Hillary Atkin

It Was One of the Most Gripping News Events of the 1970s, and Now a New TV Production Goes Inside the Patty Hearst Saga

Nov 22, 2017

Soon to be married college student. Blue-blooded heiress to a family fortune. Kidnap victim. Terrorist sympathizer. Bank robber.

Patricia “Patty” Hearst was all of these things as the case of her February 1974 abduction from her Berkeley, Calif., apartment and subsequent transition to an active accomplice in a crime spree with a left-wing urban guerrilla group dominated the news for 19 months.

The case left law enforcement stymied and her parents traumatized, even as they became fixtures on the evening news.

The saga of the 19-year-old Hearst on the run with members of the self-styled Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the organization that kidnapped her, intending to leverage her family’s wealth and political influence to their own ends, had Americans glued to their television screens watching it all unfold in real time.

The latest installment of Smithsonian Channel’s “The Lost Tapes” tells the inside story of this riveting episode in American history, which has also been the subject of other films, documentaries and best-selling books, including one by Hearst herself, who was eventually pardoned by President Clinton after her conviction for bank robbery.

Without narration, the hour-long documentary uses Hearst’s own voice recordings that were released to news outlets and audio tapes of the kidnappers along with rediscovered news footage that demonstrates the fear, confusion and even the absurdity that held the nation in thrall for more than a year and a half.

TVWeek Open Mic writer Hillary Atkin sat down with series producer Tom Jennings of 1895 Films to delve into the Patty Hearst saga, one of the defining chapters of the 1970s.

TVWeek: How did you first come to the Patty Hearst project?

Tom Jennings: We do a series for Smithsonian Channel called “The Lost Tapes” which profiles major events in American history by using only media available at the time. There’s no narration and no interviews, so the films feel like a time machine that transports people back to when these events occurred. Besides looking for great stories, we try and find stories that illustrate the times in which they happened. Patty Hearst is a perfect example. It was 1974. The Vietnam War was ending. Watergate was in full force, and President Nixon resigned during the entire ordeal. There was the energy crisis. And in the San Francisco Bay area you had the Zodiac killer still haunting the place and it’s said the Ted Bundy was starting his killing spree around then. So by telling the story of Patty Hearst we also get a look into an era when the world truly felt out of control.

TVWeek: Thinking back to when the case dominated news coverage for months on end, what were your thoughts about it then and how–or did– they change as you probed into the “Lost Tapes.”

Jennings: I have vague memories of the Hearst case. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and one of the SLA leaders named Donald DeFreeze was from Cleveland. After he was killed in a shootout and house fire in Los Angeles, DeFreeze’s body was taken back to Cleveland for burial. I remember at the time thinking, “This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard.” So I knew about the story, but I was amazed at how much I had forgotten. I didn’t realize how many tape recordings the SLA and Patty Hearst released during her captivity. I had forgotten about how the SLA demanded that Hearst’s father feed every person on welfare in the state of California — and how calculations at the time estimated it would cost $400 million. And I had forgotten that famed defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey was Hearst’s attorney after she was arrested and went on trial for bank robbery. The more I listened to the tapes made by Patty Hearst, the more I could hear how she changed during her captivity — from kidnap victim to someone at least espousing the SLA’s domestic terrorism agenda. That’s what great about doing these films — that we get to use so much material that would otherwise be left on the cutting room floor.

TVWeek: Coming off of the death of Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and the SLA also represent the darker aspects of the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1070s. Through your current lens, what new insights did you gain into how the case fits into a historical context of the time?

Jennings: Today’s 24-hour news cycle and what’s happening today makes people believe that these are the craziest of times. Going through the material for the Patty Hearst story was a good reminder that every generation feels like what’s happening to them is the worst. Someone said to me the other day, in trying to put some modern context onto what it was like to live through the Patty Hearst saga, that imagine all the crazy stories we hear in the news everyday today, and then imagine if Kim Kardashian was kidnapped and became a domestic terrorist robbing banks. If I’ve learned anything from studying the Hearst story and what went on back then is that the world is always facing troubles and it’s up to every generation to find cooler heads to help us prevail and get through them.

