From The Dallas Times Herald

 

Jan 3, 1985

 

 

 

LOS ANGELES – Louie Anderson heard his name and knew it was time to move toward the light. There was no more time to worry, no more time to dream. There was only time to straighten his tie and swallow hard, to catch a glimpse of the stagehand who was holding the gray curtain open, who was gesturing for him to go ahead.

He walked through the curtain, looked briefly to his right and smiled at the scene that was just as he’d always hoped it would be. There was Johnny Carson, behind his famous desk, in front of his famous Hollywood backdrop, smiling and clapping his hands. Robert Blake, dressed in black and fingering an unlit cigarette, was in the guest’s chair. And, yes, on the sofa. There was Ed McMahon, clapping along.

Louie found his mark, two pieces of green tape stuck to the floor in the shape of a T, and positioned himself in front of the camera. To his left, Dock Severinsen was giving the signal to end the music, the generic brassy music they use for every new comedian. This time though, the music sounded different to Louie Anderson. This time the music was for him.

“I could work for the rest of my life touring in clubs and tomorrow night more people will see me than in all of those clubs put together,” Louie had said the day before. “This is what every comic dreams of. It changes everything because for the rest of your life, wherever you go, they say, “As seen on “The Tonight Show.”’

“Not many people get a chance like this – one night that can change their whole life.”

 

**************************************************

The amateurs were everywhere, tables full of people who thought they were funny, waiting for their shot at making strangers laugh.

It was another take-your-chances Monday night at The Comedy Store, the legendary comedians’ proving ground on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. Monday is open microphone night, which means anyone who wants to make a fool of himself in public need only take a number and wait in line.

Most of the applicants were crowded in a back corner, a huddled mass of wretched comedy refuse, laughing at one another’s jokes, the only ones laughing in the room. Some of it was painful to watch, feeble attempts at being funny.

They would go to the stage, one after another, always moving too fast, always fumbling with the mic, trying to get one laugh before their three minutes expired. One guy showed up with a 2-by-4 and said things like, “I found this at a board meeting.” One was doing Mary Jo Kopechne jokes. Another simply froze and uttered not a single intelligible word. He just stood there muttering, waiting for the light to shine on Eddie Cantor’s portrait, the signal that his time was up.

It was an endless parade of half-wits and loudmouths, guys (and they were all guys) who thought they could get laughs just by saying dirty words and making faces. If, by some incredible accident, one of them uttered a line that was even remotely humorous the crowd would go crazy. Mercy laughs.

But mixed among the pitiful amateurs there are always a few people who know what they’re dong, young comics who have come from other places, ready to take their shot at the big time. If you’re going to make it as a comedian, this is where you have to start: taking a number and standing in line on Monday night at The Comedy Store.

That’s what Louie Anderson did. He came to L.A. in September, 1982, four years after he had taken a dare and gone onstage at a comedy club in Minneapolis, a cramped working-class bar called Mickey Finn’s. He was a social worker at the time, a kid who’d grown up dirt poor in a St. Paul housing project.

Louie was funny and he knew it, a 350-pound guy who could make fun of himself and everything around him. He was a hit the first time he took the microphone and it wasn’t long before he left social work behind. Deep down, he says, a comedian is what he’d always wanted to be.

After accomplishing all he could in Minneapolis, he took off for California. He planned to stay a year and then, if he hadn’t gotten on “The Tonight Show,” he’d go back to Minnesota. A year passed. He didn’t get on. He stayed anyway.

He’d become a paid regular at The Comedy Store by February, 1983, only six months after his arrival. He’d even gotten an early audition for Jim McCawley, “The Tonight Show’s” talent coordinator. But McCawley turned him down, said he wasn’t ready. Louie swore he’d never audition for the show again.

“I was devastated,” he said. “I’d been rejected and I took it very personally. I’m immature. I think comics are immature people.”

A few months later, abandoning his promise, Louie auditioned again. And he was turned down again. By then, though, he was getting plenty of work in comedy clubs on the West Coast and working as an opening act in Las Vegas for acts such as Neil Sedaka and Connie Stevens. So he stuck it out.

Finally McCawley came through. He called Louie back for one more audition in mid-November and decided he was good enough.

