He helped others, then he took his life. The last days of film producer Steve Bing

Stacy Perman
Steve Bing was a friend of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and a major donor to the national Democratic Party and numerous progressive causes.  (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

In June, Father’s Day came and went and Steve Bing, the film producer and philanthropist, had failed to call legendary rocker Jerry Lee Lewis at his Mississippi home.

“I knew something wasn’t right," said Lewis’ wife, Judith. “It was the first time. Steve even called me on Mother’s Day.”

Bing first met the rocker as a 15-year-old starstruck fan in the 1980s, when he snuck into the Palomino Club in North Hollywood to watch Lewis perform. The pair struck up a friendship and Bing told friends it was the Palomino shows that inspired him to teach himself to play the piano.

Over time, their relationship deepened. Bing plucked Lewis from the tangled skids of his life and stalled career, coproducing his acclaimed comeback album “Last Man Standing” in 2006. Lewis, now 84, considered Bing a son.

Lee Lewis, center, is joined by Steve Bing, left, and Jimmy Rip, right, in Lewis' dressing room backstage at the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino in Highland, California May 19, 2005 prior to his performance. Bing and Rip were the driving force behind a new album with Lewis who was joined by a different rock legend on each track.  (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

“He was in a great mood,” Judith said of her and Jerry’s last phone conversation with Bing, three days before Father’s Day. “It was uplifting. He was joking with Jerry about women. He had an awesome sense of humor. He talked about getting us a place in Palm Springs. He said, ‘I don’t want you staying at the Motel 6.’”

On June 22, the following Monday, Judith received a call from Bing’s assistant that left her shell-shocked: Bing, 55, died after falling 27 stories from his luxury high-rise in Century City in what authorities said was a suicide.

“I had no clue whatsoever that he’d commit suicide,” she said, heartbroken. Afraid that her husband, who had a stroke last year, might suffer another one, Judith told him that Bing had a massive heart attack.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do in this world without my son.’"

Bing’s death shook the expansive and interconnected worlds of entertainment, Democratic politics and social activism in which he loomed large. Yet, while the multimillionaire Bing lived a life of glamour and privilege, those who knew him say he was deeper and an eminently more complicated figure than his portrayal in sensational headlines.

He was brilliant and full of optimism, they say, but he was also enigmatic and a knot of contradictions. Bing shunned fame yet was surrounded by celebrities and power brokers. He donated millions to Democrats and a slew of progressive causes yet did not seek recognition. He took care of everyone around him and rarely asked anyone for help but wasn't involved in his own children's lives. Intensely private, he died in a shockingly public manner.

While left stunned and devastated by Bing’s death, some said they were not surprised. Long estranged from his family, he battled depression and drugs, his friends said. Within his inner circle, he’d revealed that he had bipolar disorder; he'd talked about suicide in the past.

His last days were difficult. The pandemic had cut him off from his many friends and boisterous social life. Also weighing heavily on him: Bing was approaching the one-year anniversary of the death of his girlfriend.

He took stabs at remaining engaged with the causes he cared about. He met with homeless people and helped connect them to food and resources. Along with his close friend Mikey Beaven, a former Green Beret, he was developing an app that would help prevent veterans' suicides. But he had also fallen into a deep depression. During his final week, Bing was speaking with a therapist twice a day.

"He was the biggest, sweetest, most giving guy I ever met in my life both physically and emotionally. But at the same time, he was the loneliest,” Beaven said.

***

At 6-foot-4 with silver hair, Bing cut a striking figure, dressed in a uniform of jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. He begrudgingly owned a single black blazer, kept for the odd occasion that required a jacket. He drove a 1997 Lincoln Town Car. He once owned a spectacular piece of property opposite the Hotel Bel-Air, where he famously lived for nearly nine years beginning in 1991. A piano and original prints by rock ’n’ roll photographer Jim Marshall were among his few possessions.

Bing appeared so unassuming that few knew he possessed vast wealth. Actress Kelly Lynch wrote on Instagram that when she and husband Mitch Glazer first met him, they “mistakenly thought he was a sweet homeless guy crashing on a friend’s sofa in Malibu.”

Friends said he was a big kid with an extraordinary appetite for fun, pathologically upbeat and generous to a fault.

“'Let’s have a laugh.' That was his line,” said producer Cassian Elwes. “He was a cinephile and a rock fan. He was a great raconteur. He loved stories about old Hollywood. ... I remember he played at some club in Westwood when he was about 19 or 20. He played the piano, all the Rolling Stones songs. He was a huge fan."