TVWeek: There have been many books written about the case, including by Hearst herself and the recent tome by Jeffrey Toobin. Did any of them provide a sort of roadmap for producing the documentary?

Jennings: Jeffrey Toobin’s books is terrific. However, I purposefully did not read it before putting this film together. Because we have to rely solely on the media that we can acquire and put into the film, we let the footage be our guide. In books like Toobin’s and the one by Patty Hearst, there is always a wealth of information that goes beyond what we are able to show. I did read Jeffrey’s book near the end of putting our film together — and I only wish there were recordings made of everything he had in there.

TVWeek: What was your process in gathering the television and film footage, stills and audio and then deciding how they played out in producing the program?

Jennings: The process varies from film to film. In this case, we started with the usual suspects — the San Francisco Bay Area television and radio stations that covered the story, as well as the newspapers. We discovered right away there was a lot of great media from which to choose. What I didn’t realize was how many “communiques” there were from the SLA and Patty herself via tape recordings. These recordings were often dropped off at a Berkeley radio station, which would then play them for the media. There was no social media back then, so in a sense, these recordings were the SLA’s version of Twitter or Facebook — a direct way to get their message out to the press. Because of the format of our show, with no narration and no interviews, we are able to play much, much more of this material than you would in a traditional-style documentary. With a story like Hearst’s, the problem we had was what to leave out. There was so much terrific material that it was tough to whittle it down to an hour of television. But by doing that we’ve created a narrative that has a lot of information, that moves very fast, but still tells the entire story.

TVWeek: As you went through all the acquired media, what were your biggest revelations about the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the coverage of it—and the aftermath?

Jennings: Two things really hit me putting this film together. First, hearing the recordings that Patty made and how she went from kidnap victim to “revolutionary”. With each recording you can hear how she changes. The tapes give viewers remarkable insight into how the SLA “turned” Patty to be one of their own. The other thing, which I was not aware of, was how often Patty’s father, Randolph Hearst, made statements to the press. Reporters camped outside the family home 24-hours-a-day. Hearst would come outside nearly every day and talk with the press — and it’s remarkable to watch how polite the reporters were considering the circumstances. What struck me from watching Patty’s father is something that gets lost in the story and I think is one reason we still care about Patty Hearst. If you strip away the politics of the time, the crimes, the issue of terrorism and the poor in the United States, the Patty Hearst story is one that is every parent’s worst nightmare. At the end of the day, two parents had their daughter kidnapped from her apartment in the middle the night — and she vanished. That is a fear we all have… that some evil will visit us in the middle of the night and carry away someone we love. That’s the underlying theme that often gets lost, but it’s one that’s always there.

TVWeek: How would you describe some of the most exciting rare, archival footage that you discovered?

Jennings: We’re able to play so much more of the SLA’s communiques that I’ve seen in any other film. That was exciting, to let these tapes play in a way much closer to the raw material. Also, the footage of the shootout between the LAPD and the SLA in Los Angeles — when six members of the group died in a house fire — was chilling to watch. This gunfight went on for hours and for the first time a television station was able to broadcast live from the scene of an ongoing shootout. As with much of the other footage we use, we’re able to show a lot more from this dramatic scene than in other documentaries. Viewers will really get a feel for what it was like to be on the ground with the reporters, standing next to the police, as gunfire pierces the air. There’s not much else like it that I’ve ever seen.

TVWeek: Despite the format of the program, do you ever wish you could do a new interview of the subject, especially in a case like Hearst’s where she was convicted of bank robbery, pardoned, and is now living an upper-middle-class lifestyle that is probably similar to what she and her parents envisioned for her?

Jennings: I would love to interview everyone who is featured in a film like this — from Patty, to her attorneys, to members of the SLA. And perhaps I will for another film, but for our “Lost Tapes” format we let the media from the time speak for itself.

TVWeek: What do you hope viewers take away from the program?

Jennings: I’d like viewers to feel like they’re in a time machine. These films are built specifically to recreate the events as close to actually what happened as possible. If viewers finish watching our documentary and feel like they’ve seen the best, most definitive film that put them in the time and place of the Patty Hearst story, then we’ve done our job.

(“The Lost Tapes: Patty Hearst” premieres on Smithsonian Sunday, Nov. 26, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)

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