Z Channel’s mix of hard-to-see movies was Hollywood’s best-kept secret. Eventually it fell victim to the cable wars, and its visionary programmer killed his wife and shot himself in the head.
BY CECILIA CAPUZZI SIMON, Premiere magazine, December 01, 1989
On a quiet Saturday afternoon in April 1988, the crack of a gunshot ripped the Westwood, Los Angeles, street where Jerry Harvey—the celebrated programmer of Z Channel—lived with his second wife, Deri Rudolph. An hour later another gunshot rang through the neighborhood. Harvey’s next-door neighbor continued to prune the roses in her yard, attributing the sounds to children at play.
But when the police pulled up in front of the house, they found Rudolph—an attorney, former stand-up comedian, photographer, and local newspaper publisher—dead in the kitchen, a bullet wound in the back of her head. It looked as if she had been heading for the phone, perhaps to call for help. In the spare bedroom was Harvey, a gun by his side. After killing Rudolph, he had phoned his psychiatrist, then shot himself in the head. Harvey and Rudolph were both 38.
Friends and relatives of the couple were shocked; but not all were surprised. On the surface, Harvey was a successful and well-established figure who counted among his friends Robert Altman, Richard Brooks, Michael Cimino, and Peter O’Toole, as well as Sam Peckinpah and Warren Oates when they were alive. Tall bearded and brooding, Harvey gloried in the traditions of the Old West, his roots. He was a third-generation Californian and assumed the affectations of the outlaw cowboys in his favorite movies: John Ford’s westerns and the rugged, violent films of his idol, Peckinpah. His corporate uniform was jeans and cowboy boots. A cigarette lighter in a silver slipcase, a gift from his first wife, hung from a silver chain around his neck. Friends and family describe him as monomaniacal in his interest in film. He spoke in movie lines, and a former coworker says she knew him only in relation to the film directors and actors he loved and talked about incessantly.
But Harvey was a manic-depressive and an alcoholic, prone to violent outbursts, and had a history of suicidal behavior. He made no secret of his drinking problems, troubled family history, difficult first marriage, and business worries. In the last thirteen years of Harvey’s life, his older sister had disappeared from a halfway house for emotionally disturbed people; she is presumed dead. Another sister, Ann, killed herself in 1978. He had no relationship with his father, who also had a drinking problem and whom his mother divorced in the late ‘60s. Harvey’s first marriage, to photographer Vera Anderson, broke up violently after he tried to shoot her in 1983. Several months before his death, Harvey had a vasectomy reversed because Rudolph wanted children, but he was unsure, he told colleagues—intimate and otherwise—about inflicting the fatal family legacy on future generations.
In the months before the murder-suicide, Harvey saw Z crumbling around him. He had devoted an obsessive eight years to the channel and had drawn his identity and celebrity from it. But Z’s new owners—the fifth in as many years—were struggling to keep Z alive, and the odds looked bad. A little over a year after his death, Z became SportsChannel Los Angeles, part of an all-sports network owned by CableVision Systems Corporation’s Rainbow Programming Enterprises and NBC. Its passing is major loss to film lovers, and also an indication of the lengths to which communications giants are willing to go to secure their share of the lucrative pay-cable industry.
As much as Harvey was disturbed and unsure in his personal life, he was always secure in his decisions regarding Z. After earning a degree in English literature from UCLA, Harvey spend the bulk of his time around the movie business, befriending actors and directors, especially Peckinpah, who became a surrogate father. His first job was booking films at the Beverly Canon Theatre. Then he worked in distribution at Robert Altman’s Lion’s Gate production company. In 1977, he went to Europe with Monte Hellman, who was directing what would be Harvey’s only produced screenplay, China 9, Liberty 37, a western in which Harvey and Peckinpah had bit parts. When he returned to the United States, he moved on to SelecTV, and then to Z in 1980.
