The bitter feud over the $1 billion estate of cable-television magnate Bob Magness came to an end last week as all parties involved reached an out-of-court settlement. The multiple lawsuits enmeshing Magness's sons, Kim and Gary, his widow, Sharon, University of Denver chancellor Daniel Ritchie, and Tele-Communications Inc. and its chairman, John Malone, are all history.
Though it was hard for the average Joe to sympathize with people for whom $200 million just wasn't enough, it was fascinating to watch the legal hijinks and teary-eyed earnestness of people who vowed to do only what Bob would have wanted as they sued his best friends and loved ones. Toss in revelations of past drug busts and arrests for drunken driving and disorderly conduct, and you had the makings of a fabulous prime-time soap opera.
Indeed, L'Affaire Magness was the most sensational example of a filthy-rich and dysfunctional family blowing up since the fictitious TV soap Dynasty, which was set in Denver, hit the airwaves in 1981. While the Magness situation ended without the burst of gunfire from armed revolutionaries that felled several members of the Carrington family at the end of one Dynasty season, the eerie similarities between the two families were striking. Both contained a hardworking family patriarch who could be alternately kind and cruel; a second wife whom some would nominate for sainthood but who also had enemies within the family; a hard-drinking son who got into trouble with the law; and a ruthless but effective business partner who knew how to use intimidation and threats to get whatever he wanted.
So many members of Denver's establishment were dragged into the Magness mess that it merits another episode of the 1980s shlockfest. Herewith, the official casting call:
BLAKE CARRINGTON (BOB MAGNESS)
Like Carrington, Bob Magness was the patriarch of a family and a business, and in his mind, the two may have been one and the same.
While Carrington made his millions in the oil business, Magness got rich off a different kind of crude. A folksy Oklahoma rancher and cottonseed buyer who was smart enough to realize the potential of cable television, he quickly mastered the business skills required to build a cable empire. Always pleasant in person, he also earned a reputation as a ferocious businessman who could hold off angry creditors and intimidate potential rivals.
Magness began stringing cable in 1956 to serve 700 subscribers in Memphis, Texas. He climbed telephone polls and hitched up the cable wires, enabling people living on isolated ranches to watch the same programs enjoyed by people in the cities. His late wife, Betsy, kept the books for the operation at their kitchen table.
In an interview, Magness said he discovered that "a guy could make a lot of money if he could get five bucks a month from a lot of people." The rugged outposts of the Rocky Mountains--virtually inaccessible to broadcast signals--were especially fertile grounds for the new cable industry, and Magness moved his family, including young Kim and Gary, to Bozeman, Montana, in 1958. As cable spread rapidly in rural areas around the West, Denver became a logical place to base the young industry, and Magness founded TCI in Denver in 1968, eventually settling down in a giant ranch house overlooking a fishing pond in Cherry Hills Village.
Over the next few decades, Magness and a brilliant Yankee engineer he recruited in 1972 named John Malone ("I've hired the smartest son of a bitch I have ever met," Magness told friends) built up a huge cable empire by buying up other cable companies all over the country. The company lived on the edge of bankruptcy as Magness and Malone brokered deals with far-flung cable operations, betting everything on the idea that cable would take off and become a basic part of American culture.
Like Denver Carrington, the oil company that funded the antics of the scheming heirs on Dynasty, TCI became remarkably adept at dodging the bullet. Magness prided himself on being able to stare down bankers, showing a steely resolve that Blake Carrington would have admired. When the first Dynasty episode aired in 1981, the Carrington empire tottered on the verge of collapse after Middle Eastern terrorists seized the company's tanker fleet. While nothing quite as dramatic ever threatened TCI, the company's leaders were often likened to terrorists by competitors, and legions of couch potatoes felt like they were being held hostage to a cable company that continually boosted rates and delivered poor service.
As with his TV twin, Magness was seen in different ways by different people. Some say the shy magnate exemplified the essence of the American dream, building a billion-dollar empire from nothing and pioneering a technology that would one day bring dozens of television channels into American living rooms. Always somewhat embarrassed by his wealth, Magness loved nothing more than riding horses on the family ranch.
But others claim Magness and the company he founded demonstrate the dark side of American capitalism. TCI has often been described as the consummate corporate bully, and Magness and Malone never hesitated to threaten other companies or communities that stood in their way. Since cable franchises have a monopoly in their respective communities, TCI often thumbed its nose at its customers, ignoring their complaints of shoddy service. The company didn't pay much heed to actually serving its subscribers until the advent of household satellite dishes offered real competition to cable.
