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The Big Cigar
  • December 19, 2012 : 15:12
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Starting with the Chicago Seven, Bert entertained lefty activists of all stripes: Jane Fonda and her soon-to-be beau Tom Hayden, Timothy Leary and Daniel Ellsberg, whose legal defense Bert supported through the Pentagon Papers Peace Project. Bert championed Charlie Chaplin, who had been hounded out of the country by the House Un-American Activities Committe 20 years earlier, buying the rights to Chaplin’s film catalog and engineering his stirring return for an honorary Oscar in 1972.

Candice Bergen shot the cover of Life magazine featuring Chaplin for the occasion. “It was a very romantic time,” she says. Candice had given up the Chanel suits of her patrician upbringing in favor of the Nehru jackets and love beads of hippiedom and had fallen into Bert’s orbit.

“Bert was a romantic figure,” she remembers. “He made big expansive gestures, like chartering a jet to Aspen or Martha’s Vineyard spontaneously, or unflinchingly supporting the politics of people he believed in.” That’s how Bert’s house came to be, as Bergen describes it, a “party full of outlaws.” Candice would sit by the pool as Bert strategized with Abbie Hoffman or “discoursed into the night about the dialectic with a half-naked Huey Newton.”

Bert had met Huey in September 1970. Bert had been involved politically—and romantically—with Elaine Brown, a dedicated member of the Black Panther Party. She introduced them after Huey was released that summer from his stint in prison.

Like Bert, Huey was charismatic and egomaniacal, a political celebrity ever since his Panthers showed up at the California statehouse armed with berets, shotguns and matching leather.

“He was mesmerizing,” says Steve, who met Huey when Bert brought him to Martha’s Vineyard. “There were three times in my life when I met someone and instantly recognized a star—Bobby Darin, Jack Nicholson and Huey.”

Steve and Bert were both taken with Huey’s looks, admiring his prison-toned body and “movie star face.” Indeed, after Huey’s dramatic release from prison to a throng of supporters on national television, he was solicited by a talent agent who wrote that Huey had “star quality.”

Bert provided direct entrée to Hollywood. Almost immediately, the two were thick as thieves. “It was like what we now call a man-crush,” Candice says. “Bert would get tears in his eyes. He was like a man in love.” Bert idolized Huey’s dedication to his politics. He saw them as kindred spirits: Bert had overturned the Hollywood system, and Huey had his sights set on the world. Bert said at one time that Huey “has probably had the most profound effect on my life of anyone I have ever known.” Bert and Huey loved their mutually manic intellectualizing, each getting drunk on the contrarian rhapsodies of the other.

“Their bond was incredible,” says Elaine Brown. Bert often had Huey at his side, on vacation, at his house, at premieres. A big gold Black Panther ring appeared on Bert’s finger. Behind Bert’s desk now hung a framed picture: Bert and Huey, side by side, beaming.

INT. ABBY MANN RESIDENCE, SANTA MONICA—NIGHT

A swank fund-raiser for the Black Panther Party at the plush home of ABBY MANN, né Abraham Goodman, a socially conscious screenwriter. Food is being served to Hollywood’s elite. On the mantel is a familiar golden statuette, an Oscar for one of Abby’s screenplays, Judgment at Nuremberg. Bert watches with a satisfied grin.

Huey was popular in Tinseltown. Jean Seberg was a supporter, along with Mia Farrow, Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand. Such luminaries were surprised to discover Huey’s refined, gentle manner. Even Huey’s fiercest critics acknowledged his seductive quality, how he was never angry in their presence—despite his reputation for violence.

People would visit Bert’s house and find Huey by the pool, wearing fitted silk shirts and reading Nietzsche. High in Benedict Canyon there was no trace of Huey’s street roots, the “crazy Huey” from hard-edged Oakland, the man accused of killing policeman John Frey. Instead, Huey talked about retooling the party after a protracted war with the authorities, eschewing violence and overheated bolshevism in favor of a reform program of community action. Even old-guard Hollywood royalty like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton wrote checks to the Panthers. But Bert’s checks were always the biggest.

Bert started sending Huey checks for tens of thousands of dollars, personally bankrolling much of the Panthers’ activities, from community programs to Huey’s new penthouse above Lake Merritt in Oakland, from which Huey ran the party like a super-stylish political boss. In 1972 Bert forked over more than $250,000 for an enormous Panther outreach campaign called the Black Community Survival Conferences.

