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No Comfort for Old Men
In a town that worships youth, the Motion Picture Home was a refuge for industry elders, until its future was put in peril. David Margolick reports on the grassroots battle to save it.
On February 23, 2011, the chief of the Motion Picture & Television Fund, Robert Beitcher, stood behind the podium at the Saban Center for Health and Wellness on the Fund's campus, 20 miles down the Ventura Freeway from the heart of Hollywood. The press release from which he read was already on the blogs, but his audience, mostly born long before Gone with the Wind, or even Wings, had won Oscars, didn't live online, and waited expectantly. He had great news, he told them: reversing its decision of two years earlier, the Fund would not be closing its nursing home after all. In conjunction with a private company, long-term- care would continue.
If there were Oscars for Best Recovery from a Public Relations Debacle, or Best Suture to Stanch a Financial Hemorrhage, or Best Timing in the Making of an Announcement, the Motion Picture & Television Fund would have racked up nominations this year as prodigiously as The King's Speech or True Grit. Four days before the Academy Awards, the Fund had simultaneously defused an issue that had brought it enormous embarrassment and fobbed off a money-losing operation. In fact, by partnering with Providence Health & Services and U.C.L.A. Health System, it was offering industry alumni and their families a set of new services. It was more than anyone had thought possible, Beitcher said.
Beitcher singled out Fund officials standing nearby who, he said, were principally responsible for salvaging the nursing home. But he left out a few things, like their role in condemning the place to begin with, and the fiasco that ensued. More significantly, he omitted the extraordinary coalition of relatives, unknowns, B-list actors, and below-the-line types, several of whom were also in attendance, who'd mobilized to reverse the decision. The leader of this group, Nancy Biederman, was characteristic of its constituents: her Hollywood roots ran deep-her screenwriter parents wrote for My Favorite Martian and All in the Family, among many other shows. Biederman put it best: it was a great win, but there is still plenty left to do. Armed with videos, blogs, the strength of the Internet, and the power of shame, they had taken on, and bested, some of Hollywood's most powerful figures, people very much unaccustomed to backing down. This night was their victory, too, though you might not have known it. For mixed in with the euphoria were bitterness and disappointment. However you viewed it, the Fund was cutting back on its historic commitment to "taking care of its own."
If in Hollywood no good deed goes uncredited and the scarcest name in the charity rolls is "Anonymous," the Motion Picture Home might be Exhibit A. Walk around the Wasserman Campus, and you'll see the Frances Goldwyn Lodge, the Louis B. Mayer Theater, the Douglas Fairbanks Lounge, the Merle Oberon Rose Garden. And you don't have to be dead to be immortalized, as Spielberg Drive and the Katzenberg Pavilions prove.
It's no different inside the Jack H. Skirball Health Center. Go past the Edie and Lew Wasserman Legacy Wall into the long-term-care facility, and there's a Lucite plaque outside every room. On the first floor, you'll see the Zanuck and Brown Guest Room, the Audrey Hepburn Guest Room, the Rhonda Fleming Mann Guest Room. Upstairs, where the views are grander, some of the names are, too: the Elizabeth Taylor Guest Room, the Judy Garland Guest Room, the Frank Sinatra Guest Room, the Michael Jackson Guest Room. When I stopped by in late November, they all had something in common-besides, that is, their showbiz lineage: they were empty. Some had chairs placed forbiddingly in front of their doors; others were actually padlocked shut. The whole building felt mothballed, except for the steadily dwindling supply of stragglers living there.
Until a few months ago, Mary Stellar was one of them. For years Stellar, whose Hollywood gigs included working as a secretary for Sam Peckinpah and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, producer of the James Bond films, had made her wishes clear to her family whenever they drove past the place. There, she'd invariably announce, was where she wanted to wind up. There, she knew, you got to live, then die, among your peers, the bit actors and costume designers and grips and best boys and makeup artists who pull up the rear in the credits, right before the disclaimers about dead animals. And in the tender hands of caregivers who knew who you were and what you'd done. Even as Stellar, who'd moved into the Home in late 2005, lapsed into dementia, they held her, put on her makeup, fixed her hair.