While Magness has been touted as a "philanthropist" in Denver's daily newspapers, he never showed much interest in charity until his marriage to Sharon. Behind closed doors, many in Denver's philanthropic community are still critical of Magness's failure to create a charitable foundation with his great wealth, saying it showed a lack of community spirit. His failure to do any estate planning also virtually guaranteed that his heirs would be caught up in a legal morass.
But at least Magness didn't discover he had an illegitimate sister fathered out of wedlock by his philandering daddy--or pick up the National Enquirer one day to be confronted by the headline "Denver Oil Tycoon Sues Gay Son for Baby's Custody!" He also had no known problems with amnesia, unlike Blake, who once woke up and thought he was married to his ex-wife, whom he had previously tried to strangle while his posh resort hotel was burning down on the other side of town.
STEVEN CARRINGTON (KIM MAGNESS)
Like Steven Carrington, the 45-year-old son of Bob Magness has lived his life in his father's shadow.
The troubled Steven caused much grief for his father, who was upset by his son's habit of alternating between male and female lovers. He became even more of a concern when he disappeared into Indonesia in 1982, where he was injured in a mysterious explosion and required plastic surgery.
Kim Magness has apparently steered clear of liposuction, but a certain amount of explosiveness has always been part of his style. He apparently spent his youth carousing with friends on the family's Pine Junction ranch, earning a reputation as a rich brat out to have a good time. Before last week's settlement, his most recent accomplishment had been enraging the men his late father counted as his best buddies.
The older Magness boy has dabbled in several business ventures, including a Montana plastics company and a Denver start-up venture devoted to creating computer games that later went out of business. He and his brother are also partners in a planned Black Hawk casino.
Kim Magness never got to bed Heather Locklear in between flings with male models, as Steven did. But he caused his father heartache in other ways. He was arrested in 1973 in Garfield County and charged with selling heroin to an undercover agent of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. In exchange for his guilty plea to narcotics possession, charges of drug pushing were dropped, and he was fined $5,000 and received a five-year suspended sentence. He reportedly spent time in Mount Airy, a private psychiatric hospital, after the drug bust.
Kim joined TCI's board of directors in 1985. This past October he and Gary Magness sued two members of that board whom his father regarded as dear friends, John Malone and Donne Fisher. The brothers' suit alleged the estate was ripped off when the executors sold Bob Magness's huge share of TCI stock back to the company for a lower price than it could have fetched on the open market. Kim and Gary insisted that the June sale of 30 million shares of TCI stock had been undervalued at $16.52 per share and that it was done primarily to safeguard Malone's control of the company. Malone feared that a sale of the stock on the open market could weaken his position at TCI, and the agreement to sell more than 30 million shares of TCI stock back to the company was greeted with audible sighs of relief at TCI's headquarters in the Denver Tech Center.
The uncommonly caustic lawsuit filed by the brothers used language worthy of babelicious Dynasty bad girl Sammy Jo Dean (Locklear), claiming that the estate's executors, Fisher and Daniel Ritchie, "were afraid of pissing off John Malone." And the Magness boys' accusation of financial impropriety against TCI and the executors infuriated many of the executives and employees of TCI who had worked for decades with their father. They say Bob Magness would have been aghast to see his sons doing battle with the very people who helped create the family's great wealth. "There's a lot of people around here who are really pissed off at those two boys," says one longtime TCI employee.
In the out-of-court settlement announced last week, TCI agreed to return 16 million shares to the estate. In exchange for the right to buy those shares in the future, TCI paid the estate $124 million. The settlement also ensured that John Malone would maintain control of the company's board; he even has veto power over how the Magnesses get to vote their shares in the company. That should leave Kim and his wife plenty of time to keep acting like Carringtons in their former hunting lodge in Cherry Hills Village.
ADAM CARRINGTON (GARY MAGNESS)
These two share more than just a blowsy, brushed-back hairdo. Like Adam Carrington, Gary has been the perpetual bad boy of the Magness clan, causing his late father much trouble with his frequent arrests for drunkenness. But blood is thicker than gin: Gary could always count on "Pop" to bail him out.
