Fact or fiction? The truth behind FX's 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace'

Kelly Woo
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX)

The second season of American Crime Story has been comprised of telling the gripping story of Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer responsible for the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace.

But how much of The Assassination of Gianni Versace is truly sensational and how much is merely sensationalized?

Executive producer Ryan Murphy based the series on journalist Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors. But many points in the book are disputed by Versace’s family, including his sister Donatella.

“Since Versace did not authorize the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should only be considered as a work of fiction,” the family said in a statement before the Season 2 premiere.

As ACS screenwriter Tom Rob Smith explained, “You have these tiny points of truth, and you then try to connect the tissue between [them]. But I would never use the word ‘embellishing’ or ‘making up.’ It’s trying to join those pinpoints.”

Here’s a rundown of what’s fact and what’s fiction in the show:

UNKNOWN: Cunanan and Versace knew each other

Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan at a San Francisco club in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: FX)

Versace’s family and Orth disagree on the relationship between the killer and his victim. Orth and the show claim that the two met in 1990 in San Francisco, when Versace was there to design costumes for an opera. At a club, Versace met Cunanan and then asked if he knows him from Lake Como in Italy, where Versace had a house (apparently this was a line the real Versace used a lot). The designer then invited Cunanan to the opera.

The show even has Versace recognize Cunanan and say no just before the latter shoots him, but Versace was shot in the back of the head.

FACT: A bird was collateral damage in the murder

Versace and a bird were both victims of Cunanan in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: FX)

While the show plays up the imagery of the dead turtle dove (which was actually gray, not white), one did die after being hit by a bullet fragment.

FICTION: Nobody witnessed the murder

Cunanan, wearing a red baseball cap, readies to kill Versace in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Jeff Daly/FX)

In the show, no one is around to see Cunanan shoot Versace, but in real life, several people were on the scene and noticed Cunanan in his red cap. One woman, Mersiha Colakovic, told police she saw him but thought he was an admirer.

UNKNOWN: Versace’s HIV status

Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX)

The show and the book portray Versace as being HIV positive, while his family has adamantly denied the claim. Orth cited a Miami detective who said he’d seen the designer’s postmortem test results. In the show, Versace sees a doctor for treatment in a scene and almost dies of AIDS before making a miraculous recovery.

FACT: Cunanan could’ve been caught twice in Miami

Just four days before he killed Versace, Cunanan was recognized at a sandwich shop by an employee, who called 911. Police arrived a few minutes too late and missed him.

Cunanan makes a transaction at a pawn shop seven days before killing Versace in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: FX)

Cunanan also went to a pawn shop just a week before the murder. He used his real name and address (really!), and following Florida law, the pawn shop clerk mailed the receipt to the police. The FBI had already put him on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in May 1997, so if that receipt had been processed, Miami police might have apprehended him before Versace’s murder.

FACT: Donatella Versace and Antonio D’Amico had a tense relationship

Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico, Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace, and Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: FX)

In the opening scene of Episode 2, Versace tells his sister that he’s planning to come out as gay to the public. She’s against it and blames his decision on boyfriend D’Amico, who she sees as a fame whore. In real life, Donatella and Versace’s longtime partner did not get along. She even once said, “I never liked him as a person.”

FICTION: Cunanan’s relationship with Lee Miglin

Cunanan pays Lee Miglin a visit in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX)

Cunanan did work as an escort, but police found no evidence that Cunanan knew the Chicago tycoon. They believed it was a chance killing. But the show portrays Miglin as a closeted man enamored with Cunanan enough to invite him over to his home while his wife Marylin is away.

But there was no sign of forced entry into the Miglin home. That, coupled with Marylin’s convenient absence, have led to theories that she and police hatched a deal to hide Cunanan and Miglin’s connection to protect the latter’s reputation.

