Sunday, 11 September 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #801: The Actor, The Executive, & The Money

Actor Cliff Robertson passed away this weekend one day after his 88th birthday.

Most young moviegoers knew him as "Uncle Ben
Parker" in Sam Raimi's movie Spider-Man, but he was a respected actor with a long career including an Academy Award for playing a mentally challenged man turned into a genius by an experiment in the 1968 movie Charly.

However, I'm not here to offer an obituary. There are people who are better at reveling in the glories of his career than I am to do that job. What I'm going to talk about today is about the time Cliff Robertson, Academy Award winner, couldn't get arrested in Hollywood because he wanted to get someone
else arrested, and how it relates to Hollywood today.

Back in 1977 Robertson was a respected actor with a healthy movie and television career when he got a notice from the Internal Revenue Service. The Taxman said that he got a check for $10,000 from Columbia Pictures and they demanded that he declare it with his income and give Uncle Sam his share.

Robertson was flummoxed, not only did he not get $10Gs from Columbia Pictures, there was no rational reason for Columbia Pictures to put his name on a check.

There were shenanigans afoot.

Some preliminary digging showed that the check for $10Gs was a forgery, and the paper trail went straight to then Columbia Pictures boss David Begelman.

Begelman originally started as an agent, and was a very successful talent pimp, before managing Judy Garland's career comeback in the 1960s. After an acrimonious split from Garland, complete with accusations of misappropriation, malfeasance, and outright financial buggery, he was made an executive. Because what else do you do with someone accused of embezzlement and theft.

As boss of Columbia Pictures he headed up a revival of the company from the doldrums of the 1960s, and pumped out a string of hit movies.

That sounds like a lovely comeback story, doesn't it?

Well, it would have been simply lovely if he didn't have a taste for gambling.

Begelman had gambling debts, and to pay those debts he decided to steal.

You see back then it wasn't uncommon for movie stars to send assistants or secretaries to cash checks for what Hollywood people considered small amounts, like $10,000. So Begelman would forge the checks made out to different actors, Cliff Robertson included, send out minions to cash them, and then use the cash to pay off his gambling debts.

Robertson turned over what he discovered to the authorities and Columbia Pictures. Begelman was convicted of forging the check and sentenced to community service. Columbia Pictures suspended Begelman with pay, naturally, and started their own investigation.

For the first and last time in Hollywood history an audit actually found something that was acted on. Columbia discovered that Begelman had stolen an additional $65,000 from them, and had lied about going to Yale in his "Who's Who In Hollywood" entry. So they finally fired Begelman, but refused to make this information public, for fear of embarrassing the company.

Robertson thought this was a stupid way of handling things, and only left the door open for it to happen again. So he spoke out to the press about his experience, and demanded that Hollywood do something about it.

Hollywood did do something about it.

They blacklisted Robertson for three years. He literally couldn't find work with any of the major studios, and when this blacklist was finally broken he had to rebuild his career, this time as a character actor.

Begelman went on to run MGM, for a little while, and bopped around as a producer on various projects, never repeating the success he had at Columbia, until he just stopped succeeding completely and went bankrupt in the 1990s and was found dead in 1995 of an apparent suicide.

Robertson showed true integrity through the whole ordeal, not the self-aggrandizing and often childish grandstanding that Hollywood thinks is integrity. He saw wrongdoing in the industry, and he actually tried to do something about it, even though it really put his career on the line.

You don't see that kind of real career courage anymore in Hollywood, and for good reason.

The punishment Robertson endured, which stunted his career, has had a chilling effect on Hollywood. Lawsuits still happen, but no one really has the stones to really shake things up because they can't afford to risk giving up their well paying careers the way Cliff Robertson did, win or lose. And let's not forget that Robertson never made anywhere near the sort of salaries that today's "stars" pull in per picture.

Of course the studios thought they were being smart and tough when they punished Robertson instead of Begelman, when, in fact, the opposite was true. It made them look weak, it made them look corrupt, and in the long run, it proved to be really, really stupid.

Nowadays anyone who gets the slightest smidgen of clout immediately demands massive up front salaries, huge chunks of the gross receipts, and perks that would make an Ottoman Sultan say: "Wow, now that's overindulgence."

Production costs have an inflation rate similar to Weimar Germany, even though new technology should be making film-production cheaper. Their accounting is a nightmare, they're becoming more and more dependent on fewer bigger movies with rapidly shrinking profit margins, tickets sales are in general decline, and everyone is so busy covering their ass, no one seems to know what the hell is going on.

It's what I call a Self Fulfilling Idiocy.

What I would have done if I owned Columbia would have been to redecorate the Studio Boss's office. Right above the door, visible every time the current Boss looked up from his desk would be the comb-overed scalp of the previous Boss who dared to embezzle company money.

Sure, the authorities might balk at my particular brand of rough justice, but what's the point of being rich and powerful when you can't go all Conan The Barbarian on someone who deserved it.

All right, maybe that's a little extreme, but you get my point. I wouldn't have punished the man who exposed it, and I definitely would have punished the man who stole. In fact, I'd have done the press conference with Robertson, explained how my company wouldn't allow such shenanigans to go on anymore, and then quietly arranged for Robertson to do a movie with my company to show everyone in the industry that there's no hard feelings. Meanwhile Begelman would be cast to the outer darkness with my office catapult.

Sorry, I was going too far again, wasn't I?


There is a "Don't Rock The Boat" attitude among Hollywood's executive class that does more harm than good. The boat needs to be rocked, because something has to get out the shit that's weighing it down or it will eventually sink.

1 comment:

  1. That shit is what is bloating the industry. Cliff was a rare beast in this industry someone with integrity. One of the reasons I have some respect for former Disney Star Demi Lovato, is she was willing to put FAME and FORTUNE on hold to concentrate on her own health. That probably saved her life or prevented her from becoming a female WACKO JACKO. She will proabably bounce back because even Disney will probably want to work with her again, despite her problems she never really became a problem. Never late on set, or so out of it she could not function or worse COST THEM MONEY.