But in January of 2009, the powers behind the venerable Motion Picture & Television Fund, citing losses of $10 million a year, a shrunken endowment, diminishing contributions from the state, and the changing preferences of the elderly, announced they would close the long-term-care facility and hospital. If they didn't, they warned, the Fund's much larger operation, furnishing a panoply of services to 60,000 people annually, would go bankrupt. They told Mary Stellar and her neighbors, mostly 80 or older, that they'd have to clear out.
For years, the Fund's public image, burnished regularly by admiring reporters, was one of well-tended old-timers living in sunny retirement, spending their final days swapping reminiscences and watching themselves, or their handiwork, on the screen. It was Hollywood's greatest fade-out. Suddenly, though, YouTube was filled with clips of the embittered elderly, some with tubes in their noses, hands shaking, voices trembling, charging heartlessness, ingratitude, abandonment, betrayal. "Lord help those that are doing this when their time comes," a longtime electrician at Universal Studios named Larry Jennings stated in one of them. To the storied Fund, which had always belied Hollywood's reputation for short memories, avarice, and ego, the dispute marked an extraordinary fall from grace.
At the center of it all was Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks Animation SKG and for decades one of Hollywood's most powerful figures. Technically, Katzenberg, 60 years old, doesn't run the Motion Picture & Television Fund, holding merely the innocuous-sounding title "chairman of the Foundation Committee." But he embodies it and, more than anyone else, has helped keep it afloat. In the past two decades he's raised at least $200 million for it and, along with his wife, Marilyn, given millions himself. Thanks almost entirely to Katzenberg, the "Night Before" benefit, held every Oscar eve, is Hollywood's single most lucrative fund-raiser. Without Katzenberg, the Fund would probably have died. He's done Lew Wasserman proud.
It was the late Wasserman, the famed head of Universal Studios and long-term guardian angel of the Motion Picture Fund who died in 2002, who summoned Katzenberg to his office 20 years ago, drove out with him to the 44-acre campus in Woodland Hills, then informed him that it was now his to nourish and protect. Until that moment, Katzenberg had neither set foot in the place, with its cottages and lodges and nursing home, nor given it much mind. "I was 35, 38 years old … what did I know?" he told me in 1999. "For young people, it's very hard to deal with mortality, especially in our walks of life. We're in utter denial, in a way that sometimes borders on humorous. Aging is not something that comes easily or flatteringly in our business."
But until the announcement at the Saban Center, Katzenberg, a man who in the glitzy worlds of Hollywood filmmaking and philanthropy has always played Mighty Mouse, found himself cast as Bluto instead. Even when doing his best deeds, like raising six or seven million dollars for the Fund at the Night Before at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he was besieged by placard-carrying picketers accusing him of killing off the elderly. "Shame on Katzenberg," their signs declared. "Don't Let Katzenberg Decide Your Future!" Even at Rick and Kathy Hilton's annual holiday party this past December, a critic managed to confront him. It was almost enough to penetrate what Katzenberg likes to call his "rhino skin."
Katzenberg declined to comment for this article. But Casey Wasserman, Lew's grandson and Katzenberg's closest ally on the Fund's board of trustees, says that Katzenberg, convinced his course was saving the Fund, held firm, despite all the brickbats. "He could have found 10 ways to Sunday to jump out of this thing, but never once have I seen him flinch," said Wasserman, Wasserman, C.E.O. of a sports management agency. "He is a fighter through and through. I'm fairly certain no one else like him would have done the same thing."
Even the people closest to Lew Wasserman were divided over closing the nursing home. His longtime secretary, Melody Sherwood, whose 95-year-old mother, a former Vaudeville dancer, lives in the Home, told the Los Angeles Times that her old boss "would roll over in his grave" if he could see what was happening, and some of Wasserman's old colleagues at Universal praised her for saying so. Sherwood recalled that, in a tense visit to the Wasserman home off Sunset, 95-year-old Edie Wasserman, Lew's widow-and, if anything, an even more stalwart supporter of the Motion Picture Home than her husband was-told her that "nobody came there expecting to be cared for life."
