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He was one of the most flamboyant figures in Hollywood, a man-about-town, womanizer and famed producer whose pictures included 1939’s Stagecoach and 1940’s Foreign Correspondent. But by the early 1950s, Walter Wanger’s career was on the skids. A guy who liked to live as large as his films, he’d declared bankruptcy and was now trying to get into television — while being dogged by creditors who didn’t believe the bankruptcy was real. “Walter was in his worst position ever,” says granddaughter and filmmaker Vanessa Hope.
“For two years things had been getting worse and worse,” Wanger, who died in 1968, said about that time. “I felt pretty well physically, but [there were] just so many disappointments and ordeals.” Bank of America was after him; the scandalous affair between Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini had ruined the hopes of his most recent movie, 1948’s Joan of Arc; his face was starting to twitch and his speech was getting strained. “If only I could get a rest!” he moaned. But “Where? When? How?”
Then things got even worse. For a long time, Wanger had been dependent on his wife, film star Joan Bennett (Little Women, Scarlet Street), to pay their bills. Now he began to suspect she was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. He hired a private eye to follow the two and, sure enough, found they were spending time in New Orleans, the Caribbean and in a Beverly Hills apartment owned by one of Wanger’s friends, agent Jay Kanter.
Furious, the producer grabbed a gun and set out on the lovers’ trail. When he found his wife’s green Cadillac in the parking lot of Lang’s agency, MCA, he decided to circle around. An hour later, the car was still there — and so was Wanger when the actress and the agent emerged.
“There was a violent argument between the two men, with Bennett yelling, ‘Get away from here and leave us alone,’” notes Matthew Bernstein, author of Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent. “Wanger, she said, was ‘standing there like a man hypnotized.’ Though Lang held up his hands, Wanger was implacable; he fired two shots in Lang’s general direction. One went astray against the car; the other struck Lang in the groin, and he collapsed in agony to the ground.”
Luckily for everyone, Lang survived. So did Wanger (he even remained married for several more years), though he was immediately carted off by the police. Friends who called him that night, desperately worried, were informed by the butler: “Yes, the master is in the Lincoln Heights jail.”
The December 1951 shooting did no long-term harm — at least not to Lang or Wanger or even Hollywood (it became the basis for Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 comedy, The Apartment), though Bennett’s career was never the same. Slut-shaming was even more common in the Hollywood of the ’50s than it is now.
Jennings went on to became a major producer, with credits such as 1971’s Play Misty for Me and 1973’s High Plains Drifter. Despite industry lore that Lang was shot in the balls, the bullet missed his vitals and he remained a fully functioning male, says his son, filmmaker and historian Rocky Lang. “I’m living proof,” he quips.
Wanger was put on trial for assault with a deadly weapon, but, after pleading temporary insanity and throwing himself on the mercy of the court, helped by the super-lawyer Jerry Giesler and a coterie of Hollywood A-listers (Samuel Goldwyn noted with no evident sense of irony that Wanger had “never chosen the easy way”), he was given a four-month sentence, which he served at Castaic Honor Farm.
After he was released, he turned the experience to his benefit, making two prison dramas that were among his best movies: Riot in Cell Block 11 and I Want to Live! His last film was his biggest ever: Cleopatra, the 1963 production that almost sank a studio and became a bigger footnote in Hollywood history than Lang’s shooting.
By then, Wanger was back on his feet and able to see the humor in what had happened. “You chaps just talk about agents,” he once joked to a group of studio executives. “I’m the only one who ever did anything about them.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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