Adam Carrington's position in the family was always somewhat confused. He had been kidnapped as a baby, then returned as an adult to claim his place in the Carrington empire. Unfortunately for him, it was never entirely clear if he really was Blake Carrington's son, and Adam was blackmailed by sleazy congressman Neal McVane, who claimed to have proof that Adam wasn't a Carrington after all.
While Gary Magness has never had to prove his parentage, there may have been times when his father wanted to deny paternity. Gary was arrested in 1987 in Denver for driving under the influence of alcohol, and his father posted bond at the Denver County Jail. In 1990 he was again arrested in Denver and charged with disorderly intoxication and trespassing after being accused of beating up a man who owed him money. He was sentenced to probation.
Gary's most recent arrest came in 1994 in Cherry Hills Village, when police said he was speeding down East Quincy Avenue in a red Ferrari and refused to pull over when an officer hit his lights and siren. According to the police report, Gary failed the roadside sobriety test after he finally stopped at the driveway to his home, a 4,100-square-foot abode across from the Cherry Hills Country Club, then launched into an angry tirade when officers handcuffed him. The drunken tizzy concluded at the jail, where authorities reported he shouted obscenities at police officers.
Charges of resisting arrest were dropped after Magness pleaded guilty to driving while impaired. He was sentenced to nine months' probation and had to undergo alcohol counseling; he also performed 24 hours of community service by working as a laborer at the South Suburban Golf Course.
But not all of Gary's troubles stem from the sauce. He's now involved in a dispute with neighbors at the family's ranch near Pine Junction. Adjacent landowners accuse him of bulldozing trees on private property to build a new access road, while Gary insists he has the right to do so based on an old map that lays out a public-road easement. That argument has now wound up in Park County District Court. It may or may not escalate to the level of the mano a mano struggle that took place in a lily pond between Adam Carrington's stepmother (Linda Evans) and scheming bitch-goddess Alexis (Joan Collins).
KRYSTLE JENNINGS CARRINGTON
ALEXIS CARRINGTON COLBY (SHARON MAGNESS)
Krystle and Alexis were to Dynasty what the good witch and the wicked witch were to Oz: two sides of the female personality at war with each other. Most who know Sharon Magness would cast her as Krystle; her stepsons would come down on the Alexis side.
Alexis was Blake Carrington's first wife, and her hatred for his second wife, Krystle, gave the series much of its sizzle. Alexis was cruel and constantly vicious, while Krystle was consistently kind. In the course of six seasons, Alexis continually schemed to destroy Krystle's marriage, even causing her to lose her baby. At one point the two of them found themselves trapped in a burning cabin; rather than trying to escape, they slugged it out in the mud on the cabin floor.
Krystle met Blake when she served as his secretary; the former Sharon Costello met Bob and his first wife, Betsy, through their mutual love of horses; the Magnesses bought Arabian horses through the Scottsdale, Arizona, firm where Sharon worked. After Betsy's sudden death in 1985, Magness became depressed, and his friends worried about how he would cope living alone after losing his wife of 36 years.
But all that changed the next year, when Bob Magness ran into Sharon Costello at a Scottsdale horse auction and a casual friendship quickly turned into something far more significant. By December 1986 the two were living together; they married in 1989.
Before the marriage, Sharon signed a prenuptial agreement that spelled out exactly how much money she was entitled to. "Sharon recognizes that Bob is one of the wealthiest men in America," says the document. That agreement provided her with $5 million in the event of Bob's death, far less than the $55 million in money and property he left her in his will.
Last June Sharon Magness made a move worthy of Alexis, filing suit in Arapahoe County District Court to ask that the will be overturned and that she be given half the estate.
Sharon Magness's many friends portray her as a bighearted woman with a deep commitment to charity who wants to create a multi-million-dollar foundation that will benefit Denver for generations to come. They say Bob Magness was drawing up papers to create such a foundation before he died and that Sharon sees herself as fulfilling his wishes.
"She has grown to care about the Denver community a great deal," says Jean Galloway, one of Sharon's best friends. Galloway and Magness both serve on the board of Volunteers of America, which operates a network of homeless shelters and programs for battered women and the mentally ill. As part of the recently announced settlement, the parties to the lawsuits all agreed to contribute a total of $3 million to VOA for the construction of a new headquarters building.
Off the record, Sharon's friends say she believes Kim and Gary Magness are completely irresponsible and will fritter away their father's fortune on crackpot business ventures. They point to the brothers' past brushes with the law as evidence of their immaturity. "She knows those boys--she knows it's money down the rat hole," says one friend.
