Column: He took Frances McDormand’s Oscar. Was he a thief, or just playing a role?

Terry Bryant is with attorney Daniel Brookman in a Los Angeles courtroom last March during his arraignment on a charge of stealing Frances McDormand's Oscar.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In the best actor category, Oscar got it wrong on Tuesday.

It snubbed a man who should have topped the list of nominees. A man who routinely delivers polished performances at red carpet events across L.A.’s celebrity-studded universe, showing up nattily attired and cleverly passing himself off as a Hollywood player.

Terry Bryant, essentially unemployed and homeless for years, lives in a world of his own design in the city of make-believe, in love with an industry that can’t give itself enough awards. Golden Globes, he’s there. Grammys, you bet. SAG, BET, the Vanity Fair party. There’s Bryant.

His social media has the proof, showing him in photos — often selfies — with Beyoncé, Paris Hilton, Jimmy Kimmel, John Travolta, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez and others.

But his biggest and least welcome brush with fame came last year, when he was charged with stealing Frances McDormand’s best actress statue at the post-Oscars Governors Ball. Now, in the next episode of his own reality show — scheduled for Thursday morning— Bryant will appear in L.A. County Superior Court to try to get the case thrown out.

“No. 1, I didn’t do what they said I did,” Bryant told me Tuesday in the Santa Monica office of his lawyer, Daniel Brookman, who has counted Dr. Timothy Leary and Robert Downey Jr. among his celebrity clients.


Yes, Bryant nabbed an Oscar, he told me. And yes, he immediately posted a video of himself holding the statue, accepting congratulations and saying alternately that he had won it for music and best production.

But as Bryant tells it, he thought the Oscar was just a prop. And he not only didn’t know it was McDormand’s, he didn’t even know who she was.

Bryant told me he is currently living in a halfway house and has been a client of Step Up on Second, a nonprofit that provides counseling, housing and other services to people with mental illness. A friend gave him a ticket to the Governors Ball last year, he said, and while there, he hung out with “my crew,” which included “three princes.”

Bryant, who describes himself on his Instagram page as an A-list host, producer, ambassador, DJ and actor, among other things, said he would walk into court without fear Thursday, when Brookman argues for the felony grand theft case to be dismissed.

Frances McDormand talks with actor Oscar Isaac after her Academy Award for best actress went missing last year.
Frances McDormand talks with actor Oscar Isaac after her Academy Award for best actress went missing last year.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m a child of God,” said Bryant, 47, who could serve three years if convicted. “I have a good team of people, my rabbi and many people, praying for me.”

OK, let’s start with the rabbi.

About eight years ago, Bryant says, he was at a low point, living in various locations on the UCLA campus and taking medication for depression. He spent time in a computer lab and in the library, and on the internet one day he saw something that lifted his spirits — a video clip of services at a Brentwood Jewish congregation called Nashuva.

Here’s his reaction to the music and the sermon by Rabbi Naomi Levy:

“Oh, wow!”

Bryant began attending monthly Nashuva services, held at Brentwood Presbyterian Church.

“You can feel the holy spirit of God there,” he told me. “You can feel God’s presence, and that’s what I was looking for.”

Bryant said he grew up mostly Christian but there were strains of Judaism in the family. As an African American, one of only a handful at Nashuva, he stood out.

“He makes his presence known,” said Levy. “He’s very passionate and up on his feet and he sings along and he praises.”

Little did she know when he first began coming to services, she would one day deliver a Yom Kippur sermon about Bryant.

“I didn’t watch the Oscars and I didn’t know about the Governors Ball incident,” Levy told her congregation in that sermon, explaining that a member of the Nashuva group had texted her to say:

“Naomi, I think you may need to watch this video.”

She clicked on a link and there was Bryant, dressed in a tux, holding up a statue and gloating.

“Lookit baby, my team got this tonight,” he said. “This is mine. We got it tonight, baby. Governors Ball, baby. Who wants to wish me congratulations?”

“And I realized instantly,” Levy said in her sermon, “‘Oy, Terry, that’s our Terry from Nashuva.’”

Levy called her friend Brookman, who took the case for no pay. The two of them went to see Bryant in county lockup after his arrest. Levy said she looked into Bryant’s forlorn eyes and wanted him to know she was there, not because of who he pretended to be, but because of who he was.

Brookman said Bryant has a record of minor offenses associated with being homeless, including trespassing and theft. But in her sermon on Yom Kippur, Levy said she considered Bryant not a thief, but a man who used Facebook as a desperate cry for attention, “based on all sorts of false projections of himself as someone famous.”

A few days after his arrest, Bryant was released by the court on his own recognizance pending trial. It might have helped that his rabbi was in the courtroom.

“I’m not here to tell you he didn’t do anything wrong,” Levy told me when I met with her, Bryant and Brookman. “You don’t take what’s not yours, even if you assume it’s a prop…. I know enough about Terry to know that he’s got limitations, and I really do believe his behavior is a reflection of our time, about everybody seeking attention, fame, and pretending that we are who we aren’t.”

Brookman sees it a little differently. Bryant was drinking and was caught up in the moment, he said, and was parading the Oscar around, inside and outside the Governors Ball. When a photographer became suspicious, security was flagged and the Oscar was taken from Bryant and McDormand got her trophy back, unharmed.

“I have to believe if you set out to steal something you don’t take pictures of yourself with it,” Brookman said. “He was enjoying the moment. He wasn’t hiding it, but the opposite. It was just part of the acting he does.”

The complaint lists both McDormand and the academy as victims, but by some media accounts, McDormand has indicated she doesn’t support the prosecution of Bryant.

Academy attorney Steve Madison said the academy is grateful to “the L.A. County district attorney’s office, the L.A. city attorney’s office and LAPD for vigorously investigating and prosecuting this case. The academy takes very seriously the security of the Academy Awards and the Governors Ball, and of all nominees, honorees, members and invited attendees.”

As we’ve learned from recent me-too revelations, crimes of power, abuse and cover-up have been rampant behind the curtain in Hollywood, but you aren’t likely to see many of the monsters do time.

Now here’s a guy who could have inspired sequels to “Zelig,” “Walter Mitty” and “Being There” getting the full prosecution for a few minutes of living every Hollywood player’s fantasy and pretending he won an Oscar.

Come on. Really? The D.A.’s office said he was headed toward the exit, but even if he was, he didn’t get there. This is a misdemeanor, if it’s worth prosecuting at all.

Maybe the academy could lift its sagging ratings if, at the awards show next month, there’s a skit with McDormand and Bryant arguing over who the real Oscar winner was.

And let’s not forget they don’t seem to have a host yet for this year’s show.

“Oh yeah,” said Bryant. “I’d totally be interested if they asked me.”

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez