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David Begelman, Figure in Check Forging Scandal, Apparently Commits Suicide

August 8, 1995 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ David Begelman personified Hollywood’s perverse style of justice. The check-forging studio boss kept his job because his movies made money, while his accuser, Cliff Robertson, was blackballed for telling the truth.

Even though Begelman’s career was not ruined by the late ’70s scandal, he never regained his legendary box office touch. Last year, his production company collapsed in bankruptcy. And late Monday night, a despondent Begelman apparently shot himself to death in a Century Plaza hotel room. He was 73.

``He was depressed and distraught over business reverses,″ said Warren Cowan, a Hollywood publicist and longtime friend.

Begelman, who began his career as an agent for Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand, embezzled more than $61,000 from Columbia Pictures while serving as the studio’s president between 1973 and 1978 and earning more than $200,000 annually.

In addition to misusing production funds to build a posh screening room in his home, Begelman forged signatures on checks written to (but never cashed by) Robertson, ``Hud″ director Martin Ritt and restaurant owner Pierre Groleau. He nevertheless kept his Columbia job and went on to run two more studios.

``David had some problems _ he really did,″ said Frank Rothman, the lawyer who defended Begelman during the scandal. ``The man had incredible talent, but there was something missing _ the parts didn’t fit.″

Robertson helped unearth the crimes when he stumbled across an IRS form reporting a 1977 $10,000 Columbia payment he never received. Begelman told the Oscar winner the check payable to Robertson was forged by a young studio employee, but the actor’s accountant found that Begelman cashed the check himself for traveler’s checks.

Robertson contacted police.

After initially trying to cover up the misdeeds, Columbia suspended Begelman for two months. The studio then reinstated Begelman, saying that he had repaid the money with interest, and ousted an executive officer, Alan Hirschfield, who had opposed the reinstatement on moral grounds.

Like Begelman, the Columbia board blamed the forgeries and embezzlement on ``emotional problems.″

``David Begelman was a great agent, a very bright executive and a good friend,″ said producer Ray Stark (``Funny Girl,″ ``Steel Magnolias″), a staunch Begelman supporter who campaigned for his reinstatement. ``He was one of the cornerstones of Columbia’s resurgence in the 1970s.″

Columbia needed Begelman’s golden touch _ he had supervised ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind,″ ``Kramer vs. Kramer″ and ``Shampoo.″ Under his guidance, the studio moved from near-bankruptcy to dominance and he was considered among the town’s most astute deal makers.

Reinstating him ``may have been a good business decision but it was a bad public relations decision,″ Rothman said. Within a year, Begelman was out, with Columbia Chairman Leo Jaffe saying he wanted the studio to ``resume a more normal atmosphere.″

In 1978 Begelman pleaded no contest to grand theft and was fined $5,000 and placed on three years’ probation. He also made the documentary ``Angel Dust,″ about the dangers of the drug PCP, to fulfill a community service sentence.

For his part in exposing Begelman’s misdeeds, Robertson was effectively ostracized by Hollywood. Despite a consistent string of successful films (``Three Days of the Condor,″ ``Midway″) he went four years without a feature film role and said he feared for his life. Robertson’s most notable recent work was as a pitchman for AT&T.

MGM didn’t mind Begelman’s criminal history and hired him to run its studio in 1980. His tenure was marked by the hit ``Poltergeist″ but also by extravagant spending and the financial disasters ``Rich and Famous,″ ``All the Marbles″ and ``Buddy, Buddy.″

Begelman eventually left MGM and sister studio United Artists in 1982, launching his own Gladden Entertainment. The independent production company made some mild hits, including 1983′s ``Mr. Mom″ and 1987′s ``Mannequin,″ but also had severe financial problems.

The company was forced into bankruptcy last year, owing actors, writers and directors _ including Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges _ more than $4 million in residuals.

Begelman’s Gladden business partner, former Los Angeles Kings hockey team owner Bruce McNall, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in an unrelated bank fraud case.

In an interview after the publication of ``Indecent Exposure,″ an acclaimed book by David McClintick about the Begelman scandal, Begelman asked for mercy.

``I wanted to get caught,″ he said, noting that his check scheme was ``inept.″ He said that his crimes were overblown by the media and law enforcement.

``I doubt the district attorney can give you one name of anyone who did what I did who was indicted like I was,″ Begelman said.

Begelman, who lived in Beverly Hills, is survived by his wife, a daughter, a sister and a brother.