“You’re gonna get your shot,” he told Louie. “We’ll put you on in the next three or four weeks. Unless someone cancels.”

Someone cancelled. The Friday after that conversation. Louie’s phone rang. It was McCawley.

“You’re doing it Tuesday.” He said. “This Tuesday.”

Louie calmly went over the specifics. He’d have seven minutes and would go on after Robert Blake. Fine, he said to McCawley, thank you very much. He then proceeded to call every human being he could think of.

“ I don’t care if I haven’t talked to you in three years,” he said to one long-distance friend. “Watch the show.”

He spent the weekend honing his set, working on the lines McCawley had liked, taping his club performances and playing them back against a stopwatch.

And now it was Monday night, the night before the big show and he was back at The Comedy Store, in the midst of all the amateurs, so he could try out his “Tonight Show” set for one last audience. A final dry run.

While he was waiting to go on, every comic in the back hallway was asking questions and giving advice. “Is Johnny gonna be there?” “Do you get to sit down?” “What are you gonna wear””

He was loving every second of it, basking in the glory, hamming it up, trying to pretend he wasn’t nervous and doing an awful job.

“Do you think I need a haircut?” he asked. It was 11 p.m. “If you don’t feel good about your hair it makes a difference. I better get one tonight. If I can find the woman who cuts it for me, will you drive me over there? Great.”

He did his set twice that night, the same jokes in the same order he would do them for Carson and 18 million viewers in less than 24 hours.

“Sorry, I can’t stay long,” he said as he walked on stage. “But I’m in between meals.

Small laughs. Very small. He was hurrying too much, rushing the punch lines, forgetting jokes. The lines were good but his delivery was not. What had been a meticulously-timed seven-minute routine clocked in at under five.

“I went shopping today,” he said. “What’s this one-size-fits-all stuff?”

“Terrible crowd,” he said, as he headed backstage.

He decided it was too late for the haircut and instead end up gong to Cantor’s Delicatessen, a comedians’ hangout.

“What time is it,” he asked after he’d ordered a Reuben sandwich.

“12:15,” he was told.

“I’m gonna be on the “The Tonight Show” tonight.”

 

**********************************************************

Louie lives in a one-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood, a town that is separated from the real Hollywood by hills, canyons and money. There is no glamour in North Hollywood. Louie’s neighborhood is an ugly sprawling mass of prefab apartment buildings, construction supply warehouses and fast-food restaurants.

But it’s cheap and it’s convenient. A working comic’s dream.

Louie’s apartment – the walls covered in greenish sheet rock, the bathroom cabinets stuffed with hotel towels – is crowded with comedy paraphernalia. There are old movie posters, ventriloquist dummies, a shelf full of props. The desk in the living room is covered with 8-by-10 promo shots of Louie, the paneling above the kitchen decorated with pictures of him arm in arm with assorted celebrities – Henny Youngman, Robin Williams, Mr. T and Ray Charles.”

“That’s a good one, “ Louie says. “He thought it was Gleason.”

But Louie does most of his work from his bed. He’s surrounded himself with everything he needs, telephones, answering machines, tape recorders, book shelves. He stays in there for hours at a time. The day of his “Tonight Show” appearance he stayed in there until nearly 2 p.m.

Friends called. Telegrams arrived. Louie wandered into the shower and stayed there for almost an hour, listening to Prince’s “Purple Rain” soundtrack over and over.

“Last night before I went to sleep, I went through the set in my head,” he said, finally emerging from the bathroom only an hour before he was supposed to be at the studio. “I also had this dream that every bad thing I ever did in my life, Johnny had a list of it.

He seemed jumpy, a little disoriented. He couldn’t find his socks. He said he was fine.

“I’m not nervous,” he said. “I’m excited.”

The taping didn’t start until 5:30 p.m., but Louie wanted to get to NBC’s Burbank Studios, a half hour away, by 4.

“I want to get there early,” he said, “so I can see where I’m supposed to stand.”

After the show Louie would have to go directly to the Burbank and catch a flight to Las Vegas where he and some other Comedy Store regulars were appearing at the Dunes Hotel. So now there was a mad rush to pack his bags, to get everybody in their cars and caravan over to NBC.

