What Really Happened

11.03.13

The True Story Behind Dallas Buyers Club: Meet the Real Ron Woodruff

The story of a Texas electrician who deals experimental AIDs drugs only took twenty years to make it to Hollywood. And it all started as a simple act of journalism.

Today Dallas Buyers Club is a major Hollywood motion picture starring Matthew McConaughey as a Texas electrician and rodeo habitué who transforms himself into an importer and distributer of experimental AIDS medications after contracting HIV.

But it started life as a simple act of journalism.

In the summer of 1992, Bill Minutaglio, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, stumbled upon an article about AIDS patients in cities across the country who were pooling their resources and paying local entrepreneurs to supply them with drugs not yet approved by the FDA. Minutaglio eventually tracked down Ron Woodroof, the wiry, mustachioed, foul-mouthed head of Dallas’s homegrown buyers club, and convinced Woodroof to tell him all about his exploits.

There was, for example, the time Woodroof installed special air shocks on the rear end of his Lincoln Continental to support the weight of the thousands of pills he intended to sneak across the Mexico border only to have the shocks collapse while he was being interrogated at the checkpoint. Or the time he bribed a Japanese biochemical worker with $500 and a few rounds of drinks in exchange for the name of a fiscally troubled physician who might supply him with a few dozen vials of interferon. Or the time he smuggled the interferon through customs in a smoking briefcase full of dry ice.

All of which eventually made it into Minutaglio’s feature for the Morning News’ Sunday magazine. It was called “Buying Time,” and it was the first real profile of Ron Woodroof anyone had ever done.

Shortly after Minutaglio’s story appeared, screenwriter Craig Borten drove to Dallas and spent three days talking to Woodroof. From their conversations he fashioned a screenplay that eventually became, as The Los Angeles Times recently put it, “the stuff of legend”—a 20-year tale of “the doomed commitment of superstars like Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, the dissipated interest of filmmakers as diverse as Marc Forster and Dennis Hopper, numerous shaky financial arrangements, two studios with cold feet, a writer so tortured by rejection that he spiraled into addiction, a bailout by men in the decidedly unglamorous business of Texas fertilizer, and the film's eventual salvation by an actor who for many years had best been known for semi-naked bongo drumming.”

Meanwhile, Minutaglio got on with his career, writing books about George W. Bush and the JFK assassination while teaching journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.

That’s where The Daily Beast found him last week when we called to talk about the true story behind the movie—the real Ron Woodruff.

“I’m glad they made the movie,” Minutaglio told us. “I admired Ron. I’m not afraid to say it now. He just wanted to live a little longer, and he wanted the same for other people, too. Out of that, he created a business. It kept him going for a while. It kept him energized. He was a fascinating figure in American history.”

Excerpts from our conversation:

THE DAILY BEAST: How did you find out about Ron Woodroof?

BILL MINUTAGLIO: There had been one mention of Ron in my old newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, but really the thing that sparked my interest was reading in the Village Voice or some other alternative weekly about Buyers Clubs. The article mentioned that the group in Dallas had a national reputation: they were known for being more risk-taking and aggressive. I was always looking for stories in Dallas that had some sort of national or even international significance, and I thought this could be one of them. So I clipped the story out and began making some calls.

And it was really easy to find Ron Woodroof. He was not in hiding. He was not underground. People in the AIDs community just simply said, “Oh, the Dallas Buyers Club—here’s how you reach them.”

I called him, got in touch with him, and he invited me over to his office. Which was kind of surprising to me. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be hidden, out in the woods, or some kind of backroom deal.

This is a guy who is smuggling drugs across the border.

Frankly, yeah. He was a smuggler. There’s no other word for it. I thought he was going to be an outlaw bandit kind of guy where we would have to have secret codes and handshakes before we could meet.

But in fact the office of the Dallas Buyers Club was right outside downtown Dallas, about a quarter-mile from the skyscrapers. It was on Swiss, which is one of the finest, oldest, premium blocks in the city. If he was hiding, he was in plain sight. And that’s where I met Ron.

What was your first impression of him?

I probably came armed with the thing you’re not supposed to as a reporter: preconceptions. I thought he was going to be mysterious. That he was going to look like a motorcycle gang member. A smuggler. Whatever a smuggler looks like.

But I met a man in a suit. That was the first thing that threw me off. He had a nice white shirt on, and a tie. He might have even had cufflinks. He was carefully groomed. He had a thick, healthy mustache. I remember thinking that it looked like a holdover from the disco days.

In short, he wasn’t the outlaw gangster pirate person I thought I would see—furtive and frankly scary.

Were you disappointed by that, as a journalist? That he didn’t seem more colorful.

