THE OSCAR WINNER WHO BLEW THE WHISTLE

A Scandal That Rocked Hollywood, Leaving an Actor Blacklisted

Cliff Robertson accepts his Best Actor Oscar from Gregory Peck.

BY GREG JOSEPH

LIKE GREGORY PECK, Cliff Robertson was born in La Jolla, California, the toney upscale San Diego beach community. Ironically, on June 2, 1969, it would be Peck, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who would present a belated Best Actor Oscar to Robertson for his performance in “Charly” (1968) because Robertson had been on location shooting the movie “Too Late the Hero” in the Philippines and director Robert Aldrich turned down his request to go to the Oscars ceremony on grounds that it would be too time-consuming and expensive.

When I first met Robertson, he had been blacklisted by Hollywood for what came to be known as “the Begelman scandal,” which remains one of the most infamous episodes in the film industry’s history.

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.

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,″ noted one studio executive. 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.

Many thought Robertson should have handled the affair more quietly. Instead, Robertson and his wife at the time, Dina Merrill, the actress and only child of Post Cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her second husband, Wall Street stockbroker Edward Francis Hutton, founder of E.F. Hutton & Co., went to the authorities and the press.

The whole thing became the basis of the 1982 book, “Indecent Exposure,” which became a bestseller.

Kirk Douglas, in his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” (1988), wrote of the scandal:

“This is the town where Cliff Robertson exposed David Begelman as a forger and a thief, with the net result that Begelman got a standing ovation at a Hollywood restaurant, while Robertson was blacklisted for four years. On the bad days, you think of what Tallulah Bankhead said: ‘Who do I have to fuck to get out of this business?’”

When I met Robertson, he was in San Diego for a gala celebrating the revival of the La Jolla Playhouse, which Peck had founded in 1947 with Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer.

Robertson, a skilled aviator, had flown into town, where he and his wife maintained a second home — what he called his “domicile.”

We met and he told his side of the Begelman story, and I wrote about it. Then we ran into each other at the gala, being held at a hotel on San Diego’s Embarcadero, which I had been assigned to cover with explicit orders to interview as many as I could of the scores of famous people in attendance that night. (I had already profiled Playhouse co-founder Peck after spending the day with him at his Los Angeles home.)

After Robertson and I initially spoke, I broke off and circulated around the room. But it seemed wherever I stood, Robertson quietly ended up alongside me, standing there silent, drink in hand. It was sad, and unsettling. But I had to keep moving.

Not long thereafter, I heard of plans to possibly do a sequel to Robertson’s Oscar-winning “Charly,” about an abused mentally challenged man who temporarily becomes a genius after radical medical treatment. I composed a possible theme song for the sequel and titled it , “I Have Learned to Say,” and dropped a letter to Robertson offering it for free in return for a contribution to an association for intellectual disability. I never heard back, and frankly am not even sure he got my letter.

Robertson eventually returned to films, becoming primarily a character actor in the 1980s and ’90s, his later appearances including as Uncle Ben Parker in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” and two sequels, the latter his last acting role in 2007. In 1989, he served as a jury member at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival.

As fate would have it, was flying his small aircraft over the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorists struck.

He died 10 years later almost to the day — on Sept. 10, 2011, one day after his 88th birthday, of natural causes in Stony Brook, New York. His body was cremated, and a private funeral was held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton, New York.

As for Begelman, he committed suicide in August 1995 at age 73, found shot dead in a room at the Century Plaza Hotel, after becoming depressed over the financial problems related to an entertainment company and a subsequent production company he had led, an imbroglio which included at one point a petition filed by Hollywood’s three major talent guilds in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles to liquidate one of the companies for failure to pay actors, directors and writers residuals in the amount of $4.1 million. He is buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.

I still have my music for the sequel to Robertson’s Oscar-winning film that never got made and sometimes play it, always remembering that La Jolla Playhouse gala when an Oscar winner just seemed to want to talk to someone, and I couldn’t spare the time.

I wish I could do that over. I truly do.