The back-entrance security guards found his name on the list and waved the whole gang through, pointing out the proper parking area, very near Johnny’s sparkling white Corvette. Everybody was piling out when Louie made a horrible sound.

“Oh, God,” he said. “I’ve left my suit at the apartment. The one I was going to wear on the show.”

He wasn’t nervous. Just excited.

One carload of comedians went to retrieve it while Louie found his dressing room, a small paneled cubicle with a dressing table and a plaid sofa, a TV monitor, a coffee table and a bathroom.

“Who was in here for the last show?,” some asked the security guard.

“Lee Meriweather I think.”

Louie’s name was printed on a star that was fastened to the door and decorated with “The Tonight Show” logo. “I’m gonna save that, “ he said.

He asked the guard if he could walk onto the set. “You’re the boss, tonight,” he was told. Louie wandered past the curtains into the empty studio.

“This is it, “ he said, looking up at the 500 blue seats, turning to take in Johnny’s desk, the couch, the cameras, the bandstand. “This is history.

He walked to Carson’s star, the place where he stands to deliver his monologues, and stood there for a while, not saying anything.

By 4:45, the guys were back with the suit and the tiny dressing room was filling up with friends, most of them nervously chewing on vending machine pretzels.

“Nice place,” one of them said. “Think we out to knock on the door and see if Robert Blake’s in there?”

“No!,” Louie blurted. “Don’t do that. Don’t start acting like jerks.”

Then he went to the bathroom.

Comedians kept showing up, Comedy Store regulars who’d done “The Tonight Show” themselves and were there to help Louie through his first time, sort of like a comedy support group.

“Louie, it’s an easy room,” said Bill Maher, a young comic who’d done the Carson show a dozen times and who had just signed to star in his own sitcom. “It’s the easiest room you’ll ever play.

Louie nodded, made casual conversation, went back to the bathroom.

“You won’t sit down unless you go long, “ Maher told him. “If you go long they can’t bring out the third guest and you get a freebie sit.”

Louie was looking in the mirror. “I’m glad I didn’t cut my hair,” he said. “It looks just right.”

At 5:30, as the show started, they tried to turn on the monitor but couldn’t figure out how to get it to work. The monologue was over before the picture came on. Johnny and Ed were on the couch by then, doing a bit about McDonald’s selling it’s 50 billionth hamburger.

“Ohhhh,” Louie said. “That should be my opening joke.”

“Just wait, “ Maher told him. “Listen to this. You don’t want to step on his routine.”

Carson was rattling off statistics about McDonald’s using 435 cows worth of beef a day and 32,000 pounds of pickles.

“I should walk out there and say I was just at McDonald’s,” Louie said,” and all those statistics have changed.”

“Don’t do it,” Maher warned. “Stick to the script your first time.”

“You’re right,” Louie said. And then he went to the bathroom.

It was 6 pm when the knock came. It was McCawley, the talent coordinator, ready to escort Louie to the backstage area. After the next commercial, Louie was on. They went down the back hallway together, turned right and disappeared behind the curtains.

The pack of comedians made a mad dash through the green room (which isn’t green at all) almost trampling Selma Diamond, who was to be the show’s third guest. They were headed for the tunnel, the area behind the main camera, a place where they could watch Louie live, without a monitor, without having to peek through a curtain.

The commercial ended. Carson put out the cigarette he’d been smoking while he was talking to Robert Blake off camera. The spotlights were trained on the gray curtain, the stage hand standing behind it, out of sight.

And now,” Johnny Carson said, “Will you welcome, please, Louie Anderson.”

This time the music was for him.

***********************************************

 

“I can’t stay long,” Louie said, coolly scanning the crowd as the music faded. “I’m in between meals.”

It was like an explosion. The laughter rolled down like a wave. And it was just his opening joke. Maher had been right. The easiest room he would ever work. Louie took the chance.

“I just got back form McDonalds,” he said. Maher winced. The whole pack of comedians, by then nearly a dozen, held their breath. “And all those statistics have changed.”

Another roar. And Carson was bent over. Laughing.

