Begelman, Ex-Columbia Chief, an Apparent Suicide : Movies: Former studio president was at center of '70s embezzlement scandal. Body is found in hotel room.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

David Begelman, the former super-agent 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's body was found in a room at the Century Plaza Hotel & Tower in Century City shortly after 10 p.m. by hotel security, authorities said.

Friends said Begelman, 73, had checked in under an assumed name and contacted at least one close associate who feared he was despondent. Concerned, a group including actress Suzanne Pleshette tracked Begelman to the hotel and alerted security. Near the body was a .38 caliber handgun and a note that read, "My real name is David Begelman."

The flamboyant Begelman, who lived in Beverly Hills, was said to be depressed in the wake of the 1994 liquidation of his Gladden Entertainment production company, which he partnered with onetime sports mogul Bruce McNall. The company was forced into bankruptcy for allegedly defaulting on $4.1 million in payments to actors, writers and directors. Sources close to an ongoing 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. McNall has pleaded guilty to bank fraud and faces a possible lengthy prison term.

Begelman, who resigned from Gladden Entertainment last year, formed a new company called Gladden Productions, and had been trying to secure financing for that operation.

According to sources, the former studio chief had a meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon to try to line up financing, but the effort reportedly was unsuccessful.

Freddie Fields, Begelman's close friend and longtime partner in the agent business, said the financial troubles were the latest in a string of "disappointments" that had left Begelman "depressed for the last two years."

"He was pretty much against the wall. . . . A lot of his close friends worried he would commit suicide," Fields said. But he added that as recently as Friday the two had had lunch and "he seemed OK."

Fields said Begelman tried to contact him again Monday. Unsuccessful, Begelman apparently then called another close friend, manager Danny Welkes, and told him he was sending a package that contained a letter to Begelman's wife, Annabelle. This, Fields said, led to the search for Begelman's whereabouts that ended at the Century Plaza.

Welkes was unavailable for comment. At the Begelman residence Tuesday, Annabelle Begelman was said to be "too distraught to talk."

Those who knew Begelman said the same self-destructive streak that marked his professional life may have 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 . . . 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 Monday night 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.

An autopsy will probably be performed today but a coroner's report could take up to two months.

Begelman was born in New York on Aug. 26, 1921, the son of a Manhattan tailor. An early role model was his father's customer Billy Goodheart Jr., a co-founder of the then-powerhouse talent agency MCA, whose main business at the time was booking dance bands and other entertainment acts. After a stint in the Air Force during World War II, Begelman attended New York University. He drifted into the insurance business before joining MCA as a talent agent in the mid-'50s.

A renowned workaholic and skilled negotiator, he became one of Hollywood's premier agents. He and Fields formed Creative Management Associates in 1960, representing such stars as Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen, Woody Allen, Jackie Gleason and Fred Astaire.

They also pioneered the movie "package," in which stars, directors and writers from the same agency were attached to a single project.

In 1973, Begelman brought his knack for packaging to Columbia Pictures--now owned by Sony Corp.--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 became notorious through McClintick's book, the author said Tuesday that the Columbia president was not the main target. "He was the spark that ignited the larger scandal, which was a battle for control of the corporation between [investment banker] Herbert A. Allen and [Columbia Pictures Industries President and Chief Executive Officer] Alan Hirschfield," he said.

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 pending police and Security 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 later 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.

Stark said, "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 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," it 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, in December, McNall--the former majority owner of the Kings professional hockey team--pleaded guilty to defrauding several banks of more than $236 million. Though McNall faces a maximum of 45 years in prison and at least $1.75 million in fines, and six business associates have entered guilty pleas, Begelman had at least publicly remained above the fray.

Sources close to the case said Begelman had an intimate knowledge of McNall's business dealings. Gladden Entertainment's offices were at McNall's headquarters in Century City. Begelman also had firsthand knowledge of two bank loans on which McNall defaulted, court records say.

Begelman was expected to be called as a witness at McNall's sentencing hearing in January, presumably to say McNall's practices were more a result of bad business decisions and circumstances than a conspiracy to defraud.

Despite his many legal problems, friends said, Begelman was financially strapped and unable to continue paying for legal counsel.

Apparently, even his closest friends were not aware of the level of Begelman's despondency.

Producer Daniel Melnick, a close friend and business associate for 35 years who lunched regularly with Begelman at his corner table at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel, commented that his colleague always put on a good face. "He was always so there for his friends that he never felt entitled to say he was depressed," he said.

However, Melnick added, "there was a part of David that was self-destructive, and he took the ultimate act of self-destructiveness when things got tough."

Another friend, producer David Picker, said, "David made mistakes and paid a price, but he was still someone people were drawn to. He was funny, warm and incredibly seductive. He survived his checkered history because people liked him."

MCA Vice Chairman Tom Pollock, who knew Begelman for 20 years, referred to Begelman's "captivating personal charm as an agent, executive and producer."

And, even Hirschfield, who had had no contact with Begelman for the past 10 years, said he harbors no ill feelings toward him. "I never bore him any personal animus. This was the last act in what was a very tragic, very self-destructive life."

In addition to his fourth wife, Begelman is survived by a daughter, a sister and a brother.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Duke Helfand, Sallie Hofmeister and Lisa Dillman.

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