Programming Z was Harvey’s passion, friends say. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and was lauded for turning an insignificant part-time movie channel into a film buff’s dream with a mix of blockbuster, classic, foreign, and student films. Z wielded vast influence in Hollywood despite its size (just 110,000 subscribers at its peak). More than 70 percent of the Motion Picture Academy’s memebrs subscribed. Many actors and directors, especially those whose films had been long forgotten or suffered limited or botched releases, credit the channel with their success. “Yes, it has made my career,” said actor James Woods, speaking at a tribute to Z. “People never got to see Split Image in movie theaters. They never got to see Fast-Walking—it debuted on Z Channel!”
Harvey found and premiered the uncut version of Heaven’s Gate, causing Hollywood to reconsider the movie and its director, Michael Cimino. He unearthed Orson Welles’s cut of Touch of Evil, never publicly viewed, and screened it on Z. He ran studio and director cuts back-to-back, such as the U.S. release and the original three-and three-quarter-hour version of Once Upon a Time in America, so the audience could compare them and sometimes vote on its favorite.
To many at Z and in the film industry, he was a hero, as Cimino said in a videotaped eulogy at Harvey’s memorial service. F. X. Feeney, a close friend of Harvey’s who wrote film reviews for Z magazine, describes him as a perfect F. Scott Fitzgerald protagonist: “There’s a line in The Last Tycoon that not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of movies in their heads. Jerry was one of them. Jerry carried not only the soul of movies—the creative side—but also the business side. He was able to function in both worlds.”
But despite the attention that Z was getting, the service was never a commercial success. (B y the mid-80s, Z needed between 300,000 and 400,000 subscribers to turn a profit.) Cautious corporate parents missed several opportunities to bring it into the big time. The lapses were frustrating to Harvey and the rest of the small staff. “The whole tragedy with Z Channel,” says Tim Ryerson, who took over as programmer after Harvey’s death, “is that everything was too late.” The first missed opportunity rested with Teleprompter, a cable system company and Z Channel’s first owner. Like most cable system companies in the 1970s, Teleprompter lavished its attention and limited cash on the technical side of the industry. It either did not recognize or did not care to pursue the business potential in distributing Z nationally. When Z was started on April Fool’s Day in 1974, there was only one other similar service in existence—a small-time operation in Pennsylvania called Home Box Office. At one point, Z Channel was larger than HBO. But by 1975, HBO was up on satellite; Z was left in the dust.
When Westinghouse bought Teleprompter and its cable systems in 1981, Z was part of the package and was placed under the company’s Group W Cable division, which toyed with the idea of launching Z in other markets Chicago, Seattle, Manhattan,. Z’s staff was optimistic. But Group W claimed its research showed that Z would not work in other cities. Z executives, on the other hand, felt that Group W was afraid of the channel. Conservative officials at Group W were especially wary of movie channels that showed R-rated fare. This factored into the decision to sell Group W’s interest in Showtime; it partially explains the lack of attention to Z.
According to Rocky Flintermann, who was general manager of Z from 1984 to 1986 and returned this year to lead it through its transition from movies to sports, “Group W executives were hardware people, not software people. You’d mention roman Polanski and they would go white. The cable brass loved rubbing elbows with the stars, but I’ve got to tell you, that was the extent of it.”
Former Z executives maintain that with modifications Z could have been rolled out nationally even as late as 1984—if not as a direct competitor with HBO, then to provide what HBO’s and Showtime’s companion services, cinema and the Movie Channel, now do. Both mimic many of Harvey’s innovations (the Movie Channel even tried to hire him).
But Group W executives say it was an impossible situation: “Maybe in the early days we could have competed with HBO,” says Don Mitzner, who worked at Group W’s Manhattan system. “But we would have had to change Z Channel to do that, and by then HBO already had Cinemax, and there was discussion of Showtime merging with the Movie Channel.”
In the meantime, the national movie service, which were having little or no success in increasing their subscriber base, were staking out the Los Angeles region, one of the last and riches metropolitan areas still without large cable penetration. They cut prices to operators while doing heavy marketing and advertising. “HBO would give everyone at the system a satin jacket with HBO on the back that retails for 50 bucks,” says Flintrermann. “I’d walk in with a pen and say, ‘Push Z Channel real hard.’ We had no money for marketing. Ask people who subscribed to Z—it was word of mouth. Nobody tried to sell Z, not even the people who owned it. It was the most puzzling thing I’d ever seen, since at one time it was very worth saving.” Stranger still was the fact that an estimated 400,000 people were able to pirate Z. “Nobody was minding the store,” says Flintermann.
