EXECUTIVES IN HOLLYWOOD have always been adept at recycling themselves from job to job, but now and then someone gets put out to pasture. I recall coming upon one former studio exec–an important one at that–in a very distant pasture. He was sleeping in a doorway on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.
The name of the homeless person was Bill Tennant and I thought of him again this week after learning of the latest wrinkle in his bizarre career. Tennant, now living in London, had orchestrated the sale of Vision Video Ltd., a company he’d managed to resuscitate, to the Dutch giant Polygram. The man I’d seen sleeping in a doorway was back on his feet financially and emotionally–indeed, he had made yet another big score.
My career had intersected Tennant’s several times over the past two decades–often enough for me to understand one crucial fact about him: While some people always manage to be in the right place at the right time, Tennant worked the other side of the street. Born in the slums of East L.A., Tennant had cut a swath as a superstar agent while still in his mid-20s, but his rising star quickly went awry.
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When the police needed someone to perform the horrific task of identifying Sharon Tate and the other victims of Charles Manson in 1970, for example, Tennant, as Roman Polanski’s friend and agent, drew the grim assignment.
Tennant soon left agenting to become a vice president at Columbia, but once again, when the high-flying regime of David Begelman came crashing to earth amid the check-forging scandal, Tennant, who saw Begelman as a mentor, also bore the brunt.
Tennant went on to work beside some of the town’s most enigmatic figures–men whose dealings seemed shrouded in legal imbroglios. There was Jonathan Krane at MCEG, Tom Coleman at Atlantic and the late Neil Bogart at Casablanca.
Ultimately it all caught up with him. When it came time for Tennant’s life to crash, it happened big. Cocaine addiction cost him his marriage, his savings and ultimately, even shelter. The man who once owned a beautiful home replete with tennis court now lived on the street, trading even the gold inlays in his teeth for a fix.
IT WAS FOUR YEARS BEFORE TENNANT managed to pull himself together. Predictably, the road back proved treacherous. Shorn of confidence or self-worth , Tennant was reluctant to call upon old colleagues. Yet, as a convert to AA, he was impelled to retrace his troubled past and to “make amends” to those who had worked with him.
I was one of those on his list, and I remember the sense of shock at being visited by this gaunt, battered figure. We stumbled through an awkward dialogue. He apologized for the error of his ways, and I cut him off, insisting that all that mattered now was his own regeneration.
Shortly thereafter, a friend called and asked, “Did you hear Bill Tennant is back in the business?”
“Terrific,” I replied, “what’s he doing?”
“He’s selling sandwiches to movie crews off a catering truck.” My friend thought this was funny. I cringed, flashing back to my first encounter with Tennant. A handsome kid with a natural swagger, Tennant had vaulted from the mail room of the old GAC to become a partner in Ziegler Ross. Tennant had come to talk to me about a new screenplay called “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He felt it was going to be hot. He was right, as usual.
Indeed, everything Tennant seemed to touch in those days seemed to acquire “heat.” He made Peter Fonda’s deal on “Easy Rider” and Roman Polanski’s on “Rosemary’s Baby.” When you met with Tennant you were talking about John Schlesinger and William Goldman. Everyone on his list seemed to be “happening,” and Tennant seemed the fulcrum.
Later, when he became production VP at Columbia, the “action” followed him. Suddenly the once-moribund studio was turning out pictures like “Taxi Driver, “”All That Jazz” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” These projects were not all hatched by Tennant, of course, but he was a catalyst, an energy source.
He also kept flirting with danger. Friends had warned him to keep his distance from the trouble-prone Polanski, but Tennant paid no heed, becoming a regular in his circle. The shock of the Manson murders began unraveling him; in a sense, he had become the classic Hollywood victim.
HOW DID HE GET FROM A CATERING TRUCK to London? By chance, he had secured a job at Jonathan Krane’s misbegotten venture, MCEG, and when the company foundered Tennant had been dispatched to the U.K. to salvage its video subsidiary, for which Krane had paid an absurd $ 83 million. Though uncomfortable in his new surroundings, Tennant managed to teach himself the vid distribution business.
Within two years the newly renamed Vision Video Ltd. had been repackaged as a salable entity with gross revenues of about $ 40 million. Its library consisted of 1,400 titles, including 600 features. Drawing on his Hollywood production experience, Tennant had begun to turn out successful videos for the U.K. market built around local favorites like comedian Billy Connolly and radio talk show host Danny Baker.
All this was good enough for Polygram, which grabbed up Tennant’s venture to augment its own budding video empire. What this brought to Bill Tennant was something he hadn’t had in many years–breathing room.
Newly married to a lovely young South African named Frances, who has a 6 -year-old daughter, Tennant feels at home in London now. His manner is calm, his style worldly and his eyes have lost that haunted look he had carried for so many years. For the first time he can look back across the lost years without flinching and without placing blame.
“I know I was my own worst enemy,” he reflects. “Hollywood has always been a magnet attracting incomplete people who think that money and glamour can somehow make them complete. It can’t, of course. You get consumed by it, not completed.”
After all the troubled years, one senses Bill Tennant has found his own way to become complete.