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The Big Cigar
  • December 19, 2012 : 15:12
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“So the boat is in Miami,” Artie said, “in dry dock.” Artie was taking the lead on logistics for take two of the Big Cigar. He looked around the booth. “She’ll need some repairs if we’re going to do this.”

Bert was Artie’s mentor. Their families had been close back East. Artie left New York for Berkeley around the same time Bert moved to Beverly Hills. Artie was a raffish hippie-in-training. After college he’d spent a year in Marin County with a carpenter friend, building by hand a boat they called the Maya—the trimaran Bert wanted to press into service.

Artie was not political. In fact he was scared of Huey, whom he’d seen descend into plenty of paranoid scuffles. But Artie adored Bert. He came to Hollywood looking for an identity and thought he found it in Bert’s ego-driven scene.

As Hollywood’s elite rubbed elbows in Dan Tana’s, Artie thought about seasonal airstreams and currents and how to chart a fugitive’s wind-borne course over the Caribbean. He had brought along a lawyer friend to vet any legal questions. She pointed out that the entire enterprise was illegal. “I was worried,” she recalls. “These guys made movies for a living. They created fiction.” This was nonfiction, and she wondered if they could tell the difference.

“It was real life,” she says. “And it was dangerous.”

Bert was still in hiding, quarterbacking the Big Cigar from his safe house in the Valley. Like Huey, he felt trapped. Not only was his underground railroad off the tracks, but there was trouble afoot in Hollywood. BBS was in peril. The company had produced a few flops and Columbia was nearly bankrupt; after a regime change, the studio tried to cancel Bert’s deal.

Then Candice left him. Bert’s personality was so large, Candice felt she was disappearing. She no longer wanted to play Galatea to Bert’s power-hungry Pygmalion. “I finally had to escape from him,” she says. “I just couldn’t survive it.”

Bert was heartbroken. He careened between women and tried to focus on finishing Hearts and Minds. Columbia was unhappy about the idea of a Vietnam documentary, but the movie was under budget—some consolation, as Bert always personally guaranteed overages. That was Bert’s way, putting his ass on the line—and his house on the block—every time they made a film. He was fearless, an all-in player.

For all Bert’s faults, he put his money where his mouth was, in movies and in politics. Even people who took a dim view of Bert’s Panther obsession thought there was something to be said for a guy with that much to lose sticking his neck out for a friend. “Bert was fighting the good fight, at great personal jeopardy,” Steve says. “How many other Hollywood producers would risk anything the way Bert did?”

It took Artie several weeks to ready the Maya. He traded up from the gasoline putt-putt-putt to a diesel outboard motor. He installed sonar and radar. When the boat was done, he called Bert and said he was ready.

Artie set sail for Mexico to pick up Huey. On the boat was a friend named Little John. It was one of those blue-sky, light-air days in Florida, the kind that make for easy sailing. Heading south from the Fort Lauderdale harbor, Artie left Little John on watch. But Little John wasn’t a sailor. And he was stoned. And it started to get dark.

As they passed John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the Maya lurched suddenly. They’d hit something. Little John had taken the wrong side of a buoy and run the boat against a giant underwater statue of Jesus—the nine-foot bronze Christ of the Deep, a beloved local snorkeling attraction.

Artie made the difficult decision to abandon ship. They swam to shore, where they discovered they were on Key Largo. Still wet, they hitchhiked back to Miami. Artie called Bert and explained about the underwater Jesus snafu. “Looks like Huey will have to wait,” he said. Artie never sent a distress call or called the Coast Guard. He didn’t want to answer any questions. He let that beautiful boat he built himself sink to the seafloor, near the bronze savior’s outstretched arms.


A cluster of beachside houses sit along the edge of a remote peninsula in tropical Mexico. The roofs are thatched, and hammocks hang on posts. From the open-air rooms you can see 180 degrees of deep blue Pacific. Huey watches the horizon nervously, eyeing the boats coming in.

Benny’s Yelapa compound was, in the literal sense, the end of the road. And that’s precisely what alarmed Huey. Boats were the only way in—or out. He could get trapped down here by the counterrevolutionary Federales.

Huey felt vulnerable and imprisoned. Back when he’d served real time, often in solitary, Huey had learned to turn inward with meditation. But the Zen-like Huey was long gone. He kept trying to hire local fishermen to take him to Cuba, even though Yelapa was on the Pacific.

“Huey’s going to blow everyone’s cover,” Bert told Steve. “I need to get down there.”

Bert met Huey and Gwen in Mexico City, where he had moved them to an apartment. Bert stayed at the Camino Real, in Zona Rosa, the shopping and nightlife center of the city. Bert visited Abbie Hoffman, who was living there underground in elaborate disguise. Huey didn’t want to wind up like that. He was sick of hiding.

“Then give yourself up,” Bert told Huey. “The worst that can happen is you’ll do time. They won’t execute you.”

Huey didn’t like that answer. But he got the point and stopped complaining. “Let me handle it,” Bert said. “You’ll be singing ‘La Bayamesa’ soon enough.”

Then came the phone call. It was from Artie’s uncle Charlie. “I found a captain crazy enough for you,” Charlie said. This guy had his own boat, lived in Colombia and regularly sailed the Caribbean. Charlie didn’t ask the captain’s business but suspected “he wasn’t sightseeing.” The captain was Scandinavian and apolitical. This job was for the money, $15,000, and he wanted a guarantee he’d be reimbursed if his boat was confiscated.

Bert agreed and asked the captain’s name. Charlie didn’t know and didn’t want to know. Charlie told Bert he called him what everyone called him: the Pirate.


