Hollywood beckons hundreds for role in prison break mini-series

Jul 25, 2017

It was two summers ago that Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Northern New York. The manhunt that followed continues to echo in popular culture.

Richard Matt (left) and David Sweat escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. in June 2015.
Credit New York State Police

A Lifetime TV movie aired this spring. Now, actor and director Ben Stiller is making an eight-part mini-series about the event for Showtime. Stiller was spotted in Northern New York over the weekend scouting locations. On Saturday, more than 1,000 people crowded into the Strand Theater in Plattsburgh to audition for roles in the series.

Just after mid-day, I signed up for the casting call in the lobby of the Strand Theater.

"Hi there, thanks for coming," a staff-member for Ben Stiller's Showtime project greeted me.

Right away, she gave me a dose of reality.

"Because your number is kind of high up there, you can take some time, maybe go get a bite to eat." 

The truth is, I’d love to play myself – play a reporter covering the Dannemora manhunt, which I did in 2015. However, 669 other hopefuls got here first. The Hollywood types running the audition at the Strand seemed really nice, really friendly. 

They told the crowd over and over that the process would be kind of slow, that they were really trying to get a sense for each potential actor.

Prison break recap

One of the things that drew people here was the idea of maybe getting a chance to act in a real-life movie, but the other thing that people talked about was the real life itself: this prison break that shook up their community.

"I think it would be interesting to be part of the process of telling this story. This was a significant thing that took place in American history and I'd like to be part of it," said Chris Gillen, also from Plattsburgh. 

He remembers the manhunt in the summer of 2015 as chaos.

"Dannemora, I know for the people who live here and for my family who served in corrections, this was the impossible. It was Shawshank Redemption to a T," he said. "For a hundred years people will be talking about it, I imagine."

Roughly 1,000 people turned out to audition for Ben Stiller's Dannemora prison break project for Showtime.
Credit North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann

On June 6, 2015, Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of a manhole cover outside the town of Dannemora's state prison – one of the toughest state correctional facilities in America. They had dug and cut and chiseled their way out.

Their accomplice, prison worker Joyce Mitchell, failed to turn up with a getaway car, so they fled on foot, sparking a three-week manhunt that put Clinton and Franklin Counties into lockdown and Western New York on high alert.

Matt, 48, was from Niagara County and serving a sentence of 25 years to life for the 1997 murder, kidnapping and robbery of 76-year-old North Tonawanda businessman William Rickerson. Matt was eventually shot and killed by law enforcement.

Sweat, 34, was serving a sentence of life without parole.  He was convicted of first-degree murder for killing a Broome County sheriff's deputy in 2002. Eventually captured by law enforcement, Sweat was returned to prison.

Mitchell, 51, was later sentenced to up to seven years in prison for felony first-degree promoting prison contraband, a concurrent year for fourth-degree misdemeanor criminal facilitation and had to make financial restitution.

The event is making its way deeper into pop culture – but it is already part of local myth. One thing I discovered while waiting for my turn to audition was that there were a lot of law enforcement there – corrections officers, a veteran Plattsburgh city cop – who wanted a shot at playing themselves.

"I've been on search details before and manhunts," said Clint Johnson from Waddington.

He was a State Trooper for 27 years in St. Lawrence County and Alexandria Bay. He also served as a corrections officer in Dannemora prison. He retired just before the prison break, but said the idea of acting in a movie about the manhunt just seemed fun.

"I'm retired and don't have anything else to do. I said, Why not?"

So the Dannemora escape lives on. According to reports, Benicio DelToro will play Richard Matt, Paul Dano will take the role of David Sweat and Patricia Arquette will play Joyce Mitchell.

As for my own future in Hollywood? My number never got called. I bailed when they were still auditioning people in the low 500s.