ABC’s ‘Madoff’ Shows a Smarmy Swindler at Work

Actors Blythe Danner and Richard Dreyfuss portray Ruth Madoff and Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff in an ABC miniseries.
Photograph courtesy of Eric Liebowitz/ABC

It has been almost seven years since Bernard Madoff received his life sentence, which means it is long past time for a television mini-series about the man who perpetrated biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

Richard Dreyfuss takes on the title role for ABC’s aptly-titled Madoff, a two-night primetime series that debuts Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST. HBO has in the works its own series, with Robert De Niro portraying the infamous financier. It’s not so surprising that a pair of Academy Award-winners would sign up to portray Madoff—actors love the challenge of playing a great villain and Madoff is typically seen as one of the most cold-hearted creeps to have ever set foot on Wall Street.

Based on journalist Brian Ross’ 2009 book, The Madoff Chronicles, ABC’s Madoff pulls no punches, portraying Madoff as a devious swindler who calmly lied to scores of investors—ranging from his fellow billionaires to his working class secretary and even a grieving widow. Dreyfuss, as Madoff, lets the smarm ooze freely onscreen; his off-camera narration explains to viewers how he bluffed and cajoled his fund’s investors into trusting that he was growing their savings. In fact, he was using that money to fund the $65 billion Ponzi scheme that came crumbling down when Madoff turned himself into federal authorities in December of 2008.

(Fortune took its own look at how Madoff pulled off the giant fraud in this 2009 magazine piece investigating his rise and subsequent fall from grace.)

Dreyfuss’ Madoff walks viewers through the intricacies of his scheme—the false balances and fake websites that covered up a complete lack of actual trading with clients’ funds—as the camera tracks around two distinctly different office spaces. One is the glossy, well-furnished space holding his company’s legal trading operation, where his sons worked alongside him. The other is the dusky, dimly-lit 17th floor office of the completely illegal investment fund, where blue collar employees with thick New York City accents provide a stark contrast to the scene more typical of a white-shoe, Wall Street firm found upstairs.

Madoff portrays the Ponzi schemer as a “magician” in terms of how he convinced anyone and everyone to part with their money, but the real magic trick may be convincing the world that those closest to him knew nothing of his massive fraud. Upon his arrest, Madoff stressed that he alone perpetrated one of Wall Street’s biggest crimes. And—while several employees, including his brother, Peter Madoff, who served as the firm’s compliance officer, also ended up in prison—Madoff did manage to steer any blame away from his two sons, Mark and Andrew, and his wife, Ruth.

Were his wife and children innocent?

This miniseries seems intent—often overtly so—on maintaining the innocence of Madoff’s wife and children despite Ross’ book containing some clues suggesting Ruth Madoff might have at least had some knowledge of her husband’s scheme. (Linda Berman, an executive producer on the show, told the New York Times that the show’s producers had not seen any evidence to convince them that Ruth knew about the fraud.)

The show places Ruth and the children firmly in the dark when it comes to Bernie’s shady dealings, with Madoff, at one point, discussing his oldest son Mark’s lack of involvement, saying “He don’t know squat.” The scene where the disgraced paterfamilias reveals his epic deception to his family is filled with intense shock and confusion (Blythe Danner, as Ruth, even has to ask for a definition of “Ponzi scheme,” for crying out loud) before the sons storm off to lawyer up and contact the authorities.

The media has long wondered how much (if anything) the rest of Madoff’s family knew about his scheme. Both sons had senior positions in Madoff’s trading business and the ABC miniseries makes a point of depicting Bernie as someone who enjoyed spending a lot of time with his family, though it also focuses on the sons’ frustration with their having been barred from their father’s seemingly lucrative investment business. Meanwhile, Danner as Ruth Madoff remarks at one point to her son that she is a vice president at the Madoff firm, but all she did was “hire the decorators.” Danner has told reporters she believes Ruth Madoff was kept in the dark.

The series addresses the understandable skepticism around the family’s involvement near its end, when Andrew comments to his brother that, no matter the outcome of creditors’ lawsuits that were piling up, no one would ever really believe they weren’t involved in their father’s deception.

Where they are now

Unfortunately, neither son is still alive to defend himself, with Mark having committed suicide on the two-year anniversary of his father’s arrest, while Andrew died from cancer (the disease’s prevalence in the Madoff family being another recurring theme on the ABC series).

Meanwhile, Danner’s Ruth suggests at the end of the series that she’s been punished with a life of isolation—her penance for standing by Bernie—though the show notes that the government allowed her to keep $2.5 million and she now lives in relative modesty in Connecticut. For his part, the elder Madoff seems to be doing reasonably well in prison—relatively speaking—despite suffering from heart problems.

The series ends with a focus on Madoff’s incarceration and dedicates many of the final scenes to the victims of his crimes, who have so far recovered only about $10 billion from his massive fraud through legal settlements. There is a montage of real-life investors describing how they lost their savings to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, but those candid interviews are relatively short compared to the time the series spends on the supposed victimhood of Madoff’s wife and children.

ABC will find out this week whether or not its family-focused angle resonates with viewers, who will have another televised rendition of the Madoff fraud to look to for comparison when De Niro’s Madoff hits HBO later this year. With an exact release date for the latter project still unknown, it remains to be seen what kind of stance that film will take on those closest to Madoff.

As for Ross, The Madoff Chronicles author who is an ABC News correspondent, will host a documentary on the Walt Disney-owned (DIS) network Thursday night that details what life has been like for Madoff in prison.

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