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The Big Cigar
  • December 19, 2012 : 15:12
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INT. A HOUSE IN THE HOLLYWOOD HILLS—NIGHT

It’s quiet at this long, low ranch house up in Benedict Canyon even though it’s Saturday night. The year is 1974, and the decor reflects the era’s aesthetic: zebra rug, mod wallpaper and suede sofas facing a mirrored bar. This is a modern bachelor pad, a hilltop roost with a pool, sauna and stunning view of Los Angeles. In the bedroom, a partially clothed BERT SCHNEIDER smokes a joint with a lithe teenage girl. Bert is tall, handsome and self-assured, a Hollywood producer on top of the world. He hears a knock and looks up to see his teenage son, JEFFREY, fling the door open.

“There are two black ladies outside,” Jeffrey said. “And one of them is very pushy.” Bert put on a shirt and headed for the entry. There he found the two women, but on closer examination he realized the pushy one was not a woman at all but a man, bewigged and squeezed into a dress. Bert smiled and asked, “Huey?”

The man in drag was Huey Newton, the 32-year-old leader of the Black Panther Party. Huey was a major cultural figure, a street- and book-smart kid from Oakland who had become an icon of the black power movement. His public displays of firearms, meant to protect the black community from overzealous police, had brimmed over into shoot-outs, including his own deadly encounter with Oakland police officer John Frey, for which Huey was convicted in 1968 of voluntary manslaughter. (He claimed he was unconscious during the shooting, and his conviction was overturned in 1970.) Now Huey told Bert he was in trouble again. “Bert,” Huey said, “you gotta help us.”

Bert and Huey had been tight for a few years, ever since Bert started raising money for the Panthers in Hollywood. Bert was a macher, as he would say, a producer at the vanguard of the New Hollywood movement that had changed American cinema; his credits included Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show, and he was working on Hearts and Minds, the Vietnam documentary for which he would win an Oscar. He had embraced the radical politics of the era, supporting activists including Abbie Hoffman, Daniel Ellsberg and the Black Panthers. He called Huey his “comrade and best friend.”

“I’m in trouble,” Huey said. Huey was always agitated—his intensity captivated Bert—but this was different. “You’re the only one I can trust.”

They went to Jeffrey’s room, where Huey told Bert things were falling apart in Oakland, the Panthers’ headquarters. Huey had been arrested for several crimes, including a murder charge. The police, he told Bert, were trying to frame him.

“They’re sharpening the ax,” Bert said.

Huey had been in prison before. “I’m not going back,” he said.

Huey had to fly the coop, pronto, and not just out of town but out of the country. He told Bert, “I need you to get me to Cuba.”

Bert figured Huey would be on the FBI’s most wanted list by morning, but he didn’t hesitate to help. Within five minutes, Bert was hatching a plan. His only question was “Were you followed?”

Bert looked out the window. The FBI had been interested in him for years. He was so actively involved in left-wing politics that at times field agents reported on Bert’s movements every four hours. He would eventually see his own file, which described him as “tall, manly, wears long hair, mod clothing and has an outspoken nature”—just about right, Bert thought, except for the hair, which the FBI thought was dyed blond but was really a naturally sun-kissed corona of curls.

“I think we’re clean,” Huey said.

It was, in fact, the first time in months the FBI hadn’t known Huey’s whereabouts—but one of the first places the FBI would look was where they were standing. Bert wanted to get Huey and Huey’s girlfriend, Gwen Fountaine, over to his producing partner Steve Blauner’s house. He delegated the dirty work, asking Jeffrey to handle the drive. Bert stayed behind.

Jeffrey knew and liked Huey—but Jeffrey had only a learner’s permit, so the teenage girl from Bert’s bedroom took the wheel. They piled into Bert’s BMW 3.0 coupe. Bert’s young girlfriend was a skittish getaway driver, eyes in the rearview, looking for headlights. Jeffrey knew the hills, and he navigated a back route to Steve’s home without drawing any attention.

