True Hollywood story: The producer and the Black Panther

Bert Schneider craved rebel cachet, Huey Newton his cash. The very Hollywood tale of the producer and Black Panther

Published June 9, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)


More than three decades ago, as I was winding up a major investigation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its leader Huey Newton, I received a call from Abbie Hoffman, the antic anti-Vietnam War activist, then a fugitive from criminal charges for selling cocaine to a nark. Abbie and I had been friends and fellow street-fighting buddies on the Lower East Side in numerous demonstrations of the antiwar Yippies. His purpose, he said, was to talk me out of publishing that 1978 investigation in New Times. It would hurt the left and the struggle for black justice, he warned.

My story exposed Newton's bizarre leadership (for a time he carried a swagger stick à la Idi Amin). Far worse was the extortion racket he presided over that shook down pimps, drug dealers, after-hours clubs and even a theater owner. Non-compliance left one club owner dead and undiscovered for days in the trunk of his car, which was parked at the San Francisco airport. The theater owner, Ed Bercovich, declined the tithe and refused to give jobs to Panther thugs. The theater burned down -- it was arson. Murders of rivals were also carried out on orders from above for perceived disloyalty to the Panthers; vicious beatings of lower-rank Panther males were regular punishments, along with turning out Panther women as prostitutes in the Panther-owned bar and restaurant the Lamp Post. The Panthers always needed cash for themselves and their programs. Paranoia was rampant, with internal schisms fanned by the FBI and local red squads of the police but also anchored in the egos and fear of rivals.

Newton had a way of being tough on the streets, the mean streets of Oakland he grew up in, but he managed to conceal it from his respectable friends, black and white. He cultivated liberal politicians such as U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums and state Rep. Tom Bates; a host of celebrities, including Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Dennis Hopper; and opinion leaders such as Yale president Kingman Brewster, author Jessica Mitford and conductor Leonard Bernstein, all of whom became supporters of the Panthers.

At first, I was puzzled as to why Abbie would call me from the underground after a long silence -- he was a fugitive, after all. Suddenly, in a flash, I knew: "Did Bert put you up to this?" I asked.

"Yeah," he admitted sheepishly. Bert Schneider, I already knew, had underwritten Abbie's fugitive existence, just as he had for Huey Newton. I turned Abbie -- and Bert -- down: The Panther investigation would run.

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Bert Schneider was lionized after his death last December -- at 78 -- as the innovative producer and Oscar winner for the anti-Vietnam War documentary "Hearts and Minds" as well some of his generation's best and most iconic movies: "Easy Rider,"  "Five Easy Pieces," "The Last Picture Show."

His films broke from old movie studio hierarchies and formulaic story arcs, and they were much cheaper to make. Schneider's low-budget, edgy films gave artistic directors (such as Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich and Terrence Malick) their creative freedom. In turn, the directors and his actors welcomed his friendship -- Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper remained friends for life. Under Schneider, "filmmakers dominated financiers," "Hearts and Minds" director Peter Davis wote in the Huffington Post after his friend's death.

Schneider moved into filmmaking after the success of the television series "The Monkees," directed by Rafelson, with whom Schneider founded his production company (along with Steve Blauner). The movies tapped into the pulse of a seismic shift in American culture. They were critical and commercial successes, bringing to the screen rebel characters, stories and lifestyles that exhibited the youthful zeitgeist of the 1960s and early '70s -- shocking audiences with their relaxed nudity and drug-taking.

At the 1975 Academy Awards, accepting the Oscar for "Hearts and Minds," a film critical of the government's war in Vietnam, Schneider angered old guard Hollywood by reading a telegram from Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (the Viet Cong) thanking the American antiwar movement "for all they have done on behalf of peace." Frank Sinatra countered by reading a Schneider-scolding letter from Bob Hope.

It was not Schneider's first foray into politics, but it was his most visible. Typically, friends and observers said, he liked to stay in the background. He was known to dislike publicity.

He was, however, very engaged in the leftist politics of the day -- and he was willing to put vast sums of money into helping those causes. Before the 1967 march against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., Schneider visited the well-known organizer Rennie Davis. When he asked Rennie Davis what the group needed and Davis responded with "money," for the group's phone bills, Schneider whipped out his checkbook and wrote a check for $170,000, what was then a small fortune.

