed up at the prison to interview him.
The film even premiered inside the prison, Yost said.
As the movie played to his fellow inmates in 1990, Mr. Fogle nervously watched Dillon play out the most intimate details of his life as an addict and a criminal. Mr. Fogle expected criticism from the other men. Instead, he was showered with his most gratifying praise when they said, “That’s a no (expletive) movie, man.”
Mr. Fogle was released from the penitentiary in 1991, believing he might be able to do something different with his life.
But less than a year later, he was back in jail for crimes related to his addictions.
“I had everything going for me,” Mr. Fogle said in a http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19920607&slug=1495942“>1992 interview. “But it wasn’t really different … I always went back to what I knew.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times archives.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.