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How is “Taxi Driver” Connected to Two Assassination Attempts?

When screenwriter Paul Schrader was twenty-six, he found himself broke, alone, and roaming the streets of L.A. His wife had left him, his girlfriend had left him, and he’d recently had a falling out with his mentor, film critic Pauline Kael. Living off junk food and cut off from pretty much everyone he knew, Schrader spent his time in porn theaters and sleeping in his car. It was hardly the Hollywood dream.

Schrader’s loner lifestyle came to an end when he developed a stomach ulcer. After winding up in the hospital, he realized the ER nurse was the first person he’d actually talked to in weeks. And bam, that’s when inspiration struck. Suddenly, he pictured a taxi cab driver, a guy “in an iron box, a coffin, floating around the city, but seemingly alone.” Less than two weeks later, Schrader had written Taxi Driver (1976).

It’s a great origin story, and you can see how Schrader’s nomadic existence inspired the creation of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). In fact, Schrader used to say, “Travis Bickle is me.” Of course, Schrader wasn’t a psychotic assassin who felt like picking off a politician so how did he create such a crazy, murderous character? Well, it was all thanks to Arthur Bremer, a real-life assassin who tried to kill Gov. George Wallace.

Born in 1950s Wisconsin, Bremer grew up in an abusive household with alcoholic parents, and when he finally moved out in 1971, he was a troubled young man obsessed with pornography and firearms…kind of like a certain fictional taxi driver. At age twenty-one, he was captivated by a fifteen-year-old girl, but after a few dates, she broke off the relationship, describing Bremer as “weird.” The young man was so distraught he actually shaved his head.

In ’72, Bremer grew tired of his lonely existence and decided to shake up the world. His plan? Become a big-time assassin like John Wilkes Booth. Similar to Travis Bickle, Bremer started a diary where he recorded his plans to kill either President Richard Nixon or George Wallace (who was currently campaigning to become the next Democratic nominee for the White House). When Bremer realized he couldn’t get close enough to Nixon to pull the trigger, he set his sights on the racist Alabama governor. After a failed attempt, Bremer finally fired six shots on May 15, 1972 when Wallace visited a Laurel, Maryland shopping mall, partially paralyzing the governor for life.

After he was wrestled to the ground and arrested, Bremer was eventually sentenced to fifty-three years behind bars (though he was released in 2007). While Bremer was in prison, his journal was published in 1974 as “An Assassin’s Diary.” Paul Schrader used Bremer’s book to flesh out Travis’s skewed vision of the world and was even inspired to give the taxi driver a diary of his own. Of course, if you know anything about Taxi Driver, you’re probably aware this wasn’t the only assassination attempt connected to the movie.

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton when a deranged twenty-five-year-old named John Hinckley, Jr. opened fire. Before he was arrested, Hinckley shot White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head, wounded a police officer and a Secret Service agent, and hit Reagan in the chest with a ricochet. Fortunately, everyone survived the incident (although Brady remained partially paralyzed for life), and as officials investigated Hinckley’s back story, they discovered he was absolutely obsessed with Martin Scorsese’s ‘70s classic.

When Taxi Driver was released in 1976, Hinckley was living in Hollywood, hoping to become a famous songwriter. After the film hit theaters, Hinckley actually watched Taxi Driver fifteen times. He bought the soundtrack and listened to the music constantly. He started dressing like Robert De Niro’s character, collected guns, and began drinking peach brandy, Bickle’s beverage of choice. He even created a fake girlfriend based on Betsy (the political activist played by Cybil Shepherd) and wrote letters to his mother, detailing their “dates.”

Creepier still, Hinckley became obsessed with Jodie Foster who played the thirteen-year-old prostitute Iris. In 1980, Hinckley actually followed Foster to Yale University where he sent her love letters and poems. (He also wrote a letter to Paul Schrader, but the screenwriter threw it away.) When his words failed to woo the young movie star, Hinckley decided to follow in Travis’s footsteps and send “the greatest love offering in the history of the world” by assassinating Ronald Reagan. Because we all know there’s nothing girls love more than a guy who runs around shooting presidents.

Of course, Hinckley’s plan didn’t exactly pan out. The deranged young man was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, Hinckley’s defense attorney actually played Taxi Driver during the trial, hoping to show the jury how completely obsessed his client was with the film. According to reports, Hinckley never took his eyes off the screen…except the scenes when Betsy rejects Travis and when Iris dances with Sport (Harvey Keitel). Both times, Hinckley looked away, unable to watch.

While Arthur Bremer was eventually released from prison, Hinckley is still at St. Elizabeth’s. In 2000, officials granted the man unsupervised furloughs, but when they discovered a contraband book on Jodie Foster hidden in his room, his privileges were rescinded. But while Hinckley remains locked up, his actions had a massive ripple effect. Inspired by his near-death experience, James Brady became a proponent for gun control and thanks to his constant campaigning, Congress passed the “Brady Bill” in 1999, a piece of legislation requiring waiting periods and background checks for anyone who wants to buy a pistol.

Now obviously, Paul Schrader isn’t to blame for Hinckley’s actions and neither is Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro. After all, the film isn’t glorifying violence or condoning vigilantism. Most importantly, Hinckley was a mentally ill man, and if Taxi Driver hadn’t come along, he could’ve very well become obsessed with some other film and some other actress. Nevertheless, even though it was indirect and unintentional, you’ve got to admit Paul Scharder’s masterpiece had quite the impact on both cinematic and real-world history.