But after he met Newton (introduced by Elaine Brown, her book claims) the Panther minister of information and the group's real leader, Schneider made a giant leap -- financially and emotionally -- into Newton's world and psyche. Huey, as his white friends and those outside the party called him, was a genuine revolutionary hero to many. He was a militant who'd actually shot an Oakland cop who was seen by the left as a racist pig. He came across in small groups as attractively modest, playful and smart.

His "Hearts and Minds" friends and collaborators, Peter Davis and Daniel Ellsberg, both believed in Schneider's passionate commitment to the causes of those times -- fighting the war and racism -- even if, later, they were skeptical of the Panthers and Newton.

It was the same with sex. Once Schneider was divorced after his 15-year marriage ended, he became a sexual adventurer, according to his friends and lovers. While a generation older than the radicals and social adventurers he came to befriend, he shared their experiments with drugs and sexual liberation with a dash of spiritualism and New Age body regimens. He read widely, from classics to avant garde or revolutionary tracts. He rejected, but could not quite conceal, his privileged upbringing by scorning its social rules. His father, Abe, rose from being a studio accountant to become president of Columbia Pictures. Bert, the eldest of three brothers, spent his childhood in the suburban comfort of New Rochelle, N.Y., in tony Westchester County. He was an early bad boy at Cornell, expelled for gambling and poor grades. Years later, he confided to several associates, including French film producer Pierre Cottrell, a Schneider friend, that in his youth he'd "stuck up a bank." Truth or myth? The story made the rounds, but I was unable to confirm it with any records.

By the age of 21, Schneider toiled on Wall Street as a trader. When Columbia Pictures, under Bert's father, purchased New York's Screen Gems studio, Bert went to work there. His father soon summoned him to Hollywood, but Schneider chafed under the big studio system. "The Monkees" series enabled him to break away and kept him flush for years after.

He turned out to be an excellent producer, say those who worked with him, especially for talented directors and actors. When he started a film production company, Schneider described his role as "manager, coach, director, psychiatrist, cheerleader, manipulator [and] guide." It was basically the same role he would come to play in radical politics.

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With his film success and growing wealth, Schneider's donations to progressive causes grew exponentially, especially to organizations in the antiwar movement such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the National Mobilization Against the War. He gave money to Joan Baez's Institute for the Study of Non-Violence and provided seed money for the underground Sundance magazine, but his largess was most unstinting to individual radicals. He underwrote Abbie Hoffman's escape and fugitive existence, according to Hoffman's wife, Anita. But the money he gave to Huey Newton -- to his defense attorneys and to Panther programs, along with living expenses for Newton alone from the early 1970s until Newton's death in 1989 -- cost Schneider millions.

He was deeply involved and risked arrest by plotting and financing Newton's escape to Cuba to avoid criminal charges for a string of crimes he allegedly committed in the summer of 1974. Newton was accused of shooting a 17-year-old prostitute on an Oakland street (she later died of her wounds). He also pistol-whipped his elderly tailor in his penthouse apartment overlooking Lake Merritt while being fitted for a suit. And he pulled guns on a couple of undercover vice cops in an Oakland after-hours bar.

As I documented in New Times, facing all those charges, Newton ran. He jumped bail and was initially harbored by the Zen Center, as Zen denizens at the time confirmed. Several people knowledgeable about those times asserted that Newton actually stayed at Schneider's house, briefly, before being spirited down to Mexico to await passage to Cuba.

Schneider entered full organizing mode. He urged his good pal Artie Ross, a charming hipster and part-time screenwriter from Berkeley and later Big Sur, to sail Newton to Cuba in a newly trimmed-out trimaran sailboat belonging to a friend of Artie's. Dorien Ross, Artie's sister, said the money Schneider put into the boat upgrades was considerable, "as much as $100,000," she speculated in a 1990 interview. Newton made it safely to Jalapa, Mexico (where Schneider, coincidentally, had a second home), but as the trimaran took off from Miami, it sank. Dorien said her brother then flew to Mexico and had to baby-sit an increasingly troublesome Newton until a substitute boat could be found. Artie stayed in Jalapa for several difficult months. "He did it for Bert," Dorien told me, adding that during those three months her brother said that Newton was probably guilty of everything he'd been accused of, "if not more." Her brother complained that Huey was starting fights when they were supposed to be hiding out; Artie had to constantly step in to keep him from blowing his cover.

