The 1995 movie The Usual Suspects won two Academy Awards — screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie won one for Best Original Screenplay and actor Kevin Spacey won one for Best Supporting Actor. The movie centers around five felons who are, inexplicably at the time, brought into the same lineup by the New York Police Department. The odd composition of the lineup strikes one of the five, Dean Keaton (fourth from left above), as a tell-tale sign that the police have nothing on the quintet of suspects. At one point in the movie, Keaton and another felon, Michael McManus (second from left), discuss the peculiar mix:
Keaton: This whole thing was a shakedown.
McManus: What makes you say that?
Keaton: How many times have you been in a line- up? It’s always you and four dummies. The P.D. pays homeless guys ten bucks a head half the time. No way they’d line five felons in the same row. No way.
Keaton was right — kind of. The NYPD does pay about $10 per lineup stand-in. But they don’t always pay homeless guys. Often, and especially in the Bronx, they pay Robert Watson.
Robert Watson is a nondescript man in his mid-40s who, according to a profile from the New York Times in October of 2011, has a fondness for coconut-flavored booze. He’s not a police officer but has an informal, working relationship with officers in his neighborhood. Watson got his “job” out of a stroke of luck — he was sitting around, minding his own business, when a police officer offered him a small stipend to sit in on a lineup. The officer then upped the ante, telling Watson that he could make a few extra bucks if he brought some friends along. Realizing that he could parlay this into a meaningful (albeit small) amount of income, Watson began playing headhunter for the PD and agent for the pseudo-actors who sit on stools waiting for witnesses.
For about fifteen years since, Watson has been on call, ready to provide the NYPD with lineup fillers — guys who aren’t guilty of anything other than looking vaguely like the man accused of a crime. The people Watson provides sit, shoulder to shoulder, with the accused and other fillers, and the alleged victim or crime witness looks them over, deciding which (if any) is the person he or she believes committed the crime in question. If the accused is selected, that’s good news for the prosecution; if not, that’s excellent news for the defense.
Watson’s informal relationship with the NYPD is his main source of income. He earns about $10 for each lineup filled, with the other monies going to the stand-in themselves. (He sometimes sits in the lineup himself to make a bit extra.) On a good day, he’ll fill four lineups; on a slow day, he’ll come up empty. His annualized earnings from his lineup filling business are, as one would expect, unreported, but probably hover around $10,000 a year. And — absent a public intoxication arrest — he stays out of trouble, lest he lose his marginally lucrative business.
Per the Times, he has a wide network of African-Americans and Hispanics, of both genders, and can even provided men based on their facial hair or lack thereof. But as good as filling a lineup as Watson is, he’s not perfect. When it comes to white people, Watson is of no help. He told the Times that “they call me for that, and I don’t have that.” Instead, Watson notes that the exchange from The Usual Suspects rings pretty true: “They go to the homeless shelter for white guys.”
Bonus fact: The hallmark lineup scene in The Usual Suspects (seen here, but caution — it has strong language) is a hodgepodge of laughs — the five suspects treat the process with humor-twinged disrespect for their police department counterparts. The scene was originally scripted as being very serious and somber, but the actors couldn’t keep from laughing. Director Bryan Singer, per IMDb, decided to create the scene out of the less-than-serious outtakes.
From the Archives: The Perfect Crime Scene: If you have seen The Usual Suspects, you’re familiar with Keyser Soze. He may be close to the perfect criminal — and if so, he should have attempted to pull off a crime in Yellowstone National Park.
Related: The Usual Suspects, which if you haven’t seen, you should watch; and if you’ve only seen it once, you should watch three more times. Over 600 reviews and 4.5 stars.