“I’ve been trying to get into this California lifestyle,” Louie was saying, as calm as he could be. “I went to the beach the other day but every time I’d lay down, people would push me back into the water.”

Every joke was perfectly timed, every punch line smoothly delivered. Louie did double takes. He waited for the applause, which came often. They were in the palm of his hand. He had a series of jokes about trying out for the Olympics, about how he drove the pole vault into the ground and straightened out the uneven parallel bars and, here it comes, the big one.

“Broad jump?” He waited for the beat. One. Two. Three. “Killed her.”

Another roar. Carson, the master himself, was pounding on his desk he was laughing so hard. Louie had scored beyond his wildest expectations. It was a fairy tale.

The last joke was followed by a thunderous ovation that Louie acknowledged like a heavyweight fighter who’d just delivered a knockout punch. He turned, finally, and went back through the gray curtain. But the applause didn’t stop.

And then, something that never happens, Carson called him back for another ovation and went over to shake Louie’s hand.

“Did you see that?,” one of the comics gasped. “Johnny never comes over like that. That’s as good as it gets.”

Louie took the extended hand and leaned forward, whispering into his idol’s ear.

“Thank you, “ he told him, “for making a dream come true.”

After the show, the dressing room was like a World series locker room, all backslaps and war whoops. It all went too fast. There was Peter LaScally, the show’s director coming back to tell Louie that Johnny wanted him to do some concert dates with him. And then, the man himself.

“Helluva good spot,” Carson said. “You were funny as hell. I’ll have you back whenever you want.”

Louie went to the bathroom.

There was not much time for parking lot euphoria. There was that plane to catch for Vegas. But Louie’s life had changed. All in seven minutes. He was 31 years old and he knew nothing would ever be the same again.

Carson left in his white Corvette. McMahon took a limo. And finally, Doc Severinsen wandered into the parking lot.

“Hot stuff, Louie,” he said. “A beautiful set.

Louie Anderson said something about his dad, how he was a trumpet player, too. He blurted it out, just something to say, anything. The night suddenly felt so unreal, too much like the dream he’d had for so long.

“See you soon,” Severinsen said, climbing into his car. “Undoubtedly see you soon.”

{ 1 comment }

Bernie 2 (Part Two): The Trial Begins

by earlkabong on June 14, 2016

So, where were we? Oh, yeah, Austin, at the top-secret all-star blow-your-mind-empty-your-pockets fund raiser for Bernie Tiede’s resentencing trial, featuring appearances from Oscar-nominated director Richard Linklater, lots of people with suits and wallets, the dulcet tones of Tenacious D and, looking alternately grateful and out of place, Bernie himself.

Bernie Tiede & Richard Linkilater entering the courtroom.

Bernie Tiede & Richard Linklater entering the courtroom.

Richard Linklater gave a speech that night, a thing which he absolutely hates to do. While Jack Black was a glad-handing machine and Bernie was uncomfortably thanking small clusters of strangers, Linklater stood back in the corner of the Brazos Hall banquet space, speaking when spoken to, but otherwise trying to be the least visible person in the room. This, by the way, is exactly how he is on the set, a presence so low-key that you could easily mistake him for a production assistant. If he didn’t shout “Action!” – and sometimes he doesn’t – you’d never guess he was the director.

But, we digress. The speech was partly an obligatory thank-you to those who’d ponied up cash but mostly a heartfelt explanation of why he’d gotten so deeply involved in Bernie’s case.

He talked about how he’d first been intrigued by the contradictions the case seemed to represent – a murderer who was adored by everyone who knew him, a victim as universally disliked as Bernie was beloved. As premises go, that’s a pretty good place to start. When you add in that Bernie put her body in the freezer, carrying on for 9 months as if she were still alive and that, even after he confessed, most of the townspeople didn’t want him to be punished, well, that’s pretty irresistible stuff.

But then, as tends to happen with Bernie, Linklater got drawn into the case. He met with Bernie several times in prison, once with Jack Black before filming began, and came away convinced that Bernie deserved better than to spend his life as a prisoner. It’s not as if he’d gotten off with a slap on the wrist. Bernie was in the penitentiary for 17 years, beaten up badly on more than one occasion. It felt – to Linklater and to me — like he’d been punished enough. That’s why Linklater had been so receptive to Jodi Cole’s interest in the case, why he volunteered to be Bernie’s guardian.