Jeff Ayeroff, who formed the boutique record label Shangri-La Music with Bing in 2008, described him as "the most rock ’n’ roll person I know."

Ayeroff met Bing in 2004 when he was chief creative director and vice chairman of Warner Records, working on the soundtrack for “The Polar Express.” Bing had put up about $85 million to finance Robert Zemeckis’ animated film.

They struck up an immediate friendship. “He was tall, smart and funny,” Ayeroff recalled of his first impression. “He was always on the move.”

One of Ayeroff’s favorite memories was the time he worked with Bing on the 2008 Rolling Stones concert documentary “Shine a Light.” Bing helped finance the film directed by Martin Scorsese.

"We flew to Rome on Bing’s plane to show the Stones the film,” he said. “We were with Martin and his family. The Stones were playing and we walked into the arena and everyone was screaming ‘Maestro’ to Martin."

Over the years, Bing cultivated a wide and diverse group of friends.

Peter Guralnick, who wrote the acclaimed Elvis Presley biography “Last Train to Memphis,” said nothing delighted Bing more than to introduce his vast circle from different aspects of his life to each other.

In the early 2000s, Bing was involved in two sensational paternity cases, including one with British actress Elizabeth Hurley, with whom he had a son.  (Gero Breloer / Associated Press)

“He was just extremely generous the way he tried to expand the world of his friends and convey his passion for things and people,” he said.

Guralnick recalled the impact Bing had when he introduced Solomon Burke, the preacher and one of the founding fathers of soul music, to Jerry Lee Lewis.

“They hadn’t been particularly aware of each other but through his introduction became best of friends," he said. "And Steve got such a kick out of that because he had such admiration for both."

Bing was a friend to President Bill Clinton, whom he called “the boss.” In 2009, he supplied Clinton with a plane when the former president traveled to North Korea to free two American journalists.

Over the years, Bing donated millions to the Democratic Party. In 2002, when he wrote a check to the DNC for $5 million, he trailed only Haim Saban as the party’s biggest contributor. He dispensed millions more to organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and efforts to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He reportedly spent $40 million to finance Proposition 87, the 2006 green-energy initiative on the California ballot that ultimately failed.

While Bing’s acts of largesse were boundless, most of them were little known.

Twenty years ago, when Jerry Lee Lewis stumbled into hard times, Bing brought in doctors and accountants and straightened out his life.

When Lewis had his stroke in February 2019, Judith called Bing from the ambulance.

“I want the world to know what kind of wonderful human being he was,” said Judith. "He’s always been there no matter what."

Bing was deeply involved in supporting veterans causes and the homeless. Beaven said that Bing had told him he felt bad that he made a movie about veterans and never served. "This was his way of giving back."

In March, Bing purchased tickets to bring 25 veterans and their families to a benefit performance featuring Al Pacino. "He took them to dinner and sat and talked with each one for 20 minutes and thanked them," said Beaven.

Steve Bing met rock 'n' roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis, shown performing in Las Vegas, when he was a 15-year-old fan. The two developed a father-son relationship.  (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Jim Keltner, the famed session drummer, first met Bing during the studio recording of the Rolling Stones' album “Bridges to Babylon” in 1997. The two became close; Keltner was among Bing’s father figures.

“I’ll tell you something, the Steve Bing that I knew was a one-of-a-kind in your lifetime," he said. "I never knew anybody like that.”

When Keltner couldn’t afford to keep his son in a rehab facility, Bing took over the payments. “He relished helping you and you could not say thank you. ... It’s just heartbreaking.”

Bing was born in New York to a wealthy family. His grandfather, Leo S. Bing, was a real estate magnate. His father, Peter Bing, was a well-regarded public health doctor who worked for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His mother, Helen, was a nurse.

While Bing was still a toddler, the family, including his sister Mary, moved to Los Angeles, where his father engaged in full-time philanthropy. The Bing name adorns a number of museums and concert halls in California.

At 18, Bing inherited a $600-million fortune from his grandfather. He dropped out of Stanford during his junior year to pursue filmmaking, with mixed results. He earned writing credits on the 1980s Chuck Norris “Missing in Action” films and directed the straight-to-video thriller “Every Breath,” starring Judd Nelson. He launched his own production company, Shangri-La Entertainment, in 2000 and produced several movies, including the Sylvester Stallone picture “Get Carter” and the Albert Brooks-directed "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."

Bing’s friends described his relationship with his family as strained, particularly with his father. He would sometimes tell friends he was an "orphan.” It was the reason his friends became his family and, as one surmised, why he lived in hotels.