No, no. I actually began to see the possibilities in the story. It was counterintuitive. He wasn’t the stereotype. People were telling me that the Dallas Buyers Club really was aggressive and that they really were involved in smuggling drugs, and yet here’s a guy who looks like a CPA. And that makes it more interesting. I remember thinking, “This is just the kind of story I like, because it’s so unlikely. It’s your average man next door, but he’s really going all the way. An ordinary person caught up in something extraordinary.”

Very early on, Ron told me that he was doing this to stay alive. And like many people, that’s a story I love: someone rising to the occasion and behaving really differently because they’re faced with some unbelievable thunderclap in their lives.

The good news was that Ron didn’t turn out to be too ordinary, which comes across in your story as well as the new movie. He was an incredibly vibrant character.

[Laughs] When he opened his mouth and began talking, he cursed like four sailors instead of one. Very blue. Very salty. I remember he would bound up from his chair and march around the room and slap his hand on the table. I thought he was really unfiltered.

But what he was yelling and cursing about was the government, and the pace of approval, and how the FDA didn’t realize how desperate people like him were. It was only later that I realized he was dying. I was with a man who would be dead in a few weeks. My story came out in August 1992. Ron died in either late September or early October.

He had a thick, healthy mustache. I remember thinking that it looked like a holdover from the disco days.

Did he let on that he was that close to the end?

No, he was very vibrant, and very intense, and very coiled. But really, really angry. It was palpable. Almost demanding answers right there. There’s the kind of cursing that is like barroom banter, but with Ron it would escalate. He wasn’t being blustery for the sake of “see my personality, I’m a tough-talking guy.” He was just really frustrated—at the world, at the government that was firewalling his access to the medicines that he thought could keep him alive. He was desperate—perhaps because he knew the clock was ticking.

Ron had told me he had been a commercial electrician in Dallas. In the early 1980s, Dallas was just rocketing. The joke was that the national bird of Dallas was the crane, with all the buildings going up everywhere. People were moving in from all over the country, corporations were relocating there, huge development. And here’s Ron. He told me he felt he was being overlapped by all these circumstances in Dallas—that it was a go-go city, but he was left out. And then he had this discovery that he had AIDs, and he made the fateful decision to go get these drugs.

What was your next step?

To try to verify some of his tales because they were so extraordinary. I went out to look out his car because he was talking about going to Mexico a lot. Smuggling was a lot easier back then. This was long before 9/11.

Ron was wary of me initially. But he quickly became completely unfiltered. Thinking back, I’m like, “Was that just the way he was? Why was he so open?”

As I read your story I was thinking the same thing. Ron was committing crimes—and then telling a reporter all about them.

I think it was that he was dying. Someone who is going to be that self-medicating, who’s going to be mixing potions and chemicals to stay alive, is going to be very on top of his medical condition. He might have known that he was near the end.

So he was open with you because he was looking out for his legacy?

I think Ron was like, “What the hell. I’m not going to hold these stories in until I die.” I think he just said, “I’m dying. There’s no reason for me to filter. I don’t give a rat’s ass who knows about these things.” I don’t know that. He didn’t say. But I could see him thinking that. “Why do I need to hold these cards close to my vest? There’s no time for that anymore.”

What happened to the Buyers Club?

I don’t know. You move on. I have to imagine that the air was kind of let out of it when Ron died. He was such a personality and such a risk-taker that it’s hard to picture anybody taking his place.

Did you think Ron was a homophobe?

I don’t know. In my discussions with him I don’t remember him exhibiting anger or expressing pejoratives about gay men and women. He was a businessman who needed customers—to fund his trips, to buy his disguises, to pay people off, to keep gas in his Lincoln, and to keep himself alive. He had ceased being an electrician. There was no money coming from anywhere else. And I find it hard to imagine that he would be disparaging of his customers if they happened to be gay.

The movie had a convoluted path through Hollywood. Have you followed the news over the years?

I’d heard rumors about a film, but I was never contacted. And then a few weeks ago I was watching Gravity with my son and suddenly there was the trailer for Dallas Buyers Club. My jaw-dropped. I thought, “Well, I guess those rumors were for real.”

Did Matthew McConaughey remind you of Ron?

I suppose to capture somebody from Texas you’re not going to go wrong with somebody like Matthew McConaughey. If Tommy Lee Jones isn’t available, go with McConaughey. [Laughs] McConaughey plays Texans very well. He’s part of this world.

I didn’t spend 24/7 with Ron, week in and week out. He didn’t mention that he had befriended a transvestite, or that he was a rodeo sportsman. He told me that he had a girlfriend, and I repeatedly asked if I could interview her for the story and learn more about what her role might be—her fateful journey. But he never steered me to her.

He was a little wary about some things in his personal life, things I wanted to know more about. If you read my story, there’s not a whole lot in there about his upbringing or even how he got ill. That’s because he wouldn’t tell me. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. “How does an electrician get into this? Where did Ron come from?” He wouldn’t say. I don’t know why that was.

So you’ve got to go see the movie, right?

[Laughs] I’ve got to see the movie.