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Hollywood Pressures May Have Been Too Much for Begelman : Death: Faced with financial setbacks and a youth-oriented industry, the former film mogul gave up the fight.

August 10, 1995|CLAUDIA ELLER and ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Even for the rich and famous, Hollywood can be a rough town. Money, power and status come at a price.

For David Begelman, the price was his life.

Struggling desperately to maintain a lavish lifestyle in the face of business setbacks, and trying to start over at the age of 73, the former super-agent and scandal-ridden Columbia Pictures president decided to bail out. On the heels of the 1994 bankruptcy of his Gladden Entertainment production company and failed attempts to get a new venture off the ground, he apparently put a gun to his head in a Century City hotel room Monday night.

Begelman's apparent suicide came amid financial and personal struggles that were emblematic of Hollywood. It's a society built on external validation, where the perception of success and the trappings that come with it must be maintained at any cost.

"He was very proud," said Danny Welkes, Begelman's best friend of 40 years and the one who identified his body. "A lot of people that go through adversities downsize their lifestyle. But he lived on a high plane until the end. You could never pick up a check with him, whether it was a party of two or 200. And he was not about to move into a two-bedroom apartment."

Add to these pressures the backlash against aging in a youth-oriented culture, where plastic surgery is de rigeur and the industry fast track is dominated by the 30-something pack.

Getting older affected Begelman's worldview, said a longtime family friend.

"Lining up money isn't easy, particularly at his age," the friend observed. "David never came to grips with that reality . . . or maybe he came to grips with it and chose not to challenge it anymore."

At 8:30 p.m. Monday night, Begelman placed a call--likely the last of his life--to Welkes from his Century Plaza & Tower hotel room, where he was registered under an assumed name.

Ostensibly phoning to ask a favor, he was really saying goodby.

He told Welkes he was sending over a pouch with some letters that he wanted him to mail. One addressed to his wife Annabelle was of particular concern.

"I knew there was real trouble," said Welkes, demanding to know Begelman's whereabouts. "He said, 'I just wanted to tell you I love you very much.' Then, he hung up."

Welkes immediately called Annabelle Begelman, who was "plenty worried" about her husband, who had failed to check in as usual after leaving the house at 11 a.m. She began calling hotels, inquiring about guests who had checked in without credit cards. A group of friends, including Welkes and actress Suzanne Pleshette, joined her in the search.

They narrowed their search down to the Century Plaza, which not only had two rooms reserved on a cash basis but was close to his office.

"David's life was in chaos, and he was in a fragile state of mind," said Pleshette, who had known Begelman since she was 3 years old. "Though he never mentioned suicide, there was no way to sidestep that possibility. Even if we were wrong, we had to pursue it."

Pleshette, Welkes and another friend, Sandy Bennett, notified hotel security staff, who discovered Begelman. Then they called Annabelle, who wanted to see her husband one last time.

"David loved that woman very much and felt removing herself would be the best thing for her," Pleshette said. "Annabelle doesn't agree at the moment. In the hotel room, I had to drag her off him."

The package Begelman alluded to in his phone conversation was never delivered but retained by police in the hotel lobby. In his suicide letter to Welkes, Begelman revealed the depth of his despair.

"He said that he was sorry, that things were getting too rough and he had to call it quits," his friend recalled.

Even at the pinnacle of his career 18 years ago, however, Begelman was functioning on the edge, exhibiting signs of self-destructiveness that would ultimately do him in.

As one of the industry's top talent agents in the 1960s, his lavish lifestyle mirrored that of his high-powered clients--including Judy Garland, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman. Limousines, first-class travel and lavish expense account meals were the order of the day.

In the mid-1970s, as president of Columbia Pictures, the Bronx-born Begelman was pulling down a salary of $300,000 a year, plus significant stock options, and was heralded as the savior of a studio facing imminent bankruptcy.

Then the boom fell--an outgrowth, his therapist later said, of a lifelong feeling of unworthiness. Begelman was caught embezzling company funds, which included $40,000 worth of forged checks to an actor, a director and restaurateur. He survived, to people's amazement, going on to head MGM/UA and produce movies after that. But "The Begelman Affair" was his fall from grace--the self-defining act of an otherwise illustrious career.

Begelman, industry observers say, was a vestige of the old Hollywood--a time when movies and movie making had a very different cast.

"Making movies, not keeping your job, was the priority in those days," says producer Rosilyn Heller, a production executive at Columbia under Begelman. "We did one-of-a-kind movies instead of sequels and remakes. Under David, you never had millions of dollars in abandonment costs [for projects that never got made]."

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