Seventy years ago, when Hollywood set out to depict an old person ending his days in an institution, it created a world of harshness and hopelessness. Jedediah Leland, played by Joseph Cotten, sits imprisoned in a wheelchair, wrapped in a bulky robe, begging for cigars, ready to die. Behind him are his fellow elderly, out of focus, anonymous, inert, alone. As he reminisces, melancholy shadows lengthen all around him. But when Hollywood decided, around the same time it made Citizen Kane, to build a real home for its aged, it created something very different. It was a place where you'd see first-run movies twice a week, have Variety delivered to your door, and, on Oscar night-after at least some of you had cast your ballots-get the same programs they were handing out at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the Kodak Theater.
Its official name is the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. It dates back to 1921, when Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and others set up the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The Country House, a complex of cottages and communal buildings, went up in 1941; the nursing home and hospital, to which residents progress as they regress, came later. Mary Astor and Norma Shearer lived here. So did Hattie McDaniel, Johnny Weissmuller, Larry Fine, Gale Sondergaard, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Famous folks like them don't much need the facility these days; they can afford to die in plusher places. The most notable recent deaths there haven't been of Oscar winners recognizable from Turner Classic Movies, but of pitchmen like Messrs. Clean and Whipple (the fellow who pleaded, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin").
During my first visit to the Home 12 years ago, I heard nothing but encomiums. "I get hugged at night if I'm feeling grumpy, I get tucked in with teddy bears. I don't have to do anything, except to be happy," Madlyn Rhue, who appeared in countless TV series, from Gunsmoke to Murder, She Wrote, before contracting multiple sclerosis, told me. Everett Greenbaum, who'd written for Andy Griffith and M*A*S*H, marveled at how the people bathing him somehow knew his credits. When he first walked into the dining room, a character actor named Hal Riddle recalled, he felt he knew everybody. Greenbaum died in 1999, Rhue in 2003, Riddle six years later. By its very nature, the campus constantly replenished itself. But two things have never changed: no one ever wants to go into long-term care, and then, once they're there, no one ever wants to leave it.
But in 2004 or so, both the Motion Picture Fund's corporate board and its board of trustees, headed by Frank Mancuso and Joseph Fischer, respectively, became alarmed by growing deficits at the Fund, particularly relating to the hospital and nursing home, which were expensive and under-utilized. Even though eligibility, normally limited to people with 20 years or more in the business, had been extended to the parents of industry people, there were still too many empty beds. Once a resident's own resources were depleted, the state of California paid roughly 80 percent of his or her costs, with the Fund picking up the rest. In addition to that ongoing shortfall, greater patient longevity, lavish pay, and the Fund's own premium care were leading to losses of nearly $1 million a month. Efforts to outsource the service to private companies were unavailing. "It was a fucking giant turd," one negotiation participant recalled. "No one wanted it." As Fund leaders saw it, 140 or so elderly people were threatening to sink the entire program beyond the Home.
The losses threatened a larger project: a campaign, headed by Katzenberg and Casey Wasserman, to increase the Fund's endowment, and, thereby, to put it on a more secure financial footing. Time was crucial, for the moguls who'd been running Hollywood-Sumner Redstone, Rupert Murdoch, Jerry Perenchio-were getting old. The next generation knew less about the Fund, and was less devoted to it. Katzenberg and Wasserman planned to make large donations themselves, but found that others, wary of pouring money down a hole, were not. Those who did contribute preferred glitzy new projects: Haim Saban, of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers fame, gave his $10 million for a new gym and physical-therapy center; when Jodie Foster contributed her million or so, it was for the swimming pool inside.