When HBO signed its first “exclusivity deal with Columbia Pictures in 1983, which guaranteed it sole cable rights to all of the studios films for three years, Z’s fate was sealed. HBO’s move set off a war with Showtime, as each vied for exclusive contracts. Smaller movie services, including Z, now had to subcontract many films from the national services and were limited to showing them in the markets in which they originally operated, in case they were inclined to go national.
During this time, Z was becoming more and more closely associated with Harvey. Owners and general managers came and went, but Harvey was the constant visionary force. In the office, he was erratic, his moods swinging wildly between rage and remorse. Disputes were often resolved with water-pistol fights. His volatility was often overlooked as the behavior of a “creative genius.” Within the company, explains Charles Champlin, “people realized he had to be handled gingerly. He was Z Channel.” One staffer says Harvey didn’t speak to her for the first six months she worked at Z because he didn’t trust her. Later they became close friends. “He drank, sometimes in the office, and I’d get scared,” she says. “He’d come in sweating, mumbling. You wouldn’t know if he was drunk or if it was drugs from his therapist.” He referred to women in the office as “cunts,” she says, adding that although Harvey’s behavior in the office was disruptive, “deep down I don’t think he meant it. I loved the guy and felt very close to him at the end.”
Shortly after Group W sold Z in 1986 to a consortium of five cable companies, the struggling channel began to seem as unsalvageable as its creator. Gordon Rock, an eccentric entrepreneur and cable-system operator in Seattle, bought Z from the consortium in 1987 for about $5 million. Z had lost a reported $2 million the previous year, but Rock liked its renegade image, and he liked Jerry Harvey. Rock planned to bring Z to Seattle in some form by negotiating film deals, but when the stock market crashed that October, he was forced to find partners. American Cablesystems and Spectacor had owned Philadelphia’s successful Prism cable channel—a combination of blockbuster movies and advertiser-supported sporting events. The new partners intended to work Prism’s formula at Z and signed on 35 games each of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels. The package—75 percent movies and 25 percent sports—was expected to boost Z’s subscriber base to 500,000 from what had become a paltry 85,000. But with high-priced sports franchises, Z could not succeed without advertising.
“It’s been proven in Philadelphia with Prism that movies and sports are a good combination,” says Tim Ryerson. “Now, look at that in Los Angeles. If it could happen in L.A., then why couldn’t it happen in Chicago or Houston or cities all around? I think it was important that the proposed service not be allowed to succeed.”
Z executives believed that HBO officials coerced the studios into warning Z that if it went ahead with advertising or plans for satellite distribution, they would consider it a violation of their licensing agreements and would not supply it with movies. At Z, however, the contracts were interpreted as prohibiting ads within movies; Z, like Prism, intended to run ads only during sporting events. Says Z attorney Max Blecher: “We thought the precedent had been established with the station in Philadelphia, which was allowed by the studios to have advertising in sports. We said, ‘Why are you discriminating against us? Why is L.A. different than Philadelphia?’ HBO told the studios, “If you give movies to Z, we won’t buy from you anymore.’ The movie studios were too chicken to run the risk. They were afraid HBO would play one against the other, so they knuckled under so none of them would get the advantage.”
HBO denies the charge of coercion and says its objections amounted to a simple contract dispute that got blown out of proportion. “The contract was to provide motion pictures to an advertising-free Z Channel,” says an HBO spokesman. “When we became aware that the addition of sports meant the addition of advertising, we had problems. HBO pays quite a steep price for exclusive movie product. Instead of negotiating, they filed an antitrust claim that immediately accelerated into a federal case.”
