By Cynthia Sanz and Joni H. Blackman
Updated November 20, 1989 12:00 PM

James Fogle stole his first car when he was 12. He pulled off his first heist at 13. And by 18, he was doing time for driving a stolen vehicle across state lines. “I was the bane of my mother’s life,” says Fogle, now 53 and sitting on his cold metal cot in Unit 8, Tier C, Cell 8 of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. But after a 30-year string of auto thefts, burglaries, armed robberies and other assorted crimes—interrupted by lengthy prison stays—Fogle figures he has finally done something lo make his mother proud. The convict is the author of Drugstore Cowboy, the unpublished novel that inspired the current movie about four addicts who rob drugstores to support their habits. “I wrote about people I knew,” says Fogle. “It seemed to work.”

And how. The screen translation of his story, which stars Matt Dillon as a relentless “dope fiend” (partly modeled after addict acquaintances from Fogle’s youth), has been a spectacular success in limited release and will be available in theaters nationwide next week. “The film rings deeply true,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden.

Of course, it could have been more realistic. It might have featured Fogle in a part, “if I could’ve gotten out of here,” he says. “But it was too big a mess.” Security is more than tight—it’s maximum at Walla Walla, where Fogle has been serving time for robbery and parole violation since 1979. The prison is filled with 1,700 of the state’s most notorious residents—almost one-third are in for murder—but Fogle, who has been convicted of at least 15 crimes and has spent 35 years in prison, is here because he’s a career criminal.

It’s a career Fogle began as a child in Olympia, Wash., where his father labored in a plywood plant and his mother worked as a youth program coordinator for area schools. At 12, his first-degree wanderlust kicked in, and he began hitchhiking, stealing cars and hopping freight trains. “I just wanted to see everything there was to see,” he says. To finance his travels, he burglarized businesses. “I never liked burglarizing houses,” he explains. “I figure people got nothing more than you got.” Soon he had less: Fogle’s teenage years included a stint in reform school and one stay in a ward for the criminally insane.

With his father’s approval and help (he lied about James’s age), Fogle enlisted in the Army at 16 (“He thought I’d do better under someone else’s supervision”), but he wound up in a federal reformatory after he stole a car and drove it across state lines. It was there that he started using speed and learned about robbing drugstores.

Spells in prison never deterred him. “I just didn’t learn nothing,” he says. “I liked the feeling that I was good at burglary, and I liked the drugs.” But he did find a way to kill time in stir. At Walla Walla, Fogle developed a passion for machinery (“I’ve rebuilt every motor in this joint,” he boasts) and a love of reading.

Writing took more time. “It wasn’t as easy as I thought,” says Fogle, who first turned to fictional plotting in the early ’70s. But when he’d finished several stories, he sent one to Thomas Gaddis, the late prison consultant and educator whose 1955 book, Birdman of Alcatraz, became the 1962 Burt Lancaster movie. Gaddis put Fogle in touch with magazine writer Dan Yost, who fine-tuned Fogle’s story and tried for 10 years to get it published. Finally, he showed it to director Gus Van Sant. “I felt like a fool telling Jim that sooner or later something would happen,” Yost recalls, “but it’s interesting how things happen if you don’t give up on them.”

Though a deal was cut with Avenue Pictures in 1987, Fogle says he didn’t believe it until the following year, when Dillon came to meet him. At first he didn’t know who the teen star was (“They said, ‘Matt Dillon,’ and I was thinking Gun-smoke”), but Dillon won him over. “Me and that kid hit it right off,” Fogle says. “Talking to him was like talking to some kid in the yard.”

Early this fall a group of 75 inmates gathered at Walla Walla to view the film. But the attention hasn’t changed Fogle. “He’s not getting a swelled head,” says Leonard Hystad, his cellmate of 10 years. Fogle’s mother, Electa Stark (she divorced Fogle’s father in 1962), agrees, though she has mixed feelings about Drugstore Cowboy. “One does not enjoy seeing one’s son break the law,” she says.

That’s the toughest review the movie has had. And the strong critical reaction has spurred publishers’ interest in Fogle’s Drugstore Cowboy novel. Still, with $5,000 left from the $20,000 he received from Avenue Pictures (He gave $8,000 to Yost, a “couple thousand” to his mother, some to his brother in Portland and $2,568 to Uncle Sam—the first income tax he has paid since 1970), he hopes to go to Alaska to look for work as a machinist.

Of course, that depends on whether he makes parole in July 1990. If he does, this time Fogle says he’s determined to stay out. “I’m done with drugs now, I even quit smoking and drinking. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s if you ain’t worked for it, it ain’t worth having.” Never again, he swears: “I’ve been sitting in prison for 35 years. I’d like to do something great.”

—Cynthia Sanz, Joni H. Blackman in Walla Walla