An outside consultant, the Camden Group, recommended that parts of the expensive operation be shut down, and bit by bit, they were: the intensive-care unit was closed in 2006, and so was the skilled-rehabilitation section of the nursing home. Increasingly, the thinking went, the elderly preferred "aging in place"-that is, at home. That philosophy jibed with the approach of the two men running things day-to-day: the Fund's chief executive officer, Dr. David Tillman, and his deputy, Seth Ellis. They favored primary-care clinics like the seven the Fund operates for industry employees around Los Angeles.
Katzenberg had long been unhappy with Tillman, according to several board members. By concentrating on subsidized clinics providing day-to-day services for the masses, he believed, Tillman had strayed from the Fund's historic mission: serving Hollywood's truly needy. But that same role was also jeopardized, he believed, by what he considered an extravagant long-term-care operation-what he likes to call a "Bel Air Hotel" of a facility, when a Marriott would surely do. By failing to shut it down, he felt, Tillman had moved too slowly. There were stylistic differences, too. Katzenberg viewed Tillman as an apparatchik, out of tune with the Fund's special traditions and constituency. He wanted him fired, but didn't push, especially since Mancuso and Fischer supported Tillman.
When the stock market tanked in 2008, the Fund's endowment was further reduced. Suddenly, the losses at the nursing home were more consequential. Katzenberg wanted the facility closed within a year. At a corporate board meeting in October 2008, Casey Wasserman threatened to pull his family's support-it had already given $25 million-unless this was done. The board approved.
So, too, very reluctantly, that December, did the Fund's trustees, once Tillman assured them the transition would go smoothly. Only 90 or 100 of the residents would actually have to be moved, he said; the rest could be expected to die off during the transition. The several nursing homes to which they could be sent wouldn't equal what the patients were used to, he conceded, but with mobile teams of Fund doctors, social workers, and geriatricians monitoring them, they would not be neglected. And no one would have to move for 60 days. The announcement would be put off until mid-January: everyone agreed that going public so before Christmas was clearly a very bad idea.
The only objection detailed in the minutes of the meeting (which were later published in the Wrap, the Hollywood blog that has covered the dispute lavishly) came from Walter Seltzer, a campus resident who'd served on the board for 40 years and donated some $4 million to the Fund. Seltzer, who had helped publicize movies from Mutiny on the Bounty to Marty before becoming a producer, reminded the board of the promises made to residents and donors alike, and the good care his wife, herself in long-term care, had received. "Jeffrey Katzenberg acknowledged Walter's comments," the minutes record. "He also spoke about the possibility of the Fund going away if the Board didn't take action." The board unanimously approved the plan, with Seltzer abstaining-"out of emotion," he later said. (Seltzer, at least, remained at the Motion Picture Home for the rest of his life: he died on February 18, at age 96.)
In the next couple of weeks, residents, their families, and employees at the Home sensed something was awry. Rumors circulated that the endowment, like some of Katzenberg's own money, had been invested with Bernard Madoff. (It wasn't.) Then, on January 14, 2009, they got letters announcing the closure. What ensued was the peculiar but predictable bedlam of old people whose world had suddenly been upended. There was panic-"like a bomb had been dropped, except the walls still being up," said Daniel Quinn, an actor whose mother, Rosemary, was a resident. "Some residents will die from shock, sadness, depression, and lack of continuity in medical treatment," a group of family members wrote Tillman. "Some have stated that they do not want to live if they have to leave their home here; they prefer to die right now."
"Do you know how many residents and families I have comforted that were wailing or sobbing, in tears; the kind of heart wrenching tears that hurt just to hear. The kind of tears that were agonizing, painful tears of sorrow that had no end," Lisa Johnson, a long-term-care nurse, wrote in another letter to Tillman. A group of nurses soon petitioned Tillman to reverse the decision. Several residents quickly died. One was Walter Seltzer's wife, who had appeared inconsolable over the news. (By mid-March, the death toll stood at 14. The figures, Tillman claimed in an article in the Huffington Post, were in line with prior years.)
