Walter Mercado was about puro amor, pure love. In all of the time the producers and directors of Netflix’s documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado spent with the world’s most famous astrologer, they never heard him utter a single negative word about anyone or anything. Not even about his former manager Bill Bakula, whom Mercado spent millions of dollars fighting in court for six years, after Bakula drafted a contract that gave himself rights to Mercado’s work, likeness, and name. In the film, the television personality explains he signed the contract with his lawyer’s blessing but without knowing its contents until it was too late. “He owns my life,” he says.
Mercado, who died last November at the age of 87, unceremoniously signed off the air in 2006, barred from using his name professionally while the dispute was resolved in the courts. To his fans, he just vanished. Many years later, Mercado regained the rights to his name and likeness. Though the two men stopped communicating, Mercado never expressed anger or hate toward Bakula, even then. The Internet, however, feels differently, judging by the social media reaction since Mucho Mucho Amor was released on July 8. Online, criticism of Bakula is as plentiful and creative as Mercado’s collection of capes. But the man who helped Mercado become the world’s foremost astrologer, broadcasting his readings around the world, and who subsequently altered the trajectory of his career, is proving to be as elusive as Neptune. A few internet sleuths have tried digging him up, but Bakula, who may have opened some social-media accounts in the last week, knows how stay out of the limelight.
He did participate in the Netflix documentary, though, stating that he “never regretted anything” in his life and explaining the contract dispute this way: “We paid [Mercado] to buy this business, not to rent it. He sold his name. He sold his brand. There was a disagreement in how they viewed things and the black letter of the contract. So, we went to court.”
Vulture called up director/producer Cristina Costantini, director/producer Kareem Tabsch, and producer Alex Fumero to learn how they found Bakula and persuaded him to participate in Mucho Mucho Amor. Their story with the man the Miami New Times once called a “long-haired concert promoter turned corporate direct-response marketing tycoon” begins in Thailand.
How did you track down Bill Bakula? How did you get him to talk?
Alex Fumero: Our documentary started from a place of “What happened to Walter?” It was that simple. We didn’t know. As we started digging in, there was very little coverage of this seemingly obscure federal court case. There were no cameras, so there was no chance for the kind of farandula, paparazzi type thing that happens. It was a civil suit over what appeared to be his name rights, which was very confusing. And the suit is coming from a series of companies that we don’t know what they are, like Bart Enterprises. Even companies that bear his own name suing him, like Waltervision. So, we started to dig in to figure out who was behind these companies and it pointed to this gentleman Guillermo Bakula.
The [Mercado] family, once we met them, had been hesitant to talk about [Bakula] because Walter was opposed to talking about anything negative. I started looking online and [Bakula] doesn’t have a very big footprint. He had no social media footprint. Now, there’s a couple of accounts that have popped up. I don’t know if it’s actually him or not. I first figured out who his ex-wife was, Jamie Shupe, and saw she had posted about his son Brent. So, I messaged Brent. I had a conversation with Brent on the phone. Then I messaged Bill on WhatsApp. I pitched him on the doc, and then I got a call out of the blue from a number I didn’t recognize. “Hi Alex, this is Bill Bakula.” The three of us had been doing our research on him at that point, so we knew the influence that Bill had in Walter’s life. We knew that the reason Walter was on Primer Impacto was because of Bill Bakula. We looked into his historically earlier show, which had been getting later and later time slots until it was unceremoniously canceled about two weeks before Bill enters the picture. So, in a sense, without Bill, there is no obsession for millennials with Walter. After that, it was a lot of Cristina, Kareem, and I getting texts multiple times a week, “Have you talked to Bill? When are we interviewing Bill?” And Bill was in Thailand running an agriculture business for the Thai government.
Fumero: The obvious next career step for an entertainment manager! [Laughs.] He was very proud to tell us that Walter had paid for this business where he was feeding the hungry. I don’t wanna butcher it, but I think it was some form of GMO-type rice to feed hungry people. He was cooperating with the Thai government and was living in Phuket.