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Aunt Marge

“He really seemed like a nice sensitive guy,” Linklater said, “who had done a very bad thing.” Linklater and Jodi Cole drove Bernie to Austin after the court okayed his release. He spent most of the trip staring out at the countryside, taking in a world he had come to believe he’d never see again. He was amazed by pretty much everything. Digital billboards. Hybrid cars. He’d never seen an IPhone before (because visitors to the penitentiary aren’t allowed to bring them in.) He burst into tears several times during the trip, completely overwhelmed.

And now – after two years of being free – Bernie faced the prospect of going back to prison, not eligible for parole until 2029, when he’ll be 71 years old, 10 years younger than Aunt Marge was on the day that he shot her.

My cousins, The Nugents, mounted an public relations campaign to get Bernie put back behind bars. They hired an Austin public relations guy, Ryan Gravatt, who among other things, set up a demonstration against Bernie’s release at the state Capitol, complete with paid protestors. They set up a website designed to portray Aunt Marge as a shy, kindly old woman, beloved grandmother and innocent victim of an evil con man/murderer. Other than the victim part – I mean, yes, he did shoot her in the back – none of that was true.

Aunt Marge had turned on her family years before she was murdered and was actively working to cut them out of trust funds that had been set up in their name. She had banished them from her life. (Which is part of the reason it took so long for anyone to realize she was missing.) When she died, though, there was an estimated $15 million estate to be had. Aunt Marge had left everything to Bernie and excluded her only son, Rod Nugent Jr., by name. The Nugents’ interest in the case didn’t seem to be motivated by justice or grief. It seemed to be about the money.

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The Nugents huddling with state prosecutor Lisa Tanner

Which they got. Rod Nugent Jr. had scooped up a lot of financial documents on the day Aunt Marge’s body was found and, before anyone else knew what was going on, had probated a 1978 will from Aunt Marge – the last one from which he hadn’t been excluded – and took control of the estate. By the time anyone realized there were other wills – one from 1987 and one from 1991 – that would have left the money to others – including my mother – many of the assets had already been liquidated or otherwise dispersed. In the end my mom, taking some questionable legal advice, signed a settlement agreement giving up her claim to any part of the estate. Once she did that the Nugents got to keep the money, the entire $15 million estate, regardless of how or when they’d acquired it.

I mention all of this because I’m pretty sure it’s why The Nugents were so hostile to me when I first started doing the reporting about Aunt Marge’s murder. For weeks – this is back in 2011 – they refused to take my calls until, finally, Sylvia Nugent, Rod’s wife, picked up the phone just long enough to say, “We’re not going to talk to you about this,” and hung up. I was mystified. Then, a few weeks letter, I received a threatening letter from their attorney, basically saying that if I wrote anything about Aunt Marge or the case that they didn’t like they’d sue me. So I put that in the story. And never heard from them again.

The defense team arrives.

The defense team arrives.

Until the resentencing trial. By then, of course, The Nugents viewed me as an adversary, because I’d written the story they apparently didn’t want me to write. For the first few days in court they’d give me the evil eye whenever they walked by. I responded by grinning like a jackass. After that they wouldn’t look straight at me, except for Sylvia, who made a point of saying “Hello,” which I thought was very nice of her. Her daughter, Shanna, however, kept up the glaring whenever she thought I – or anyone else really – was looking her way. Later on, she’d make a point of sitting in front of potentially hostile witnesses and glowering at them. She also made a show, and not a very good one, of trying to look emotionally distraught whenever she thought the media or the jury was looking at her. She would rub her eyes, trying to tease out a tear. I don’t know whether she’s any good as an attorney, but she’s a terrible actress.

This is why, during the pre-trial motions, way too much time was spent trying to determine if I, as a potential witness, should be allowed in the courtroom. The Nugents had clearly convinced the state prosecutors – Lisa Tanner and Jane Starnes – that I was a problem. Which I wasn’t, really. My testimony was going to be about something that happened in 1968, a small sliver of the defense’s evidence that Aunt Marge was a bully. Still, they tried to get my testimony excluded and then they tried to keep me out of the courtroom.