At a meeting with them a week after the announcement, Tillman struck anxious residents as evasive, dismissive, condescending-and steadfast: the place would close. It became too much for one guest at the meeting, the actor David Carradine, who strode dramatically down to the front of the room. "Enough!" he shouted, seizing the microphone from Tillman, according to one family member who was there. "If you're not going to answer these people's questions, you go over there and let them speak! You work for them!" Tillman received threats, and began appearing with a bodyguard. Staffers talked of drawing up lists of people to be moved, and when. For the many elderly Jewish residents, some of them refugees from wartime Europe, such words were especially freighted. "Don't go to the meetings," one cautioned his wife. "The Germans are trying to trick us." (He died within three months.) In February, Keith Olbermann named Tillman one of his "worst persons in the world."
Quickly, family members coalesced into a group, dedicated to keeping their relatives in place and the nursing home open. "Saving the Lives of Our Own," they called it. Heading it was Biederman, a former banking executive whose mother-in-law had lived in the nursing home since 2000 and whose mother, a writer named Irma Kalish, had been a longtime trustee. (In fact, Kalish had voted both to hire Tillman and to close the facility; shortly thereafter, concluding she had been seduced by the one-sided arguments of the Fund's leaders, she resigned in protest.) Quickly Biederman, low-key but relentless, went from being a V.I.P. on the campus to an object of suspicion. Her group retained Girardi & Keese, the Los Angeles law firm that had argued Erin Brockovich's famous case against Pacific Gas & Electric. (Apparently concerned that Brockovich herself might infiltrate the place to agitate on the residents' behalf, guards were armed with pictures of her.) The firm prepared to sue the Fund-for breach of contract, elder abuse, violations of state law, and infliction of emotional distress, among other things-should anyone actually be evicted.
Officially, no one had to leave the Home for six months. But nursing-home operators quickly descended upon the place, flogging their wares and sowing further panic. "I've got six beds," one was heard to say. "Can you get me a celebrity?" In the meantime, the Fund's social workers went from room to room, urging residents to grab coveted spots elsewhere before others did. One handed literature to a woman tending to her dying husband. A former actress named Ava Bliss-she'd appeared with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in The Snows of Kilimanjaro-says she was warned that if she stayed, the lights would be turned off and there would be no nurses left to take care of her.
For all of Tillman's assurances, the list of available nursing homes appeared hastily prepared, and included several spots that had either received poor ratings from federal inspectors or been cited for infractions, or both. Meanwhile, desirable alternatives, like the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda, had waiting lists, at least for those without money or connections. Even in her dementia, Biederman's mother-in-law felt the turmoil all around her. "A number of times she'd say to me, 'Are we safe? Is it going to be all right?'" Biederman recalled. Not for a moment, she said, did she consider moving her out. But other families-less resolute, or more fearful, or simply taking the Fund at its word-felt they had little choice.
One belonged to Frank Liberman, the longtime publicist for Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller. When the closing was announced, Liberman, 91 and suffering from Parkinson's, became worried and depressed. His daughters, Meg Liberman and Kay Liberman, who both work in the industry, felt it wise to move him. After visiting 25 other places and finding them unsatisfactory, they pulled strings-a friend of a friend of a friend of Monty Hall-and got him into the Jewish Home. Though a step up in many ways, for Liberman it was a plunge into the unfamiliar. Even en route in the ambulance, he began shutting down; once he arrived, he never dressed, or engaged, or smiled again. To the family, this seemed like a clear case of what the experts call "transfer trauma." Though Liberman now spoke only in fragments, one word he said regularly was "betrayed." He died that September.
Even moves that appeared to go smoothly really didn't. The Fund touted one instance in which the organization not only found a nursing home for one resident-in Oregon, near the woman's daughter-but also sent several staffers to help her settle in. But its version proved incomplete. "Yes, she is safe and sound in her new home," the daughter later blogged. "But success story? I don't think so. Perhaps one of the board would like to have been me, going through all of the anguish and disruption that the announcement to close the home caused. Perhaps one of them would like to have dealt with my 91-year-old mother's fears and anxiety…I moved my mother out of the [Motion Picture Home] not because I thought it was a good idea or that the closure was justified, but because my family couldn't take the strain and turmoil any longer."
