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'Unicorn Killer' in the TV Spotlight

A miniseries relates story of activist Ira Einhorn, who was convicted in absentia of killing his ex-girlfriend.

May 08, 1999|CLAUDINE ISE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1979, left-wing activist, Earth Day founder and self-styled "hippie guru" Ira Einhorn was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Helen "Holly" Maddux. The beautiful, blond Bryn Mawr graduate had been missing for 18 months before police discovered her mummified corpse, stuffed inside a trunk in Einhorn's closet.

When police questioned the bearded peacenik about the body, Einhorn said only, "You found what you found." Later, he claimed he was the victim of a government frame-up, and that Maddux's body had been "planted" by CIA agents. Strangely, however, Einhorn had failed to notice the rank odor of decay that neighbors said had been emanating from his apartment for months.

Sounds like an open-and-shut murder case? Think again. Einhorn's arrest was only the beginning of a tragic, twisted and as yet unresolved story that gets the miniseries treatment Sunday and Monday night on NBC. "The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer" stars Kevin Anderson as Ira Einhorn, Naomi Watts ("Dangerous Beauty") as Holly Maddux and Tom Skerritt ("Picket Fences") as Holly's father, Fred.

In 1981, just before he was to stand trial for Maddux's murder, Einhorn fled the country and managed to elude U.S. authorities for the next 16 years. He was tried and convicted in absentia in 1993, but it wasn't until June 1997 that "the Unicorn" (Einhorn means "one horn" in German) was found, living in the French countryside with his wealthy Swedish wife.

Remarkably, he remains there today, battling extradition, the matter complicated by an initial ruling by the French courts not to extradite Einhorn due to a conflict between French and U.S. law. In February, the French reconsidered and decided to extradite Einhorn on the condition that he be retried in the U.S. and, if convicted, not be put to death--two conditions the state of Pennsylvania agreed to. Einhorn remains free in France while appealing the French ruling.

Although some involved in the making of the miniseries believe that Einhorn is probably guilty, they also felt it was necessary to present those aspects of Einhorn's personality that made him so attractive to others, especially Maddux.

The filmmakers set much of the story in Philadelphia, where Einhorn had become a leader within the city's counterculture and embraced by the liberal elite. By the time Maddux's body was discovered, Einhorn was well-established and well-known as a nonviolent activist, a frequent lecturer at Harvard and a onetime candidate for mayor--the least likely suspect for a brutal murder.

"On the surface Einhorn presents one kind of front," explains the movie's executive producer Dan Wigutow, who also produced the Emmy Award-winning miniseries "Fatal Vision," based on the Joe McGinniss bestseller. "He's a multidimensional character who is benign on one hand but on the other is a killer."

For years, Einhorn hid his violent impulses behind his carefully crafted, peace-loving persona. Played to disturbing effect by Anderson (who starred as the soulful Father Ray on ABC's 1997 dramatic series "Nothing Sacred" and currently stars in the Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman"), Einhorn emerges as a master manipulator whose lightning-fast mind can turn almost any situation to his advantage.

Writer Bruce Graham says that Einhorn had an uncanny ability to "smell the opportunity before anybody knew the opportunity even existed," thus enabling him to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Graham based his teleplay in part on Steven Levy's book "The Unicorn's Secret."

Anderson agreed with Graham's approach. He says that, as an actor, the last thing he wanted was to play Einhorn as a one-note psychopath. "There's no way he could have gathered such a following or the respect of so many different types of people if he was a complete jerk all of the time," the actor explains. "On the outside, he was this really colorful, charismatic guy. I tried to bring in as much of that as I could."

Director William A. Graham (no relation to Bruce) adds that although the networks "kind of like to get all the melodrama up front as early as possible, in the course of the rewrites we managed to temper that."

A subtle yet telling example of Einhorn's perverse blend of tenderness and brutality occurs during the movie's first half, in a scene where Ira and Holly visit the Maddux home in Texas. Holly and her three sisters are giggling over a family scrapbook as Ira watches jealously from the sidelines. His voice barely louder than a whisper, Ira asks Holly to brush his hair. When she puts him off, Ira asks her again, his tone darkening--the subtext that the request has become a threatening demand. As her sisters look on in astonishment, Holly rises slowly and proceeds to do as Ira asks.

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