THE PIRATE stands topside, looking the part, a leathery seaman offering a hand to Huey and Gwen as they step aboard. Huey is clearly out of place on the boat. Forty feet doesn’t sound so big when you head for the sea. The Pirate unties the lines and starts raising the sails.

Huey and Gwen set sail on Thanksgiving eve, 1974. After months of delays, they flew to Cozumel and waited, as instructed, for the Pirate. Bert had gone back to Los Angeles; he and Steve crossed their fingers when they got word that the Pirate’s ship was under way.

It was late fall in the Caribbean, and the boat hit serious swells. Huey and Gwen, unaccustomed to boating, got seasick. They slept topside and ate crackers. As the skies cleared, the trip became pleasant. The Pirate sat in the cockpit with his guitar and sang Jamaican songs. They saw schools of flying fish breaking free into the air. Gwen thought the Pirate, whose skin was parched and scaly, looked like a fish who had escaped the depths.

When land appeared on the horizon, the Pirate considered the options for the final leg of Huey and Gwen’s voyage. They had planned to head to shore alone in a Zodiac—an inflatable motorized craft—so the Pirate could stay out of Cuban waters. But the Pirate reckoned that Cuba was still 15 miles off, with rough seas in between. Huey had no idea how to pilot a small craft in those waters. It would be even more challenging at night, since they planned to come in under cover of darkness. But he insisted.

“We’ve come this far,” Huey said. “We have no choice.” The Pirate joked that he’d wait offshore to collect their bodies.

They inflated the Zodiac. Huey and Gwen boarded uneasily in difficult waves and immediately lost an oar. They had five gallons of gas and the remaining oar if the gas ran out. Gwen brought her suitcase, packed with their clothes, cosmetics and a letter in Spanish explaining their identities and revolutionary solidarity. The Pirate wished them luck as Huey started the little nine-horsepower motor and turned the nose to shore.

The only landmark was a lighthouse, flashing twice every 15 seconds. For hours, the motor whined as Huey tried to keep the boat steady. The waves had grown to five feet, and they nearly capsized. After 11 hours, daylight revealed they were near shore but even nearer to a churning reef. By then Huey had realized they had no life preservers. They were out of gas, paddling with one oar.

The reef raised roaring waves that broke over volcanic rocks. Huey tried to steer, but the water was in control. He was a long way from Oakland and Beverly Hills. When he’d titled his autobiography Revolutionary Suicide, this wasn’t what he had in mind.

On the shore, onlookers had gathered. The Zodiac overturned a few hundred yards out. Huey and Gwen clung to each other and slowly made it to shore. The two were soaking wet, exhausted and cut by the rocks when they walked ashore and got picked up by the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Despite all the fuss about official introduction to the Castro regime, no one knew who they were. It took Huey several hours to convince them he was a famous revolutionary from California who was here to join Fidel. When Huey pointed out they had been invited, the local gendarme responded, “Well, we didn’t shoot you, did we?”

Back in Los Angeles, Bert and the rest of the Beverly Hills Seven quietly celebrated Huey’s successful escape. He wound up living in exile, cutting sugarcane and repairing trucks for a few years. Bert visited Cuba several times, with Candice Bergen, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick and others in tow.

Huey read a script by Artie Ross based on the Big Cigar. He liked it, and Bert tried shopping it around town. Warner Bros. was interested. Richard Dreyfuss was attached and added some of his own dialogue. Candice Bergen wanted to play the starlet, the character that was based on herself. So did Julie Christie, a bigger draw, and she was attached instead.

The film was never made. Warner Bros. backed off and Bert was distracted. The times were changing. By late 1974, the writing was on the wall for the New Hollywood era. Jaws was just around the corner and with it would come the blockbuster mentality, opening weekend grosses, franchises. Bert had finished Hearts and Minds, but Columbia didn’t want to release it. The last vestiges of 1960s idealism were giving way to the apathy of the 1970s.

If the revolutionary vision had disappeared, it was partly the fault of the revolutionaries, many of whom lost their way, often in the wilds of sex and drugs. Bert had introduced cocaine to American culture with Easy Rider, and he became an addict himself. Like many of the New Hollywood titans, Bert’s candle burned bright and fast. He liked to say he was good at tactics but bad at strategy, and he was unprepared for the long game in Hollywood. Some people from that era didn’t survive long: Artie died tragically in 1975 while administering an unwise dose of laughing gas to himself straight from the tank. After BBS fell apart, Steve mostly retired. Bert found himself in a kind of exile. The last real production effort under the banner of BBS was the caper they called the Big Cigar.

Bert did manage one last radical act in Hollywood. He bought back Hearts and Minds and saved it from oblivion in Columbia’s vault. Released in 1974, it won an Academy Award for best documentary. When Bert appeared onstage to accept the Oscar in a white, three-piece tuxedo, he offered “greetings of friendship to all American people” from the North Vietnamese government.

As usual, Bert relished the stir. It will just help the movie, Bert told the papers, and that helps the message. Hearts and Minds was a success, just as Bert had hoped. He brought politics to the people and made a few bucks to boot.

When Bert started producing Hearts and Minds, he asked the director, Peter Davis, what he thought the film was about. Peter waxed academic about interrogating the American soul on the verge of empire.

“What do you want to see?” Peter asked Bert.

“What I always want to see,” Bert replied. “Lines around the block.”

Additional reporting by Jim Hecht

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read more: entertainment, movies, issue january 2013


  • Anonymous
    Amazing article...shocked that i didn't know this before...
  • Anonymous
    awesome story. Incredible
  • Anonymous
    mind blowing. thanks
  • 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.