Among the anxious elderly remaining at the home, even seemingly innocent gestures sounded alarms. Flyers for a garage sale-"Chairs, Furniture, TV's, Beds, Lots of Stuff! Everything must be sold," they announced-stoked fresh fears among some patients. When a case of trophies won by Home employees suddenly vanished, it was seen as yet another sign that their close-knit community was being dismantled (even though what replaced it was a Torah donated by Steven Spielberg). It grew dirtier; repairs were left undone. As the population shrank, so, too, did the staff. Some changes seemed like omens, like when the large photograph of Edie and Lew Wasserman on the Edie and Lew Wasserman Legacy Wall fell to the floor.
In advertisements in the trade papers, the Fund maintained that the move impacted "only" those in long-term care. In fact, it spilled over into the cottages and apartments. Some said it also affected Harry's Haven, the Alzheimer's unit established by Kirk Douglas. It is an ambulatory unit; family members complained that as part of the effort to empty out the nursing home, a few patients not suffering from dementia but in wheelchairs were moved there, creating a dangerous situation. "Harry's Haven is now a depository, a warehouse for anyone they need to move," said Gerry Sanoff, a screenwriter for Sony whose mother lives in the unit. (Beitcher counters that all six patients moved from long-term care had documented dementia, and that the alternative was sending them off campus, for which the Fund would also have been criticized. There have been no accidents, he says. Kirk Douglas says that he still visits Harry's Haven at least once a year, and that despite the Fund's financial difficulties, the quality of care there remains "top notch." "Nothing is changed or will be changed," he insists. He backed the decision to close long-term care and calls Katzenberg a "mensch.")
Criticism of the move went beyond the families themselves. In the Wrap, Andrew Gumbel detailed that despite the Fund's cries of poverty, it paid Tillman nearly $1 million in 2008. By leaving beds empty, family members charged, the place had set itself up to fail. Celebrities like the late Larry Gelbart and Shelley Berman and offspring of celebrities like Arthur Marx (son of Groucho) and Linda Hope (daughter of Bob, who'd given substantially to the Fund) also complained. Sid Caesar called the move "a crime against the industry that has been my life." Throughout, stories about the residents and protests on their behalf-some with their faces on placards-appeared in the press. "What Jeffrey never appreciated was how potent those 120 helpless people were," said someone who worked with him on the closure.
At a press conference early on, Katzenberg said that he gave himself an "F" for public relations, but stuck by his decision, as he did a week later at the Night Before party, with a noticeably ill-at-ease Michael Douglas at his side. Katzenberg also enlisted Warren Beatty, who tried to drum up support for the decision. To Katzenberg, it was a sound choice, poorly executed-by David Tillman. Tillman would have been fired, two trustees told me, but for the fear, as one of them put it, that letting him go would only "pour gas on the fire." Because he no longer believed Tillman's reports, a source says, Katzenberg visited the Home one weekend, reviewing the cases of every resident with administrators and the chief nurse. Still confident his course was best for the long-term interests of the Fund, he stopped talking to the press, and continued on his course.
In late August 2009, after mediation failed, the Fund moved to clear out the remaining residents, now numbering 76. In letters hand-delivered by teams of four-it felt, one resident complained, like being subpoenaed-Tillman urged everyone to "move forward with your transition plans." There were rumors that those who didn't move could expect letters telling them they'd have 30 days to leave. By way of reply, notices appeared over patients' beds. "Do not talk to me about moving," they stated. "Any contact regarding moving me is to take place through my lawyers at Girardi & Keese." That seemed to work: no more menacing letters arrived. The two sides had reached an impasse. But conditions continued to deteriorate. Increased security made the Home feel a bit like an armed camp.
