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Revisiting Chicago murder, FX series depicts Lee Miglin as gay, close to killer

Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell, right) welcome Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) into his Chicago home on the Jan. 31 episode of "The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story." | FX

Even at a time when the city routinely logged two or more homicides a day, this one stood out.

It occurred in the Gold Coast. The victim: Lee Miglin, a 72-year-old real estate tycoon. He’d been bound and tortured. His killer had stuck around long enough to eat and shave.

The 1997 murder was front-page news in the city — soon to be a global story, when investigators connected the dots of a cross-country killing spree that ended with the shooting of fashion idol Gianni Versace on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion.

On Wednesday, murderer Andrew Cunanan’s Chicago stop comes into lurid focus in episode three of FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”

It portrays Miglin, played by Mike Farrell of “MASH” fame, as the loyal husband to cosmetics magnate Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light), but also a married man tormented by his secret gay life.

Real estate developer Lee Miglin and his wife, Marilyn, are pictured a few weeks before Lee was found murdered on May 4, 1997. | John Reilly photo

Early in the episode, just before Cunanan — a gay escort/con artist — shows up on Miglin’s doorstep, we see the real estate developer, his wife out of town, lighting a candle and falling to his knees before a Catholic altar in his basement.

“I try. I try,” he whispers, his quavering voice full of guilt.

The scene that follows — Miglin and Cunanan kiss, shortly before the escort leads the developer to the garage, ties him up, tortures him and kills him — remains controversial. Miglin’s family has vociferously denied he knew Cunanan or had any kind of relationship with him. The Miglins declined to comment for this story.

John Carpenter was a crime reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times at the time and a lead reporter on the story, one that took him to both coasts. From the start, Carpenter said, the murder was a “heater,” reporter parlance for a case that attracts a lot of media attention. After the initial reporter briefings, police released few details.

“We were getting sort of a general sense of what the murder was,” said Carpenter, now a freelance reporter in the Chicago area. “Then at some point fairly early on that shut down instantly.”

Was someone trying to protect the Miglins? Carpenter says he doesn’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise him. Miglin was both well-connected and well-liked, he said.

But if the attack was random, as police would later suggest, something didn’t make sense to reporters.

“To me, what everybody always felt was that it was clearly somebody who knew that Marilyn Miglin was away for the weekend,” Carpenter said. There also was no forced entry into the home, according to media reports.

Sun-Times editors were less interested in being able to run a “tawdry headline,” as they were in filling in the missing pieces to a widely read story, Carpenter said.

The FX series relies on Maureen Orth’s 1999 book “Vulgar Favors” for much of its source material.

Andrew Cunanan

“What specifically happened in the moments leading up to Lee Miglin’s death is known only by Andrew and Lee. This is true for almost all of Andrew’s victims,” Brad Simpson, the show’s executive producer, said in an emailed statement. “Our writer, Tom Rob Smith, had to dramatize what we believe happened that weekend starting from the established facts of the crime scene. Based on the evidence, we believe that Lee and Andrew did know each other, and Andrew’s attack, as with all his victims except for William Reese, was targeted and specific. We used Maureen Orth’s book and consultancy, as well as the FBI records and the statements from witnesses inside the records for research and background.”

Farrell, the actor who plays Miglin, told the Sun-Times his research for the character involved reading widely about the case.

“But what you have to deal with is what’s on the page, as an actor,” he said.

Farrell said that while he’s sorry if his portrayal might cause additional pain for the surviving Miglins, he doesn’t feel any guilt.

He said it’s “too bad there is such antagonism” over Miglin’s possible motivations.

“To me, it’s a further manifestation of the horror of this whole thing. But part of [that] is a kind of inability or unwillingness to accept what I think is a very real and very natural part of this man’s life, and it’s one that’s really what the show is about — an inability to understand that some people have a different orientation and particularly then, and less now, there was an absolute unwillingness to accept and honor that orientation.”

Mike Farrell plays Lee Miglin with Judith Light as his wife, Marilyn Miglin, on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” | FX