The coupe pulled up the long, steep driveway to Steve’s dramatic Bel Air house. The place was beautiful, redwood inside and out; it had been built for the Kim Novak film Strangers When We Meet. Huey walked into the forecourt, past the waterfall, between a pair of enormous Chinese Foo dogs.

“I didn’t know I was having company,” Steve said when he opened the door.

Steve too was close with Huey and had hosted him many times. Steve knew Huey was armed—Huey had become a household name by facing policemen on the streets of Oakland with shotguns—and demanded he turn over his weapon. “House rules,” he said. “The pistol, please.” Huey handed over his gun.

As soon as he found some privacy, Steve called Bert. “How are we gonna do this?” he asked.

“I’m working on it,” Bert said.

This was the era of skyjacking—the favored mode of emigrating to Cuba by hijacking airliners and forcing them to land in Havana—but Huey thought that was too dangerous, not to mention déclassé for a revolutionary of his stature. Instead, Bert and Steve and a trusted core of their Hollywood cohorts would throw together an underground railroad and smuggle Huey to Cuba. It would turn into a big production but with real-life stakes. Like their films, this project had a title. Bert called it “The Big Cigar.”

INT. ITALIAN AMERICAN SOCIAL CLUB, WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK, 1949—DAY

This is the kind of “social club” where you look both ways before you ring the buzzer to go inside and place bets with Jimmie Knuckles—and you better be good for it. Two teenagers—young Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner—arrive, clearly skipping school. They seem out of place but look comfortable as they nod at everyone while buying cigarettes and cruising for action.

Bert and Steve weren’t always Hollywood honchos. They’d grown up together in Westchester County, New York, and although they were two Jewish kids from the tonier suburban zip codes—Bert in particular felt no shame in acknowledging the size of his silver spoon—they always had a nose for excitement. “From an early age,” Steve recalls, “we were always in just over our heads.”

In high school they liked to hang out at bookie joints, like the Italian American Social Club in White Plains. Steve was big for his age, a bit of a tough guy already. Bert was tall but skinny and couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag, so instead he projected extreme confidence. Sometimes they’d play cards in the back with bona fide wiseguys—Apples, Cootie, Willy the Whip—and when Bert would win a hand with a brazen bluff, Johnny the Gator would light a smoke and hand over the money: “Well, fellas, it looks like the calf got the butcher.”

Bert liked that line, even though it was the kind of attitude that got him kicked out of Cornell in 1953. Bert was probably destined to go into the family business anyhow. His father, Abraham Schneider, was president of Columbia Pictures. Bert started working at Screen Gems, a television subsidiary of the studio, working his way up to vice president.

Steve, in the meantime, went into the music business. He wound up managing a young kid named Bobby Darin. Steve preferred standards but saw something in this rock-and-roll thing, and soon Bobby Darin was a star. They were making a killing, and Steve was staying at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house, palling around Vegas with Frank Sinatra.

In 1965 Bert formed his own production company with Bob Rafelson, a young director. Steve was already in Los Angeles, and the trio struck gold when they imagined a serialized Hard Day’s Night for television and manufactured a boy band, the Monkees, for a TV show of the same name.

The Monkees were a cash cow. Because Steve knew the music business, he made sure Bert owned it all: the publishing, the appearances, the dolls, the whole kit and caboodle. The show was on for only two seasons, from 1966 to 1968, but it made a fortune—so much money that Bert wondered, What the fuck am I gonna do with it all?

“It’s not just a biker movie,” Dennis Hopper exclaimed, wide-eyed and wild. “It’s gonna be the story of our time.”

Hopper showed up in Bert’s office one day with Peter Fonda. They had this idea about two bikers who score a big drug deal and take to the road. It was 1968. A lot had changed in the few years since Bert bought his house in Beverly Hills: the Summer of Love, Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy. The Monkees were done. Bert wanted to be in the movie business. And here were Hopper and Fonda, grimy and stoned, asking for $360,000. Neither had ever directed or produced a movie before. Bert wrote a check on the spot.

