With four wins from 12 nominations, the late Katharine Hepburn holds the record for most Academy Award wins. Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis trail her with three a piece.
But for a few short hours on the evening of March 19, 2000 Willie Fulgear, a 61-year-old unemployed junk scavenger, was able to claim he had "more Oscars than any of the movie stars." Never heard of him? Ahead of the 2020 Oscars this Sunday, allow us to share the 20-year-old story that features his unlikely hero's journey.
The 2000 Oscars season had already hit a production snag in the form of 4,000 misrouted ballots when Academy executive director Bruce Davis received the phone call. He was en route to the annual nominees' luncheon at the Beverly Hilton March 13 when someone from R.S. Owens, the Chicago-based company that had been making the trophies since 1982, reached out.
Precisely 55 Oscars, plated in 24-karat gold and marked with a serial number, then individually packed in Styrofoam, had been loaded onto a Roadway Express 11 days earlier. And the 500-pound pallet (consisting of 10, shrink-wrapped packing cases) had rolled into parking space No. 137—for deliveries bound to Beverly Hills—at the company's Bell sorting facility, a few miles outside downtown Los Angeles, at 3 a.m. March 8.
What precisely happened after that is a bit fuzzy (including one account that workers on the graveyard shift opened a box and posed with the iconic statuettes), but rather than ending up on the Beverly Hills truck, the entire shipment was loaded onto a vehicle headed toward nearby Hawthorne, then disappeared from Roadway's tracking system entirely.
Frantic, David phoned up the LAPD police chief, Bernard C. Parks, he recalled in a 2001 Vanity Fair piece, informing him that they'd lost that year's Oscars and were without a backup supply.
A 24-hour tip line was set up, the FBI was called in to assist with the hunt and Roadway's director of security made a March 14 plea to dock-workers to come forward with any information, eventually sweetening the deal with a $50,000 reward.
It was right around this time that forklift operator Anthony Hart (known as the Whiz to friends) and truck driver Lawrence Edward Ledent, both 38, were looking for an out. Ledent, sharing his story with Vanity Fair's Mark Seal from prison, insisted it was Hart who initiated the haphazard sting. He had a habit of letting things "fall off the truck", Ledent claimed, and on the morning of March 8, according to police reports, Hart informed his friend that he'd placed something on his truck that he intended to steal.
It wasn't until Ledent finished his route that he peeked inside one of the boxes and found the Styrofoam-encased Oscars, the lot of them worth an estimated $18,000. Initially mistaking it for an elaborate bottle of cologne, he would testify to police, he panicked: "I just assumed I had to get rid of them," he said per reports. Though he first said he ditched them in a random alley dumpster, then an address in South-Central L.A., he eventually admitted he took them to pal John Willie Harris' house.
According to Ledent's account, shortly after Harris got home from his work as a garbage truck driver, he pulled up, opened a box and pulled out an Oscar to show him. Harris freaked, telling him to get them away from his house, then demanding money for having unknowingly stored them in the first place. By the next day they were gone.
In the version Ledent told to Vanity Fair, Hart came up to him that same morning of March 9 with an address where the trophies were to be delivered. His brother-in-law, an attorney, had already approached Roadway on behalf of an anonymous client, saying they would arrange for them to receive the Oscars in exchange for the $50,000 reward.
But while Ledent claimed he took two of the statuettes to a man at a Jack in the Box on Hart's behest and sold another, he refused to drop off the rest at the prescribed address in Altadena. (An attorney for Hart disputed Ledent's entire account to Vanity Fair.)
Though Roadway had the cashier's checks drafted, they never paid out the ransom. Instead detectives did their thing and on March 18, police arrested Ledent and Hart at their respective homes. As Ledent was driven downtown, a detective informed him that Hart had confessed and alleged that Ledent had three missing Oscars, a successful ruse that got the driver to sign a full confession and plead no contest to grand-theft charges.
Some 12 hours later is when Fulgear made his grand entrance.
He'd arrived on the scene in the early 60s, his dreams of singing leading him from Jackson, Miss. to the bright lights of Hollywood. But after a failed stint as a nightlife empresario and several other occupations, he'd begun collecting and refurbishing junk. Recently evicted from his home and planning a move into a one-room apartment, he was digging through the dumpsters behind a Food-4-Less in Koreatown looking for boxes when he struck gold.
Specifically, he bumped his foot into the boxes of Oscars—52 in total. "I thought they were toys," he told Vanity Fair. "Brass. And I can sell brass by the pound."
So he loaded them into his 1989 Cadillac Coupe De Ville and drove home to his waiting son.
A quick Internet search led him to the case of the missing Oscars and the promised reward. And as his son Allen cheered about the $50,000 they would pocket, Fulgear called up, first, the local TV station and then the police.
The latter brought him downtown for a lengthy interrogation and polygraph, after which the camera crews took him back to the dumpster to pose with the trophies he found. Attorneys discovered that Harris, whose home had been used as a temporary landing pad for the stolen goods, was Fulgear's half-brother, but little else and he was released.
The unemployed sexagenarian was instantly hailed as a hero, the man who'd "saved the Oscars" (never mind the crew of 20 from R.S. Owens & Company, who worked round-the-clock reproducing the inventory, or the recent claim that they likely already had a batch of trophies at the ready).
Roadway Express, presented Fulgear with an oversized check at L.A.P.D. headquarters and the Academy chipped in two seats to the ceremony, a free tux and a chauffeured sedan. (He declined that part of the offer, choosing to give his exclusive at the ceremony to Inside Edition in exchange for a stretch limo.)
As he worked the carpet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with his son, the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-wife Maria Shriver embraced him. Producers threw around the promise of book and movie deals. Oscar nominees Charlize Theron, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise mingled nearby.
Introduced from the stage by host Billy Crystal, Fulgear waved his top hat to the audience as the funnyman cracked that his reward was "not a lot of money when you consider Miramax and Dream-Works are spending millions just to get one." The night was a success, with Boys Don't Cry star Hilary Swank winning her first Academy Award, a victorious Angelina Jolie declaring she was so in love with her brother and American Beauty walking away with the top prize.
And in a less intriguing tale, that would have been the fade-to-black moment.
Fulgear's however came with a coda that saw him griping to Vanity Fair a year later, "Man, I wish I'd never seen them Oscars. It built me up one day and pushed me right back down the next day."
He'd spent about $17,000 of his prize on a gold Lexus that he'd use to drive back to Mississippi, where he'd build a dream home. The money still in stacks of cash, he locked it away in a safe. But a month later, he returned back to his L.A. pad to find his home rifled through and the safe missing.
Then, as Hart's attorneys prepped for his trial, they found the police reports stating that Harris was Fulgear's half-brother. He was arrested, despite claiming they hadn't spoken in the two years prior, and police began looking into Fulgear's story, leaving his golden tale ever so tarnished.
Ledent pled no contest, receiving six months in jail, Harris was sentenced to three years probation while Hart, still maintaining his innocence, pled no contest to a charge of receiving stolen property "because the system is not perfect and I don't want to get caught up in it" and received three years probation. And while one of the remaining missing Oscars was recovered during a 2003 drug bust, the other two remain at large.
As for Fulgear, he never managed to break into producing, nor did he strike it lucky with a book deal. And the feelers he put out to receive tickets to the 2001 ceremony went unanswered. Steve Martin took the stage at the Shrine Auditorium as host for the first time, Goldie Hawn's charming young daughter, Kate Hudson, walked her first red carpet ever and the big story of the night became Julia Roberts huge win (and standout gown) for Erin Brockovich.
Hollywood—it's a tough business. One year, you're the star, the next, you're back on the outside, looking in.