By now the FBI knew a lot about Bert. The feds tracked his calls to BBS offices, to a restaurant, to his veterinarian. At times FBI field agents’ reports sounded like items from Variety. (The Monkees were, according to one report, “an overnight sensation and a multimillion dollar project.”)

Huey and Bert both understood the theater of politics and the politics of the theater, and they often talked about film as a social weapon. “Man, we need to get our own production going,” Huey would tell Bert. That’s how they would show some revolutionary truth. Just like The Battle of Algiers.

Hollywood had come fashionably late to the 1960s (arriving, essentially, in the 1970s), and it was tempting to chalk up the entertainment industry’s new radical politics to atonement—an overcompensation for its silence during the McCarthy era. Some contemporaries thought it was all about pussy and drugs. Others said Bert’s obsession with Huey was a way to ward off accusations of privilege.

Bert knew he was a hypocrite, a radical elitist who talked about the “working class getting off its fucking ass” from his million-dollar offices. “I get high on the contradictions,” Bert said at the time, about the tension between his lifestyle and politics. As Candice Bergen drily noted, the Nehru jackets were custom-made and the “love beads were from Tiffany.”

But Bert didn’t care. He relished using square money from the Monkees—a sanitized rip-off of the Beatles—to fund the countercultural bombshell Easy Rider. Bert liked to say he had to “close this next deal to be rich enough to support the revolution.”

“Bert never did the minimum,” Steve recalls. Whereas writing a few checks might assuage other people’s consciences, Bert always went further. “His heart was in the right place,” Candice says. “If Bert saw an injustice, he would try to do something about it. And he could.”

INT. HUEY’S PENTHOUSE—DAY

Huey is holed up in his well-appointed high-rise Oakland redoubt. From the 25th floor, he can see the sun dance on Lake Merritt. But Huey’s not happy. He seems wired, pacing back and forth while his entourage watches uneasily. Jimmy Cliff plays on the hi-fi—“The Harder They Come.” Huey pours a drink as the chorus comes: “The harder they come, the harder they fall.…”

It was a mean season for the Black Panthers, who descended into chaos as Huey became tyrannical and erratic. It turns out maintaining revolutionary focus is difficult when surrounded by drugs and easy money. Huey was a real intellectual—he led his followers in serious discussions about existentialism and free will—but, as often happens with political idealism, a gulf widened between theory and praxis. Huey had eschewed his title of “supreme commander,” yet he acted ever more like a messiah gone astray. He donned white suits and fedoras, surrounded himself with an elite security team called “the Squad” and had a valet trail him as he roamed his penthouse, which he called “the Throne.”

The Panthers were developing a reputation as thugs dressed up in Marxist rhetoric and three-piece suits, with Huey as the kingpin. Part of Huey’s program had been to politicize the street, but some people thought he had brought the street to politics instead. To outsiders—and some insiders—it looked as though Huey was falling back on the criminal instincts of his youth.

The FBI was close behind. Agents had even rented the apartment next door, always looking for Huey to slip up. The pressure was on for the embattled leader—there were court trials, shoot-outs, internal splits. The SWAT team was essentially invented to combat the Panthers. Huey lightened the weight of the crown with cocaine and Courvoisier, or as fellow Panther David Hilliard called it, “the cognac of Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Huey became frenzied and sometimes unintelligible. Candice Bergen remembers him pacing the room at Bert’s house one night wearing only a sheet, “wrapped up like Caesar” as he delivered a four-hour rant. Later, Huey positioned his six-foot-eight bodyguard outside Bert’s house, worried that agents of Eldridge Cleaver, who had fled to Algeria and was now fighting Huey for power, were coming to kill him.

Such tension was typical of the thorny politics of the left, which became increasingly factional as the 1970s unfolded and the revolution had not yet materialized. Former comrades excommunicated one another over the tiniest evidence of ideological heterodoxy. In Oakland, Huey was purging the Panthers, booting longtime loyalists. Trying to get into the movie business didn’t help: As Huey and Bobby Seale worked one night on their anti-blaxploitation epic in which Bobby was to star, the two Black Panther co-founders locked horns so dramatically that Huey, amped on cocaine, kicked Bobby out of the party (and, according to Elaine Brown, had him lashed with a bullwhip). Bobby Seale fled Oakland the next day.

