Who Is James “Jimmy” Keene? Exclusive Interview With The Man Who Inspired Apple TV’s Black Bird
James “Jimmy” Keene sits in front of his TV, stunned, watching the version of him that Taron Egerton managed to embody with his help. With his tone of voice, mannerisms, hairstyle, and even musculature, he’s nailed it all. “It’s like having a doppelganger,” he thinks as he watches the first episode of the Apple TV miniseries Black Bird.
James finds it a little unusual to watch another man play him, but what he sees fascinates him. Each image brings back memories of his life as a star football athlete. He also remembers hard times, such as his parent’s divorce or his life in the drug business. Suddenly, one surreal image takes his breath away. On his television screen is the face of actor Ray Liotta playing the man James has loved most, his father, Big Jim. Then, Jimmy smiles as he remembers the moments he lived with his idol, his role model.
Who is James “Jimmy” Keene?
James “Jimmy” Keene inspired the Apple TV miniseries Black Bird. This miniseries is based on his book In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, A Serial Killer, and A Dangerous Bargain for Redemption. James also served as an Executive producer on the miniseries. The Illinois native, who was also born on New Year’s Eve, tells me about his life in this exclusive interview for Comic Years.
To learn more about this star athlete, author, writer, entrepreneur, and hero whose bravery saved lives, I try to understand the young James’ motivation for entering the drug business:
You were a star football and wrestler athlete in Illinois in high school. In your book, you say after your sophomore year in college, you “realized you could put the college education on hold and become a millionaire very quickly” when you saw how much money you could make in the drug business. But what made you dwell in it in the first place when you started dealing with marijuana? Was it just for money and ambition? Or did someone drag you into it?
Jimmy Keene: My parents divorced when I was 10-11, and after my Dad was gone from the house, we were very poor, so when I stumbled upon marijuana at 12 years old, it was a means to survival. Marijuana was worth more to me by the ounce than Gold, and I had an unlimited supply of marijuana.
I realize that Jimmy does not remember his years in the drug business with joy or pride. These years followed his parents’ divorce; he was just a kid trying to survive. So I want to avoid delving into this. Instead, I want to know what James learned from his time in prison and how he will put it to good use.
James “Jimmy” Keene Discusses Black Bird
Before I dig further into the story, I want to know a bit about the series. I want to know how involved James Keene was in the making of Black Bird and his impressions of the nominations and awards it won:
What was your participation in the miniseries? Did Apple TV consult with you before writing the script? Did you meet Taron Eggerton to tell him directly about your experience?
Jimmy Keene: I was Executive Producer in the miniseries and did a cool cameo in the 6th episode. Dennis Lehane consulted with me throughout the writing of the script. Yes, I met Taron, and we had great talks. We formed a brotherly kinship bond, and it was really nice. I think he is a great actor and a genuinely nice guy.
Images Courtesy of Jimmy Keene
How did you feel looking at your story from the outside? Seeing someone playing you and going through the things you went through? Did Taron do Jimmy Keene justice?
Jimmy Keene: Seeing my story develop from the outside and see it all come together was surreal. I was unsure if Taron could pull off the badass role it would take. I’m very trained in hand-to-hand self-defense combat, and others know it just by my swagger. Nevertheless, I think Taron pulled off the Jimmy character well. I do think they should have turned him loose where the real Jimmy had many life-or-death situations occur at certain times to match how things really happened in my book.
More on James’ Miniseries
Was there anything in the show that was inaccurate, exaggerated, or modified for entertainment?
Jimmy Keene: Yes, I was never arrested with any guns and weapons as the series showed. No automatic assault weapons and no big amounts of drugs. That was very exaggerated and fictionalized. Also, the guy I beat up in the TV room was huge. 6’5, 280 pounds, he swung at me first, and then I beat him to a pulp. The encounter at the phone was actually with three gangbangers, and I beat all three down with the phone and my martial arts skills. It was all caught on video, and I was arrested in-house by the prison guards, but I beat the case because they attacked me on the phone, and I just protected myself.
How do you feel about Black Bird’s three nominations to the Golden Globes and Paul Walter Hauser’s award for his portrayal of Larry Hall?
Jimmy Keene: I’m happy my series was nominated for Golden Globes and won one. I’m thrilled that Paul Walter Hauser won a Golden Globe. I have a picture of us at the Black Bird world premiere where I tell him I know he will win many awards. However, I do think Taron should have been recognized with a Golden Globe win too. I really hope and pray for him to win an Emmy; the guys, Paul and Taron, did an amazing job. So, fingers crossed for them both. I think Black Bird should have won a Golden Globe for limited series, especially if you base it on the polls. Black Bird beat every show in its category by a mile in all polls. So hopefully, the series will be recognized as an Emmy winner for Best Limited Series. The polls all say Black Bird should win by far.