Peter Bing has not spoken publicly about his son since his death, and the family did not respond to a request for comment. According to a close friend, private funeral arrangements are being made.

Never married, Bing dated a string of celebrities including Sharon Stone. In the early 2000s, his personal life became tabloid fodder when he became the subject of two sensational paternity cases.

In one, he sued British actress Elizabeth Hurley to force a DNA test after she said he was the father of her son, Damian. An English court revealed that Bing indeed was the baby's father.

In the other case, Bing sued Kirk Kerkorian for invasion of privacy after the billionaire’s private eye — the infamous Anthony Pellicano — took Bing’s dental floss out of his trash can. Kerkorian was embroiled in a child-support lawsuit with his ex-wife, Lisa Bonder. He used the DNA from the floss to prove that Bing was the father of Bonder’s child, Kira.

He was said to have only met Kira, now 21, as an adult. Damian is 18.

However, in 2019, when his father attempted to cut his children out of the family trust, Bing fought for them in court — and won. The elder Bing argued that his son’s children had been born out of wedlock, that Steve had never lived with them or developed a relationship with them. “I do not consider them my grandchildren,” he said in the filings.

Judith Lewis said Bing set up a trust fund for Damian and was ecstatic when he met Kira as an adult, but crushed when she dropped contact with him. “He told me, ‘I’m waiting. I’ve done all that I can do. I can’t fight them all.’”

Hurley's representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Lisa Bonder declined to comment.

After Bing’s death, both Hurley and her son posted to social media. Hurley said in the past year she had resumed communicating with Bing and they last spoke on their son’s birthday. Damian Hurley called the news of Bing's death “devastating.”

***

During his final years, Bing was searching for the meaning of life. Friends say he talked about God. “He wanted to find out what’s on the other side," Keltner said. "He wanted to know if there was more to this whole thing.”

In 2018, he’d fallen in love with Allexanne Mitchum, the great-granddaughter of actor Robert Mitchum. They moved in together and found a house in Palm Springs.

Her aunt, Carrie Mitchum, a friend of Bing’s, introduced the couple. The relationship with Allexanne, an actress and an artist who was 25 years younger than Bing, took many by surprise, not because of the age difference but because Bing had found true love.

Last summer, Mitchum took a Xanax and slipped into unconsciousness. She died accidentally on July 3 from acute Fentanyl and Alprazolam toxicity, according to the L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner's office.

“That really destroyed a big piece of him," Keltner said. "He wasn't quite the same after that.”

He endured other troubles as well.

A friend who asked not to be named because of the publicity surrounding Bing's death said he had been to drug rehab a couple of times. In 2018, she said his drug use had taken a toll on his health and urged him to get help again. He had helped her once during a tough period and she wanted to return the kindness.

But his struggles with depression he largely endured alone.

In his final weeks, Bing offered few clues that anything was amiss.

He was working on multiple projects, including a documentary about Jerry Lee Lewis and a biopic of Sun Studios founder Sam Phillips.

A week before Bing died, Elwes spoke with him on the phone. Like most of his friends who were in contact with him, Elwes said, “I didn’t suspect anything was off.”

The COVID shutdown, however, seemed to deepen Bing's sense of isolation.

Keltner declined numerous invitations to get together. “He always wanted to meet for dinner.”

“We were concerned. I’m married and the rest of us have people to be around and ride this thing out," Keltner said. "Steve was so out there, all of the time, going, visiting people. The isolation of COVID, I can only imagine it got to him, but he was not the type of guy to call and complain.”

The week before he died, Bing fell into a deep depression. Allexanne’s death, the COVID isolation and Father’s Day clawed at him.

Beaven spoke with Bing on the morning of his death; Bing told him he was feeling better. The pair planned to meet the following day to go to Thousand Oaks. Beaven said that the day after Bing died, the testing on the app they were working on to prevent veterans’ suicides was complete.

***

On the morning of July 2, a package arrived from Bing for Jerry Lee Lewis. It had been sent out on the Saturday before he died, intended for Lewis to open on Father’s Day, but it had been misrouted and so it arrived 11 days after Bing took his life.

Lewis, who had lost two of his biological sons, told his wife he was too upset to open it, and let it sit for a few hours.

When he finally decided to look inside, Lewis found a beautiful pipe. Accompanying the gift was a handwritten note, “To the greatest father in the world. Love your son — Steve.”

Lewis lit up the pipe. Then he asked his wife to place the note inside their Bible.

Times Staff Writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

Note: Warning signs of suicide include feelings of hopelessness, increased drug or alcohol use, and withdrawal from others. If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, seek help from a professional and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more suicide prevention resources click here.


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