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The wild true story behind the new movie ‘Cocaine Bear’

Before the recently released movie was sent to screenwriting rehab, a real bear consumed drugs that inspired the story.
/ Source: TODAY

Elizabeth Banks' latest black comedy horror “Cocaine Bear” gets slightly darker when you pull back the layers.

The movie, which was released on Feb. 24, stars an ensemble cast including Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and the late Ray Liotta. Its plot follows the chaos that ensues after a 500-pound black bear ingests an ungodly amount of cocaine and incites panic when it begins to unleash fear and attacks on the visitors of a Georgia forest.

The film has already garnered $2 million at the box office, per Variety.

Recently, NBC’s Gadi Schwartz broke down how the movie’s plot loosely drew from 1985 reports of an American black bear that overdosed on a duffel bag full of cocaine.

Check out the background of the story below:

What is the true story behind 'Cocaine Bear'?

The story of “Cocaine Bear” starts with a drug smuggling mission gone awry.

At the time, NBC Nightly News’ Tom Brokaw reported on the incident noting that “millions of dollars of cocaine dropped from the sky.” The New York Times reported that the drugs were dropped from an airplane piloted by convicted drug smuggler Andrew Thornton.

On Sept. 11, 1985, Thornton and an accomplice were on a drug trafficking mission from Colombia to the United States. While headed to a dropping point, the two tossed a load of 40 plastic containers of cocaine from the plane after realizing they were carrying too heavy a load. During an attempt to evacuate, issues with the amount Thornton was carrying while attempting to parachute resulted in his death.

Months later, on Dec. 22, the New York Times reported that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation discovered a 175-pound black bear had been found dead after overdosing on the cocaine dropped by Thornton.

Who did Andrew Thornton work for?

A former law enforcement officer from Kentucky, Thornton worked for a drug smuggling ring called "The Company." A few years before his death, Thornton had been convicted in California for a minor drug charge — though he'd initially been accused of stealing weapons and conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the country. He did six months behind bars, paid a $500 fine, and was placed on probation.

When he parachuted from his plane on Sept. 11, 1985, Thornton was wearing a bulletproof vest, carrying several weapons, and had a duffle bag of drugs, officials said at the time.

Thornton's body was discovered tangled in his parachute and in the driveway of Knoxville, Tennessee, resident Fred Meyer. At the time, a neighbor told local NBC affiliate WBIR that he wasn't all that surprised to see a drug dealer fall from the sky.

According to WBIR, “The Company” was a ring of smugglers who were trained pilots and skydivers who brought recreational drugs to the country from South America.

Where is the Cocaine Bear currently located?

After the bear's untimely demise, it was stuffed and sold to a local nature exhibit, according to Roadside America. It changed hands several times until it ended up in Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington.

The preserved animal has its own display and wears a placard around his neck with details of his story.

A stuffed bear wearing a gold chain and sign as well as a crown stands in a display. it also has mardi gras beads on it.
Cocaine Bear is on display in Kentucky.Courtesy of Courtney Oldendorf

"Don't do drugs, or you'll end up dead (and maybe stuffed) like poor 'Cocaine Bear,'" the gold sign reads. Cocaine Bear is also identified as "Pablo EscoBear" at the attraction.

Viewers can visit — but not touch — the animal, and some leave offerings nearby. On a recent visit, a knitted block of "cocaine" could be seen at the bear's feet, as well as a tray with fake lines of the stuff.

Trinkets — including a stuffed bear, knitted cocaine and fake lines of the drug — line the floor at the base of a taxidermed bear in Kentucky. There's also change, flowers, and a candle.
Visitors can leave tokens of appreciation at the feet of the dead bear displayed in Kentucky.Courtesy of Courtney Oldendorf

The bear is also adorned with a gold crown and Mardi Gras beads.

The display also appears to currently include a poster for the new film. The stuffed bear also made an appearance at a local premiere on Feb. 24 in Kentucky, where fans could snap a photo, local NBC affiliate LEX reported.

According to Roadside America, the owners of the stuffed bear (Whit Hiler and Griffin VanMeter) have been questioned by some folks who are confused about the celebration of the animal. After all, in the film, the bear is portrayed as a predator who goes on a rampage.

“We’ve gotten comments like, ‘My God, how can you celebrate that bear?’” VanMeter told the outlet. “They’re concerned about the people eaten by the bear, not understanding that the bear didn’t eat anyone.”

So who played the bear in the film?

According to the Associated Press, the bear — nicknamed Cokie — in the movie was mostly CGI created by Weta FX with Allen Henry. The outlet reported that a stuntman did the motion capture work, wearing all black and walking on all fours with prosthetic arms.

Where can I watch 'Cocaine Bear'?

The movie is currently only available in theaters but will eventually be distributed on Peacock.

Universal Pictures, which produced the film, cut a deal with Peacock in 2021 to release all of its movies to the streaming service within four months of debuting in theaters. That would put "Cocaine Bear" on the platform sometime before June 24.