Saturday, July 14, 2007


It's odd watching the news and seeing people you know featured in the lead stories.

That's happened twice this week. The first occurred when elephants "rampaged" through my home town of Newmarket on Thursday morning. The second was the conviction of Media Baron Conrad Black -- or Lord Black of Crossharbour as he's known in the British House of Lords.

Actually it wasn't a very big Elephant rampage. But it's the only one to happen in Canada in living memory -- or at least mine. Two of the beasts escaped from a circus performing a few blocks from my home, the third member of their troop sleeping through the whole affair. One was captured chowing down a nearby park, the other arrested after consuming a neighbor's flower bed and a tree.

But it was fun watching a couple of the cops I regularly run into at my local coffee haunt trying to keep straight faces on television as they described the perilous take-downs and assuring the public that the dangerous fugitives, identified as "Suzy" and "Bunny" were safely back behind bars.

Less humor appeared on screen following Lord Black's conviction on Friday morning. Watching him leave the court accompanied by his wife Barbara Amiel and lawyer Eddie Greenspan, I recalled encounters I'd had with all three of them.

I met Conrad Black when I was still an actor. Caught in a sudden downpour one afternoon, I ducked into a Yorkville bookstore. There was a sleepy clerk at the counter and one other customer, Conrad Black.

He wasn't a Lord then, just a multi-millionaire (maybe already a billionaire for all I know) owner of several newspapers and quite the local celebrity. He was standing in a corner, browsing a biography of Abraham Lincoln. I asked if it was any good. He answered, "I've only perused page 284. But that suggests it has some promise."

I asked if he'd seen the great Richard Burton film "Prince of Players" about Lincoln's assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, and Booth's more famous actor brother Edwin. He had and we got into a great conversation about the assassination and the events that followed, somewhat inspired by my telling him a little known fact -- Edwin Booth saved Lincoln's son Robert from being run over by a train a year before the president was assassinated.

Whatever he was or turned into in the business world, Mr. Black was quite charming that afternoon. I invited him to the play I was doing and about a week later he came, leaving a nice note at the box office thanking me for the performance.

Barbara Amiel and I didn't have the same convivial experience.

Back in 1982, I was hanging around with screenwriter John Hunter and producer Peter O'Brian as they put together what might be the best Canadian film ever made, "The Grey Fox". It became the first movie I ever invested in. If you've never seen it, please rent or buy the DVD. Despite being one of the most successful Canadian films of all time, it still hasn't made its money back.

Hard to believe, I know, but that's how the business works in Canada.

Anyway, the movie came out in 1983. It's a western about real life train robber, Bill Miner, who was inspired to follow that career by the early silent film, "The Great Train Robbery". While it won almost universal praise and launched a new career for its 62 year old star, former stunt man and cowboy, Richard Farnsworth; Ms. Amiel, then an editor of the Toronto Sun, savaged it.

Actually her review didn't have much to say about the film, but questioned whether public funds (Telefilm was an investor too) should be used to glorify murderers.

Being a guy who has trouble listening to horseshit, I wrote a letter to the editor, pointing out that Bill Miner had never killed anybody and listing a number of great films that had "glorified" or at least examined the lives of criminals.

My letter appeared a couple of days later, but with the points I was trying to make edited out and a reply by Ms. Amiel suggesting that some people (that would be me) defended Canadian films no matter how bad they were.

I realized writing back would be pointless. But we got to finish our conversation a year or two later, when Eddie Greenspan introduced me to her.

During the 1980's, Greenspan, one of Canada's top criminal lawyers, hosted a CBC radio series, "The Scales of Justice", which dramatized famous Canadian court cases using actual trial transcript. The series was produced by Ms. Amiel's ex-husband George Jonas, and I was one of the rep company that regularly appeared on the show.

It was a fascinating experience. Most of the scripts were written by fantasy novelist and fellow prairie boy, Guy Gavriel Kaye, chosen because Greenspan felt they exhibited the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian legal system. Sometimes the real lawyers came in to play themselves and more than once, I got to watch heated debates between some pretty astonishing adversaries as the cases were re-argued for our benefit at the table reads.