Jimmy Keene’s Most Dangerous Job
I see Jimmy is very passionate about Black Bird. After all, the show tells the story of the 1st and only time in U.S. history that a civilian took on a dangerous secret undercover mission to stop a serial killer. What James Keene did was so risky that the US Justice Department banned such tasks for fear and the safety of the civilians. I want to look at this story from Jimmy’s eyes, so I ask him about this remarkable experience:
We’ve seen a representation of the moment you received the sentence in the show. However, I’d like to know exactly what you felt and what went through your mind when you heard “10 years and no possibility of parole.”
Jimmy Keene: It was a very sad day for me. All my dreams, and all the dangerous risks I took trying to get to the top of the mountain so I could get out of the drug business, all vanished. I had failed to reach my desired goal.
Image Courtesy of James Keene
The Fearless Keene
I binge-watched the miniseries Black Bird. When I saw Taron Egerton‘s version of James “Jimmy” Keene, I thought he was a hard-as-nails guy. However, as I interviewed the real Jimmy, I could sense he had a huge heart. So, I wanted to know if he’s always been this strong or if he’s ever been afraid:
From your book and the miniseries, we can infer that James Keene was -and perhaps still is- an adamant man. Was there ever a moment of absolute fear while in prison? Was there a time when you said, “I can’t face this; I’m too scared to do this”? Did you ever feel like your life was in danger?
Jimmy Keene: I have always been, but especially then, a man with no fear to a fault. I was never afraid of all the violence around me; growing up in Chicago, you get used to that. Yes, there was danger all around me with crazy, deranged inmates who have nothing better to do than to try to kill you just for fun. That did not scare me; I was ready to take on all challenges. However, what did scare me was whether AUSA Beaumont would live up to his agreement.
Would you say your street smarts got you through prison time? Or do you attribute it more to your physique and your combat skills?
Jimmy Keene: It was a combination of my street smarts, physical attributes, and martial arts and street fighting skills. People in those kinds of maximum-security prisons don’t fear anyone. They are deranged, and life means nothing to them, so they would just as easily shank you as look at you. So, you have to be smart and physically on guard and be able to protect yourself in a dangerous environment.
Image Courtesy of James Keene
Jimmy Looks Back on his Experience
When you reflect on this experience, what do you remember the most? Anything you would’ve done differently?
Jimmy Keene: What I remember most is that it all sucked! I would never advise anyone to go down the road that I did. The first day I arrived at the prison, walked out into this giant prison yard, and saw endless prisoners, I was like, “How the hell did my life end up here?” It was 1000 times more dangerous in real life than in the series. There was 1000 times more pressure on my shoulders coming at me in the form of danger from every direction and around me. Yes, it was a highly dangerous place. It was a maximum-security prison where most all the people were lifers that had murdered many people and had nothing to lose to murder someone else. The gangs were terrible inside. The average guy would not last a day in there without having to be in protective custody. Larry Hall was in semi-protective custody because he was so good at doing all the prison maintenance, rebuilding boiler rooms, and all kinds of things most could not do. So, the prison staff, guards, warden, and psychiatrist watched over him. They would let him out of his cell at night to work, so he would not be in contact with most of the prison population. Another obstacle that made my undercover mission that much harder. I risked my own life every minute of every day. No, I would not have done anything differently regarding the very dangerous undercover serial killer mission.
Reflecting on Larry Hall
You’re an intelligent, witty man. How did you figure out what to do or say to get Larry to confess? Did you make up a plan? Did you receive assistance from the FBI? or did you develop your own interrogation techniques to get Larry to talk without suspicion?
Jimmy Keene: I just did it my way. I had to get next to serial killer Larry Hall and feel and figure him out before I could develop my plan. And I always do my best at everything right in the heat of the moment, and I turn it on then. It was that way in sports, in college, and when dating. For pretty much everything, I go with the flow and make my plan happen as it unfolds right before me.
Image Courtesy of James Keene
Catching The Killer
Could they have caught the killer without your help?
Jimmy Keene: No, they would not have succeeded in securing the serial killer’s conviction on appeal without me. That is why they came to me and needed me desperately. Unlike in Black Bird, there were no other applicants. I did not like that about the series; I was the US Attorney Beaumont’s leading and only man for the mission. When Beaumont came to me with the serial killer offer, these were his exact words:
“Jimmy, we have been watching you for almost 20 years, and in all my experience, I have never seen anyone with the charisma you have, from the street level to the boardroom. You have been trained in martial arts, so you can protect yourself in a dangerous environment. You have a 168 IQ, and you have been trained in police surveillance technics. You are likeable and have a handsome look that does not intimidate.”
