Blackmail, forgery, suicide, and Buckaroo Bonzai

I am trying something new today with the site, creating a new type of entry that is not, technically, a review, but does have to do with the movie business. To wit, I am creating a category called "Hollywood Assholes," in which I go over the sordid stories of people who were just plain terrible in actions and thoughts. There will be no formal release schedule for these stories, no two a week rule, but rather they will pop up as I find and chronicle stories that just make the jaw drop. This is one of those stories...

David Begelman was born in New York City in 1902 and was one of those rare individuals that could talk the devil into lighting himself on fire, and then have Beelzebub thank him kindly for the attention afterwards. Funny, charming, witty and generous, Begelman quickly found success in Hollywood, forming the Creative Management Associates talent agency and befriending many of the days brightest stars. Such big names as Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Rock Hudson, Woody Allen and more all found Begelman to be the ideal Hollywood friend, loyal, caring and just a hoot to be around. In fact, he was so good, and so well liked that he eventually left CMA, and took over Columbia Pictures, becoming one of the few Hollywood agents to move into management. But the true story of David Begelman was just beginning to play out by this point, and very few people could have guessed at how low this bright star would fall before everything was said and done.

Of course, no one ever just jumps to the bottom of the barrel when they are living high on the hog, they tend to smash into a few people on the way down, and make more than a few enemies along the way. In the early 60's Begelman found himself representing Judy Garland. In many ways he was the perfect agent for the aging diva, his natural charisma and ability to schmooze gave Garland the impression that she was loved and adored by her agent, just the sort of drug she needed to keep moving. Well love and speed. And tranquilizers. And lots of other prescription drugs. All the drugs, if you want to be exact.

When Begelman and fellow agent Freddie Fields were audited by Garland's soon to be ex-husband Sid Luft, a disturbing pattern began to emerge. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of dollars were unaccounted for, and there were several checks that were written in her name, payable to "cash." On an appearance on Jack Paar's show, contractually Garland was given a 1962 Cadillac Convertible; the car was put in Begelman's name and Garland was not even aware of it's existence. Huge sums of money were being funneled out of Ms. Garland's accounts to pay for "protection," which proved to be odd, seeing as she had no personal security.

All of these things were bad, but, truth be told, not unheard of in Hollywood, what made this a notable case of asshattery came when Begelman told Garland that "someone" had a candid picture of her, semi-nude, in the hospital getting her stomach pumped, and they were demanding $50,000 or they would release the picture. Rather than face the scandal that would have caused in a pre-Lindsey Lohan world, she paid up to make the photo go away. The audit showed that the check went into a holding account in New York, directly owned by Begelman. Yes, he blackmailed his own client with a fictitious (hopefully) photo to get more money from her than he was getting paid, or stealing from her. Because, you know, asshole.

Garland and Luft, armed with this knowledge chose not to directly go after Begelman, as she had a bit of a reemergence going on, and it was directly linked to him (remember, Begelman was a really good agent, and also a thief) and had a multimillion dollar contract with CBS for "The Judy Garland Show" that would have been lost if any scandal were to rear it's ugly head (even in the 60's, producers were leery of Garland's stability), so she just took the theft on the chin until her show was canceled the next year, at which point she sued. You might be wondering why she sued and didn't just, you know, call the cops. Well there is a perfectly good reason for that.

Pictured: Logic

So the case was held up in court for a while, as Begelman could afford really good lawyers (seeing as he stole a good amount of money), and eventually, Garland, not making much money anymore had to settle out of court for the amount she was owed for another gig she worked that Begelman was holding hostage while the case went on. So to recap, Begelman stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, a car, blackmailed a celebrity was sued and settled for the money that wasn't even his money anyway. Because that's how life works, you know?

You would think that with a scandal like that, people would not really be lining up to use Begelman as their agent, but Hollywood didn't get the nickname Hollyweird just because of the crazy, half naked people that wander around it's streets at night, and his business actually picked up after the fiasco. In fact, as mentioned before, in the 70's he left CMA and took over the floundering Columbia studios, which was on the verge of death. It turns out that along with being an amazing agent and con artist, Begelman was a fantastic movie producer, and green lit such films as "Tommy" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," effectively bringing the collapsing studio back into life. You would think that by narrowly avoiding repercussions from his earlier actions and having the universe give him a new chance to do good, that David Begelman would turn over a new leaf and play it straight, especially when he was making Head of Studio money (dude drove a Rolls as a day to day car), but if that was the case he wouldn't be a blog entry now, several decades later.

In 1977, Cliff Robertson ("Charly", "Gidget", "Spider-Man") noticed something strange, namely a 1099 he got in the mail claiming that he had made $10,000 from Columbia Pictures the previous year. Now this wouldn't normally be all that strange, if he had made a movie with them, or worked with them in any way, shape or form, but seeing as he had not, well, it raised an eyebrow. Looking into it, he found that the check that had been issued had been cashed and his signature on it had been forged, and it was paid to "cash," because that's not suspicious at all. Robertson called the FBI and the LAPD, who both verified that the check was forged, and they tracked the whole thing to Begelman, in, what I can only assume was  pretty short afternoon's work. He was arrested and sentenced to 20 years for stealing $10,000. No wait, sorry, that would have made sense, no he was convicted of Forgery and sentenced to community service, because rich, white guy.

No one who looks like that can ever get into "real" trouble.

