Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme and its consequences — financial catastrophe, tearing at the fabric of Jewish communities and stoking worldwide antisemitism — are as obvious now as they were opaque then. Those scars will long outlast the 150-year sentence he began serving in 2009.
The knock-on effects of his crimes are less calculable than the billions of dollars he defrauded individual and institutional investors out of. One is the transformation of an all-too-real criminal into a colorful character that has begged to be interpreted across genres.
I'm not sure the many incarnations of Bernie Madoff in popular culture tell us anything new the man himself or the human condition. Sociopaths (flying high, felled) and fortunes (rocketing up, crashing down) are intriguing separately and irresistable together.
But who am I to judge?
While Bernie Madoff was still enjoying (relatively) house arrest in his $7 million apartment, Saturday Night Live dispatched its wig team and the singular Fred Armison to introduce America to a Bernie who just wants what we all want — someone to come over to watch the Super Bowl.
As Madoff began to serve time, there was plent of press coverage, but the Onion, America’s Most Trusted News Source, was the only outlet to report on an incident early in his prison term.
(A few years later, The People’s Daily in China picked up their story that Kim Jong Un had been named 2012 Sexiest Man Alive, following Madoff’s win in 2010.)
Later in 2009, the Seinfeld reunion — which occurred entirely within the confines of the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO — revealed that George had made and lost multiple millions of dollars creating a killer app called the iToilet and then investing all his money with Madoff.
In January 2010, Glenn Close took on a Madoff-type in a season-long arc of Damages. Martin Short and Detroit’s Lily Tomlin took serious turns as the villain’s attorney and wife.
In 2011, the Jewish Ensemble Theatre brought Madoff to the stage in a local production of Deborah Margolin’s Imagining Madoff. In the original script, character opposite Madoff was a fictionalized rendition of real-life victim Elie Weisel, but Margolin changed it at his request.
In 2016, Richard Dreyfuss brought his punim to the part in an ABC "movie event" opposite Beth Danner. As narrator, he lectures that "People want to get richer and they don't want the risk and they don't want the worry. I was the magician and nobody wants the magic trick explained. And that's what you get for believing in magic."
As if to suggest Kramer's ponzi-scheme theories were not dispositive, HBO gave Madoff the full HBO treatment in 2017 with Robert Deniro and Michelle Pfiefer. Robern De Niroff says, "For 16 years, I kept this secret from my wife, my sons. How I was able to do that and maintain any degree of sanity — that worries me when I think about it." That would date his fraud back to 1992, which tracks his confession, whereas federal investigators determined that it likely began in the mid-80s, if not the 70s.
(Note: Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner may have been in separate Madoffspheres, but they did play a married couple in Meet the Parents and all seven sequels.)
Just last year, Madoff got a literary life as the character Jonathan Alkiaitis in Emily St. John Mandel's fifth novel, The Glass Hotel. Here's an excerpt, but you'll have to read (or listen to) the book for Alkiaitis.
Bernie Madoff has shown less staying power in visual art, which may be appropriate since his art collection was "lackluster" at best. Especially in contrast to J. Ezra Merkin, who funnelled $2.4 billion to Madoff and bought a rack of Rothko's.
The finest artistic treatment of Madoff is indisuputably Chen Wenling's sculpture "What You see Might Not Be Real" in which a Wall Street bull, propelled by its palpable flatulence gores Bernie against a Beijing gallery wall.
If your tastes skew more to the abstract, there's Suzanne Scott's oil on canvas "I Broke Bernie Madoff."
Did I miss any BMs worthy of cheers or jeers? (There's Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine with Louis CK, but let's just not for now.)