In 1996 came The Phantom and in ’97 The Saint. Two characters with franchise potential.
Both. That’s right.
We did all right with The Phantom, which we did in Australia. It didn’t cost much. I had the unfortunate experience of having it open eight weeks before Mission Impossible and the only thing the studio was worried about was Mission Impossible. After that I did The Saint. Made a lot of money, The Saint. It did enough business to make it a franchise, but there was a lot of animosity between the leading man [Val Kilmer] and the studio. It wasn’t a great film, but it was good. Phillip Noyce is a good director. The Saint was a much bigger picture than The Phantom.
You also bought the rights to all the books about The Saint.
All. I was the only one who could get them.
So that had to be a big disappointment.
Huge. Then I had my stroke! [Laughs]
And that must have affected your work on The Out-of-Towners with Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and John Cleese.
I had very little to do with The Out-of-Towners. It wasn’t a bad film.
How much did you have to do with How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, with Goldie’s daughter Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey?
I had a lot to do with that. It made a lot of money. For what it was it was fine. Light fare. Nothing to brag about. Kate’s a nice girl. I liked her. I’m not sorry I made it.
In 2003 Comedy Central was looking for a satiric animated series about Hollywood. They came up with Kid Notorious, about you and your life. But after eight episodes, it was cancelled.
Yes, and they had good numbers. They spent more money advertising that than the money spent for advertising The Saint, how about that? That’s the one that killed me. The best reviews of any picture I had since Chinatown. It got four stars in the New York Post. [Shows me a box of related material—fold-out three- page full color ads in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. The “drop-dead funny new animated series on Comedy Central” comment in the New York Post.] The reaction to it was unbelievable. I loved the show.
Was it supposed to be like a South Park show for them?
That was one of the problems. I didn’t want it to be as vulgar. They said they would cancel the show unless I agreed to do something, but I refused to do it.
Weren’t you once going to do a film about Sidney Korschak, known as “the most powerful lawyer in the world,” who had ties with studio heads, presidents and top mob figures?
Yes. That’s a picture that Paramount wouldn’t make. I had Nick Pellegi writing the script. Another picture I wanted to make was Dorian Gray, only I wanted to make it about a woman, not a man. They stopped me from making it. Those things happen. The little G-men, who have their reasons why they don’t want to do it…none of them good. I no longer have the energy to do it. By that I mean, I can’t go and pitch something somewhere else after Paramount saw it and didn’t want it. I just say fuck it. I have to have my own controls; I can’t work for some of these people. I can’t sit with a lot of people in the room who want to give me money…but it’s hard money. I don’t feel like hearing what they want to do, because I know more than they do. When it gets to producing a film, I can’t produce a film like eating corn flakes. I can produce certain kinds of films as well as anybody. I wouldn’t know how to make Transformers. I wish I could, but I wouldn’t know how. But when it comes to human relationship stories, the simplicity of making a story where you can cry and laugh within two hours, that’s my simple goal. A tear and a laugh, to me that’s what a dramatist can do. But those stories can get fucked up by the marketing people. I don’t wish to put people or companies down that I’ve worked with, but the industry is not the same today. There are more producers on a picture now than there are actors. It’s a joke. It makes no sense. The word producer has lost its meaning.
Remember, fashion comes and goes; style lasts forever.
Can you define style?
Style you can’t buy. You can’t be educated with it. There are three sayings I have framed in my room. One is, “The flare of the unexpected is what memorable is all about.” When you look back at your life, the things you remember are those things that were unexpected. The second is, “Seduction: Creating an appetite and offering the potential for the fulfillment.” That’s the truest statement ever made. It’s a brilliant line. It’s not lying. If I had a sales organization of a thousand people I’d have this on their desks to read and memorize, because that’s what it’s all about: to create an appetite. Seduction comes into play every moment that you’re awake. The third is, “Try a thing three times. Once to get over the fear of doing it. Twice to learn how to do it. The third, to see if you like it or not.” That’s Virgil Thomson who said it at the age of 93.
It’s been said of you that you have so much style that all of young Hollywood wants to be you. When you hear that, what do you think?
You can’t emulate something…..see, people think I’ve led the most glamorous life. I was very wild when I was young. I’ve been with two, three women many times. But I’ve never been to an orgy; it hasn’t really been a wild life.
What would you give to go back in time and be young again?
There’s no price too high! Really not. I can’t say I’d do everything the same. I was too cocky, too cavalier. I was too honest.
