‘Kwai’ guy’s schemes came true

Guest column

One of Hollywood’s most successful and larger-than-life characters was producer Sam Spiegel. A new biography published by Simon & Schuster sheds light on the financial schemes that earned him the nickname “the corkscrew.”

Producer Sam Spiegel won his second Academy Award for “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and director David Lean won his first. In total, their picture brought in seven Oscars, including best actor for Alec Guinness and best screenplay for Pierre Boulle. There was every reason to rejoice — the sparring partners had scored — but Lean could not resist irritating Spiegel.

When a journalist held a microphone under his nose and asked who really wrote the script, Lean replied, “You’re asking the 64,000 dollar question, and as you have not got 64,000 dollars I’m not prepared to tell you.” All the radio stations quickly picked up the provocative remark.

“Sam went berserk,” Lean recalled. “I remember standing outside the theatre after the Oscar ceremony with Sam holding his Oscar for best picture and shaking it at me in fury. I shouted back at him, brandishing mine. It was a ridiculous scene.”

Mrs. Spiegel was unaware of the incident. “I was in a slight stupor from the boredom of the event; best picture was last on the bill,” she recalled. “During the ceremony, I had been thinking three thousand things. How I would console Sam if he didn’t win the Oscar, and how I would deal with him if he did. It was a double-edged sword.”

Meanwhile, “Kwai” was a spectacular success in the States and launched Spiegel as Columbia’s greatest asset — the producer who put the studio back in the black. Nevertheless, after receiving the first statement of the film’s earnings, Spiegel and Albert Heit, his New York lawyer, were staggered to discover that his supposed 50-50 deal with the studio was not all that it seemed.

“Because Columbia was taking so much off the top,” explained Heit.

Spiegel learned from the mistake and insisted on 60-40 in his favor on the next production. Such a percentage then allowed for distribution fees and other expenses that Columbia was charging before arriving at the net proceeds.

And after his experience on “The Strange One,” which was cross-collateralized with “Kwai” and lost him $400,000, Spiegel made quite sure that it was the last time. Henceforward, cross-collateralization was out of the question. “Each film was to stand on its own,” said his lawyer.

“Kwai” became Spiegel’s highest earning picture. At the end of the last century, Heit recorded the picture as reaching a worldwide gross of $65 million in rental earnings. By 1980, it was ranked by Variety as twenty-third in the top-earning films.

Yet Lean always claimed that he never received his share of the profits. “That is unfair and untrue,” said Heit. “First of all, Sam did not handle the money, Columbia did.” On the six monthly statements from the studio, Lean’s name is there, right under William Holden’s.

Still, Lean never collected from the William Holden Fund. Holden was entitled to 10% of the gross of “Kwai,” but because of tax reasons, it had been arranged that “whatever the profits,” the actor was only to be paid $50,000 each year and any money over that was to be held for him by Columbia in a special fund.

However, “Kwai” had been an unexpected hit and Holden was making a great deal more than $50,000. By 1975, the money that had piled up in his fund was slightly in excess of $2,820,000. Holden tried to alter the situation, which led to various unsuccessful legal battles between himself, Spiegel and the studio.

In the meantime, the yearly interest being made on Holden’s fund was divided between Spiegel and Columbia.

“Sometimes, we were collecting as much as $100,000 per year,” said Heit. Surely it was unfair that Lean never collected from the fund? “That’s the way the ball bounces,” offered Spiegel’s lawyer. Or, to quote the Italians about luck: “Piove sempre sul bagnato (It rains only on the wet).”

From “Sam Spiegel” by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni. Copyright 2003 by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.