For the year following the closure announcement, Katzenberg and Tillman barely spoke. (Katzenberg's iciness was so conspicuous, in fact, that Mancuso complained to him about it.) In early 2010, the Fund formed a special committee to figure a way out of the impasse. Tillman's recommendation, according to a person present: to tell the holdouts they had 30 days to leave, and then, if they didn't, to call in the sheriff. The trustees, imagining an Internet blitz of photographs of burly law-enforcement types pushing out people on gurneys, and imagining what that would do for fund-raising, were horrified. Katzenberg and Wasserman then told Mancuso and Fischer that unless Tillman was fired, they would quit. Shortly thereafter, Tillman "resigned." (Tillman did not respond to phone calls or text messages. His deal with the Fund, which is paying him roughly $1 million to cover the two years remaining on his contract, includes a non-disparagement clause.) "We had to pay him off, as distasteful as it was to many of us," one trustee complained.
Enter Beitcher, a former head of Panavision. Complicit in the fiasco-he'd been a trustee since 2007-he took on the job, he says, because he wanted to help solve the mess. "I feel a sense of personal guilt, being a good Jewish kid, that I didn't see it," he explained. He was part of a general housecleaning at the Fund: after another of Katzenberg's threats to walk away-why anyone would take them seriously, given his ferocious devotion to the Fund, is a mystery-Mancuso gave up the chairmanship, Fischer retired, and the boards themselves were streamlined.
Beitcher had his rocky moments. One was last Passover, when his decision to prohibit a seder in the nursing-home building made him seem like a pharaoh. Then, a few months later, the California Department of Public Health ruled that the Fund violated California law by moving out some 40 residents without informing them of their rights. But within two weeks the agency abruptly reversed itself, adopting the Fund's argument that those who had left had done so voluntarily. (Some, like Michael Connors, of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, which filed the complaint, maintain that the state "capitulated" to pressure from the Fund. After all, California's then governor was a former actor. "Are you kidding?" Beitcher replied when asked about a possible connection.)
Actually, famous names like "Arnold Schwarzenegger" have been rare in this tale. Among the protesters, you were far more likely to run into a Smitrovich (Bill), Schneider (John), or Butler (Dean) than a Damon, Pitt or Hanks. George Clooney talked briefly of raising money for the Home, by offering himself up for a roast, or by changing the rules of the Screen Actors Guild so that the highest-earning actors could pay a kind of tax-say, $6,500 for every million dollars they make-to subsidize the Fund. (Nothing came of either proposal.) Family members believed that even the biggest stars, or their agents, feared crossing Katzenberg. "These guys are great at jumping into Darfur or Haiti, but when we ask them to get into a situation in their own backyard, on behalf of the people who enabled their careers, who made them into millionaires, who lit their sets, who applied their makeup, we don't hear from them," Richard Stellar, son of Mary Stellar and author of a vituperative blog on the Wrap, said of the A-listers. "They're silent."
There have been exceptions, like Elliott Gould, who has publicly decried the closure. And the husband-and-wife team of Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor, who last January held a charity auction at their home for the long-term-care facility. (Featuring items like a signed genie bottle from I Dream of Jeannie donated by Barbara Eden, a signed Andy Warhol lithograph of Jane Fonda, and some of Frank Sinatra's neckties, it raised $30,000.) "It's easy for people to donate things," Taylor said. "Memorabilia-the town has a lot of it. But for them to really put their names on something … that's a bigger deal." She tried handing over the proceeds to the Fund, only to conclude they would be tied up in red tape. So she has doled it out piecemeal, to residents needing massages, or wheelchairs, or dentures.
Then came Richard Dreyfuss, who called ending long-term care "a despicable thing." "LA has a bad rep for turning good people into bad, but this will take the damn cake," he wrote in one private e-mail. Publicly, he was more measured, explaining that he did not want to sound "as if I'm trying to corner Jeffrey Katzenberg … to admit he's a sinner and will go to eternal hell." The two men, who'd long known each other, met at DreamWorks Animation in September to discuss the issue. Dreyfuss suggested Katzenberg had acted impulsively and secretively, according to someone who was at the meeting, and should let someone else fix things. To Katzenberg, Dreyfuss must have seemed like a latecomer and a buttinsky. Not a lot got accomplished, but thanks at least in part to Dreyfuss, the two sides were now in the same room.
