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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The 'Boys Club' and Trial by TV : Verdict Mixed on NBC's Miniseries

November 06, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Strange miniseries. Stranger story.

Shrouded in controversy, "The Billionaire Boys Club" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on NBC (Channels 4, 9 and 42), even though the bizarre case that it depicts is not fully resolved in court.

Will the TV production, starring Judd Nelson as Joe Hunt, intrude on the legal case? It's hard to see how it won't. More about that shortly.

This is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories:

Persuasive Joe Hunt recruits other young preppies from affluent families to form a snooty investment group known as the Billionaire Boys Club.

The BBC is duped in a commodities scam by con man Ron Levin, who later disappears. Hunt, who maintains a ruthless, Svengali-like hold over the rest of the group, is convicted in the murder of Levin, whose body is never found. The evidence against him includes a "things to do" list that he was alleged to have made out as preparation for killing Levin.

Hunt's bodyguard, Jim Pittman, is tried for the actual 1984 shooting of Levin, and is also charged with the murder of wealthy Iranian Hedayat Eslaminia, who was allegedly targeted so that the club could gain control of his fortune. Two other club members, including Eslaminia's son, Reza, are also charged in his murder.

The actual case--everyone loves to see a supercilious rich kid get his comeuppance--was media heaven, yielding juicy newspaper and TV stories galore. Hunt's trial was irresistible.

However, the verdict on "The Billionaire Boys Club" as a four-hour TV story is mixed.

The trouble is that there is no one here (except for prosecutor Fred Wapner, trying the case against the icy Hunt) to like or even root for--certainly not Hunt himself or the club members who followed him out of weakness, fear or naivete.

We see indulged snots on the screen--a privileged fraternity of weak, sniveling Leopolds and Loebs in designer suits and haircuts--who soon grow tiresome. Except for Hunt, they are elegantly tailored look-alikes, an almost comical herd in search of a leader, mental sloths who fall for Hunt's line about blasting "through the tyranny created by mediocre minds." And Hunt himself is pretty much of a bore.

The first three hours tend to plod and dawdle, moreover, as flashbacks illustrate the trial testimony of Hunt's colleagues in often wrenching detail.

It's only in the concluding hour of Monday's episode--when the fissures in the BBC widen, Hunt begins menacing defectors and the police close in--that "The Billionaire Boys Club" gathers energy and becomes truly captivating. Especially noteworthy is a courtroom sequence juxtaposing the testimonies of Hunt's and Levin's mothers, each becoming a counterpoint to the other.

Nelson is really only half a Hunt. He is entirely convincing as a heartless, soulless conspirator, plotting murder with cold-blooded efficiency, but much less so as Hunt the smoothie who so effortlessly gathers disciples. Whatever Hunt had in the way of charisma, it doesn't translate here the way Peter Coyote, for example, made you respond to a homicidal teacher's manipulative powers in last week's "Echoes in the Darkness" on CBS.

Nelson gets especially nice support from Ron Silver as Levin, Brian McNamara as BBC member Dean Karny and James Sloyan as Fred Wapner. They were directed by Marvin Chomsky from a script written by Gy Waldron.

NBC is counting on "The Billionaire Boys Club" to have an enormous effect on the Nielsens in a month when ratings are especially crucial in setting local advertising rates.

Far more important is its potential effect on present or pending BBC-related trials.

It's hard to make a case for NBC airing the "The Billionaire Boys Club" at this time. The argument for postponement, on ethical grounds if not legal ones, is much stronger.

Hunt is already serving a life sentence for the Levin slaying. But he has yet to be tried in the Eslaminia murder-kidnaping, even though scriptwriter Waldron appears to deliver his own guilty verdict.

An attempt by Hunt's attorney to block the airing, on grounds that it could prejudice juries in continuing BBC trials, was turned down by a federal judge, who cited "prior restraint." An attempt by Pittman's attorney to halt the miniseries for the same reason is now moot in light of Pittman's second mistrial in the Levin case due to a deadlocked jury earlier this week.

If there is a third Pittman trial, it may be hard finding jurors who have not seen the miniseries and been influenced by it.

Pittman's name is changed to Frank Booker in the TV account, and some other characters are also renamed. Big deal. Pittman is black, and Booker (played by Stan Shaw) is the only black character in the miniseries, so the connection is automatic.

Anyone watching the miniseries almost certainly will be convinced of the guilt of Pittman (he grins at the mention of torturing Levin), and also of Ben Dosti and Reza Eslaminia (called Todd Melbourne and Masud Naboti in the miniseries), now being tried in Redwood City for the slaying of Eslaminia's father.

A judge can instruct unsequestered jurors not to watch, but some may watch or hear about it anyway and then be influenced accordingly.

Trial by TV. Nielsen measures the audience, but not the harm to the legal process.

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