One night Barbara Amiel dropped by to watch a recording session and Eddie introduced her to the gang. We got talking and I mentioned my letter to the editor. Although she obviously didn't remember it, Ms. Amiel stood her ground. While I didn't agree with her, it was obvious she was a tough cookie.

But that was all years ago, so let's get to the Silver Backed Gorilla and Friday's events.

As time rolled on, Conrad became a Lord and Barbara went to England looking for (among other things I'm sure) a new husband. She apparently told friends she wanted to find "A Silver Backed Gorilla". As one can never fully understand the ways of the human heart or what turns somebody on, I won't get into what that might mean. But as the story goes, she attended a speech Conrad was making, turned to Maclean's columnist Alan Fotheringham and said, "Now that's a Silver Backed Gorilla!"

They married. Much Gossip column fodder ensued, all of which I'll leave to "Vanity Fair" and a whole slew of Brit tabloids.

Meanwhile, I got into writing cop shows and spent about six months hanging with the Toronto Homicide Squad. One of the things I observed during that time was that when Homicide cops like somebody as a suspect, they start dropping by unannounced to "ask one more question" or "go over things one more time". That makes the suspect uneasy and sometimes he says or does the wrong thing.

One night, I entered the Homicide office in Toronto with two of the detectives to find a third detective literally dancing with glee. We asked why and were told that a suspect's lawyer had called to insist he lay off the unscheduled visits. The lawyer was Eddie Greenspan.

My two detectives started dancing too. I asked what was going on. They told me when a suspect hired Eddie, that told them they probably had the right guy.

Watching those three cops dance always stuck with me. So when Conrad Black hired Eddie Greenspan to defend him on fraud and racketeering charges in Chicago, I wondered if that meant he was Guilty. On the other hand, not all Eddie's clients have been Guilty, so it might mean he just hired the best lawyer he could think of.

During Friday's newscast of the verdict, a couple of the commentators discussed whether Conrad would have been convicted by a Canadian jury. I suspect he wouldn't have even been charged in the first place.

It's interesting that the conviction that might put him away for 20 years, obstruction of justice, occurred in Toronto, videotaped by Black's own security system. But nobody in authority here even wagged a finger at him.

There's a growing Canadian tradition of some of our leading citizens remaining society and media darlings here while getting put away by American juries.

Alan Eagleson, former head of the NHL Players Association, was still enjoying free hockey tickets and lunches with senior politicians in Canada when an American court finally nailed him for defrauding the players he'd been hired to represent.

In fact, Carl Brewer, the first player to accuse Eagleson of wrong-doing, publicly thanked the US Courts for Justice he claimed could not be found in Canada.

Big Al was followed by Bernie Ebbers, co-founder of Worldcom, one-time darling of the Canadian business elite and now doing 25 years in a Louisiana federal prison.

Garth Drabinsky (as yet unconvicted of any crime) continues to produce television series for the CBC, while under the shadow of fugitive arrest warrants issued by the US government. It's interesting that criminal charges on the same issues, though laid by the RCMP in late 2002, still haven't reached trial five years later.

And now there's Conrad. As recently as Wednesday, all four Toronto newspapers were confidently predicting his complete exoneration.

Somehow, the courts and the media here appear to treat these people much differently than their American counterparts. And somehow, I don't think whatever that "somehow" is, it will be appearing on a beer commercial flattering us with how much better we are than Americans.

I called the richest guy I know yesterday to ask him how he felt about Conrad's conviction. This guy's a multi-millionaire too -- and he couldn't have been more pleased. He's worked hard for his money, building a hugely successful company on sweat and talent and being good to his clients.

But being rich isn't easy. Okay, lots of things are harder. But when you're wealthy, everybody figures you must've pulled something to get somewhere they aren't. And the Kenneth (Enron) Lays and Lord Blacks of the world cement that impression to the average guy on the street.

My friend hoped what happened to Conrad might inspire Canadian business and our courts to get rid of a few more of our bad apples. Like me, he wants people who use their power and influence to personal ends to become an endangered species...

...just like the Silver Backed Gorilla.

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