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'Crazy Love:' Documenting an infamous crime

In 1959, Burton Pugach hired someone to toss lye in his mistress' face, blinding and disifguring her.  A new film follows how the couple ultimately reconciled and got back together.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dan Klores still remembers his first case of heartbreak.

'I was obsessed, during the relationship and after," says the 57-year-old documentary filmmaker. "I did some things that I was absolutely not proud of, and kept them to myself. Who's going to admit, `By the way, I call her and hang up'?"

Burton Pugach admitted to more than that when his heart was broken, and Klores remembered his story, too. It was June 1959 when the married Pugach was jilted by his gorgeous young girlfriend and hired someone to toss lye in her face, blinding the love of his life (and ensuring she could quite literally never see another man).

Pugach, whose heinous attack became a tabloid sensation, was jailed for 14 years. Upon his release, Pugach was interviewed on local television and proposed, on camera, to his blind and disfigured victim, Linda Riss.

Strangely enough, she accepted.

They were pronounced parolee and wife on Nov. 27, 1974. And when Klores read a newspaper piece about the pair four years ago, his old memory became his new obsession: the bizarre tale of boy meets girl, boy maims girl, boy marries girl  and more.

The relationship between Burt and Linda (now married 33 years) is the focus of his latest film, the aptly named "Crazy Love," which opens in New York June 1 and expands elsewhere in subsequent weeks. The documentary's biggest fan, in yet another improbable turn, is ... Burt Pugach.

"Dan Klores is a genius," said Pugach, who comes off as corrupt, creepy and controlling during his better moments in the film. "He did an excellent job. For the first time, the story has colors  it was no longer black and white."

The couple's complex relationship, in its assorted strange shadings, is the latest New York narrative to grab Klores' attention. The native Brooklynite, founder of a well-known eponymous public-relations firm, moved into documentary filmmaking with 2003's "The Boys of 2nd Street Park."

The film followed Klores' boyhood friends from their days on a Brighton Beach basketball court through adulthood. The follow-up was the critically hailed "Ring of Fire," a recounting of the 1962 night when boxer Emile Griffith delivered a fatal beating to Benny "Kid" Paret inside Madison Square Garden.

"Crazy Love" was another slice of the city lurking somewhere inside Klores' subconscious, stuck since his youth in a New York far different from its 21st century incarnation.

"I wasn't aware it had stayed within me," Klores said about the Pugachs' story. "But there was an article on Burt and Linda in the Sunday (New York) Times. And as soon as I saw it, I said, `Oh, I remember this. And this is a good story.'"

Klores, his beard gray and his jeans faded, plays with a rubber band while discussing "Crazy Love" in his second-floor Tribeca office. On a nearby shelf sits the film's award for best documentary from the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

While his previous documentaries were sold to television, "Crazy Love" will have a theatrical release. Klores found this film a harder sell than his earlier efforts.

"I was speaking to someone and I said, 'I can't believe it. Everybody loves this, but they're not biting to the extent that we want,'" Klores recalled. "And this woman said to me, 'You don't make they type of movies that everyone will buy. You want something like that, do Hansel and Gretel.'"

Klores opted for Burt and Linda, whose personal Bronx tale still sets heads shaking in disbelief nearly a half-century later.

"When Dan came to me with the idea, it didn't seem like it could be nonfiction," said actor Fisher Stevens, who signed on as the project's producer and co-director.

The documentary's Manhattan premiere produced a strange mix of celebrities culled from across Klores' career. There was former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and shock jock Howard Stern. Journalist Jimmy Breslin, and "Sopranos" star Steve Schirripa. Actor Matt Dillon, and basketball Hall of Famer Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.

They were joined by Burt and Linda, who received a rousing ovation when they stood side-by-side in the front of the theater after the credits rolled.

"What Dan Klores did was to point out that I'm not defined _ and I shouldn't be defined _ by that single act," Pugach said in an interview before the premiere. Still, he can't escape what happened: "Even without the movie, I live with it every day. You can't hide your past."

Klores, the happily married father of three boys aged four to nine, plans to step away from his public relations company in the near future to focus entirely on film and writing. Even as he was fully immersed in the publicity business, Klores always envisioned moving on.

"Not making documentaries," he said. "But somehow writing films ... absolutely. I was a journalist and a writer, and I was broke, and that's how I got into PR."

Klores is well into his next documentary, "Black Magic," a look into the civil rights movement as told by basketball players and coaches from historically black colleges. Hoop star Monroe is the film's co-producer.

There was a nice tie-in between Klores' first documentary and his latest project. He recruited a group of his Brighton Beach buddies and flew them out to the Sundance Film Festival for the "Crazy Love" premiere.

"I took eight of 'em _ the `Boys of 2nd Street Park,'" said Klores, still tickled by the thought. "It was great. It was `Entourage' for guys in their mid-50s."