The Big Cigar Is An Entertaining but Overstuffed New Hollywood caper

Spoilers

The Big Cigar, a new limited series on Apple TV+ that debuts on May 17, dramatizes a wild true story from the New Hollywood period of the 1970s.

Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of The Black Panther Party, had befriended a group of countercultural figures ruling Tinseltown at the time.

Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner were part of the generation that brought the values of the 1960s counterculture to the movie business through films such as Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, as well as the work of The Monkees.

This also entailed bankrolling and supporting left-wing political causes, including the Black Panthers’ work.

But that approach had its limits.

The series, which consists of six episodes lasting about 40 minutes each, was produced by Jim Hecht, an executive producer of Winning Time.

Don Cheadle is among the episode directors.

Revolution and cocaine

Early on in the Big Cigar, Schneider exclaims, “I want to finance the revolution!” before turning and snorting a line of cocaine, which nails this period of history in microcosm.

 André Holland in "The Big Cigar," premiering May 17, 2024 on Apple TV+.

The Big Cigar begins in 1974, with Newton arriving at his friend Schneider’s doorstep in the Hollywood Hills and asking for passage to Cuba.

He’s fleeing criminal charges in Oakland — including that of the murder of a 17-year-old sex worker — and is exceedingly unwilling to go back to prison.

The next six episodes follow the long and winding scheme to get him there, with the FBI trailing them all along. The plan has many fits and starts and entails a lot of regrouping.

The Big Cigar is a fascinating and entertaining show.

The lead roles are well-acted, and the production successfully nails every period detail of the 1970s, especially the clothes, haircuts, and furniture.

Print the legend

André Holland and Alessandro Nivola in "The Big Cigar," premiering May 17, 2024 on Apple TV+.

Does The Big Cigar stick to the facts of what happened? Not entirely, and it’s upfront about that.

Newton even gets a climactic speech about “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

But if the series has one weakness, it sanitizes things a bit.

There were probably a lot more drugs and violence in this milieu than The Big Cigar shows us, and the show appears agnostic on the seemingly important question of whether Newton was guilty of committing that murder, among other crimes he was accused of over the years.

And what of the revolution that was Newton and Schneider’s goal?

It never succeeded, with Newton ending up dead on an Oakland street corner in 1989.

At the point of the show’s events, even the New Hollywood era was nearing its inevitable decline.

And did it need to be a six-part series rather than a movie? I’m not convinced…

When Bert met Huey

Andre Holland as Huey P. Newton in Apple TV+'s The Big Cigar

The show is particularly interested in the fascinating dynamic between Schneider and Newton, two men from very different worlds: The Black revolutionary from Oakland and the white Jewish New York native whose father was the president of Columbia Pictures.

By all accounts, the two men had great affection for each other, although they both got things they wanted from the other.

“Huey served the sense of these guys’ embarrassment about where they came from and what kind of privilege they received,” screenwriter Buck Henry said of the dynamic in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

“And in return, he got a lot of cute white girls laid at his feet.”

While Schneider was known for his friendships and relationships with A-listers of that period, we don’t spend much time with such stars.

Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, and Dennis Hopper each show up briefly, all played by lesser-known actors, and they’re not the show’s focus.

A first-rate cast

PJ Byrne as Steve Blauner in The Big Cigar (Apple TV)

Andre Holland, known for his role in Moonlight and on Castle Rock, plays the larger-than-life Newton, commanding the screen. Alessandro Nivola, long an underrated actor, more than holds his own as Schneider.

P.J. Byrne, best known as Rugrat from The Wolf of Wall Street, plays another high-strung sidekick, although the third member of their BBS production company, Bob Rafelson, is mostly absent.

Tiffany Boone, from The Chi and Little Fires Everywhere, does memorable work as Newton’s girlfriend-turned-wife, Gwen Fontaine, while Glynn Thurman has a couple of great scenes as Newton’s father.

Marc Menchaca plays the leading, mostly inept FBI agent, who has been undercover as a hippie and has retained the clothes, beard, and hair.

The Source

The Big Cigar is based on Joshuah Bearman’s 2012 Playboy magazine article.

While it embellishes a detail here or there, it mostly follows the beats of the source material.

Many events that I thought might have been fantastical, such as a shootout in Canter’s Deli, were straight from the magazine piece.

Moses Ingram and Andre Holland in the Big Cigar, on Apple TV+

At one point, Schneider and Brauner discuss the smuggling plot as if it were a movie production.

It’s not a coincidence between that and the ’70s setting if this sounds similar to Argo; that Oscar-winning film was based on a magazine article by the same author.

However, the “fake movie” part ends up a much smaller part of the story in The Big Cigar.

These events will also be familiar to fans of Biskind’s book, which treated the story with a bit more skepticism.

This was also the case with The Offer, the streaming series about the making of The Godfather, events also covered in Easy Riders and Raging Bull, among numerous other books about 1970s Hollywood.

Lighting the Cigar

Ultimately, The Big Cigar will likely greatly appeal to those who know this history or even those who are going in cold.

Still, the story might have worked better as a two-hour feature film than a 240-minute mini-series.
 

Stephen Silver is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow more of his work on his Substack The SS Ben Hecht, by Stephen Silver.You can follow him on X.

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