Columbia didn't even fire him, they simply gave him a long, paid vacation while they sorted things out. So now we have a man who has stolen from Judy Garland and Cliff Robertson, and he hasn't even lost his job for it! Well, I guess I should say, "yet", as it came out during Columbia's investigation of the whole forgery thing that Begelman forged over $65,000 checks in his tenure, mostly in small amounts no one would notice, and they quietly fired him, because calling the police would have been hard, seeing as rotary phones took a lot of work to dial. Here is where things get interesting, as Hollywood actually rallied around Begelman, defending him and turned on Robertson for bringing the whole thing to light. In the 70's making a fuss over a "paltry" sum of $10,000 was considered bad form, and, because of his personable attitude, Begelman was viewed as a Robin Hood of sorts, albeit one who stole from the rich and kept it for himself. Because fuck the poor. It wasn't until a reporter, investigating all of this goings on for a magazine, discovered that Begelman had been fibbing to his peers about attending Yale that there was some backlash, because you can steal as much as you want, but how dare you lie about something like that?

Kicked out of a major production company, with two major embezzlement and forgery scandals to his name, David Begelman would never work in Hollywood again. Until 1980. Guess I should have finished that sentence before the period. In 1980 he was named the CEO and President of MGM because why the fuck not at this point. I mean seriously, why the. fuck. not. This time, however, his tenure ended, not with a head shaking felony, but with a simple release, as he failed to bring any luck to the struggling MGM/UA production houses. In 1982 he was brought on to head Sherwood Studios, a small production company formed by Bruce McNall, a man who got rich selling stolen ancient coins and artifacts to richer people, and, also he lied about going to Oxford, because why shoot for Harvard when a second tier Ivy League is just a lie away.

University of Oxford: where long distance rates keep employers from fact checking!

The two con men hit if off swimmingly, and quickly started work on an existing project "Blame It On Rio" staring My Cocaine.
At the Cannes premier of the film, Begelman rented a yacht and partied the night away with potential investors, including members of the largest bank outside of Japan, the Crédit Lyonnais Bank Nederland (CLBN), whereby bribes were paid in exchange for backing movies. In 1984, the two reformed Sherwood Productions into Gladden Entertainment Company, and had the European American Bank of New York (EAB) offer up a revolving credit of $34 million for movie making expenses when McNall claimed that his net worth was $20 million. It, of course, was not.

While under the umbrella of a major corporation, Begelman found no problems in releasing movies, after all it was his job to do so, but when out in the real world, he found that his reputation had proceeded him and could not get releases from major studios, instead having to deal with little folks like Cannon and Orion, both of which were on shaky ground even under the best of scenarios. Because there was no cash cow in sight for Begelman and McNall, the whole movie production company became a Ponzi scheme in no time flat, with new investments being used to pay off old lenders, and lies being told to get new money in to pay off the new lenders. Movies were being made quickly, and without regard to cost. During this period a small scifi flick called "The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension" was made and, due to shady shenanigans all around, Begelman ended up with all the rights to the franchise, including sequels, soundtracks, merchandise and releases. If you are wondering why it took until 2002 for a cult favorite movie like "Bonzai" to come to DVD or why there was never any sequel or merch made for the movie, or even a soundtrack, there's your reason. By now, if you have ever seen "Bonzai" you should have noticed something I wrote, and made an odd face. I, of course, am referring to the fact that I said that movies were being made "without regard to cost", well that is true to an extent. Begelman was budgeting huge amounts of money to films like "Bonzai" and then producing them at little to no cost, and pocketing the difference. Because scumbag and all that.

By 1987, EAB wanted out of their loans to Gladden Entertainment, but didn't want to just pull all their money and make Begelman go bankrupt, so they came up with a little scheme. Begelman told CLBN that an "independent investor" was planing on giving them $20 million in investment moneys to make movies (the money would come, off the books, from EAB.) CLBN, impressed with the sudden interest offered to take over the loans that EAB once covered, thinking that they could see a pretty nice return. Loan in hand, Begelman paid off EAB, and parted ways, several felonies later. Around this time Begelman began seeing a new woman (as his wife had died a few years earlier, prompting a suicide scare) in Sandra Bennett, ex wife of Tony Bennett.

Well, as any poorly run company is wont to do, Gladden Entertainment went bankrupt in the early 90's, but, unlike other companies, Gladden Productions was right there to catch Begelman's fall. After securing a $2 million dollar investment from a wealthy investor, Begelman quickly spent the whole thing on himself and his lavish lifestyle. Finally, fate seemed to catch up with Begelman, as he was unable to pay back his debits, and he stepped down from Gladden Productions in 1994, with $4.2 million to pay back. On Monday, April 20, 1994, the FBI paid a visit to  Begelman, and began serving subpoenas to several key players in the McNall/Begelman empire of companies. Soon McNall filed for bankruptcy and was brought up on charges of wire fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy. On the outside Begelman looked fine, and untouchable, but in private he began falling apart, soon enough, investors were knocking on his door demanding millions of dollars in unpaid investments, and Bank of America foreclosed on his home. Dejected, and homeless, Begelman spiraled into a free fall. One day, after a tryst with Sandra in an upscale Hollywood hotel, he ended his life with a .38 caliber bullet to the brain.

It was a tragic end to the life of a man who, by all accounts, kind of had it coming. But to the men and women of Hollywood, many of whom knew Begelman personally, they lost a friend, and agent and a confidant, the fact that that man might also have stolen money from them was inconsequential, a thief he might be, but at least he was a well liked thief. Despite his popularity, his life of criminal fraud, and his insane attempts to game the system of every cent that he could makes David Begelman one giant Hollywood Asshole.
3/19/2018 04:03:29 pm

That was funny, Chris. Thank you. I just read the piece Begelman in Vanity Fair (online),

3/18/2019 11:05:02 pm



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