We basically just talked about his building up Walter’s career. I told him, “I want to ask you the tough questions too, but we want to sit down with you.” His tone was like he was game. And then, we got down to where we had to get him to sign a release, and his attorney sent wild notes about the release. We were like, “No, that won’t work.” And then they came back with very simple notes. And that worked. We finally caught him on a stopover in Los Angeles. And then, the night before the shoot, he said, “Looking forward to seeing you, just no cameras.” And I said, “No, no. This is an interview for the documentary.” He said, “I just can’t do it on camera.” I had to explain to him that was the only way we wanted to talk to him and that it was in his interest to have his voice included.
Cristina Costantini: To his credit, we asked him a lot of questions and he answered every single one. He was forthcoming with how he felt about the situation. And we all felt the responsibility as filmmakers to present both sides of the story and let the audience decide how they feel about the events that transpired. I think Bill would say that his side of the story is accurately depicted in the film.
Fumero: He told us he would give us access to this archive of Walter’s stuff in Miami. I spent weeks trying to schedule a second interview with him at this storage facility, which never transpired. We were never able to pin it down.
Is he still in Thailand?
Fumero: I don’t know, to be honest.
Costantini: I don’t believe he is. You never know what’s real or what’s not on the Internet, but he might have a PPE company that has mailing addresses in Miami.
Where did you meet him in Los Angeles?
Fumero: At an Airbnb studio that we rented.
Costantini: It was three or four hours.
Did Walter know that you were meeting with him?
Costantini: We asked him about it non-stop, so I don’t think it came as a surprise to him or his family that we wanted to track down Bill.
Since Walter was so guarded about his life and image, did he try to discourage you?
Kareem Tabsch: Walter never had something negative to say about anyone or anything. Neither one of them had anything negative to say about the other. They retained a great deal of respect and affection for one another. Bill does have some unpleasant things to say about the family, as you see in the film. But Walter would only say wonderful things about Bill. They would put aside the complications of the legal battle aside when they talked about one another.
Walter’s family talked about Bill breaking Walter’s heart. Did Walter speak about that?
Costantini: He does say in the film that it was a very difficult time, but he didn’t love dwelling on that stuff. He would avoid talking about the bad times at all costs. We would have to say, “Come on, Walter, tell us what happened and we’ll move on from that topic.” But he really did have an immense amount of affection for Bill. I think that’s confusing to a lot of people. A lot of people want Walter to hate Bill. And I don’t think he did. I think he was really frustrated by the way things happened and hurt by the way it worked out. But in some ways, it’s like once you’ve been in a long-term relationship with somebody, you still have a great amount of admiration for them, even if things went bad. They were like, We made something great together. When times were great, they were amazing. And then they got a really ugly divorce.
Were you surprised that they didn’t criticize each other?
Costantini: Absolutely. [Laughs.] I was like, “Walter must have so much rage. Walter must have so much anger about what happened.” And it was mostly sadness he had for those times.
Fumero: The family was very upset. I think that’s what finally got through to Walter. Just us saying, “We know you have a very strong, spiritual practice, but your family says they suffered a lot. And they still seem to suffer because of what you went through.” That connected with him. This is where the real tension is. You hear Bill say, “The family ruined a good thing.” And the family go, “Bill took advantage of Walter.”
Costantini: Personally, would I do that? If I was in that situation, would I act as Bill acted? Probably not. But we tried our best to present both sides. Looking at Twitter, I’m actually shocked by how mad some people are at Bill. In his view, he was giving a person a contract who had a lawyer. I think it’s debatable about how much he knew that Walter wouldn’t have that lawyer read it. I’m also upset with the lawyer, honestly. That’s the person that was supposed to protect Walter.
Fumero: We were unable to reach the original attorney. Then there’s Walter’s attempt to renegotiate and [Bill’s] reluctance to renegotiate in good faith. That’s the part that, for me, doesn’t make sense. He could have just torn it up and put a new one together and they both make money for the next 10 to 15 years. It struck me as odd. It’s not logical. I would want to renegotiate if it was going to lead to legal battles.
Legal battles with representatives all over the world. That cost so much.