Despite the 1974 murder and pistol-whipping charges, as well as innumerable outrages to come over the years that followed, Schneider remained loyal and generous to Newton. As Daniel Ellsberg recently told me: "Bert absolutely loved Huey. [He] told me once, 'Huey's the smartest man I ever met.'" He said Schneider forgave Newton because he believed the racist pressures from the FBI, the police and his various arrests while running the Panthers were responsible for Newton's bad behavior. But Schneider's indulgences of a violent and out-of-control Newton spoke to something deeper in the producer's own bad-boy fantasies -- Newton as the avatar of Schneider's id.

Schneider did not just park his ward in Cuba and abandon him; Peter Davis recalled Schneider bringing him and others down to Cuba to see the exiled Newton. (On another trip, Jack Nicholson, especially, was supposed to have gotten on well with Fidel Castro.)

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Newton stayed in Cuba until 1977, and back in Oakland, under his authority, Elaine Brown ran the now-shrunken Panther Party. One goal of Schneider's trips to Cuba was to serve as a go-between, safe from the FBI, for Newton and Brown. Even so, Brown publicly talked at a book reading about speaking to Newton by phone once every few days.

Elaine Brown, the beautiful Panther who drove around in a red Mercedes while lower-ranked Panther women cleaned her apartment, met Schneider years earlier when she was in the Los Angeles chapter. She admits she was "totally charmed."  She called him "the most sought-after prince of every beauty in a world of beauty." She finally made love with him -- calling it "hard and passionate" -- during a mission to ask Schneider to fund a secure apartment for Newton after his release from prison in 1968. Brown asked for a year's free rent in a posh but secure 25th-floor penthouse. Schneider wrote a $12,000 check -- a lot of money then.

Finally, Newton -- who hated doing labor in a Cuban factory -- decided to come back and face the charges against him. Schneider hired Sheldon Otis to defend Newton, once negotiations for his return were settled. Newton flew to Vancouver for final negotiations with federal and Alameda County officials, and he was allowed to return to Oakland to turn himself in and be released on bail. He was a free man on the eve of his trial for the prostitute-murder. Once again, Schneider was footing most of the bills.

On the eve of the trial, a group of armed men, including Flores Forbes (a young soldier in the Panthers who would later confess his role), made an assassination attempt on a key witness to the slaying. The target was a prostitute -- only the men began shooting into the wrong apartment. (She lived in a building behind the apartment that was attacked). The Panthers accidentally shot one of their own in the back; another Panther was shot in the hand. The widow inside the besieged apartment was unharmed. She'd grabbed an old service pistol of her late husband's and shot back through the door, scaring off the surviving assassins. The next day, Newton publicly insisted the slain Panther was no longer in the party and that he had had nothing to do with the raid.

In the 1990s, Otis told me in an interview that during the lull before that trial began, he had joined Newton in snorting cocaine. The regretful attorney told me that their drug consumption alarmed Otis's wife, who feared a coked-up, volatile Newton hanging around their home. Admitting his own addiction, Otis backed away from the job. He was replaced by yet another Schneider hand-picked attorney, Michael Kennedy, who accepted the producer's proffered million dollar retainer.

He also gave Newton's and his wife, Gwen Fontaine, the down payment for "a tasteful redwood" house at 7261 Sayre Street in Montclair. "Bert held the first mortgage," real estate broker Laurie Moon told me in an interview.

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By the 1980s, Schneider had stopped making movies, but he was still a man who liked taking care of things.