“You’ve infected the case,” one of my reporter friends said to me while this was going on, while prosecutors were complaining – I swear this is true – that I should not be allowed to Tweet about anything involving the case, whether I was in the courtroom or not. It all seemed pretty silly to me. But not to The Nugents. In the end, I was allowed in the courtroom but not allowed to Tweet about the case or my involvement in it. The Nugents, as considerably more substantive witnesses probably shouldn’t have been able to sit in open court, were also allowed to stay. Which allowed them to not only give witnesses the oogie-boogie stares but to tailor their testimony based on who had gone on before them. It gave them a chance to get their stories straight. So, yeah, it was all kind of messed up before it even started.

Jury selection began – and I am absolutely not making this up – on April Fool’s Day. Because the case was so well-known, because there’d been a movie and people were wondering if Matthew McConaughey might show up (spoiler: he didn’t) the judge decided that 1,000 people would be summoned as potential jurors (the initial jury pool for the O.J. Simpson trial was only 250 people. ) The entire population of Rusk County is only 50,000. And chances were pretty high that most of them knew about the case, had seen the movie and probably had a pretty firm opinion as to whether Bernie ought to be locked up or not.

Matthew McConaughey: Not In Building

Matthew McConaughey: Not In Building

It was, I would venture to say, the most exciting thing to happen in Henderson since the oldest surviving Dairy Queen in Texas opened there in 1950. They had to move things to the Henderson Civic Center, because it was just too big an event for the county courthouse to hold. It looked like every pick-up truck in Texas was there. The parking lots overflowed (fortunately the wastewater treatment plant, just across the street, did not.) There were portable security gates and a thousand folding chairs set up in the main banquet hall. The judge, the defense team, the prosecution and, of course, Bernie, were at a raised dais overlooking it all. It looked like an American Idol audition, but without all the screaming or Ryan Seacrest making an ass out of himself.

civiccenter

The Henderson Civic Center

There were deputies in straw cowboy hats, six-shooters prominently displayed on their hips. There were orange and white-striped What-A-Burger cups, lots of guys chewing toothpicks and clearly jonesing for the chewing tobacco parked in their back pockets. Some them obviously didn’t want to be there (the guy who showed up in scrubs, for instance, making the point that he had a job in which LIVES WERE AT STAKE, DAMMIT!). But a lot of them, the majority I’d say, really did want to be a part of this, even though, officially they weren’t supposed to know which case they would be considering.

“You’ve probably figured out why you’re here,” the Judge, Diane DeVasto, said when she took her place at the dais and you could sense a thousand people thinking “Well, duh” The prosecutors and the defense attorneys introduced themselves, trying to look serious and important. Bernie just sat there, trying to look innocent.

The prospective jurors were given their instructions, told they couldn’t discuss the case with anyone, not even their families and that the trial was likely to take at least two weeks. Judge DeVasto asked if anyone felt there was a reason – such as knowing anyone associated with the case – why they couldn’t serve. At least 20 people raised their hands.

By the end of the day 186 potential jurors were left and they showed up on the following Monday at the Rusk County Courthouse for, basically, the elimination rounds

They were all given paddles with numbers and assigned seats in the courtroom pews. They were warned that anyone caught using a cell phone would have it confiscated and there would be a $10 fee for its return at the end of the day.

I tried to keep track of the jurors but there were just too many of them. I started identifying them with names like “Dandruff Guy” and “Too Much Hairspray Lady.”.

It took all day to whittle things down to the actual jury – 12 jurors and 2 alternates. It felt like a weird game show. If you answered a question wrong (“Do you have any problems with homosexuality?” “Did the movie, “Bernie,” convince you that Marjorie Nugent was a horrible person?” “Do you want to have sex with Matthew McConaughey?”) Okay, I made that last one up. I think. It was a very long day.

degeurinflip

Mike DeGeurin

The prosecutors, as they would be for the entire trial, were a smooth-running machine, armed with slide presentations and well-practiced jokes about how they knew all the prospective jurors would rather be elsewhere. (Fact Check: False!) Lisa Tanner, whose courtroom demeanor trends toward “Mean P.E. Teacher,” smiled more when the jury was around. She wore earrings. And a skirt. She looked them in the eye. She remembered their names, not once calling them “Toothpick Guy” or “Mardi Gras Beads” or “Big Bow On Her Head Woman.” It was impressive.

