David Begelman’s suicide last week resonated through the showbiz community – a fact that puzzled some of the younger players in Tinseltown. At least 15 years had passed since Begelman’s heyday; why did this man still stir such emotion?
The answer is that David Begelman, at his zenith, was more than just a studio chief or a top agent. He was the embodiment of the best and worst traits of Hollywood power players. There was hardly a moment in his life when he was not at once stunningly successful, yet also teetering on the brink of abject humiliation. As one long-term friend put it, “David was the only person I knew who could roll up to your house in his gleaming Rolls, having just closed a big picture deal, and then, straight out, hit on you for a loan.”
Begelman could charm an ice cube, and his powers of persuasion were legendary. Yet he was also the Prince of Darkness – a career sociopath who knew it, talked about it and often in his lifetime sought out psychiatric help to make him whole.
“There is something in me that can’t stand success,” he once told me. “If everything is going really great, I will find a way to mess things up. It’s a compulsion.”
The best-known manifestation of this compulsion was, of course, his check forging gambit in the late 1970s. At the time, Begelman was fulfilling his lifelong ambitions. He had taken control of a studio that was on its knees and had infused it with energy and innovation. The pre-Begelman Columbia was turning out such groaners as “Lost Horizon” and “Young Winston.” Suddenly, along came trendy movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Taxi Driver” and “Shampoo.” Even Begelman’s failures were intriguing – “The Front” with Woody Allen, for example.
But then, of course, he brought himself down. It was symptomatic of Begelman’s malaise that one of the $10,000 checks he wrote and then cashed was made out to Pierre Groleau as payment for “marketing consultation services.” Groleau was not a marketing man at all; he was the maitre d’ at Begelman’s favorite restaurant, Ma Maison. It was as though Begelman actually wanted to be found out. And he got his way.
Many colleagues were aware of Begelman’s fiscal machinations and also of his almost surreal gambling debts. Furious arguments raged about how to deal with him, however. Some colleagues were fiercely protective; others recognized that he was out of control.
The press, too, was caught in a quandary. Though some in the Hollywood press corps knew of Begelman’s transgressions, a weird code of silence was maintained. To expose Begelman, they argued, would hurt the credibility of the industry. It remained for the Wall Street Journal finally to blow the whistle – a journalistic foray that ultimately resulted in David McClintick’s outstanding book, “Indecent Exposure.”
Begelman never served time for check forging. He hired a kid to make a documentary about drug abuse, which constituted “community service.” He was also fired from his job and forced to surrender stock options which at that time were worth about $1.4 million but which, after the Coca-Cola buyout and other machinations, ultimately would have left Begelman a hugely wealthy man.
Though Begelman blew this opportunity, it was not long before he was given a second chance. Kirk Kerkorian was looking for a new head of MGM/UA and felt Begelman was the man who could bring some glitz to his sagging studio. This time out, however, everything Begelman touched seemed to go sour – flops like “Yes, Giorgio,” Billy Wilder’s “Buddy Buddy” and “Pennies From Heaven” starring Steve Martin. In July, 1982, Begelman was not only dismissed as studio chief but was informed that the final three years of his contract would not be honored. When Begelman protested, Kerkorian’s attorneys warned darkly that it would be unwise for him to start legal action. His past “difficulties” at Columbia had made him very vulnerable if “certain things” were brought to light about his performance at MGM/UA.
Begelman was helpless, but even in the teeth of adversity, he maintained his regal style and bearing. He was a man who loved the best; the son of a tailor, everything he wore was custom made, down to his socks. Indeed, he first decided to become an agent when, as a kid, he admired the style of an old-time New York talent agent named Billy Goodheart who regularly patronized his father’s tailor shop. Arriving in a limo and ordering his clothes with a certain panache, Goodheart symbolized showbiz to young David, and he wanted in.
Ultimately, Begelman was to surpass Goodheart’s fondest dreams. Begelman’s limos were the longest and shiniest. When he visited his stepson at summer camp he swooped down in a leased sea plane. As a studio chief, his manner resembled that of a head of state. Begelman managed to totally reinvent himself – his official bio even indicated that he had graduated from Yale, which was, of course, a complete fabrication.
There was a warm and generous side to Begelman, too. He stuck by old friends who’d fallen on lean times. Where other studio chiefs were brusque, Begelman was gracious, if not courtly. He truly venerated good filmmaking and gifted filmmakers and did his best to make their lives more agreeable.
He was, to the end, the best and worst, a living, breathing contradiction. In an industry with more than its share of sociopathic liars, Begelman managed at once to be both honorable and utterly dishonorable.
And that is why they’re still talking about him.