A bloody replica of Pat Paulsen’s head rests in the send-up Pat Paulsen Museum at his California winery. The head—a prop from the forthcoming, low-budget horror flick Aunt Lee’s Meat Pies—has the droopy, basset-hound look that became familiar to TV viewers across the country during the ’60s, when Paulsen was a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. But its mangled appearance better reflects the comedian and perennial presidential candidate’s more recent days. Says Paulsen, 63: “The last few years of my life have been a little like a long ride in a Poop de Ville with the bottom down.”
For starters, there’s the $270,000 or so that he owes to the IRS, now that one of his 1970s tax shelters has been disallowed. “We didn’t cheat, but over the years the tax debt just swelled, and the interest killed us,” says Paulsen, who shares the debt with his second wife and business partner, Jane Paulsen, 54.
Then there’s the other $1.5 million he owes in mortgages and unsecured bills to suppliers of his Asti, Calif., winery. Finally there’s the ex-wife (his third) who says she plans to sue him for palimony—despite a civil-court judgment that found her liable for defrauding him. Ordered to pay back $233,337, Linda Cheney Paulsen has adamantly refused and even sent her ex-hubby a package of shredded greenbacks to demonstrate her unwillingness. “It was shredded real money from the Denver Federal Reserve Bank,” says Chaney, 41. “I hope the alleged comedian didn’t get upset. I thought it was pretty funny.”
So far Paulsen has thwarted, by declaring bankruptcy, attempts by the IRS to take over his winery. To keep up with the interest on his debts, he continues to work the comedy, college and convention circuits, and last week he opened in an eight-week San Francisco run (with Linda Blair) of the British farce Run for Your Wife.
Still, debts and expenses eat up most of the $15,000-$20,000 that Paulsen earns each month, and his weeks on the road keep him away from the northern California winery where he moved with Jane and their three children back in 1970. It was a 500-acre ranch back then, and he had bought it, he says, because “I wanted the kids to grow up in a more wholesome atmosphere. Then I got to thinking that the ranch ought to be productive. So I got into growing grapes, not realizing that there was a heck of a lot more to it than meets the eye.”
While the children thrived (Monte, 28, is a viticulturalist at the vineyard; Justin, 26, is an aspiring musician; and daughter Terri, 31, manages her dad’s affairs), Paulsen’s efforts to make the ranch a profitable vineyard ultimately flopped. With his financial woes increasing, he had sold off all but 50-odd acres by 1985.
Paulsen and Jane, still friends and business partners, separated in the early 1980s, and he began seeing Linda Chaney, a social worker whom he met at a Denver comedy club. Four years later Chaney became his booking agent, and in 1988 she and Paulsen married. But a few days after the wedding, says Paulsen, he was approached by a staff member who informed him that Chaney had been diverting money into her own accounts with a double set of ledgers. One month later—40 days after their wedding—Paulsen filed for divorce, then launched a civil suit to get the money back.
Thanks to the testimony of Paulsen’s employee informant, Chaney was found liable for defrauding him of $189,000 and diverting another $44,000 to her personal use. “I don’t have the money to pay him, but if I were sitting here with $233,000 in my lap, I would go out and shred it rather than turn it over,” says Chaney, vowing to buck the judgment while pursuing her palimony suit with the help of lawyer Marvin Mitchelson.
Even so, Paulsen says he’s optimistic about his future. Last year he began a new—if long-distance—romance with Noma Littell, 47, a Florida zoning consultant. “We talk on the phone often,” he says. “She’s terrific.” Meanwhile he shuttles between a one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood and a rustic, three-bedroom rented house near Asti while seeking a buyer for the winery who will let him continue being a part of it.
There has even been some good luck. Last year Paulsen won $300,000 at a quarter slot machine while working a Ramada Inn in Reno. He got to keep $15,000 of it (the IRS slapped a lien on the remaining $285,000, which is doled out in installments over a 20-year period). Also a local radio station launched a fund-raising appeal in his behalf that brought in another $10,000. Its slogan: “Save Pat’s Asti.”
To save his own sanity, Paulsen says he’s hoping to retire from the road soon (“If I see one more hotel room with paintings of a matador and a seascape…”). Lately he has been trying to expand into acting roles on TV and in film, and if that fails, he says, he might even look for work at the Cherry County Playhouse in Traverse City, Mich. “I’m the producer,” he says of the operation, which he owns. “So if I want a part, I just sleep with myself.”
For the baggy-eyed comic, that may be the best plan of all—and the hardest to follow. Says Paulsen: “I once told Tommy Smothers, ‘If I could just get the money and the women straightened out, the rest of my life would be easy.’ Tommy looked at me, puzzled, for a moment, and then asked, ‘The rest of your life? After money and women, what else is there?’ ”
—Cynthia Sanz, Dan Knapp in Asti