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Obituary: Leo Jaffe

As Chairman of the Board of Columbia Pictures, Leo Jaffe, a scrupulously honest and deeply honourable man, was responsible for chairing a series of astounding internecine boardroom struggles that resulted in the disgraced Columbia executive, the liar and felon David Begelman, having his forfeited position virtually restored to glory, and the honest broker executive Alan Hirsch-field removed from his position as President simply because he had incurred the wrath of certain board members.

The so-called "Begelman Scandal", dubbed "Hollywoodgate" by the New York Post's reporter Liz Smith, broke in the autumn of 1976 when the actor Cliff Robertson discovered that a cheque made out to him and allegedly endorsed by his own signature had never reached him, nor was he due any payment from Columbia. It transpired that Robertson was one of four Hollywood residents, including the director Martin Ritt, whose names had been forged by the former agent David Begelman, then Columbia Pictures' senior executive vice-president, and head of Columbia Pictures Studios.

Jaffe was the first person to be confided in by Hirschfield, the head of Columbia. Although much of Jaffe's own authority had been curtailed on Hirschfield's installation, Jaffe was rightly regarded as venerable and influential. Jaffe stayed on, weathering the Begelman scandal with dignity until 1981.

Leo Jaffe had been majoring in business studies at New York University when he took a summer job at Columbia in 1930, only six years after the studio had been officially founded by Harry Cohn and his brother Jack Cohn. Jaffe was offered a permanent auditing position at the completion of his summer job. He accepted, and managed to complete his formal education at night. Under Harry Cohn, aided greatly by the director Frank Capra, Columbia dragged itself up from its poverty-row bootstraps, and Leo Jaffe rose through the ranks to become vice-president in 1954, assistant treasurer vice- president in 1956, first vice-president treasurer in 1958 and executive vice-president in 1962.

Jack Cohn died in 1956, and Harry Cohn followed two years later - after Columbia's staggering 1957 multiple Oscar win with The Bridge On The River Kwai - ending a truly remarkable period where Columbia Pictures, unlike any other Hollywood studio, had never gone into the red. Sam Briskin succeeded Cohn as the head of production, and it was he who promoted Leo Jaffe to vice-president, and the associate Abe Schneider to chief executive.

The studio enjoyed a run of European-based hits, including The Guns of Navarone (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Dr Strangelove (1964), which were both critical and popular successes, prompting Jaffe and Schneider to open a London base in 1965. This resulted in a flurry of "swingin' London" movies, but also in the excellent A Man For All Seasons (1966) and Oliver! (1968).

The Sixties were good for Columbia, with across-the-board triumphs like Born Free (1966) from the British base, and the tremendously influential Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970), key examples of a perceived new independence in American cinema.

But the early Seventies saw a series of expensive catastrophes - Richard Harris as Cromwell (1970), Liv Ullman in the utterly unnecessary musical version of Lost Horizon (1973), the over-long and simplistic Independence musical 1776 (1972) - that seemed unstoppable. These were megabudget movies with little audience potential to justify their costs, leaving Columbia with debts of $220m, and extremely vulnerable. This led to the Wall Street investment banking firm of Herbert A. Allen & Company picking up the studios, and to the promotion of Leo Jaffe as chairman of the board in 1973.

The veteran producer Ray Stark masterminded Allen's 1973 take-over. He hired Alan Hirschfield as head of Columbia Picture Industries, and David Begelman as president of Columbia Picture Studios, both with the title President and Chief Executive Officer, under Jaffe's Board Chairmanship.

Under this new management, Columbia began the long climb back. New movies were openly more adult, the creative responsibility, though supervised as tightly as any studio in Hollywood, offering a degree of new freedom under Hirschfield and Begelman's benign liberal control.

Their 1973 story purchase Watch The Skies! was to become 1977's success Close Encounters of the Third Kind; a tale loosely based on a local hairdresser became 1975's adult hit Shampoo; Martin Scorsese delivered the astonishing Taxi Driver (1975); Oliver Stone wrote the sensationalist expose Midnight Express (1977), while Tommy (1975), The Deep (1977), and Funny Lady (1975, the sequel to the smash Funny Girl) were proof, if proof were needed, that the studio was well and truly back on its feet under the new regime.

But it was on the eve of the premiere of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that the Begelman affair burst wide open. In a year when Columbia was verging on a $300m take Begelman was revealed to have embezzled over $61,000 - a petty sum in Hollywood terms - by forging signatures and abusing his position. At a series of intense board meetings, presided over by Jaffe, Hirschfield rightly tried to have the errant Begelman removed, but Columbia's new track record and Begelman's own popularity within the closed film community made that exceedingly difficult, despite the fact that Begelman was clearly a habitual liar and appropriator of other people's money.

The whole affair appalled Jaffe, whose boardroom speech was reported in David McClintick's Indecent Exposure (1982): "There are certain things you can forgive a man for doing as a human being, but that have no place in a publicly-owned company. We have to think about the public, the shareholders, and our employees. What do we say to the next person who steals? Do we have a double standard? Executives can steal, but employees at a lower level can't?"

It was a powerful, reasoned, cogent, humanitarian argument, but the board, impressed by Begelman's own appearance before it, turned against Hirschfield and Jaffe, and amazingly Begelman, though initially suspended, was reinstated in a stronger position than ever. It was Jaffe who publicly announced that if Begelman was to return to Columbia, Hirschfield must have a new contract, to show that he was actually running the company. It was also Jaffe, as chairman, who was entrusted with informing the California police that Columbia would not file charges against Begelman.

Understandably, Hirschfield was furious, and Begelman's victim Cliff Robertson went public over the affair. Hirschfield used Jaffe as a conduit to communicate with the board, and on 31 March 1978 Begelman was finally arrested on four charges of felony - one count of grand theft and three counts of forgery.

Hirschfield had angered Herbert Allen by his handling of the affair, and Jaffe was asked to give him the news that Allen wished him fired along with the eventual removal of Begelman.

Variety reported Jaffe as saying that he hoped Hirschfield would be retained, but on 5 July 1978 he was removed as President of Columbia, ceding power to Daniel Melnick and Frank Price, who became responsible for a run of success including Gandhi (1982) and The Karate Kid franchises.

Jaffe stayed on as chairman until 1981, and was proud to witness a major Columbia success with Kramer vs Kramer (1979), a marvellous tear-jerker produced by Leo's own son Stanley.

Jaffe stepped down as chairman immediately before the Coca-Cola Corporation bought Columbia Pictures for a figure of between $700m and $800m (about $70 per Columbia share), before the two smash hits of the Eighties, Tootsie (1982) and Ghostbusters (1984), and worked during the latter years of Columbia's disarray for President Reagan, as chairman of the US Information Agency, 1981-88.

In 1979, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognised Jaffe by awarding him an Oscar, the select non-competitive Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, industry awareness that amongst one of the most appallingly corrupt scandals from a town drenched in scandal Leo Jaffe alone emerged with both honour and credit.

Leo Jaffe, film executive: born New York 23 April 1909; vice-president, Columbia Pictures 1954-56, assistant treasurer vice-president 1956-58, vice- president-treasurer 1958-62, executive vice-president 1962-73, chairman of the board 1973-81; married; died New York 20 August 1997.