FICTION: Cunanan’s conversations with his victims

Since Cunanan didn’t discuss his murders or leave a suicide note, every conversation between him and his victims is fictionalized. For example, in the show, when he kills the unlucky cemetery caretaker, William Reese begs for his life by mentioning his wife and son. While Reese did have a family, it’s impossible to know what he actually said to Cunanan (if anything).

FICTION: David Madson’s role in Jeffrey Trail’s death

Cunanan murdered Trail, a friend, in David Madson’s apartment in Minneapolis. All three men had been friends for some time.

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Cody Fern as David Madson, and Finn Wittrock as Jeffrey Trail in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX)

What remains unclear is the role Madson played in Trail’s death. The show chooses to depict Madson as a hostage who’s forced to watch while Trail is beaten to death and then must live with the corpse for several days. When Madson wants to call the police, Cunanan threatens to frame him as an accomplice.

FACT: The police got it all wrong at first

Indeed, when police finally found Trail’s body, they thought it was Madson rolled up in the carpet. They finally identified Trail and suspected Madson, since it was his apartment. Cunanan had left his duffle bag in the apartment, but police didn’t realize the significance until later.

Madson in his apartment in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX)

FICTION: Cunanan and Madson on the run

The two really did leave Madson’s apartment on Tuesday morning and took his red Jeep north (the same car found outside Miglin’s house). They did eat at a diner on the Friday after Trail’s murder. But did they stop at a bar to listen to country music? Did Madson try to escape through a bathroom window? We’ll never know.

Cunanan tries to comfort Madson while the two are at a bar in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX)

FICTION: Cunanan’s marriage proposal 

When Cunanan arrives in Minneapolis, the show shows both Trail and Madson picking him up at the airport. In actuality, the latter came alone. And while Cunanan did give Madson a gold Cartier watch, it’s impossible to know if Cunanan proposed marriage with it.

The show also implies that Madson and Trail were lovers (which could be a motive for Cunanan later murdering Trail), but there was no evidence of that.

FACT: Trail on 48 Hours

Trail films an interview with 48 Hours in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace.  (Photo: FX)

Trail really did give an anonymous interview with Richard Schlesinger in 1993 about being a closeted gay military officer during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Watch an excerpt. 

FACT: Cunanan had a sugar daddy

Cunanan really did live with wealthy, 60-something San Diego businessman Norman Blachford in his fabulous waterfront home for a year. In her book, Orth wrote that Blachford also gave him a car and a $2,000-month allowance.

In the show, Cunanan leaves the luxe setup when he is denied more lavish gifts and a place in Blachford’s will (there’s no proof of that last part).

Annaleigh Ashford as Elizabeth Cote and Michael Nouri as Norman Blachford in  The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX)

FACT: Andrew’s friend Lizzy

Another friend who attends the party is Lizzy, his best friend from San Francisco. Her full name is Elizabeth Cote and she went to junior high school with Cunanan. He was even the godfather to her children. Before Cunanan committed suicide, Cote taped a plea asking him to stop killing, but the message came too late.

FICTION: The birthday party

In the show, Cunanan holds a decadent 27th birthday at Blachford’s home. Trail was there, but there’s no evidence that Madson attended. And the episode seems to be stretching when Miglin shows up. And that photo of Cunanan with three of his victims? Definitely dramatic license.

FACT: Cunanan’s lies

Andrew Cunanan was a serial liar and killer in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. (Photo: FX)

Cunanan spun a web of lies to nearly everybody he met. He often said he was the son of Filipino sugar plantation owners, when in fact his father was an embezzler who abandoned his family. Cunanan also often liked to say he worked in the movie business, as he tells Madson in the episode.

FICTION: Cunanan’s mother

In the show, Cunanan visits his mother before leaving for Minneapolis and she comes across as a bit unhinged. She helps him bathe, sniffing and scrubbing him. In real life, not much is known about Mary Anne Schillaci. And there’s no evidence that Cunanan visited her before his killing spree began.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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