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The trustworthy face that tricked an FBI pro

February 16, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

AS a baby-faced undercover FBI operative, Eric O'Neill, at the time just 27, duped America's most notorious double agent, Robert Hanssen, a paranoid egomaniac and sexual deviant who kept a stash of automatic weapons in his trunk.

By comparison, Hollywood's menagerie of control freaks was child's play. Pitch meetings didn't really challenge him, he said, because espionage and movie-making demand a similar skill set: nerves of steel, preternatural charm and a high pain threshold.

"You've got to be a really good actor -- put on a mask and never let it slip," said the now 33-year-old O'Neill, referencing his FBI undercover work and not the three-day movie junket he'd just survived. "It just turned out I was good at it."

So good, in fact, that within two years of Hanssen's summer 2001 guilty plea, O'Neill had won over Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider (she's a "huge fan" of the FBI, said O'Neill) and had negotiated a movie deal -- without an agent. These days, when he's not negotiating U.S. Department of Defense contracts as a Washington, D.C., attorney, O'Neill is working on a TV pilot about a team of undercover field operatives for the CW.

"Breach," starring Ryan Phillippe as O'Neill and Chris Cooper as Hanssen, recounts the two months O'Neill spent acting as an assistant to Hanssen, one of the FBI's top agents, who had by then been compromised by the Russians. O'Neill shared a windowless office with the man, all the while reporting his every move to a massive investigative team. O'Neill's job was to help catch Hanssen in the act of sharing U.S. secrets.

"There were 500 agents working this case at its peak," said "Breach" writer-director Billy Ray. "There was only one who was locked in a room with the guy all day. And that was Eric."

O'Neill, like all the agents on the case, was initially ordered to keep quiet about it, telling only family and friends, at least until the FBI went public with its version of events. It just so happened, though, that O'Neill's brother David was an actor and aspiring screenwriter living in Los Angeles, trying to hit it big. So they started planning their Hollywood strategy days after Hanssen's takedown. Months later, after Hanssen pleaded guilty, freeing O'Neill from having to testify, he got the clearance to sell his story. David approached screenwriter Bill Rotko and together with Rotko's partner, Adam Mazer, they developed a book proposal, thinking the screenplay could come after it published.

But every publisher in New York already had its "Hanssen book," so Rotko and Mazer just wrote a screenplay instead. The early drafts didn't get them too far, though; O'Neill called them "outrageous." They had so glamorized his role in the arrest -- one version had him single-handedly capturing Hanssen -- that pitch meetings became slightly awkward.

"They'd go, 'Is that true?' " said O'Neill. "And I'd say, 'No.' It turned out people really wanted the truth."

By 2004, Ray had taken over writing the script -- Mazer, Rotko and Ray share the credit -- and after meeting with dozens of FBI officials, reading the half-dozen Hanssen books and getting to know O'Neill's family, Ray chose to center the story on the odd dynamic O'Neill shared with Hanssen. Ultimately, everyone involved acknowledges O'Neill's role in the case was exaggerated to keep the plot interesting. But Ray pointed out that O'Neill's job was crucial. "Had he done his job badly," Ray said, "the whole thing could have been blown."

As a consultant on the film, O'Neill took time off from his job to spend five marathon days on the set, sharing his impression of Hanssen down to the smallest detail.

He influenced everything in the film from Cooper's body language and style of ankle holster to the type of pen he used. Just to keep things authentic, Phillippe even carried O'Neill's worn briefcase from the time.

"The guy is encyclopedic in his ability to retain information," Phillippe said of O'Neill. "It was almost as if he could remember in exacting detail every single day he spent with Hanssen."

In real life, O'Neill never warmed to Hanssen. He remembers him as obsessive-compulsive, a devout member of the rigid Catholic sect known as Opus Dei who pressed his religion on acquaintances. He was socially awkward and liked to pick up O'Neill's calls unannounced, sneak up behind him and lean in too closely, just to put O'Neill off balance. And though O'Neill knew Hanssen was a high-level target for the FBI, it was only later that O'Neill learned the scope of Hanssen's duplicity, like the fact that he was a devout family man who also bought cars for strippers.

Still, O'Neill convinced Hanssen of his admiration, quizzing him on his favorite subjects: God, computers and counterintelligence.

"A big part of the job was to just keep him thinking it was real," said O'Neill.

Ultimately, O'Neill was so convincing that the FBI worried news of his betrayal would prove too demoralizing to Hanssen and would inhibit their interrogation. So O'Neill was denied his request to interview Hanssen.

That didn't surprise Cooper, who saw O'Neill as "the most unlikely person to be an FBI agent."

"He looked like a Botticelli painting to me -- big eyes and a very open face," Cooper said. "Very gentle guy."

Of course, underneath it all is a hard-core patriot who knows how to read a room and can talk his way out of just about anything.

"Once you let fear take over and worry you're going to fail, you're going to fail," said O'Neill. "It worked in dealing with Hollywood. I was never nervous in a pitch or meeting with actors." The key, he added, is "never let yourself feel anybody is better than you."

gina.piccalo@latimes.com

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