The actress Diane Ladd, a prominent board member of the Screen Actors Guild long interested in health care, also got involved. After doing extensive research and a feasibility study, she and her husband, a former PepsiCo C.E.O. named Robert Hunter, presented Katzenberg this summer with their plans for a new $125 million long-term-care facility, to be built on the Wasserman Campus. But the plan was quickly stymied: Ladd and Hunter couldn't raise money without a promise for the land; Katzenberg wouldn't commit the land without the money, which he clearly believed they would never raise.
Last October, an 89-year-old resident fell down the stairs and died-the result, some charge, of the poor supervision that results from layoffs. Beitcher also tangled with Biederman's group. He said several of them-he explicitly exempted Biederman-were hotheads he would "literally be afraid to get into a room with." He especially locked horns with Stellar. Beitcher and other Fund officials spoke of the families with enormous bitterness, describing them as publicity hounds, obstructionists, ingrates, moochers, and egotists, content to bring down the Fund to take care of their own-some of whom (including the mothers of several protesters) had only the most tenuous Hollywood ties. They also charged that for all the millions they've made, the actors rallying against the Fund had contributed precious little to it themselves.
But Beitcher clearly calmed things down and cleaned things up. The Home began to look much better; the rat sightings stopped. Despite the black eyes, collections chugged along-in the past couple of years, the Fund-again, largely Katzenberg-has raised an additional $50 million; this year's Night Before stands to be the second most lucrative ever.
And now, the civil war between the families and the Fund has apparently reached Appomattox. Talks with Providence began last fall, and in December, word of it made the Los Angeles Times. The deal works, Beitcher says, because Providence can effectively subsidize a scaled-down long-term-care operation with more lucrative services in rehabilitation and palliative care, which, for the first time in the Fund's history, will be available to people outside the entertainment community, something that once was anathema to the Fund. "Two years of rage opens up new possibilities," Beitcher explains. (U.C.L.A. Health System will provide a new neurological rehabilitation unit.) By year's end, people will move into a "spiffy" refurbished nursing home in another building on the campus, its walls "choc-a-block" with movie memorabilia. For an organization bound and determined to shut the place down, he concedes, this represents a retreat, though it's not a term he favors. "I really spent a lot of time in the thesaurus looking for the right word," he says. "It is what it is."
On the afternoon of the campus meeting, he said, a Fund official visited Edie Wasserman, read her the press release, and got her blessing for the new plan. Around the same time, Katzenberg called Kirk Douglas, who also signed on enthusiastically. Beitcher said that Katzenberg-with whom, he says, he talked "a hundred times over the past six weeks"-is relieved: no longer, as Katzenberg would put it, must he go around asking for funds with a refrigerator on his back. Beitcher, too, is clearly relieved. "We're off the hook and Providence is on the hook," he told Variety.
Many members of Saving the Lives of Our Own don't share Beitcher's euphoria, or his relief. The new nursing home will have room for only 44 residents. If all the current residents hold on, there will be only eight vacancies in the new facility, either for people who need to move in from elsewhere on the campus or for refugees from the 2009 purge who would like to come back home. "The bottom line is, it's not enough," says Daniel Quinn. "You're talking about an entire industry." Richard Stellar captured the prevailing ambivalence best: in a single e-mail, he said the outcome both was "a huge victory" and "stinks to high heaven."
But for Biederman, whose backers are calling for her to receive the Nobel Peace Prize or at least a seat on the Fund's board, it's a good start. "In the end, David Tillman was right: no amount of money would reverse the board's decision," she says. "What did do it was determination, faith, hard work, and a lot of heart." And why was the deal struck now? She noted the press coverage of events, including, perhaps, this article. "A lot of people are saying the announcement was timed to get the best possible P.R. around the Oscars and to defuse the Vanity Fair story," she says. "I don't know. But it certainly was serendipitous for the Fund."