Thaddeus Phillips had never even heard of Barry Seal when he was hired to portray the infamous pilot and drug smuggler in a Colombian telenovela. But Seal was the kind of strange-but-true character who can easily become an object of obsession, and Phillips quickly acquired a shelf full of fascinating, often contradictory volumes on Seal and his ties to the Medellín drug cartel and more than one future president.
“When you start researching Barry Seal, all these conspiracy theories pop out, and all the authors diss each other,” Phillips said, holding books up to the camera over Skype from Colombia, where he spends time with his wife’s family when not in Philadelphia.
All of that research has now resulted in not one but two shows about Barry Seal. The larger-scale of the two, “Alias Ellis MacKenzie,” will premiere in September at this year’s Fringe Festival and will feature several of Phillips’ Colombian co-stars. (The title is a play on the title of the MundoFox series, “Alias El Mexicano.”)
This Thursday, he’ll premiere the elaborately titled “The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially Completely TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal,” a piece which serves as both prologue and epilogue to the fall show, and which takes place in the Salvation Army parking lot in Baton Rouge where Seal met his untimely (but very predictable) demise in 1986.
Seal is far from a household name, despite his epic biography: a young pilot for TWA, he smuggled arms to Cuba before running drugs for Pablo Escobar, had ties to the Iran/Contra scandal and crossed paths with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and finally turned CIA and DEA informant and was gunned down in his white Cadillac Fleetwood. An actual dismantled Caddy is a major component of Phillips’ show, which focuses on conversations between Seal and his Salvation Army roommate, portrayed by KCRW DJ Mario Cotto.
Phillips describes this weekend’s show as “a DVD outtakes or special features show for the big show in September. They’re not dependent on each other, but it’s way cooler if you see this one and then see the one at the Fringe Festival. The Barry Seal story is so interesting and bizarre and convoluted.”
Tom Cruise Connection
Phillips isn’t alone in his fascination with Seal; the smuggler’s name is raised in the upcoming Netflix series “Narcos,” in which Phillips plays a small part, and he’ll be portrayed by Tom Cruise in the upcoming film “Mena.” But Phillips has a different take on the story.
“What I’ve noticed on all these shows is they go for the cliché, the well-known stories,” he says. “We’re going for the funny, weird stuff that they’re missing.”
If you go
"The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially Completely TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal"
May 14-16, 8 p.m.
140 N. Columbus Blvd.