Sometimes, just a single word can stir the imagination. When, for example, producer J.J. Abrams was first pitched the idea for a TV drama pegged to Alcatraz, he was instantly intrigued.
"The mere mention of it is so provocative and compelling," he says, referring to San Francisco's legendary island prison, which once housed such notorious criminals as Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. "It just made me immediately lean forward. I couldn't believe that there never had been a show called 'Alcatraz.'"
Until now. On Monday the Fox network will, indeed, premiere a fantastical crime series from Abrams called "Alcatraz." But while the show may be breaking prime-time ground, it's certainly not the first time
Hollywood has been drawn to the little island in the heart of San Francisco Bay.
Movies such as "The Rock" and "Escape From Alcatraz" have been inspired by it. Various TV shows through the years have referenced it. Moreover, numerous books and even songs have been written about it.
The latest addition to this pop-cultural lore is a show that reflects Abrams' penchant for over-the-top concepts and Byzantine mysteries. "Alcatraz" is about a small team of investigators struggling to discover why some of the prison's former inmates are now wreaking havoc in San Francisco, 50 years after they vanished without a trace. The cast is led by Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia, who made a name for himself in Abrams' biggest TV hit,
Neill, who first visited Alcatraz 15 years ago, believes they've hit upon the perfect setting.
"Just the name puts a shiver down my spine," he says. " ... Imagine the cruelty of a prison where you sit behind bars looking at something as lovely as San Francisco and San Francisco is looking at you. That's such an incredibly harsh reality."
Jack Bender, a director and producer on the TV series, recalls thinking as a kid of Alcatraz as a very scary place with an "Edgar Allan Poe vibe" to it. As for Abrams, he says it has the feel as a "ghost house."
That sense of gloom associated with Alcatraz is something storytellers have fed off -- and embellished -- over the years. As a National Park Service tourist guide to the island notes, "The truth of Alcatraz has often been overlooked, lost in the fog of its myths."
One of the most persistent myths, according to Alcatraz expert John Martini, is that the facility was a horrific prison. In fact, he said, most inmates who had made multiple stops in the penal system considered it to be their best experience.
"There were no gangs. It was safe and clean. You had one-man private cells, and the food was OK," said Martini, who leads tours of Alcatraz and has written extensively about it. "The worst thing about it is that it was the end of the line. When you were sent to Alcatraz, it was as if you had fallen off the edge of the Earth. But it certainly was no hellhole."
The film that exercised the most creative license, Martini says, was "Murder in the First," a 1995 release starring Kevin Bacon, who played Henri Young, a bank robber sent to Alcatraz in 1936.
"It portrayed the prison guards doing despicable things -- beating the inmates, locking them in dungeons ..." he says. "The Bureau of Prisons was livid over that film."
Much more palatable was "Escape from Alcatraz," the 1979 film starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, an inmate who in 1962 engineered possibly the only successful escape attempt from the island. He and his two accomplices were never found and were assumed to have drowned.
Michael Esslinger, a Monterey author who has penned several nonfiction books about the island, calls "Escape" the "touchstone film" of his Alcatraz library.
"It's only about 40 to 50 percent historically accurate, but at the core of the film is the ingenuity of the human spirit," he says. "While I don't believe the real inmates had a Hollywood ending, you want to believe they lived happily ever after."
Esslinger visited the set while the "Alcatraz" crew was in San Francisco to shoot the pilot episode (ensuing episodes are being shot in Vancouver) and came away believing that the show will spike public interest in the island, which already is maxed out as a tourist site with 1.4 million visitors annually.
"Alcatraz is a historical gem," he says. "And I expect that viewers will want to peek behind the stage curtain to get a real glimpse of the ingredients that formulate the mystery and intrigue."
Alexandra Picavet, a public affairs officer for the National Park Service, says curious tourists inquire about Alcatraz's connections to Hollywood on a daily basis.
"They wonder, for example, where the underground (ore-cart) tunnels that they saw in 'The Rock' are located," she said. "They're never surprised that they don't get to see them, but they're very surprised to learn that they never existed."
Still, Picavet believes there's a benefit to having the image of Alcatraz playing upon the big and small screens.
"Hopefully, viewers will be inspired to visit Alcatraz for themselves and to delve into some of its history," she said. "I think they'll find that it's just as fascinating as anything Hollywood can make up."