EXCLUSIVE: New Regency will redevelop Rub & Tug into a TV series, with the pilot to be written by Emmy-nominated writer-producer Our Lady J. There is also a commitment to cast a trans actor to play the show’s lead role of Dante “Tex” Gill, the infamous transgender gangster who became an unlikely major figure in the criminal underworld of ’70s Pittsburgh.
When Deadline first broke news that New Regency had won a script auction for Gill’s story with Scarlett Johansson attached to play Gill and Rupert Sanders directing, an outcry followed in the LGBTQ+ community, and the ensuing pressure prompted the exit of Johansson — who had previously been maligned for the Sanders-directed Japanese anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell.
Gill was a larger-than-life character who took on the mob and became the crime kingpin of 1970s Pittsburgh through an empire of illicit massage parlors and an anabolic steroids ring that helped fuel the Pittsburgh Steelers’ NFL dynasty, all the while cross-dressing and leaning on allies in the gay community to help grow an empire. Gill’s romance with girlfriend Cynthia forms the emotional core of the story.
Dark Castle Entertainment and Material Pictures are also on board as producers. Cindy Bruno Gill, the widow of the show’s central figure, will serve as a consultant on the project. Journalist and author Brendan Koerner, whose research and writing on Pittsburgh’s Massage Parlor War was part of the original rights package (as was the participation and life rights of Cindy Bruno Gill), will be an executive producer. Sam Hanson and Ed Rubin will run point for New Regency Television International. Ethan Erwin and Hal Sadoff will run point for Dark Castle.
In building an illicit empire, Gill tangled with the local mafia and became a key player in the city’s Red Light District “Massage Parlor War.” Tex’s inner circle, many of them LGBTQ+ and therefore forced to the fringes of society after experiencing discrimination, found a leader in Tex they could relate to and believe in. Together, Tex and his allies defended their turf against rival criminals, corrupt politicians, and the law. Gill’s establishments included the Spartacus, the Japanese Meditation Temple and the Taurean.
A former blacksmith with a long rap sheet of providing prostitutes, Gill was a colorful figure known to drink and spout Irish poetry and be the life of the party. When law enforcement raided Spartacus in 1978, Gill reportedly threw a birthday cake at an undercover state trooper. Gill’s notoriety prompted The Pittsburgh Press to award Tex the “Dubious Man of the Year” and “Dubious Woman of the Year” titles, explaining: “[Gill] embodies business savvy, sexual confusion and an eye for fashion like no one since Michael Jackson.”
Gill’s brazen defiance of the mob left the question who would end Gill first: rival criminal enterprises or law enforcement. One of Gill’s employees at the Gemini was killed after she opened a letter bomb that leveled the place. Another massage parlor was burned to the ground in a suspicious fire that killed several others. But it was law enforcement that brought Gill to heel in 1984 on income tax fraud. Gill was sentenced to a 13-year prison stretch, but got three years taken off in an agreement to close three massage parlors within 24 hours. Gill was released in 1987 and died at age 72.
Here is where I fall on my sword: I broke that first movie deal story and thought it had such a compelling plot line, a different version of Goodfellas, that I found the notion of shaming Johansson out of a job to be unfair, since it would kill a worthy $30 million-budget film with major distribution. My research indicated that Gill did not seek gender reassignment surgery until after leaving prison, and there were references in ’70s Pittsburgh press accounts to Gill’s wardrobe choices being necessary in a business filled with male gangsters. It troubled me that many, including GLAAD, took a victory lap because these projects are hard enough to make in the best of circumstances and here was one that was killed, along with supporting cast jobs that could have gone to LGBTQ+ actors. I was wrong and tone deaf. The resurrection of the project becomes an important moment for a section of the acting community too often marginalized or ignored.
Nick Adams, GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation, believed this is a step in the right direction: “Industry leaders are hearing, and even joining, the call to hire talented and experienced transgender storytellers like Our Lady J to tell trans stories. Authentic trans stories are compelling and largely untold, and when told well they attract acclaim from audiences, critics and award shows, as we’ve seen with Pose and A Fantastic Woman.”
Our Lady J, most recently Emmy-nominated for Pose with several WGA noms for Transparent, said: “Tex’s life story is like no other, and the rich landscape of this unexplored moment in time has truly captured my imagination. I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity to write a gangster drama based on such a fascinating and diverse web of queer characters. The show is about the promise of reinvention, and the peril of losing oneself in the process. Tex Gill was out and proud in an era – the late 1970s – when living authentically came with the price of social ostracization, leaving him vulnerable to a life of crime and lawlessness. Having grown up in Pennsylvania myself, I’m also excited to delve deep into Pittsburgh’s underbelly as it unspools the story of Tex’s remarkable life – it’s also the story of a city’s struggle for rebirth and a proud community’s efforts to make its voice heard.”
Cindy Bruno Gill added, “I am excited to be working with Our Lady J and New Regency to honor Tex’s memory by telling his story the way he would want to be remembered. Tex was transgender at a time when being transgender meant facing great discrimination, yet he was fearless about being himself in a way that inspired those who knew him to be proud of who they were too. Our Lady J is the perfect person to give voice to Tex’s story, and I know he would be proud of the evolution of this project.”
Said New Regency chairman/CEO Yariv Milchan: “Tex’s anti-hero story deserves to come to life in a show that will embrace the politics of power, gender and sexuality. Our Lady J’s acclaimed status writing for and with the LGBTQ+ community will bring authenticity and dignity to this rich world of characters, and we have no doubt it’s a series that will resonate with audiences everywhere.”
Our Lady J was the first out trans woman to perform at Carnegie Hall, and the first out trans writer to be hired in a television writers’ room. She was awarded two Peabody Awards for her work on Transparent and Pose and has been nominated for three Writers Guild Awards and an NAACP Image Award.
Our Lady J is represented by Writ Large.
New Regency has upcoming the Adrian Lyne-directed drama Deep Water with Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas; Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a film adaptation of the West End musical that stars Richard E. Grant, Sharon Horgan, Sarah Lancashire and Max Harwood; an untitled drama from David O. Russell that stars Christian Bale, Michael B. Jordan and Margot Robbie; and The Northman, the Robert Eggers-directed drama that stars Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe.
Dark Castle is in post on the Simon Barrett-directed Seance and The Expecting, which Mary Harron directed for Quibi. Up next is Esther, the prequel to the Dark Castle genre hit Orphan.