James Bacon, the longtime syndicated Hollywood columnist and reporter whose career covering the film capital began in the late 1940s with the Associated Press, has died. He was 96.
Bacon, whose long career also included small roles in movies such as "Planet of the Apes" and TV shows, died in his sleep Saturday of congestive heart failure at his Northridge home, said family friend Stan Rosenfield.
Bacon was an AP reporter from Chicago when he arrived in Hollywood in 1948, a time when Los Angeles had six daily newspapers and rival Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons reigned supreme.
After covering Hollywood for the AP, Bacon worked briefly as a publicist in the mid-1960s before returning to the entertainment beat as a columnist at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner from 1968 to 1986.
Drinking was a common theme during Bacon's Hollywood heyday, as chronicled in many of the stories he recounted in his two spicy and entertaining books published in the 1970s, "Hollywood Is a Four Letter Town" and "Made in Hollywood."
Bacon sipped champagne with Sophia Loren at her suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, regularly frequented a Sunset Boulevard bar with Robert Mitchum and often drank vodka with Joan Crawford at her home in Brentwood.
"Joan," he wrote in "Made in Hollywood," "is the only person, male or female, I know who can sip straight vodka and tell you what proof it is."
Those were the days when gaining access to the hottest stars in Hollywood was relatively simple.
"It was so much easier back in the `50s, the end of the golden era," Bacon told The Times in 1991. "Stars loved the press and the press loved stars. You'd go out to the studio and sit down with [ Clark] Gable and [ Spencer] Tracy and people like that, you'd have a column in a minute. You didn't have to deal that much with press agents."
And it was a lot more fun in those days, he said, "because every studio was a big family. You'd go over to Warner Bros., and they had Bogie and Errol Flynn and Jimmy Cagney, [with] Ronald Reagan on the second team.
"Nowadays, a lot of the stars are pretty much inaccessible. Back in those days they were very accessible. The studio wanted their stars to be publicized. If I wanted to talk to Ava Gardner, I just called up and talked to Ava Gardner; that was it."
Bacon quickly established close relationships with many of the stars he covered, which paid off in exclusive stories.
In 1958, he said, he was the only reporter permitted into Elizabeth Taylor's home after she heard the news that her husband, producer Mike Todd, had died in a plane crash in New Mexico.
"I begged him not to go — to wait one more day," a grieving Taylor told Bacon. "I don't think he wanted to go. He came upstairs six times to kiss me goodbye before he left the house."
In 1964, John Wayne revealed to Bacon that his recent hospital stay was for removal of "cancer of the lung — and I've licked it." (Wayne died of cancer in 1979.)
Bacon also managed to get a jump on the competition in 1960 when Gable suffered a heart attack at his ranch in Encino, not far from where Bacon was living.
After receiving a tip that an ambulance was being dispatched to the Gable residence, Bacon actually beat the ambulance to the hospital and was waiting when the legendary star was wheeled in.
Upon seeing Bacon, Gable grinned and said, "How's the food in this joint?"
As Bacon recalled in "Made in Hollywood," his 1977 book, "It was the last time I ever saw the King alive. He died in the same hospital 10 days later from another attack."
In 1972, Bacon himself became part of a major news story.
When author Clifford Irving claimed he had co-written a pending authorized autobiography of Howard Hughes, Bacon was part of a panel of seven reporters who gathered in a conference room at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in Universal City for an unusual telephone conference call in which a man identifying himself as the reclusive billionaire denied the authenticity of Irving's forthcoming book.
"I don't have to ask you any identifying questions because I have heard that voice so many times, and the minute you started talking I knew it was Howard Hughes," Bacon told the eccentric billionaire.
(Irving later pleaded guilty to grand larceny, conspiracy and other charges and spent 16 months in prison.)
Bacon knew Marilyn Monroe, whom he first met in 1949, even better than he knew Hughes. He said that Monroe gave him a firsthand account of her relationship with John F. Kennedy as early as the 1960 presidential campaign.
"She was very open about her affair with JFK," Bacon told the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune in 1998. "In fact, I think Marilyn was in love with JFK."
Asked why he didn't write about the affair at the time, Bacon said that in those days, "before Watergate, reporters just didn't go into that sort of thing.… There was no pact. It was just a matter of judgment on the part of the reporters."
Born James Richard Hughes Bacon in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 12, 1914, he attended Notre Dame University in the 1930s. He worked on several small papers before becoming a writer and editor for the Associated Press in Albany, N.Y., in 1943. He held similar jobs for the AP in Chicago before heading to Hollywood.
Beginning with an uncredited bit part as a reporter witnessing an electrocution in the 1954 Edward G. Robinson gangster movie "Black Tuesday," Bacon played bit parts in dozens of movies and TV shows.
He also appeared, uncredited, as an ape in four "Planet of the Apes" movies, in addition to playing the credited role of Gen. Faulkner in a fifth one, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes."
In late 1985, after 17 years as the Herald-Examiner's star columnist, Bacon was fired and told to clear out by the end of the year.
"They said it was for budgetary reasons, but that's a crock," Bacon told The Times in an article headlined: "End of an Era: Jim Bacon Gets Trimmed."
Bacon, who blamed "new management" for his dismissal, had his biography of longtime friend Jackie Gleason, "How Sweet It Is: The Jackie Gleason Story," in bookstores at the time and was involved with other projects.
"A writer's never unemployed if he's got a pencil and paper," he said.
Bacon is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Doris Klein; their children James B. Bacon of Granada Hills, Thomas C. Bacon of Manhattan Beach and Margaret Bacon Smith of Los Angeles; two children from his first marriage to Thelma Love, which ended in divorce, Roger Bacon and Kathleen Brooks of Ventura; a sister, Patricia Wilt of Lock Haven, Pa.;15 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Services will be private.
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