Can one be too honest?
Yeah. I have. Maybe honest is the wrong word. I was naïve. I was a kid. I never thought about the dollar bill, though I always thought I’d do well.
Who have been some of your mentors?
Mike Todd. He wanted me to be a fighter. He saw me boxing at a gym and thought I could be another Pretty Boy Floyd. I boxed…but I got knocked out. Darryl Zanuck. Norman Shearer. She met me at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel and insisted I play her husband. She discovered me. She wanted me to do The Last Tycoon. David O. Selznick was going to produce it and after meeting me three or four times he said, ‘If he plays Irving Thalberg I’m not going to produce this movie.” Fifteen years later I ended up producing the movie at Paramount and Bobby De Niro played the part. He’s a little better actor than me. Tyrone Power. Charlie Bludhorn. Charlie Feldman. Sumner Redstone. Jimmy Cagney. Jimmy was playing Lon Chaney when I played Thalberg. I’d never gone to dailies, this was my first film. After ten days I walked over to Cagney and said, “I have to ask you something. Everyone seems to like what they see at the dailies, but you don’t seem to like it very much.” He said, “Let me tell you something, kid. How come there are so many beautiful brides and ugly wives?” I never forgot that. The dailies always look good until you put it together and then you want to commit suicide.
You had a screening room that was legendary in Hollywood. Jack Nicholson liked to screen movies there. You kept a great deal of movie memorabilia in that room. And then….it vanished in an instant. What happened to it and how did it effect you?
Brett Ratner, who lived with me while his house was being remodeled, gave me a Sony plasma TV and it exploded. It wasn’t even on. It was seven o’clock in the morning. The screening room was all gone in thirty seconds! It didn’t burn, it exploded. The heat was such that metal turned to liquid. Brett and I stood outside watching it. What I had in there was my history. I had original art, a Picasso. A thousand pictures…lost. It was the meeting place of everybody. It was the most painful loss, outside of human loss. I lost all my money one time, but that was nothing compared to this. More deals were made in that room than what I made at Paramount.
When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s house burned down, he lost his entire rare jazz collection and a large collection of kilim rugs. But he managed to be philosophical about it. It was just “things.” Were you able to come to that same conclusion?
No. Because there were parties given here, deals made here, decisions made here for the making of The Godfather and other films. I had it for thirty-some-odd years. I’m not speaking of materialistic things. It’s even more than memories.
A Cal State psychology professor named Stuart Fischoff said that you served a purpose beyond your utility as a producer at Paramount: “He is becoming the town’s institutional memory.” How does that sit with you?
I think it’s very true. As a producer…there’s no such thing any more. Producer is a boss. And I can’t bow to the G-men who read a synopsis and tell me whether something’s good or not. I do have a pretty good memory though, and I know what’s right and what’s wrong. I’ve turned down a lot of things because of it. Many things I’ve turned down have been a mistake from a monetary point of view.
I had The Da Vinci Code. I offered it to Paramount. They wouldn’t make it with me. They didn’t like it. I had a dozen different things like that. I wanted to do a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but they wouldn’t make it with me. I don’t know why they keep me at Paramount. I’ve made more money for them by mistake: I bought Simon and Schuster for $10 million; they sold 75% of it for $4 billion. My bonus for it was a trip to Miami…coach.
You’ve had regrets. Everyone has. What have you most regretted about your life?
My continued gullibility. When I look back on my life, I should be far more sophisticated to discern the real from the artificial. Maybe that’s my ego, that I didn’t know how to. But I’ve been disappointed by much more than I have been elated about. In the pendulum of giving and taking, my average has always been 80-20, it should be 50-50, or 60-40.
You feel you gave 80% to get back 20%?
Always. And women have been much nicer to me in my life than men. More helpful. There for me. I’ve been disappointed by men’s loyalty as compared to women’s.
But you’ve had some very good men in your life: Jack, Warren, Sumner, Alain Delon, Ted Kennedy, Henry Kissinger…
Yes, I have. But a lot of people knifed me terribly. Made stories up. Set me up. Jealous. You asked me, why do a lot of young people want to be me? There are a lot of people who would like to see me fall. Who would like to twist the knife. It’s painful.
Another quote from Professor Fischoff about you: “No one becomes a legend unless people need the legend and legendary figures to explain why what happened once isn’t happening anymore.”
That’s very, very true. We are in the media business today; I was in the film business. There’s a difference. It was entertainment then. Today we’re just puppets.