Whether it was caused by drugs or grim reality, Huey’s paranoia kept him mostly holed up in the Throne, where he scrutinized visitors’ faces via the lobby’s state-of-the-art security camera. He slept all day and by night prowled bars, including the Fox Lounge and the party’s own hangout, the Lamp Post. Huey was at the Fox Lounge with his bodyguard on July 30, 1974, when he was arrested after a supposed scuffle with two cops. Six days later, a 17-year-old prostitute was shot by a man riding in a Continental Mark IV. Three other prostitutes identified Huey as the shooter.

Huey was facing another murder rap, this time with few allies. Using a telescope in his penthouse, he could look right into the windows of the Alameda County courthouse building—the district attorney’s office—where the case against him was being assembled. He was convinced a fair trial would be impossible. On another floor was the holding cell where he had waited to be tried in 1967 and the solitary pen, called the Soul Breaker, where he’d spent several weeks.

He didn’t want to see those rooms again. Time was running out. Years earlier, a crowd of thousands had massed outside the courthouse, chanting, “Free Huey!” Now Huey stared out the window, pondering his fate, listening to Isaac Hayes’s “I Stand Accused,” ice clinking in a lowball glass. Up in the Throne, Huey liked to pour Coke and two fingers of Bacardi over cubes, then add a healthy squeeze of lime juice for what had become a very appropriate drink—the Cuba libre.

Steve took a strange route south, making odd turns, always using his turn signals and sticking to the speed limit as he wound his way to Mexico. He drove his Renault convertible. He loved that car. The woman next to him was Huey’s girlfriend, and Huey, from the backseat, was helping adjust her wig.

They had holed up at Steve’s house while Bert strategized. Steve gave Huey his bedroom and slept in the projection room. But Huey was going stir-crazy. The only time they left the house was when Steve disguised Huey and took him to see the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force. “He wanted to see some action,” Steve recalls. “Other than that we just sat tight.”

Eventually, Benny Shapiro showed up with further instructions. Benny was a longtime friend of Bert and Steve’s, a well-known figure in the Los Angeles music scene; he had been manager for Miles Davis, worked with Bob Dylan and was a promoter of the Monterey International Pop Festival. Benny was a guy you called when you had a problem: He knew everyone, from the downtown judges to the Hells Angels. Los Angeles had been his playground until he bought a jungle retreat in the village of Yelapa, Mexico and decamped there permanently in the wake of Nixon’s presidential election. When Huey needed a safe haven, Benny happened to be in town and offered his place.

“I’m going to miss you,” Bert said, tears in his eyes, before Huey got in Steve’s car. “Me too, comrade,” Huey replied.

Bert never even asked Huey what happened in Oakland, and neither did Steve as they drove to Mexico. Right or wrong, Steve would go to the mat for his friend, godfather to his second child. He figured Huey was being persecuted. After all, J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panthers the greatest threat to the country’s internal security in 1968 and had since declared war on the party. “In the politics of the time,” Steve recalls, “the FBI and the police were the enemy, plain and simple.”

They crossed the border at San Ysidro and reached the Tijuana airport, where a flight to Puerto Vallarta—about 55 miles from Yelapa—awaited. Huey was running on adrenaline, acting wild; Steve worried he’d give them away. “Just take a deep breath,” Steve said, “and get on the plane.” When Huey and Gwen climbed the stairs and the doors closed behind them, Steve turned back for the border. “I was flying so high from the danger,” Steve recalls. “And probably from the cocaine too.”

After the plane took off, Steve snorted some blow. The drive home was exhilarating. At one point he pulled over to a pay phone and called his estranged wife. “Listen,” he told her, “I think we can solve this. Let’s meet up tomorrow. Bring your boyfriend. We’ll all drop acid and figure this out.” She was not convinced.

When Steve got home, Bert called. This had just been the preproduction, Bert said. “We’ve got work to do.”

Bert and Steve assumed their phones were tapped. They referred to their venture as the Movie. Benny was the Jew. Bert’s protégé Artie Ross was the Babysitter. Huey was the Package, the Leading Man or the Star. And Bert would talk about how “our Movie starts Friday night.” All they needed was “transportation” for “the Star” to the “location.”

