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Crime News

'Escape At Dannemora' Cast Vs. Their Real-Life Counterparts

"Escape At Dannemora" revisits the 2015 prison break executed by 48-year-old Richard Matt and 34-year-old David Sweat at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY.

By Aly Vander Hayden
Five Things to Know About the Dannemora Prison Break

"Escape At Dannemora," the new limited series from Showtime, revisits the 2015 prison break executed by 48-year-old Richard Matt and 34-year-old David Sweat at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. Often compared to “The Shawshank Redemption,” the convicts' daring and intricate escape was planned for months and aided by prison employee Joyce Mitchell, 51, who became entrapped in a bizarre love triangle with both Matt and Sweat. 

Produced and directed by Ben Stiller, the series features an ensemble cast that explores the complexities of Mitchell's relationship with Matt and Sweat and questions why she would help two convicted murderers escape prison. Scroll down to see how the show's actors compare to their real-life counterparts below.

Patricia Arquette as Joyce 'Tilly' Mitchell

[Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME, New York State Police]

To prepare for her role as prison employee Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell, actress Patricia Arquette told Showtime she watched interviews and read various police transcripts to dig deeper into her character. 

Arquette explained, "When a person you're playing is very different than yourself, it's not immediately clear why this person's doing what they do."

Mitchell met Clinton Correctional Facility inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt (whom she would eventually help escape) when they were assigned to jobs in the prison's tailor shop, which Mitchell ran. During her confession, Mitchell said Sweat was "very nice" to her, but they "never had a physical relationship." After becoming close with Matt, however, Mitchell said he became sexually violent with her. She disclosed that Matt kissed her and forced her to perform oral sex, but that she didn't say anything because she "was scared for my husband, who also works in the facility."

"Tilly's relationship with Sweat is flirty, but also maternal,” Arquette told Showtime. “I think she's really in love with him in a very teenage-y kind of way. Her relationship with Matt, it's scary, and it throws her off completely because it's not something she really knows how to do." 

Benicio Del Toro as Richard Matt

[Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME, New York State Police]

Of his character Richard Matt, actor Benicio Del Toro said, "Emotionally, he was broken. And you add to that money, drugs — you have a time bomb."

A delinquent since his teen years, Matt went on to live a life of crime that included harassment, assault and weapons possession, and eventually led to a string of murders. 

"I think Richard Matt is a sad story. He killed several people," Del Toro told Showtime. "He's a manipulator, a bully, but then again, maybe that's the only way he knows how to get what he wants."

In 2008, Matt was found guilty of brutally murdering an elderly businessman, William Rickerson, who had fired him, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Matt broke Rickerson’s neck, cut off his limbs with a hacksaw, and dumped his body in the Niagara River, according to NBC News.  He met fellow convict David Sweat while imprisoned at the Clinton Correctional Facility, which is where they planned and executed an elaborate escape. Twenty days after their jailbreak, Matt was shot and killed by authorities.

Aside from being a career criminal, Matt was also known around the prison as a gifted artist, and Mitchell had even asked Matt to paint her a portrait of her children as an anniversary gift for her husband, Lyle Mitchell. In exchange for the painting, Mitchell gave Matt a pair of speed bag boxing gloves and two pairs of glasses with lights attached so he and Sweat, who was also an artist, could paint at night. Mitchell later found out they had used the glasses to illuminate the hole they were digging to escape. She never received the portrait.

Paul Dano as David Sweat

[Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME, New York State Police]

For production of "Escape At Dannemora," actor Paul Dano and Del Toro went to prison to visit David Sweat, who has been in solitary confinement since authorities captured him following the escape. 

"It's hard to look at somebody behind bars and see that they have a sense of humor, or he's nice. But, he killed somebody,” Dano told Showtime. “I don't think he's somebody who ever really had a chance. It's too bad because I think he had the mind of an engineer or something."

Sweat was serving a life sentence for the 2002 murder of a Broome County sheriff's deputy, according to Fox News, when he became friends with Matt and Mitchell. 

"Inmate Sweat was really close to inmate Matt. They were always together and shared everything,” Mitchell disclosed in her confession. “Inmate Matt and I got along well. We talked every day and he treated me with respect and was nice to me. He made me feel special."

Two days after Matt was shot and killed by authorities, Sweat was shot and captured in a wooded area of Upstate New York. He was sentenced to an additional seven to 14 years for charges related to the jailbreak, and he was later moved to a new prison. 

At sentencing, Sweat told the court, "I'd like to apologize to the community and people who felt the fear and felt it necessary to leave their homes or their community because of the escape. That was never my intent, and I deeply apologize for that, your honor."