The defense, on the other hand, seemed to be winging it. Mike DeGeurin spent so much time getting around to his actual questions that I became convinced he was pulling some kind of “Columbo” scam, stammering and getting things wrong (I’m pretty sure he never correctly got a single date or name right) just enough to throw off the prosecution and draw sympathy from the jury, who clearly wanted to finish his meandering drawn-out sentences for him. It was a brilliant strategy. Or so I hoped.

And Jodi Cole, who I’d come to truly admire, seemed completely out of her depth. She’d never tried a case in front of a jury before and had rarely been in court at all. Her specialty was appeals and settlements. She had invested so much time and emotional energy in Bernie’s case that she seemed to take every setback and adverse ruling personally. Instead of observing the fairly rigid courtroom rules of when and how to object, she’d occasionally just blurt out “But That’s Not Right, Your Honor!!” The judge did not seem to find this amusing. The prosecutors did, rolling their eyes every time Jodi breached protocol. Which was often.

Towards the end of the jury selection day, I started to realize that DeGeurin’s Columbo act wasn’t an act at all. He was just being himself, a folksy, self-deprecating guy who often has a hard time getting to the point. It can be, in person, an endearing quality. He spent hours – and I mean 5, 6 hours at a time – swapping tales with my mom, talking more about side-issues – flowers, the weather, what it’s like to grow up in East Texas – than anything related to the case. She found him charming as all get-out. The jury found him maddening.

96b683ca81c605d2b68a2230209b19b5

Judge Diane DeVasto giving Jodi Cole “the look.”

“You’re wasting our time,” one of the prospective jurors shouted out , shocking everyone in the courtroom.

“You could stand to talk a little faster,” shouted another. They were HECKLING him! The prospective jurors were actually heckling a defense attorney! This was not a good sign.

Still by the end of the day they had their 14 jurors and, from the looks of them, it was a younger, more sophisticated, more diverse jury than the one that had convicted Bernie 16 years ago in San Augustine. That jury pretty much fell off a turnip truck. This one seemed more likely to at least listen to Bernie’s case.

Which, as DeGeurin laid out in his opening arguments, was that it wasn’t their job to decide whether or not Bernie was a murderer. He was. They were there to decide only on appropriate punishment, considering all the evidence they were about to see and hear. They’d find out how Bernie had been sexually abused, how Aunt Marge had bullied and taunted him, how parts of his original confession which seemed to indicate pre-meditation were misleading if not outright false. There would be doubts raised about certain pieces of evidence, psychiatrists testifying that Bernie had in fact suffered from a kind of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that he’d reacted to Aunt Marge’s particular abuses in a way that was inexcusable but not quite First Degree Murder.

berniejodi

Jodi Cole and her client, Bernie Tiede.

They were being asked to decide whether Bernie had been punished enough. They could give him anywhere from five years probation to life. If they sentenced him to 20 years or less, then his temporary release would be made permanent. Justice would best be served, the attorneys argued, by giving Bernie a chance to live as a free man, making amends for the mistakes he’d made, supported by friends who cared about him, who trusted him, who saw him as a good man.

The prosecutors, on the other hand, wanted to re-create the murder trial, to convince the jury that Bernie had committed a crime so heinous, so calculated that a life sentence was the only appropriate response. Forget that adorable Jack Black character from the movie, they argued. Forget the Hollywood version. Punish him.

So those were the stakes. The next two weeks would play out as much like a political campaign as a murder trial, both sides questioning the integrity and motives of the other. The Nugents would go after me. Richard Linklater would go after the Nugents. There would be evidence of missing documents, secret sex tapes and stolen money hidden away. My mother would testify. Linklater would testify. And I would testify, too.

But that’s the next part of the story. Coming soon.

berniecast

Richard Linklater and the cast of “Bernie,” 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

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