BOB: In May, a man named Bernie Tiede [TEE-dee] was released from a Texas prison after 15 years of a life sentence for murder. In 1996, he shot and killed his wealthy patron, a widowed bank owner named Marjorie Nugent. The victim was generally disliked in their hometown of Carthage, Texas -- where the cheerful and generous Tiede, by contrast, was universally beloved. Why the neighborly funeral director would murder his Sugar Mommy intrigued not only the citizens of Carthage, but also film director Richard Linklater, who eventually made a movie about the crime, titled Bernie.
new clip: bernie-intro [music on either end]
If the people in carthage were to make a list of those people that they thought would get to heaven, I am sure that Bernie would be a the top of the list.
When Bernie was released last May, we spoke to Skip Hollandsworth, co-author of Linklater’s film. It was his story in the Texas Monthly that triggered the director’s interest -- a story itself inspired by an oddball police blotter item from 17 years ago.
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: So in August, 1997 I'm reading the Dallas Morning News and there’s a two-paragraph brief about this funeral home director arrested for the murder of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, the town’s grande dame. She was a widow whose husband had been very wealthy woman and was the town’s banker. And the same paragraph read, Tiede confessed to shooting her four times in the back and burying her in her own deep freeze in the garage, where she remained for nine months before she was found. And the third paragraph read, Tiede was the sole heir to her estate but he confessed to police that she was so mean and demanding that he felt he had no choice but to shoot her anyway. And that afternoon, I'm on my way to Carthage in the heart of East Texas.
BOB GARFIELD: And when you arrive, it gets weirder because instead of being reviled, you discover Tiede is seen as the victims himself.
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: When I get there, I go to the town’s restaurant, Daddy Sam’s BBQ, which has a marquee out front that literally reads, “You Kill It, I’ll Cook It.” And there sat the district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson –
- surrounded by townspeople who were saying things like, now Danny Buck, we love Bernie. He made a mistake. Yes, it was a bad mistake but can’t you forgive him? He’s good to our town. He’s the best man we’ve got in this town. And, at the same time, they’re talking about how no one really liked Mrs. Nugent. And I thought, good Lord, this is a movie. And I thought that the first ten minutes I was there!
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you were right about that. It, it was, indeed, a movie. I’m curious whether you attribute those sentiments, Tiede’s popularity, to his native friendliness or to the level of disgust the town had for the murder victim, or the fact that he had looted her bank account [LAUGHS] and stock assets to be a sort of one-man charitable institution?
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: I think it was a combination of all three. Bernie was the most loved guy in town. He did things like help people with their curtains. He – did their taxes. And he did their funerals so beautifully that everyone went to funerals just to see how Bernie would do the funeral of the next person who died in town. That was a kind of kindness that had nothing to do with money. He shook everybody's hand. He visited all the widows in town. And, as a journalist, I went to great lengths to try to find some dark streak in his past that would prove, oh, of course, that's why he would commit a murder at some point in his life. But there was nothing.
Okay, then at the same time, there was this generic disgust at Mrs. Nugent. She wasn't monstrous but she could be mean-spirited, angry, snobbish. One woman told me that if Mrs. Nugent held her nose any higher, she’d have drowned in a rainstorm.
And then, you’re right. There was Bernie, the Robin Hood, who did things like when the trophy shop was going out of business, he wrote checks off Mrs. Nugent's account to keep it in business because he thought kids deserved trophies when they won soccer tournaments or went to ballet recitals. He wrote a check to help build the Sunday school wing of the Methodist Church. He bought people that, that couldn’t afford it cars or furniture. He paid for college educations at the local junior college.
BOB GARFIELD: But he shot Mrs. Nugent with a 22-caliber rifle four times and put her in a freezer for nine months. And he had to pay his debt to society, life imprisonment in Texas. Now, that’s the back story. Let's hear, for a moment, how it sounded in Linklater's movie, Bernie Tiede, as portrayed by Jack Black.
JACK BLACK AS BERNIE: One time, I got four teenagers to rededicate their lives to Jesus. But eventually I realized I was meant for other equally important things.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE AS MRS. NUGENT: Oh please, Bernie. Touching all those cold, bloated bodies? Please. Don’t you think you were meant to do something more?
BERNIE: No, no, no, Mrs. Nugent, it isn't bad at all. Their souls are already with the Lord by the time I'm involved. It’s just my way to serve and show respect for the lives they led, and comfort all the loved ones that they leave behind.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Skip, you know Bernie Tiede. Was Jack Black Bernie?
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: Jack Black went to see Bernie in prison, and in an hour came out with Bernie's accent, his little voice, his handshake, his mincing walk.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
BERNIE: Do not over-cosmetize. Most of those who service the deceased apply far too much blush. Just a note to always remember, too much color does not make one look more alive.
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: It was a remarkable kind of cinematic experience for Jack because, you know, he got to play a role that the studios never let him play. In this little independent film, he got to sing, dance, act and commit murder!
BOB GARFIELD: So neither your screenplay nor Linklater's film was in any way a, a political statement. It was not an amicus brief in defense of Bernie Tiede.
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: Correct. And there was never a conversation that, you know, this movie might help Bernie someday.
BOB GARFIELD: Yet, it did. How?
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: It had an effect on a young attorney, named Jodi Cole, who saw the movie at a premiere in Austin, where Richard Linklater, the director, was attending. She walks up to him and says, there's something about this case that doesn't make sense to me, how such a sweet, gentle congenial young man could do something so vicious and so inexplicable. She said, there has to be another story. And she said, I'd like to take over the case and see if maybe I can find something to appeal, not his guilt but his punishment.
BOB GARFIELD: So what Jodi Cole discovers is the hitherto undisclosed fact that Tiede was sexually abused as a child. She argues that if the jury had known this about Bernie in his original trial, they would give him a lesser sentence. The DA who prosecuted Bernie, in the first place, agrees, as well, and Bernie can leave prison, pending a petition for retrial, on a few conditions, right?
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: The judge says, I will let Bernie out on a personal recognizance bond, if y'all show me that he has a full-time job and a place to stay where he can be supervised. The attorney said, Bernie will work for me, and then Richard Linklater, one of the great directors in America right now, walks into the courtroom and says, Bernie can live in my garage apartment in Austin.
But the fact is that Bernie might not be free for that long because the State Court of Criminal Appeals is going to decide whether there should be another trial for Bernie, with this new evidence presented. And a jury in East Texas might listen to the new sexual abuse evidence and go, hogwash, you murdered an old lady. You not only shot her, you shot her in the back, which you don't do in East Texas, and off to prison you go for the rest of your life. So that scenario is still possible.
BOB GARFIELD: So what is your role in this now? Are you the interested party co-screenwriter? Are you back on the, the beat as a journalist, covering the Tiede case? What’s your next move? SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: My journalist hat is back on, but the very interesting thing is everybody wants an interview with Bernie but one of the conditions of his being released on personal bond was the judge said he could have no, quote, “voluntary contact with the media.” So he can’t give interviews. So the mystery of Bernie and what he was thinking and what he's like still haunts Texans today.
BOB GARFIELD: Skip, thank you very much.
SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: Thanks, Bob, I enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Skip Hollandsworth wrote about Bernie Tiede back in 1998 for Texas Monthly and has, in one way or another, been following the story ever since.
TOWN GOSSIP: Nobody in a million years could have imagined that that could have happened.
TOWN GOSSIP: Shock! I could not believe Bernie did this, no way!