Recalling the sad saga of a studio sociopath

IT WAS PRECISELY 20 years ago that this town’s attention was riveted on a corporate melodrama far more intriguing than the plot of any movie. Even the judge hearing the case termed it “the most bizarre case” he’d ever encountered.

If David Begelman’s life were reduced to a studio synopsis, it would read as follows:

The head of a major studio starts depositing checks intended for a star and star director into his personal bank account. He is discovered and suspended. His allies rally to his cause and get him reinstated. He’s then forced to resign to face four counts of felony grand theft. A judge reduces his sentence to a misdemeanor and lets him off with the proviso that he produce an anti-drug documentary. A year later the very same studio chief is named chairman and CEO of yet another studio, whose owner insists that these “past transgressions” are irrelevant. Two years later he is fired for further transgressions, which were unstated.

That, in a nutshell, is the remarkable saga of David Begelman, the erratic, charismatic agent-turned-studio chief. Why bring it up today? Because the Begelman case radically changed the lives of many people caught in its vortex and arguably had a permanent impact upon the manners and mores of the community.

NONETHELESS, 20 YEARS after the fact, the question is worth asking: Could something like l’affaire Begelman ever happen again? Talk to survivors of the incident and they generally agree that it could. At the same time, there were several elements to the imbroglio of 20 years ago that surely would never be replicated.

First and foremost, there was the enigmatic character of Begelman himself, a brilliant and bizarre man who, despite his impeccable manners and courtly presentation, pursued a singularly unkempt lifestyle. A man who loved to gamble, he was never especially discreet as to where he found the loose change to cover his debts. Why else would a man making millions a year in salary go to the trouble of forging checks worth a mere $60,000?

What made him especially frustrating to colleagues was that he had the makings of a superb studio chief. Under his regime, the once-pathetic Columbia was suddenly making pictures like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Way We Were,” “Shampoo” and many other movies that were commercial and innovative.

Hence it was no surprise that, when scandal first surfaced, his allies rushed to his side. Sure, David might be naughty, but he’s David! The confusion as to how to deal with a check-kiting studio chief only exacerbated the turmoil between clashing power blocs on the board of directors.

After much hard-nosed negotiation, Begelman’s downfall was followed shortly thereafter by that of Alan J. Hirschfield, the brilliant young president of Columbia Industries.

Begelman was finished. Or was he?

Surely no corporate officer who once faced grand theft felony charges would be hired to head yet another studio. Begelman’s amazing “second chance” stemmed once again from the unique hold he had on the community — the image of the lovable rascal.

Kirk Kerkorian controlled MGM/UA at that time, as he does now, and he is a man who trusts his advisers, all of whom were attorneys. The advisers persuaded Kerkorian that Begelman had learned his lesson, that he was a changed man — thus proving yet again that good lawyers often make bad psychologists. To fortify their case, the lawyers even leaked news of Begelman’s appointment and the stock promptly went up a few points.

To be sure, Begelman’s “second shot” proved to be a disappointment. He spent a great deal of money on several dubious productions, and within months there were whispers of behind-the-scenes intrigues. Soon Begelman was out of a job yet again.

Which brings us back to the issue, could the Begelman affair happen today? I put that question to several of the people who were enmeshed in it 20 years ago, and their answer was yes.

“There’s so much money out there,” said one survivor, “that there’s no reason why a sociopath like David couldn’t have an even easier time siphoning off a few bucks into his own account.”

True, the multinational companies that now own the studios have imposed stricter financial controls, they concede. Nonetheless, David Begelman never tried to make off with millions. He just wanted to soften the blow here and there when he had a bad night of poker.

And the reason he got away with it for so long — the lovable rascal syndrome — points up Hollywood’s unique willingness to forgive sociopathic behavior. Whether you’re an agent or manager or a studio chief, it’s somehow OK to lie a little, to grab a little extra on a deal, to double dip on commissions, etc. In a business where standards are fuzzy, why single out Begelman as a crook? He just pushed things a little further.

Hence, even though he was caught stealing money, there were powerful forces in town and in his own company that wanted to look the other way. They even rewarded him with another job.

ON AUG. 7, 1995, David Begelman took his own life. Paradoxically, many of those who were entangled in his troubles have gone on to lead satisfying lives. Hirschfield, who was canned as president of Columbia Pictures Industries in 1979 , now lives in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he runs a fast-growing provider of real-time financial information, Data Broadcasting Corp., which has just formed a joint venture with CBS. He also owns a popular local restaurant in Jackson Hole.

John Cosgrove, the man who really made “Angel Death,” the documentary about the drug PCP that constituted Begelman’s only “punishment,” has made millions producing “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Cliff Robertson, the actor who turned in Begelman and who served several years in the wilderness, is now 72 and trying to raise the money for a sequel to the film that won him an Oscar, “Charly.”

And Ray Stark, the one-time power broker at Columbia, at the age of 80 seems finally about to achieve a long-term dream — making “Houdini,” about a man who could escape any trap that anyone could devise, something David Begelman could never quite figure out how to do.

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