Before the recent settlement, however, Kim and Gary's supporters were casting Sharon as Alexis reincarnate. They said she was a golddigger trying to win control of most of the estate against Bob's wishes. The brothers were said to be especially galled by the fact that, as a surviving spouse, Sharon's part of the estate would be tax-free, and she could therefore wind up with the largest part of the fortune.
The details of Sharon Magness's settlement with Kim and Gary Magness have been kept secret, but Sharon made it clear in a brief public statement that she'll continue to devote most of her time to charity. She maintains a busy schedule on the society fundraiser circuit and made a splash last summer by riding her white Arabian horse Thunder--who doubles as the Denver Broncos' mascot--at a variety show held for the Denver Summit of the Eight.
With that kind of public-spirited attitude, she may want to consider saddling up for a career in politics. After all, just as Alexis once rubbed elbows with former president Gerald Ford and ex-secretary of state Henry Kissinger in a memorable 1983 episode, Sharon hosted President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton at a reception in her Cherry Hills Village home during the Summit of the Eight. Sharon could even learn from the mistakes of Alexis, who during Dynasty's last season waged a bitter campaign against Blake for the governorship of Colorado, all the while attacking him in the pages of her Denver Mirror newspaper. (Sadly, both lost to a third candidate.)
CONGRESSMAN NEAL MCVANE (JOHN MALONE)
Congressman McVane was one of the few Denver politicians savvy and savage enough to take on the Carringtons. Although he was eventually imprisoned, he managed to blackmail Adam Carrington and frame Alexis for murdering Krystle's ex-husband, Mark Jennings.
John Malone has never served in the U.S. Congress or been to prison, but he is one of the few American CEOs to be described as a corporate "Darth Vader" by Vice President Al Gore.
In a 1993 antitrust suit against TCI, media conglomerate Viacom went even further. "In the American cable industry, one man has seized monopoly power," said the suit. "Using bully-boy tactics and strong-arming competitors, suppliers, and customers, that man has inflicted antitrust injury on virtually every American consumer of cable services and technologies. That man is John C. Malone."
Malone is the other TCI billionaire, and he and Magness were co-captains of the ship that made Denver the cable capital of the world. Between jacking up rates, threatening to boot out cable channels that displease the TCI mothership, and maneuvering to drive competitors out of business, Malone has become one of the most feared executives in the communications industry. At Magness's funeral, Malone even described himself and his late partner as "unindicted co-conspirators."
While paying the Magness brothers an extra $124 million was no doubt galling to Malone, the cable magnate is known for his obsession with maintaining control over the company, and it was undoubtedly worth it to him to make sure he was still calling the shots.
In true Malone fashion, he also made sure he got the best end of the deal. Under terms of the agreement, TCI will pay Malone $150 million in return for his giving the company the option to buy all his stock in the event of his death. To win approval for the huge payoff from the TCI board, Malone reportedly raised the possibility that his heirs could be as nasty as the Magness boys had been. Even though Malone has since faltered by suggesting he may give away most of his estimated $1.5 billion fortune to charity, Congressman McVane would have been proud.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
KING GALEN OF MOLDAVIA (DANIEL RITCHIE)
King Galen's son, Prince Michael, married Alexis's long-lost daughter, Amanda, in a formal wedding that was interrupted by machine-gun-toting revolutionaries bent on shooting up the royal palace and any capitalist pigs who happened to be inside at the time. Later the King headed to Denver to spend his money and generally behave like a bigshot.
The princely Ritchie, meanwhile, is the closest thing Denver has to royalty, a former CEO of Westinghouse Broadcasting and multi-millionaire investor who, despite having no apparent academic background, was named chancellor at the University of Denver in 1989, where his fundraising skills have earned him straight A's from alumni.
Ritchie may have dropped the ball, however, when he took over as co-executor of the Magness estate. Many estate attorneys were astounded that Ritchie and Fisher didn't ask for court approval before they sold the estate's stock back to TCI. Ritchie was reportedly mortified to be named in Kim and Gary's lawsuit, and the out-of-court settlement probably didn't come a moment too soon for him. As part of the settlement, he and Fisher were fired as executors. But there was a golden parachute fit for a king: The estate agreed to pay each man $1.5 million, on the condition that the money be donated to...the University of Denver.
Long live the King!