It was Benny who came up with the idea to fly Huey from Mexico to Cuba in a small plane, under the radar. He knew someone who knew a guy who said he could arrange it. The guy’s name was Niné; he was a friend of Benny’s coke dealer. Niné had revolutionary bona fides, having been in the mountains with Che Guevara. Bert gave Niné money to build a clandestine airstrip and find a willing pilot for a mercenary sortie.

Homespun cloak-and-dagger was new for Bert’s Hollywood clique. Before driving to Mexico, Steve had called his bookmaker and placed bets so there would be a record that he was in town. Now Bert made calls from pay phones, bribed a notary to forge Huey’s fake documents and kept quiet, not even filling in Jack Nicholson—and Bert kept nothing from Jack. Bert paid for everything in cash. To avoid making a large bank withdrawal, he called one of his former mistresses, Toni Stern, now Carole King’s co-lyricist, and asked for a favor. She delivered a bundle of bills in a paper bag—the bursary for the Big Cigar.

“If we ever get caught,” Bert joked to Steve, “we’ll be the Beverly Hills Seven.”

“More like the Over-the-Hill Jewish Gang,” Steve said.

Benny funneled Bert’s cash to “the Cuban,” as he called Niné, who kept promising imminent covert air service to Havana. Niné was also supposed to secure permission from the Castro government for Huey’s arrival. Down in Yelapa, Huey thought this was important. He didn’t want to show up unannounced; he wanted a proper exile—and soon. Huey didn’t want to wait too long in Mexico, where the federal authorities, having put down the 1968 student uprising, were not sympathetic to leftist refugees. At Benny’s jungle refuge there were no phones; messages were sent with people going to Puerto Vallarta who would then call California. Huey sent several messages to Bert, impatient about the status of the Movie.

Bert wanted to know what was going on too. Niné was stalling, saying that the pilot he’d hired had disappeared with their down payment. Niné asked for more money. Bert had already supplied him with $50,000 and was getting suspicious. Bert made some calls and realized Niné was hustling everybody around town for money. It became clear there was no airstrip. There probably was no pilot. Maybe this fucking guy had never even met Che. “This Cuban is full of shit,” Bert said. “How much has this guy taken me for?”

Bert, Steve and Benny organized a meeting between Benny and Niné at Canter’s, a 24-hour deli on Fairfax Avenue. Bert called Oakland and had two Panther foot soldiers sent down as muscle. The meeting was set for 2:30 p.m. The Panthers stood at the counter as Benny ordered matzoh-ball soup and waited for Niné, who walked in, sat down in a booth, made small talk and then pulled out a gun and started shooting.

Miraculously, Benny was uninjured. Niné fled. The Panthers didn’t shoot back; they weren’t “dressed,” meaning armed, as they later told Bert, because they hadn’t figured on a shoot-out in Canter’s.

Neither had Bert. For the first time, he felt in over his head. “What kind of tsuris did we get into with this guy?” he asked Steve. Niné wasn’t some studio executive Bert could bully into submission.

“That’s when Bert decided to get a gun himself,” Steve recalls. Bert sent his son, Jeffrey, to live with his ex-wife. “He’s not safe with me,” Bert said. Then he went to Steve’s place and called a liquor store on Sunset Boulevard known for making “special deliveries” to the Hills. That night, a delivery boy rang Steve’s doorbell holding a bag that included a couple of bottles of cognac—and a pistol.

Bert and Benny were sitting on the edge of Steve’s double-king-size bed, fiddling with the weapon. “Like this?” Bert asked—and the gun suddenly went off, blowing a hole in Steve’s bedroom wall. Huey might have been prepared to shoot, but Bert was not. He got rid of the gun and holed up in a friend of a friend’s house in the Valley.

“Were you followed?” Bert asked Steve when he visited the hideaway. Bert was looking nervously through the blinds. He couldn’t even go to the office. His secretary, Linda, was getting threatening calls there. Don’t worry, Steve said. This is Hollywood. No one would look for you in the Valley.

INT. DAN TANA’S RESTAURANT, WEST HOLLYWOOD—NIGHT

Dan Tana’s is swinging, as usual. An Italian joint with checkered tablecloths and dim lighting hanging over the leather booths, it is the era’s signature Hollywood hangout, where you can line up coke on the bar and get laid in the wine room. Bert has a regular booth. There, a group is huddled over drinks watching ARTIE ROSS, a young upstart in Bert’s circle, sketch details on a napkin.

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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
    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
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    mind blowing. thanks
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