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

August 09, 1995|CLAUDIA ELLER and ELAINE DUTKA | 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."

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