Bonnie Hunt as Catherine Scott

[Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME, New York Inspector General's Office]

While Matt and Sweat were still on the run, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo assigned Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott, played by Bonnie Hunt, “to conduct a thorough investigation to determine all factors potentially involved in the escape." Mitchell had been arrested seven days after the inmates' escape on a felony charge of promoting prison contraband and a misdemeanor charge of criminal facilitation, and she pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. Part of Mitchell's plea deal included having to cooperate with investigators and release details about the Dannemora escape.

According to NBC5, Scott spent hours interviewing Mitchell about her role in Matt and Sweat's jailbreak, and Mitchell conceded that the convicts began plotting in January 2015. Mitchell said she snuck in various tools for the inmates, sometimes through hamburger meat, including hacksaw blades, chisels, a steel punch and concrete drill bits, which they used to cut holes in their cell walls and create their escape tunnel.

Over the months, Mitchell became closer with Sweat and Matt, and she ended up agreeing to meet up and run away with them after they made it out of the prison. Scott reported that in addition "to smuggling escape tools and maps, Mitchell agreed to be a conduit to obtain cash for Matt and gathered items to assist their flight, including guns and 5 ammunition, camping gear, clothing and a compass." Mitchell also spoke with Matt about murdering her husband, Lyle, according to Sweat. On the night of their breakout, however, Mitchell did not show up at the rendezvous point because she had been hospitalized following a panic attack, and the prisoners fled on foot. Mitchell later said she felt "guilty" about leaving her husband and abandoned the plan.

David Morse as Gene Palmer

[Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME, New York State Police]

During Inspector General Scott's investigation, she uncovered that another prison employee, Eugene "Gene" Palmer (played by David Morse), had aided in Sweat and Matt's escape. According to Scott, parts of the jailbreak plot went "undetected" because Matt had befriended Palmer over the years, and he aided in delivering escape tools to Matt and Sweat through hamburger meat, though he said he did so unknowingly. It was also discovered that Palmer had been gifted several paintings and drawings by Matt. 

According to Sweat, who also gifted artwork, “When we do… paintings, we give it to you exceptionally cheap because we know that at some point we’re going to be in a bind, or we might need help with something.”

Throughout their friendship, Matt gave Palmer "at least 10 paintings and three drawings," with many of them being Palmer family portraits. 

“[A]fter I accepted the first one, then he kept coming back, ‘Well … do you want somebody in your family drawn, or … friends or whatever relative.,’" Palmer told Scott.

Scott reported that Palmer's interactions with various inmates were "unauthorized and improper," and Mitchell even characterized Matt and Sweat as “Palmer’s boys." One inmate said Palmer and Matt "were tighter than two peas in a pod." Following his arrest, Palmer eventually pleaded guilty to a felony count of promoting prison contraband for bringing in pliers and a screwdriver, a misdemeanor contraband count for the hamburger meat and a misdemeanor count of official misconduct. Palmer was sentenced to six months in jail and released after four.

Eric Lange as Lyle Mitchell


[Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME, NBC News]

Eric Lange takes on the role of Joyce Mitchell's husband, Lyle, who also worked at Clinton Correctional Facility. Though Lyle was unaware of his wife's involvement in Sweat and Matt's escape plan, he did know she had been sneaking in contraband for the pair. According to Scott, Lyle testified he had become aware that Mitchell had given Matt the boxing gloves and glasses in exchange for paintings. Worried she could be fired if she was caught, Lyle told her, "‘Never, ever again. It ain’t worth losing your job over.’ She said, ‘Never,’ and she never – until I found out she was getting the [family portrait for him as a gift], but she never got it."

During his testimony, Lyle said even after everything that happened, he would "probably not" report his wife's actions if given another chance to do so because "[t]here’s nothing worse than being a snitch in jail." Sweat said that in the weeks before their escape, Lyle again became concerned that his wife could be caught with contraband, and he said to Sweat, “She’s bringing all that stuff in, and I want to make sure nobody’s putting pressure on her, you know, trying to extort her for stuff.” 

Sweat told Lyle, "The next day when I talked to Lyle, I told Lyle, I said, ‘Listen, I talked to Matt, and you didn’t hear this from me because you’re not supposed to know, but the reason she’s bringing stuff in, I guess you’ve got a birthday or an anniversary or something coming up? And, I guess he’s making something for you? She’s got him making something for you, or something for that.’ I said, ‘You didn’t hear that from me.’ I said, ‘That’s where the stuff is going.’ So, that was what [I] told him. He was fine with that."

Lyle was never charged in connection with the escape.

[Photo: Chris Saunders/SHOWTIME, New York State Police]