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Money man McNall gets back to business

Bruce McNall, the multimillionaire whose first foray in the movie business cost him his fortune — and a five-year prison term that ended in 2002 — is back.

He’s joined Seven Arts Pictures, sharing the chairman title with Peter Hoffman. McNall will steer creative and marketing on films like the Ian McKellen-starrer “Asylum” and the Harvey Keitel-Freddie Prinze Jr. comedy “The Swedish Job.” Hoffman will handle financing, the area which got McNall in trouble in the first place when he owned Gladden Ent.

“Let him worry about the tax shelters and the soft money,” said McNall. “I learned the hard way I don’t do that well.”

McNall once had it all: a fortune from dealing in ancient coins and racehorses; a mansion in Holmby Hills; vacation houses in Malibu, Park City and Hawaii he rarely saw. He also made Hollywood a hockey town as L.A. Kings owner when he imported Wayne Gretzky and then made the Stanley Cup finals. He even became NHL chairman and his Toronto Argonauts won the CFL championship.

But the success masked a crippling debt load from a film venture run by David Begelman, who lost his Columbia job forging checks. Begelman didn’t have to do that to McNall, who inexplicably paid him a $1 million salary and an unlimited expense account. Begelman’s outsized spending put McNall in a hole that hits like “Mr. Mom,” “Mannequin” and “War Games” couldn’t cover. McNall engaged in fraud by using bogus collateral on Credit Lyonnais loans that couldn’t fix an irreparable mess.

McNall hardly hides in shame: Hyperion will publish his memoir “Fun While It Lasted” in July.

“I accepted the accolades, it’s only right I own up to my mistakes,” he said. “It probably helped, because people in Hollywood would have thought I had something to hide had I faded away.”

H’WOOD HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED a last bastion for scoundrels, and McNall said its forgiving nature made possible his second chance.

“I haven’t felt stigmatized by my past yet,” said McNall. “Oddly enough, people have welcomed me, which maybe has to do with my great failing. I always tried to make everybody happy.”

“I could always sell, get along with people and solve problems, but I thought I was this omnipotent boss who could fix anything. I’ll never put myself in that position again. I can’t tell you how many times I should have said no to Begelman.”

He knew Begelman through coin dealing, and hired him at the urging of MGM’s Kirk Kerkorian and Frank Rothman as they let him go because of publicity from “Indecent Exposure.”

“The folks at MGM said if I was going to step up, David could be a big asset,” said McNall. “I was 30 and I had a net worth over $100 million. David was charming, smart, he knew everyone and put together hits for me. But his autocratic studio mentality and goal to build a mini studio made for an infrastructure so huge, there was just no way to produce enough product to offset the overhead. I should have just stopped and said, this isn’t working.”

Prison showed McNall who his real friends were. Gretzky not only visited, he postponed his jersey retirement celebration until McNall was there to see it. Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn came. “Michael Eisner, who suggested I write the book and bought it, always took my call,” McNall said. “Dick Zanuck was always there, Tom Hanks would write to me, Bert Fields would send his books, Barry Kemp wrote long letters. They kept me going.”

Most helpful was attorney Robert Geringer, who is currently an exec veep at Seven Arts. He crafted a survival blueprint for McNall before he went to prison.

“Robert made it possible to provide for my family and said, ‘when you come back, you can work for us and pay us back,’ ” McNall said. “I’m happy to be an indentured servant.”

Even before the government takes half his salary to square bank debts, McNall gets much less than he once paid Begelman. But it’s better than the 12 cents per hour prison salary he got washing dishes and mopping floors. He learned to exercise in prison, has dropped 80 pounds and said he doesn’t miss the mogul trappings.

“I lived the ultimate L.A. party and wasn’t really happy,” he said. “I bet there are guys in Cannes right now who are over their heads and hate their lives but find it impossible to stop and ask, what the hell am I doing?'”

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