In actress Candice Bergen's memoir, "Knock Wood," she writes about her love affair with Schneider, then in his 40s. She was still in her mid-20s. "In deference to his privacy," Bergen used a pseudonym for Schneider. "I'll call him 'Robin,'" she wrote. After his divorce, he had moved in across the narrow canyon from her cottage and lived barely 200 yards away. She initially enjoyed watching the series of topless women and other "guests" who hung around his pool, whose conversations she overheard. She claims she wasn't attracted to "Robin's" looks -- "He was too willowy and lanky ... He was too skinny. I felt too fat." (Peter Davis dubbed him an Adonis). But she fell for him nonetheless: He was "charming, sweet, persistent, extremely smart." What hooked her was the sheer force of his powerful and seductive personality, "[his] success and his very real abilities and generosity, people clung to him for support -- emotional and financial. I seldom saw a situation he couldn't handle, from friends in accidents to friends in jail ... He was all about 'taking care of things or controlling things ... Soon he began to take care of me ..."

Bergen understood that Schneider's involvement with Newton "gave 'Robin' a front-row seat at the Revolution ... gave him, as a member of the over-privileged class, political credibility, a means to live out political fantasies. At times, I thought he financed the Panthers single-handedly, indirectly dispatching agents of the revolution from behind his desk or beside the pool table of his Hollywood Office of Operations."

Just a few weeks after their affair began, Schneider took Bergen on a northern California road trip to introduce his girlfriend to the iconic public figures and pop heroes he counted as friends.  At Newton's penthouse, she saw the sleek results of his generosity and also noticed how close her boyfriend and the Panther leader were. She wrote about Huey making "Robin" an "honorary Panther" and bestowing his "white brother" with a a gold Panther ring.

On that same trip, Schneider took Bergen to visit Richard Alpert -- aka Baba Ram Das, an early LSD tripper with Tim Leary and now a spiritual philosopher-cum-guru -- and there was a stopover with Joan Baez in Carmel.  They stopped  at the Esalen Institute, as well, the spiritual and physical New Age center where Bergen enjoyed their trippy nude immersion in side-by-side bathtubs overlooking the Pacific coast at twilight. She was sure that no one recognized her as the movie star she had become. When the couple arrived back from the trip, Bergen recounted her surprise at finding yet one more '60s figure -- the fugitive Abbie Hoffman -- in residence at Schneider's home.

For all Schneider's Svengali-like efforts to free Bergen's worldview from her conservative Old Hollywood upbringing by her parents, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and her socialite mother Francis, she resisted his pressure for an open sexual relationship. He bragged to her that he was constantly propositioned by some of the most beautiful women and stars in Hollywood, and then encouraged Bergen, a beautiful woman, to take lovers. She tired of his deep political teachings or examinations of her every thought. They fought more, and then she left him

Bergen only writes about pressure to have other lovers, but Schneider was known to favor swapping and small-group sex, including menages a troi with Newton. One of Schneider's wives even named Newton as a correspondent in her divorce filings from Schneider. Schneider and Newton both embraced the sexual revolution. Newton  banned monogamy in his Panther Party, declaring it a form of capitalism -- for the notion of "ownership" of a lover or spouse -- that must be smashed.

Schneider seemed to go off the deep end after Bergen decamped. He hid nothing from his friends, however. It was hypocrisy he couldn't stand; Schneider's own moral code allowed for anything as long as he was open and honest about his behavior. Several friends who preferred anonymity when commenting on Schneider's increasingly unfettered sexuality pointed to his inappropriate liaison with a young, teenage schoolmate of his own daughter. "He was very open about it," said one screenwriter who had collaborated with Schneider. Other friends remember seeing him with this teenager in tow or at his house.

He also seemed more outlandish with his drug ingestion. The screenwriter told the story that Schneider had infuriated his daughter by openly doing drugs in front of his own grandchild. Even the Los Angeles Times, in their Schneider obituary last winter, observed dryly that at the time of his death, Schneider was alienated from his children.

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In his later years, as old friends died and he remained estranged from his family, some saw Schneider as a pathetic youth-chaser."By the late '90s, he was a sad case," wrote the Los Angeles Times' Patrick Goldstein. "I'd see him at parties, toting a plastic baggie full of pharmaceuticals of all stripes and sizes, hanging out with women who weren't even born when 'Easy Rider' was taking the town by storm. When I once chided him for being a cradle robber, he laughed it off. 'So what,' he said. 'Doesn't everybody want to be young again?'"