The resulting film, Easy Rider, became a phenomenon. The anti-establishment portrayal of disaffection with American society touched a nerve when it appeared in 1969, the high-water mark of the counterculture. Easy Rider, a film that opens with a coke deal, was nominated for two Academy Awards, made Jack Nicholson a star and earned $35 million.

That’s nearly 100 times the budget, an astonishing figure that led Columbia Pictures to give BBS Productions—Bert, Bob and Steve’s company—an unprecedented six-picture deal for inexpensive, director-driven films. It was the late 1960s, when Hollywood was full of graying executives who were losing lots of money on big-budget flops like Hello, Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon. Easy Rider paved the way for a revolution in American cinema.

For Bert, the success was a middle finger at the establishment. He was admired, despised, revered and feared, sometimes by the same people. But everyone agreed he was a great producer. “Usually producers get in the way,” says Peter Bogdanovich, director of The Last Picture Show. “But Bert was the opposite. He encouraged us to do something that we felt attached to as artists.”

Creative integrity was paramount. The 1970s would turn out to be a miraculous (and brief) union between art and commerce, producing some of the great films of all time. The barbarians were inside the gates—and they were piling up money. It was the first time producers, directors and actors shared film profits, often earning millions. BBS moved from the Columbia lot at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street to a building on La Brea Avenue that Bert bought and renovated to include a screening room, cutting room and, naturally, a cedar sauna. In Bert’s office you could play billiards beneath a white Tiffany chandelier facing a picture window with a view of the Hollywood sign. From here Bert cultivated a reputation as the dynamic center of a glamorous and successful avant-garde. He was 36 years old.

Ever since summer camp, Steve had called Bert “Rulebook” Schneider because he always learned the rules—so he could break them. Now Steve sat down the hall from Bert as they upended Hollywood with their moneymaking masterpieces. Bert the rabble-rouser was also a brilliant businessman. “I always wanted to change the world,” he said. “And make a few dollars in the process.”

Friends sometimes joked that Bert was “king of the Jews,” but when Bert plainly referred to his own Christ complex, he wasn’t kidding. “I want to be like Jesus Christ,” he’d say without apparent irony, “but with better participation.”

Bert acted like a star. As Linda Weaver, his longtime secretary, put it, “Those big, blue Paul Newman eyes of his could be warm and friendly, or turn ice-cold.… He was pretty good at getting whatever he wanted.” And he loved flaunting his ability to buck the system. “He’d fire up a joint in Columbia’s executive offices,” Steve says. “Just because he could.”

When Bert first arrived in Los Angeles, he was relatively straight—he had come of age in the 1950s, had a wife, kids and a house in Westchester. But like so many East Coast Jewish boys heading west for the pictures, Bert changed. He let his hair grow long, grew a beard, exchanged his coat and tie for patterns and velvet and dove into the drug culture. He embraced the sexual revolution with gusto. The 1970s were like a second adolescence for him. He considered himself a sex object, as did most women. By early 1971 Bert was en route to divorce, moving from the flatlands to the hills, where the scene at his house often resembled the party at the end of Shampoo. On any given evening you might find Lauren Hutton, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, in and out of the pool, mingling with guests who were high out of their minds and pontificating about the future of cinema while surrounded by starlets, including Bert’s new girlfriend, Candice Bergen (whom everyone called Candy).

Bert’s drug-fueled parties doubled as an active political salon. This was, after all, the springtide of radical chic. Whereas most people settle from zealous youth into cautious middle age, Bert did the opposite and turned revolutionary.

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read more: entertainment, movies, issue january 2013

4 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Amazing article...shocked that i didn't know this before...
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    mind blowing. thanks
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    i heard this article was being shopped around tinseltown in hopes of pulling another argo. all i've got to say is FUCK YES.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    awesome story. Incredible
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