“That’s my dad”: Coming Spielberg/Hanks movie about father of former Fort Mill woman

Mary Ellen Donovan Fuller sold antique Chinese furniture from a shop on Main Street in downtown Fort Mill and designed textiles for Springs Industries.

For a dozen years, she drove around York County in a navy blue, rag-top Volkswagon Cabrio – and almost nobody ever knew her father had made the most famous spy-swap in history.

Fuller never made a big deal of it. When she opened her store in 2001, she didn’t mention it in a story on The Herald’s business page.

That semi-secrecy surrounding her connection to a huge world news event will end soon.

In October, the movie “Bridge of Spies” – starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg – comes out. It is the story of Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan, who represented Rudolf Abel, the Soviet spy convicted in the late 1950s of espionage. In 1962, he was returned to the Soviet Union in exchange for Gary Powers, an American pilot shot down in 1960 in what came to be known as the U-2 incident.

Donovan died in 1970, but he lived a remarkable life as an intelligence officer, as a prosecutor at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials – and even as late-night phone buddy of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, as Donovan worked to get thousands of Bay of Pigs prisoners home after that failed coup.

“In our house in Brooklyn,” Fuller said, “life was a lot of things, but boring was never one of them.”

Not everybody saw picketers in front of their house calling the guy inside a Commie-lover for defending a Russian spy and worse, keeping him from the electric chair.

Fuller moved to tiny Alcolu near Sumter in 2008, and now is a writer with a screenplay and a novel in the works. But before that she had lived in York County since 1996. She came south after working for Springs Industries in New York for years. She was close with the Close family that owned Springs, but dinner talk was not of spies and bridges. The family didn’t even know Fuller’s connection to the famous spy deal.

Fuller loved her years in York County and lovingly recalls the Close family, her friends and neighbors here.

“I loved Fort Mill, Tega Cay and Rock Hill – great places,” Fuller said. “Glencairn Garden, the flowers. The people. Wonderful.”

Her father was a New York guy made for the movies.

A tough Irishman from the Bronx, Donovan was part of the cloak and dagger in the precursor to the CIA, the OSS. Later, after becoming an attorney, he defended Abel after he stole enough secrets to fill an aircraft carrier. Abel never named names, and nobody else was caught.

Fuller knows all the details of that exchange on a Berlin bridge, but she knew almost nothing about her father’s being gone for so long during the days when the deal was being brokered and the Cold War threatened to heat up. She did know her father represented Abel.

“I once drew a picture of a man in a striped convicts’ outfit, complete with a striped jail hat and ball and chain,” she said. “I wrote on it, ‘My daddy works for him.’ My father loved it.”

In 1964, Donovan wrote a book about the swap called “Strangers on a Bridge,” which has been re-issued in advance of the movie.

While the movie will be mainly about the spy swap – Tom Hanks has called Donovan a great American – Donovan’s efforts on behalf of America did not stop after the historic exchange. Donovan was president of New York’s board of education – head of the largest school system in the world – during racial integration. The pickets came back to the Donovan house.

Then he was president of Pratt Institute, a famous design school, during the student unrest. He even managed to run for Senate (he lost).

“Never a dull moment at our house in Brooklyn, I tell ya,” Fuller said.

Donovan died in 1970.

As for the movie, it has huge names attached. The Coen Brothers, Spielberg and Hanks. A young actress will play a young Mary Ellen Donovan.

The movie will be what motion picture people call a “dramatization,” meaning all the facts may not line up exactly right. The movie likely won’t include Powers’ being upset with Donovan on the plane ride back from Berlin, and how Powers’ father told Powers to be more thankful. And how soon afterward a country ham was delivered to the Donovan door in Brooklyn.

“A country ham – perfect,” said Fuller. “Oh, the irony.”

For Fuller, a little fictionalization is fine, because she knows what happened and lived it and the movie makes her father out to be what she knows is true – a real-life American hero.

“The idea that a movie of my father’s life, and what he did and believed in, is special and wonderful,” Fuller said.

Fuller will attend a special advance screening of “Bridge of Spies” in early October, before the movie opens nationwide Oct. 16.

The world will look at the screen and be reminded of great deeds by a great man during the Cold War.

Mary Ellen Donovan Fuller will look at the the screen and say, “That’s my dad.”

Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065; adys@heraldonline.com