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Finally Out of the Pen, Now He's Taken Up One

Ex-Con Ed Jones Is Making a New Life for Himself as a Screenwriter After Breaking Out of Custody 14 Times

February 22, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five weeks ago, Ed Jones was prisoner No. 97961 at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., counting the days until his release. Now that he's out, he's not washing dishes or cleaning bus terminals, but turning out screenplays selling for six and seven figures.

Jones' decades-long journey from small-time con to highly paid writer proved too bizarre even for Hollywood. Filmmakers turning his 1986 autobiography into a major-studio movie had to tone it down to make it credible.

He spent the better part of 35 years in and out of prison for interstate transportation of firearms, assaulting a federal officer, counterfeiting and, above all, escape. Breaking out of custody 14 times landed Jones--nicknamed "Hacksaw" by the FBI--on the agency's "10 Most Wanted" list in 1978.

The cycle was broken in the early 1980s when Jones, now 53, promised his mother he'd escape only through writing. A fan letter to Elmore Leonard aided the metamorphosis when the best-selling author became a mentor to the convict and referred him to his agent. And three novels, an autobiography and five screenplays later, Jones is making a name for himself.

"Writing a screenplay is not unlike planning an escape," he says, sitting in his Biltmore Hotel suite conservatively dressed in his only suit, a white shirt and tie. "Both require plot and structure--a scenario leading, hopefully, to a successful conclusion. The difference is that instead of a $50-million movie it's your life that's at stake."

His autobiography, "Hacksaw," was originally optioned by MGM, while his scripts are in development at Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox. On March 29, Fine Line Features will release "Carried Away," Jones' adaptation of the Jim Harrison novella "Farmer." This summer, New Regency Productions plans to shoot his novel "Cage"--the story of an ex-con helping the FBI break someone out of a maximum security prison--to be directed for Warner Bros. by Peter Yates ("Breaking Away").

Jones' fiancee, Angela Hynes, a former literary agent who got "Hacksaw" published, has a theory of her own. "I compare Ed to Chili Palmer in 'Get Shorty,' " she said, referring to the shady John Travola character in the movie who heads out West and plunges into film. "He came from a different world and said, 'I can do this.' He wasn't intimidated by the machinery."

Those who know the couple, who make their home in the mountains outside L.A., find the tall, lanky Jones and the petite Hynes a good, if unlikely, match. "He's a country bumpkin," says Writers & Artists Agency's Larry Kennar, who has represented Jones for the past two years. "She's a sophisticate with a British accent--the source of his stability, the one who reins him in."

Though Jones is congenial and unfailingly polite, Woody Harrelson--a friend since reading the writer's first script, "Soul Survivors," five years ago--says you can tell he's spent time "inside."

"What you notice first is the tattoo on his wrist and a world-weariness around the eyes," says Harrelson. "Instead of a hardened convict, though, you find a guy who's sweet and soft--very childlike, in a way."

Should the projects be greenlighted, the actor hopes to play the alienated ex-con in "Survivors," which would be produced by "Forrest Gump's" Wendy Finerman for Paramount, as well as the computer genius planning bank heists in Jones' "The Ten Percent Man," which Harrelson would produce with Lynda Obst for Fox.

In an interview, Jones speaks openly about his past, cringing only at mention of the eagle-and-banner tattoo--a holdover from his days on a Virginia chain gang. In 1961, he was put behind bars for eight years, he says, when a $35 wedding band he bought for his high school sweetheart turned out to be "hot."

"Not to deny culpability, I had a hunch the item was slightly warm," he recalls. "But it wasn't the Hope Diamond. Who thought [she] would take that chip to a pawn shop to have it appraised? Though it was proven I didn't steal it, I was poor white trash with a $100 lawyer--and chain gangs were a cheap source of labor for the Highway Department."

Jones escaped by scraping his leg-iron chains paper-thin on concrete, and, once outside, bounding "high octane" toward some trees. Apprehended while working for a private investigator ("They got me when the fingerprints came back"), the "legendary escape artist," as he was referred to in a 1987 court document, got caught 13 more times. His eight-year sentence had skyrocketed to 63 years by 1975.

"At first I escaped out of desperation," Jones says. "Then it became a hell of a thrill. Finally, I was in a hole and there was no stopping it. . . . It became a way of life."

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