And then he said, “let’s face it, you are an outlaw James Bond, and we need you in a bad way on the serial killer mission.” Ultimately, the confessions I got from Larry Hall over six months directly caused him to lose his appeal, so he would never roam in the free world again to kill other people’s young daughters. The US Attorney and FBI needed me, plain and simple. I succeeded and got the main thing done: to stop the serial killer from ever getting out to kill again. Everyone knows finding the bodies was impossible; all FBI forensics team members agree. The serial killer buried the young girls in dissolving acid cocktails, and all that would be left of them would be DNA dust in the soil if you could ever find it. So, they needed me, and I pulled through.
Focusing on what Matters
Do you ever think about Larry Hall?
Jimmy Keene: To be honest, no. I don’t think about Larry Hall at all. I think about all of Larry Hall’s victims and his victims’ families. I hope they all know I did all I could do. After all, I was a civilian thrown into a dangerous pressure cooker. And I did the best I could. But overall, no, I did not think about Larry Hall until I wrote my best-selling books or helped with the creative process for Black Bird.
Image Courtesy of James Keene
The Multi-Faceted James “Jimmy” Keene
While interviewing Jimmy, I learned he was not only a star football player. Jimmy was also a star wrestler, studied four different martial arts styles (and has a black belt in each style), training since he was five years old, was a great hockey player, and went to state in track. He was a Chess champion since 3rd grade, and he still plays all the time. James played the saxophone for 15 years and the cello for 9. Talk about multitasking! To finish the interview, I want to go back to Jimmy -the boy- and get more personal:
Both the book and the series clearly showed what your relationship with your father was like. You even said that your last five years with him “meant more than all the money in the world.” Who was Big Jim to you? And How much does his life influence yours?
Jimmy Keene: My Dad, “Big Jim”, was Superman to me. He was 6’5, 300 pounds, good-looking, charismatic, charming, and highly intelligent. Without a doubt, the smartest person I have ever known in my life. And I do not say that lightly. I have met people of all walks and levels of life, extremely wealthy, successful, highly educated people, and none had that “it” factor my Dad had. He was, without a doubt, one of a kind. My Dad’s influence on me was greater than anything else. No college education or street education can compare to the education I got from him. It’s just too bad that my parents divorced and my Dad was not home. I’m sure life would have been different. I did feel elated when I found out the late great Ray Liotta would play my Dad in the show. Seeing him was like seeing “Big Jim” again; it was lovely and brought me to tears.
Image Courtesy of James Keene
Jimmy Sends an Important Message
Every platform allows you to talk about your experience and get people to learn from your mistakes and success. Could you use this platform to send a message to kids who want to take the easy road and chase their ambitions by getting into the criminal world like you did one day?
Jimmy Keene: When AUSA Beaumont courted me to do the dangerous undercover serial killer operation, I asked him why he didn’t use one of the FBI guys. Beaumont said Larry Hall was cagy and would sniff out any FBI agent as a cop. He then said I was the perfect candidate for the operation because, as he said, I had charisma from the street level to the boardroom, unlike anyone he had ever seen. Beaumont continued by saying I could protect myself in a dangerous environment such as a maximum-security prison. He said I had a very high IQ, so it would be hard to get anything over on me. Also, I had been trained in police counter surveillance, so I understood how police missions work. The cautionary tale that I would tell anyone younger and may be heading down the same road I did is “don’t do it”. The drug laws are medieval, draconian and strict. You do not expect that when having fun with everyone around you. Being in the drug business, you do not think you are doing anything so wrong that you could end up in prison for decades or life. When you are out having fun with all your friends, everyone is partying and having a good time; you just don’t think you could end up in prison for a large portion of your life. It’s not worth it! Nothing is worth losing one single day of your freedom!
Image Courtesy of James Keene
Upcoming Plans for James Keene
Where will James “Jimmy” Keene go from here? What are your upcoming plans?
Jimmy Keene: Well, I have my next new book that will be out in a few weeks. It will be called The Chicago Phoenix: Jimmy Keene’s Untold Story. I’m accomplishing many of my childhood dreams to succeed in Hollywood. With the success of my life story series Black Bird, we will now be doing a couple of other projects that I created and will Executive produce in the near future. I also have other projects to sustain for a long time, such as my website, www.jimmykeene.info, and a great career in Hollywood in the long run.
Learning so much from James makes me understand that what he did was brave and heroic. Jimmy was just a civilian, and the United States government trusted him with a dangerous mission. This man confronted a criminally dangerous serial killer, preventing him from murdering other young girls. James Keene put everything he learned in his mission in his books and his participation in Black Bird. I think I will watch the miniseries again, but I’ll remember the victims and their families this time and think about what James did for them.
This interview with James “Jimmy” Keene was conducted, condensed and edited by Vanessa Ruiz. All the images used are courtesy of James “Jimmy” Keene and Apple TV.