Bobby Axelrod of the Showtime series Billions, played by Damian Lewis at his most mischievous, is a singular character on TV. He’s the brilliant manager of a hedge fund who can wield pop culture references as effectively as he can play the stock market. Among financial power players, his skill is nearly unparalleled —though he’s known to use illegal insider information to increase Axe Capital’s earnings.
Billions is rooted in the actual systems which loom large in New York. There really are hedge fund managers who lord over airy offices like Bobby Axelrod; there really are district attorneys who go after perpetrators of financial crimes, like Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). While there’s no precise equivalent of Bobby Axelrod in the real world, there are a few key figures that occupy eerily similar positions — from the unfathomably lavish lifestyles to the unorthodox trading strategies.
Likely, Billions creators were inspired by real-life billionaire and hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen when creating the character of Bobby Axlerod — especially in Billions’ earlier seasons, while Bobby was still locked in an intense cat-and-mouse game with U.S. Attorney General of the Southern District Chuck Rhoades.
Cohen and Axe followed similar “coming-of-billionaire” stories, walking the same route from middle-class New York upbringings to unfathomable wealth through their sheer ability to sit in a chair and trade expertly. In 1992, Cohen founded S.A.C. Capital with an enormous bonus check from his then-firm and $10,000,000 of his own money, and grew the fund to over $12 billion dollars.
Like Bobby, Cohen was absolutely relentless in his pursuit of money, even after accruing billions. There was no off button. Then came 2013, when one of Cohen’s head traders, Mathew Martoma, was accused, and later convicted, of insider trading. The charges didn’t dissuade Cohen from continuing his ways – he threw a lavish party at his home in East Hampton, NY two days after federal prosecutors announced a five-count criminal indictment against S.A.C. Capital Advisors.
Unlike Bobby, though, Cohen was put out of the game by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In November 2013, Cohen was offered a settlement by the SEC that resembled what Chuck offers Bobby in season 2 of Billions. Bobby was expected to pay a $1 billion settlement and turn his Axe Capital into a “home office,” meaning he’d only be managing his money. In Billions, Bobby chooses to tear up the settlement check.
Cohen did not do the same. In November 2013, S.A.C. Capital Advisors pled guilty to all counts, paid a $1.2 billion settlement, and the fund was turned into a home office. In 2016, a civil case was brought against Cohen by the SEC, resulting in him being prevented from managing outside money until 2018. Currently, Cohen is setting up another fund.
This case also inspired other Billions characters. Chuck Rhoades is based on U.S. Attorney Prett Bharara, who pursued charges against Cohen. Like Martoma, Bill “Dollar Bill” Stearns (Kelly AuCoin) is arrested for insider trading in Billions; unlike Martoma, who is serving a prison sentence, Bill walks free.
The fund Axe Capital also bears similarities to Cantor Fitzgerald, a hedge fund whose workforce was devastated by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In the first season of Billions, it’s revealed that Bobby was outside of his World Trade Center office on 9/11; he survived, and most of his colleagues were killed. Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick has a similarly grim story. Lutnick was dropping his son off for the first day of school, and thus was out of the office when the planes struck the towers. Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 of its 960 employees, including Lutnick’s brother.
Clearly, Billions is grounded in reality — that’s what makes it a show that people in the industry enjoy so much, too. According to Damian Lewis’ interview with Page Six, Wall Streeters frequently ask him if Bobby is based on billionaire and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman (they share the same initials). In Season 1 of Billions, Bobby gets in a fight with a rival investor that resembles Ackman’s feud with Carl Icahn. Though Lewis maintained that Bobby isn’t based on a single person, that doesn’t mean people won’t keep guessing. For insiders plugged into the world of Wall Street, Billions is an entertaining (and accurate) parade of allusions.
Elena Nicolaou – Read more on refinery29.com