Fumero: We were told millions.
That brings up one of the things I would like you to clear up. Bill Bakula said in the film that he just wanted $1 from Walter in court, that he was fighting for the principle, not the money. But the paperwork shown on camera says the demand was for almost $15 million. What’s the truth?
Tabsch: That’s a little complicated. If I recollect, the $15 million was the actual damages that they were seeking. When the judgment rules that Walter had interfered [with the contract] but no damages were incurred, Bill’s attorney came back with, “Well, you should award us at least $1 as a sign that we were in the right.” That is a significant stretch from “We’re only seeking a dollar in damages.”
What was Bill like in the downtimes during the interview, when he wasn’t on camera?
Costantini: Super cordial. A nice guy. In order to thrive in this industry, you gotta have a good personality.
Fumero: Bill is involved in politics, so he had the affect of someone who understood that whole thing of being unflustered and keeping a positive demeanor.
Do you think he felt a genuine friendship with Walter? Or was he manipulating Walter the entire time they worked together?
Tabsch: I think there’s a significant admiration for Walter in Bill. I recall him saying that to us that Walter was singular. He had never encountered somebody like Walter. As he says in the film, he was endlessly watchable. I think he admired Walter’s skills and Walter’s talents a great deal. And I do think that there was genuine affection between the two of them. In the film, Walter says as much that Bill was a huge figure. He was the best. He was the master. He said he helped make him the most well-known psychic in the world.
Constantini: They spent years together on the road, traveling all over together. [Bill] would set up events and conventions and talks all over the world. I think [Walter] was very grateful to Bill for that. They grew close during those times that they spent on the road together.
Do you know if they had any contact after the court cases ended?
Constantini: Bill said that he tried to reach out to Walter after Walter’s heart attack, but the family wouldn’t let him talk to him.
Fumero: When we told Bill that Walter had a heart attack, Bill’s gut response was, “I don’t think it was a heart attack.” And we said, “We’re certain it was a heart attack.” And he’s like, ” You might want to check that.” And we said like, “No, no, Bill. We’re sure.”
What did he think happened?
Fumero: If you look back at the news, the family attempted to downplay what had happened to Walter and how serious it had been. So, it’s conceivable that he didn’t know the details of it.
Did Walter talk about wanting to be in contact with Bill?
Constantini: No. Nor did we ask him.
Did Walter see the movie?
Tabsch: Walter saw about the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film.
What did he say?
Constantini: He loved it. We were still editing. We were with him about five weeks before he passed away. We showed him the part that covers his early childhood, his rise to fame, and his first show. It was all of this footage that he hadn’t seen in a very long time. He was in shock. He said, “I didn’t like it — I’m obsessed with it.” [Laughs.]
Have you heard from Bill since the movie came out?
Constantini: We think he’s seen it. Or parts of it.
Fumero: I’ve gotten a few messages from him. He likes to send emojis. So, I’ve gotten messages that are, like, a photo of the film in Brazil that someone must have sent him from their TV set. And then that strong arm flex emoji. There was a full-page spread in the Miami Herald, and he took a picture of it and sent it with another one of those emojis — a heart or something.
I wouldn’t have pegged him for an emoji guy.
Fumero: He loves emojis. I don’t know if he’s actually watched the whole thing, but he’s acting as though he has. I don’t really know what to think of it. But from my point of view, we just told the truth. He sat down and answered all the questions. He then told us he would love to show us his storage facility with all the Walter stuff. I chased him for months about that and it was always like, “Are you in Miami?” And he’d be like, “I was there yesterday.” I don’t know if he was busy or he actually didn’t really want to show us.
Now I want to see that storage facility.
Tabsch: Oh, I know. Bill’s incredibly proud of what he did with Walter, all the success that they were able to achieve, all the heights. He realizes that’s part of his own legacy. And he boasts about that. And I think that that was part of why he wanted to show us the storage facility. We tried to figure it out a million times and it just never came to pass.
Constantini: We all wanted to see that storage facility.
Fumero: The Walter chair is in there. I really wanted to see that.