What's both sad and bizarre about the producer and the Panther, is that both men were spiraling down with drugs -- free-basing cocaine was their shared drug of choice. They were sometimes joined by Richard Pryor, especially in the 1980s, when Newton seemed to have abandoned the Panthers and was flying down for stints of screenwriting at Schneider's very comfortable home. Imagine Schneider and Newton, heads together until late hours, collaborating on a screenplay on Newton's life, with Pryor slated for the starring role. When Pryor set his face and scalp on fire while free-basing, the dream of a Newton film collapsed.

The friendship between the producer and the Panther waxed and waned, but Schneider was always "taking care" of his friend, often with elaborate gifts. San Franciscan Sandy Wong, a non-political friend of Newton's from those days, recalled that Newton even re-gifted presents he'd received from Schneider:  "He showed off a sterling-silver coke vial spoon," she said in 1995, "embedded with turquoise -- a gift from Bert.  Then he gave it away."  Wong said that the maroon Mercedes Newton drove around was another big ticket item paid for by Schneider. But taking care of Newton was more than rides, housing or lawyers.

Wong says Schneider also stepped in to become Newton's diet coach. "One time, possibly in 1978 or early '80s, Huey gained a whole bunch of weight. It was the heaviest he'd ever been. Bert said, 'If you lose 20 pounds, we'll buy you a whole new wardrobe.' Huey fasted for 30 days on spirolina and lost the weight."

The bond between them was enormous -- and ultimately romantic and sexual, as well as fraternal and comradely. This was demonstrated finally by a small cache of hand-written letters never publicly revealed before that Newton sent his patron from prison as well as after his release from the Alameda county jail on an old illegal possession of a gun conviction, several years before he was murdered in 1989. In one letter, Newton glowingly expresses his "joy and sensual excitement" after spending his first night following his release from prison with Schneider. The producer had bailed him out, driven him in a white stretch limo by the prison so he could wave to his fellow prisoners, then taken him off to spend the night together "on top of the Hyatt." He then explains why he went with Schneider and not his wife Fredrika ("Freddy"): "I chose to spend the first night out of jail with you rather than Freddy because, as you stated to someone, the two of us were married first ... So satisfied," he adds with an almost audible sigh.

And despite his avowals -- calling Schneider "my love," or swearing to love him always -- Newton's letters are full of reproach, mentioning promises of financial aid to his wife Fredrika or loans due with much detail. The more serious complaints in the letters, however, are over the "agreement" the two men made when Newton went to prison: That Schneider would take care of Fredrika. "You said that you would take care of my family, instead you took my family," Newton wrote.

Whatever the fights and breaks between Schneider and Newton, in the end they'd make up somehow. Schneider paid for Newton's funeral, but by then he'd become isolated from his film life. Davis, the "Hearts and Minds" director, attributed his disinterest to the confining strictures of Columbia Pictures, which still distributed his company's films. Another source blamed Schneider's refusal to go on location, a necessity for producers. He disliked going to the studio as well. He preferred the world to come to his hilltop house.

Increasingly he withdrew from politics and Hollywood. He married twice more; both ended in divorce. The ardent revolutionary who introduced his pal Huey to the likes of Jane Fonda and other luminaries became reclusive, although he retained friendships with Jack Nicholson (who put him up in his guest house after Schneider's house burned in 2007 and once again during his illness before he died) and Daniel Ellsberg.  The final blows were the suicide of Abbie Hoffman in April 1989 and then the slaying of Newton by a coke dealer in August of that same year.

His friends were gone, but the drugs remained. Wrote Peter Davis, "Bereft of illusions, Bert subsided into drugs. Indifference slowly took over from dynamism. Drugs wasted him, made him solitary."

Not many years after his house burned down in 2007, a Berkeley journalist and writer who knew Schneider was allowed to visit him in Schneider's house on Summit Ridge Road. Standing in the living room, the writer noticed a small Oriental urn on the mantelpiece. Peering in, he was startled to see ashes and bits of bone. 'That's Huey,'" Schneider told the writer. "'That's my brother."

More than two decades after his brother's death, Schneider himself expired, but the lights had really gone out with Newton's death.

By Kate Coleman

Kate Coleman is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay area.

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