The studios went along with HBO, but some executives who ahd forged close relationships with Z and with Harvey found the situation disagreeable: “It may be legal,” said one executive quoted in the Lost Angeles Times, “but it’s certainly offensive. It’s the big guy wanting to crush the little guys.” Z’s antitrust suit named HBO, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, MGM/UA, and Warner Bros.
A few weeks after his sister Ann’s suicide in 1978, Harvey married Vera Anderson. During the second year of their marriage, he was diagnosed as a manic-depressive. Says Anderson: “After massive abuse of alcohol and odd legal drugs like NoDoz—Jerry would take anything to put a wall between him and what he called his demons, the feeling of too much reality—he turned to me and said, ‘I’m in trouble. I need help right now.’” Shortly afterward he was put on lithium and other drugs to treat his manic depression. Harvey started to abuse the drugs, according to Anderson and others in Harvey’s and Deri Rudolph’s families. He also abused psychiatric care: “In a way, it separated Jerry from everything else,” says Anderson. “He felt like no matter what he did, he could go and have a friend; even though he was paying for this consultation, he could go and someone would say, ‘It’s okay. It’s not your fault; it’s because you are sick. Here, take these other pills.’ I don’t know if anything could have saved him.”
Harvey met Deri Rudolph when he rented an apartment from her after he’d separated from Anderson. In the months after he tried to kill his first wife, Harvey would go in and out of the hospital, trying to cope with the divorce and his drinking. Rudolph, says F.X. Feeney, was one of the people who “fished Jerry out of the hospital.”
As Z’s condition worsened, so did Harvey’s. He went on four major drinking binges in the last year of his life. Where Rudolph once seemed to be a healing force, signs of trouble were apparent. Harvey continued to call and visit Anderson, and he taunted her with threats of violence. The week before he and Rudolph died, he visited a former girlfriend. “He looked at me and said, ‘Please stay close to me; I know I’m losing it,’” says Doreen ringer, who is senior director of motion picture and television relations at BMI. “He was upset about what was happening at Z channel. If he projected the odds, he saw what was coming.”
Harvey was exhausted and “profoundly discouraged by the suit with HBO,” says Champlin. The week that Z began showing sports (without commercials—a federal district court refused to issue an order that would have allowed it to run ads), he was out of the office and complaining of the flu and a chronic ulcer. Those close to Harvey say he worried about what the changes at Z meant for his own future. Harvey wanted to be a screenwriter. He had written several scripts, but he seemed to lack confidence. “It was so hard for him to have faith in himself purely as himself,” says Feeney. “So you can see the abyss that yawned before him as he tried to project life as a screenwriter beyond Z Channel. Even though he was gifted at it, he knew all the things that could go wrong.” Adds Anderson: “No matter what he accomplished, he felt it was inevitable that he would fail. He was his own worst taskmaster. If Z was over, that was his identity. He didn’t know what was left. He wanted to be a hero.”
A year and eight months after his death, almost all the pieces of the puzzle that was Z Channel have fallen into place—for better or for worse. It lost the battle with HBO and last March was sold for about $10 million to Cablevision systems. The company operates six other successful regional sports services and has begun to link them into a national network. Free of the geographical restraints imposed on Z by exclusive film deals, SportsChannel Los Angeles will be available to 5 million households in the Los Angeles area, Arizona, Hawaii, and Nevada. In the meantime, the suit against HBO is on appeal. Rock Associates and American Spectacor are asking $1 million in damages after operating as a movie/sports channel for more than a year with no commercials. If they win, the award will be tripled under antitrust law.
The only enigma that remains is the mind of Z’s architect. Harvey was a man capable of warmth and brilliance, but he was also filled with rage and the need to kill. He left no suicide note, and Rudolph never mentioned concerns about her marriage to family or friends. “If you put Jerry’s life in perspective,” cautions producer David Chasman, “you must make the distinction between Jerry in his right mind, and Jerry crazy.” But making that distinction, as Harvey himself knew, was what his insanity was all about. “I know the demons well,” he wrote to Anderson in 1981. “But I cannot kill them. I struggle to control them, for my own sake as well as for those around me—but I fear that someday they will kill me.”