In HBO's ultimately heartbreaking biopic "The Wizard of Lies" (premiering Saturday, May 20), actor Robert De Niro plays notorious Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, who in 2009 was sentenced to 150 years in prison. De Niro plays Madoff as a master sociopath who played up his working-class roots, nebbishy diffidence and family-man facade to swindle people out of between $20 billion and $65 billion – the precise dollar amount depends on whether you count "only" the money Madoff stole from people or whether you include the returns he fabricated. 

The storytelling in this movie is first-rate and the financial content is easy to follow. But why not enhance your viewing experience with this backgrounder on the who's who and what's what mentioned in this film?


Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro): Destroyer of Lives

(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Madoff was a gifted financier: Self-made billionaire and former chairman of Nasdaq are just a few of his achievements. Really, all he had to do to live a nice happy life was to not set up a Ponzi scheme to fleece the likes of Nobel Laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel ("As if he hasn't suffered enough!" exclaims a witness testifying against Madoff in the movie's suspenseful courtroom scene), the international women's aid NGO Hadassah, and entire university endowments. The scope and longevity of his deceit was almost farcical – as captured by De Niro's darkly comic delivery of Madoff's confession to his wife and two sons. "None of it is real," he mumbles, with an alarming lack of emotion. "It's all one big f--ing lie. The advisory is a fraud. There are no investments... I made 'em up. All fake."

Diana B. Henriques (played by herself): Journalist, Author 

(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

The film's clever framing device is that the story is 'as told to' Diana B. Henriques, the first journalist to visit Madoff in prison and the author of the book upon which the film is based. The opening scene and narrative scenes throughout show the real-life Henriques, tireless truth crusader verbally sparring with a disheveled De Niro in a beige jumpsuit. 

Ruth Madoff (played by Michelle Pfeiffer): Loving, Oblivious Wife

(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Ruth Madoff met Bernie when she was 13 and he was 16. As Madoff recalls in this film, the two "basically were together every day since the night we met." At the time of Madoff's arrest and conviction, law officials and the public alike assumed that she had to be some kind of Lady Macbeth figure; no one could be so ignorant to what one's spouse of five decades was really doing with his time. But as the adage goes, the wife is always the last to know. Pfeiffer portrays Mrs. Madoff as being truly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, constantly furrowing her brow and needing things spelled out for her. "What's a Ponzi Scheme?" she asks her beloved husband early in the film – a question she surely never had to ask again. 

Mark Madoff (played by Alessandro Nivola): Tragic Older Son

(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Mark Madoff, the elder of Bernie Madoff's two sons, is the emotional center of the film. He starts off as his father's fiercest advocate. When FBI investigators ask him suspiciously, "How did you not know?" he turns the question around: "How the f--- did you not see it?" As in a Greek tragedy, the most loyal is also the one least emotionally capable of handling the disappointment. Mark Madoff committed suicide by hanging on December 11, 2010, two years to the day after his father's arrest. This is a real star turn for the versatile Nivola (Fun fact: I was at school with Nivola; he was a great emcee in the student production of "Cabaret.")

Andrew Madoff (played by Nathan Darrow): Angry Younger Son

(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

The younger of Madoff's two sons, Andrew worked alongside brother Mark in the market maker arm of Madoff Securities. (Not sure what that is? See below.) After Bernie Madoff's conviction, Andrew told his mother that he would cut her off from her grandchildren unless she agreed to sever ties from her husband. Andrew died of lymphoma on September 3, 2014. 

Frank DiPiscali (played by Hank Azaria): Partner

(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Despite having only a high school diploma, DiPascali apparently bluffed his way into Madoff's confidence, worked with Madoff for 33 years and was his right-hand man. He was possibly the chief architect or at least the chief executor of book-cooking at Madoff Investments. He died of lung cancer on May 7, 2015, just four months before his sentencing. Had he survived, his sentence would likely have been of a similar duration to Madoff's.

Did you know...?

The film brought to light some details of the Madoff saga that you may have missed when the events were ongoing:

  • Ruth and Bernie had a half-cocked suicide "pact" in which they both consumed large quantities of Ambien. It didn't work, obviously. Pfeiffer's deadpan way of waking up her husband the following morning: "Bernie, we're still here."
  • In 2013, an ill Andrew Madoff came to talk to Diana Henriques' journalism class at Columbia and told them, "My father is dead to me."
  • In real life, the parents of Hank Azaria (who plays Madoff partner Frank DiPascali) were Madoff victims, according to an interview Azaria gave to the NY Daily News on May 12th, 2017
  • Mark Madoff used a dog collar to hang himself

Financial Terms Mentioned in 'The Wizard of Lies'

Market Maker

A market maker is a broker-dealer firm that assumes the risk of holding a certain number of shares of a particular security in order to facilitate the trading of that security. Madoff started out by opening a market maker firm in 1960. By the time of the Ponzi scheme, it was located on the 19th floor of Manhattan's famed Lipstick Building, the oval-shaped skyscraper that housed Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. This arm of the company was legitimate, though unprofitable, and run by Madoff's two sons. (Read more: What is the difference between a broker and a market maker?)

Ponzi Scheme

A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud where clients are promised a large profit at little to no risk. It generates returns for older investors by acquiring new investors.

Madoff in this film gives a succinct explanation of what a Ponzi Scheme is, explaining to his wife: "I took money from some people and gave it to others and there's nothing left." (Related: What is the difference between a Ponzi and a pyramid scheme?)

Hedge Fund

Hedge funds are alternative investments using pooled funds that employ numerous different strategies to earn active return, or alpha, for their investors. The division of Madoff Securities in which the Ponzi scheme occurred was its hedge-fund arm. (Related: What Are Hedge Funds?)

The 17th Floor

This is a reference to the 17th floor of the Lipstick Building, one of the three floors leased by Madoff Securities. The stock-trading operations (market making) were on the 19th floor; the computers and paperwork for the legit aspects of the business were on the 18th floor; and the bulk of the shady dealings happened on the 17th floor, the "hedge fund floor." In one of the movie's heart-pounding scenes investigators first learn of the existence of the 17th floor, and Frank DiPiscali races against the clock to destroy files. 


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