David Begelman, the former superagent and Columbia Pictures president whose check-forging scandal in the 1970s became a symbol of Hollywood corruption, died of a gunshot wound in an apparent suicide late Monday, authorities said.
Begelman had apparently contacted friends from his hotel room at the Century Plaza Hotel & Tower in Century City several times during the day. Those friends, concerned for his safety, arrived at the hotel Monday night and, accompanied by hotel security, found Begelman's body, according to Los Angeles Police Officer Eduardo Funes.
The former studio chief, 73, was said to be depressed in the wake of the 1994 liquidation of his Gladden Entertainment firm, in which he partnered with sports mogul Bruce McNall. The company was forced into bankruptcy by the major talent guilds for allegedly defaulting on $4.1 million in payments to actors, writers and directors. Sources close to a federal grand jury investigation of McNall said Tuesday that the U.S. attorney's office might have targeted Begelman as part of that probe. Federal authorities refused to comment.
Begelman, who resigned last year, formed a new company called Gladden Productions, and had been trying to secure financing for that operation.
According to one source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the executive had a meeting scheduled for late Monday afternoon to try and line up financing, but the effort reportedly was unsuccessful.
Publicist Warren Cowan, a longtime friend, said he was informed of Begelman's death early Tuesday morning by Begelman's confidant, manager Danny Welkes. "I was told he was distressed and distraught over failing health and business reverses," Cowan said. Still, he added, "I saw him three or four nights ago at [the popular West Hollywood restaurant] Drai's with several friends and he seemed fine."
Welkes was unavailable for comment. Begelman's fourth wife, Annabelle, was said to be "too distraught" to comment.
Those who knew Begelman say the same self-destructive streak that marked his life ultimately led to his death.
Producer Martin Bregman, a friend of 25 years, said, "David was enormously destructive, and at some point the pain must have been too much. He was brilliant, a wonderful salesman, one of the most charming men I've met when he wanted to be. Unfortunately, something was missing, misplaced within his emotional makeup. He had it--money, respect, prestige, women . . . you name it--and he blew it all."
Begelman, who was embroiled in an embezzlement scandal that became the subject of David McClintick's 1982 bestseller "Indecent Exposure," was pronounced dead at 10:30 p.m. Monday by an ambulance crew dispatched to the scene, police said.
Officials said that Begelman's hotel room showed no signs of forced entry and that nothing was missing. Begelman did not leave a suicide note behind, but police found a .38-caliber handgun near his body.
"The room was not disheveled," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Stephany Payne. "All indications are that this was a self-inflicted gunshot wound." An autopsy will probably be performed today and a coroner's report, officially disclosing the cause of death, could take up to two months.
Known as one of Hollywood's premier agents and a skilled negotiator, he and his longtime partner Freddie Fields formed Creative Management Associates in 1960, representing such stars as Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen, Woody Allen, Jackie Gleason and Fred Astaire.
Fields and Begelman pioneered the movie "package," in which stars, directors and writers from the same agency were attached to a single project.
Begelman brought his packaging knack to Columbia Pictures in 1973, taking the studio from the brink of bankruptcy to prominence over the course of several years with such hits as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Shampoo" and "Funny Lady."
In 1977, at the height of his power, Begelman found himself at the center of a controversy that rocked Hollywood when it came to light that he had forged $40,000 worth of checks, including one for $10,000 made out to actor Cliff Robertson, one for $25,000 to Ma Maison restaurateur Pierre Groleau and one for $5,000 to director Martin Ritt.
Though Begelman was the focal point of McClintick's book, the author, reached Tuesday in New York, said the Columbia president understood that he was not the real subject of the book. "He was the spark that ignited the larger scandal, which was a battle for control for the corporation between [investment banker] Herbert A. Allen and [Columbia Pictures Industries President and Chief Executive Officer] Alan Hirschfield," he said. "It was the story of how the high command of a big corporation behaved under great pressure."
Allen, who owned a controlling interest in Columbia and was considered the most powerful figure at the company, was at odds with Hirschfield over the handling of Begelman's alleged misappropriation of funds.
The scandal came to light when Robertson reported the check forging incident to the Beverly Hills police. In the spring of 1977, according to McClintick's book, Columbia initially tried to sweep aside the allegations. But, after the media got wind of the story, Begelman was temporarily suspended in October of that year pending police and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations.
Though Begelman was reinstated two months after his suspension, he was stripped of his corporate title and board status, and his options worth $1.4 million were taken away. "It was the largest corporate fine in the history of the United States," said an industry insider close to the proceedings.
In February, 1978, Begelman was forced out of Columbia, and three months later he pleaded no contest to charges of grand theft stemming from the forgeries. He was fined $5,000, entered therapy and, blaming the episode on an addiction to pills and cocaine, completed a public service anti-drug documentary. His grand theft conviction was ultimately reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Allen and producer Ray Stark, who initially defended Begelman's indiscretions, still have kind words for him.
"David Begelman did a lot for the shareholders of Columbia Pictures and for me. I'm sorry that he suffered," said Allen. Added Stark, "David Begelman was a great agent, a very bright executive and a very good friend. He was one of the cornerstones of Columbia's resurgence in the 1970s."
Begelman was hired in 1979 to head up the MGM studio, where he oversaw the making of such costly flops as "Pennies From Heaven" and "Buddy, Buddy." After a bad run, he was fired by MGM/UA Chairman Frank Rothman, who years earlier was the lawyer who defended him in the check forging case.
"He was a very strange, mercurial man," said Rothman, now a partner in the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. "He was up and down and had periods of depression. He sometimes appeared as tough as nails, and sometimes he'd bare his soul. Though he was very intelligent and good at what he did, he was always living on the edge."
After being forced out at MGM in 1982, Begelman joined McNall's Sherwood Productions. Two years later, the two formed Gladden Entertainment. Though the company produced such films as "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Weekend at Bernie's" and "Mannequin," the company hit a cold spell in the 1990s with movies such as "Short Time" and a 1991 "Mannequin" sequel--the last Gladden production.
In April, 1994, the company declared bankruptcy and, last December, McNall--the former majority owner of the Kings professional hockey team--pleaded guilty to defrauding several banks of more than $236 million. Though he faces a maximum of 45 years in prison and at least $1.75 million in fines, and six other McNall business associates have entered guilty pleas, Begelman had at least publicly remained above the fray.
People close to the case said Begelman had an intimate knowledge of McNall's business dealings.