The true story behind Taxi Driver

For the iconic film’s 40th anniversary, EDGAR looks at the real-life assassination attempt that inspired Martin Scorsese's classic.

Lara Brunt August 7, 2016

“Every day for 40 years,” remarked Robert De Niro at an anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, “somebody has come up to me and said…” He paused, and the 3,000-strong audience boomed back in unison, “You talking to me?”

“There,” the actor grinned, “try not to laugh when you hear it in the movie now.”

It's been four decades since De Niro's troubled Vietnam Vet turned would-be assassin and vigilante killer, Travis Bickle, looked into a mirror and uttered one of the most quoted lines in film history. Yet Martin Scorsese’s Palme d’Or-winning portrait of urban alienation and madness has lost none of its disturbing power.

The film tells the story of ex-marine Bickle, who drives a Manhattan taxi at night and privately rages against the depravity of the city in his diary. Depressed and lonely, he obsesses over a beautiful woman named Betsy, who works for a presidential candidate.

Rebuffed by Betsy, Bickle grows increasingly unstable and sets out to assassinate the politician in a twisted attempt to win her admiration. After failing to get close enough to shoot the politician, Bickle becomes an unlikely hero when he rescues a 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster in a bloody showdown.

Paul Schrader wrote the script for Taxi Driver in 1973 during a dark period that saw him split from his wife, lose his job, and end up living in his car. Seeking treatment in hospital for an ulcer, the 27-year-old screenwriter realised he hadn't spoken to anyone in almost a month.

“That's when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me – this metal coffin that moves through the city with this kid trapped in it who seems to be in the middle of society but is, in fact, all alone,” he told The Hollywood Reporter on the eve of the Tribeca screening in April. 

Inspiration

Schrader, who later wrote the screenplay for De Niro’s 1980 movie Raging Bull, American Gigolo and The Mosquito Coast, was also inspired by the story of Arthur Bremer, a 21-year-old loner who shot US presidential candidate George Wallace in May 1972. After his trial, Bremer’s fevered diaries were published as An Assassin's Diary. “I knew about Bremer, but the diaries hadn't been published [when I wrote the screenplay],” said Schrader. “When the diaries came out, I was surprised there were so many moments of synchronicity between his diaries and the film.”

Bremer was born in Milwaukee on August 21, 1950, one of four sons of Sylvia and William Bremer. His home life was dysfunctional, marred by drunken arguments and abuse. As a means of escape, he pretended to be “living with a television family and there was no yelling at home and no one hit me.” Bullied at school for his shyness, he was socially awkward and had few friends.

An average student, Bremer dropped out of college after one term and became estranged from his family. Near the end of 1971, he worked in a restaurant clearing tables, but was demoted to washing dishes after diners complained that he mumbled to himself. After he filed a discrimination complaint, the investigator described him “as bordering on paranoia” and suggested he receive psychiatric attention. Bremer dismissed the advice.

Angry and isolated, he became preoccupied with pornography, guns and suicidal thoughts. He also began visiting a shooting range, although his first attempts as a marksman proved disastrous, blasting holes in the ceiling instead of the target. Soon after, he was arrested when a police officer found him asleep in his car with bullets scattered across the front seat. A court-appointed psychiatrist declared him mentally ill but stable and safe to live in the community. 

Around this time, Bremer also started dating a 16-year-old. His intense behaviour became too much for her and she broke up with him. Bremer was devastated and started to stalk her. A couple of months later, on January 13, the same day that George Wallace, the controversial Governor of Alabama, announced his candidacy for the 1972 presidential election, the girl’s mother intervened to put an end to Bremer’s harassment of her daughter.

Tim Huddleston, author of The Real Life of Taxi Driver: A Biography of Arthur Herman Bermer, says, “Bermer was a pretty dull person. The most interesting thing about him is that Travis Bickle was loosely based on him. If he felt any satisfaction that he had accomplished what he set out to do, he was kidding himself because he failed at pretty much everything he attempted.

Assassin 

All this points to Bremer being a very troubled young man, says Dr Ronald Feinman, author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama. “Assassins, or attempted assassins, often have mental illness issues and emotional problems when they’re growing up,” he says. “It affects their behaviour and they want to be noticed. I think in the case of Bremer, it was definitely emotional and mental – he wanted attention, he wanted to be noticed.”

It was March of 1972 when Bremer began his diary. Alienated from society, he dreamed of making the world take notice of him by becoming an assassin. "Now I start my diary of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace," he wrote in his first entry.

Both politicians were divisive figures, especially Governor Wallace who was an ardent supporter of segregation. “Wallace was one of the most dangerous people ever to run for President,” says Feinman. “He promoted fear and blamed different racial groups for problems in society.” 

But Bremer was not concerned with ideology. Instead, his plot stemmed from his desire "to do something bold and dramatic, forceful and dynamic, a statement of my manhood for the world to see," he wrote in his diary. After stalking Nixon for a few weeks, Bremer was frustrated by the President’s tight security. He moved on to Wallace, but feared that his target lacked the status to seal his place in history.

In the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968, Wallace understood that he was a target. “Somebody's going to get me one of these days," he told the Detroit News. "I can just see a little guy out there that nobody's paying any attention to.”

On May 15, 1972, at a campaign rally in Maryland, that ‘little guy’ was Arthur Bremer. After Wallace delivered his speech, he stepped off the platform to work the crowd. While Bremer had been keen to shout a memorable phrase, instead he just called, “Over here, Mr Wallace!” before shooting the governor five times at close range, paralysing him for life and effectively ending his presidential prospects. Three others in the crowd were also shot, but survived. “Wallace lived on until 1998, but Bremer really got noticed and got the attention he wanted,” says Feiner.

However, Bremer’s notoriety was to be short-lived, and ultimately paled in comparison to the fictional character he inspired. After serving 35 years of a 53-year sentence for attempted murder – the jury rejected his insanity plea – Bremer was released from prison in 2007. And while Bickle is remembered as a violent anti-hero 40 years later, Bremer’s release hardly caused a stir in the US.

“We haven’t heard much about him in the last 10 years,” says Feinman. “Of course, had he succeeded in killing Nixon we would have had President Agnew, so the whole history of America would have been very different.”

While Bremer's own quest for infamy failed, he did leave a lasting legacy of another kind. In a chilling case of life imitating art imitating life, on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr shot President Ronald Regan in a bid to impress actress Jodie Foster, after becoming obsessed with her performance in Taxi Driver. Found among Hinckley’s possessions was a copy of Bremer’s An Assassin's Diary.