The grand, gossipy producer of some of Hollywood’s most famous films is releasing his 37th movie, and it’s shaping up to be the biggest hit of his career. LA’s Original Gay Gangster opens up about his semi-scandalous life in pictures and the secrets of his success.
Ifirst stumbled upon Howard Rosenman just as he was becoming a Hollywood legend. Back in the ’80s, when I was a yeshiva boy in Far Rockaway, Long Island, my grandmother took me to pay a visit to Howard’s mother, who lived a few blocks away. Mrs. Rosenman was a family friend whose home was a shrine to her kids. Her foyer was dominated by a huge picture of a handsome guy with plush, ’70s hair and aviators–the photograph reprinted below. The same fellow popped up in countless other photos that Mrs. Rosenman had arrayed on a side table in her living room: Here he was slightly older, shirtless and grinning, sporting a tight pair of Speedos on a pristine Greek beach. Here he was in a tuxedo and red bowtie, looking hammered and holding up some award. Hanging over the television was a photograph of Howard at his bar mitzvah, wearing an oversized white yarmulke and an ill-fitting beige suit.
Howard was a couple of decades older than me. He went to the same high school and summer camp as my mom, but he was nothing like the other men of her acquaintance. As a 13-year-old grappling with my own sexuality, I sensed a weird kinship with him, though I couldn’t say why. Picking up on my interest, Mrs. Rosenman led me on a photographic tour of her son’s exotic adult life. “That’s Howie with David Geffen!” she said. “This is him with the Oscar—my son the Hollywood macher!” she said proudly. “I wish he came home more often.” I left her house excited by my brief brush with celebrity. But my grandmother quickly brought me down to earth. “That Howard is a very lovely guy,” she said. “But it’s a damn shame that he’s queer.”
When I finally met Howard in person at a party many years later, I was working as an editor at New York magazine, and queer myself. When I told him I knew his mother, he wrapped me in a bear-like embrace. By then, Rosenman was a prolific Hollywood producer and Page Six staple with an impressive string of hits under his belt, from the pop culture trifle Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the blockbuster Father of the Bride to the documentary The Celluloid Closet. We’ve been friends ever since.
Here’s what you’ll learn about Howard if you hang out with him long enough. He pals around with Bruce Weber and Diane von Furstenberg and Jared Kushner’s father, Charles. He’s an original card-carrying member of Hollywood’s velvet mafia (though he indignantly denies it exists). He’s dated the widow of the Shah of Iran and slept with some of the most famous guys of the 20th century, including two of America’s preeminent composers. He won an Oscar for his seminal documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. He served in the Israeli army. He was going to be a doctor. He ran Michael Jackson’s film company and played himself in Gus Van Sant’s biopic about Harvey Milk.
At 72, after a fast-paced, technicolor life, he could be lounging in Palm Springs screening his old movies, but Howard is more restless and ravenous than ever. He’s got a hundred projects in the works. His latest, Call Me By Your Name, is a tender coming of age story, starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, that’s earned rapturous reviews from critics and fans. Based on a book by André Aciman and co-written by James Ivory, it’s already an Oscar frontrunner. We met last month in West Hollywood to discuss the new movie, Hollywood’s gay mafia, Katherine Hepburn, his prolific dating life and his surreal and slightly scandalous life in pictures.
MR: I don’t think I’ve ever seen you as excited about a movie as you are about this one. What do you like so much about it?
HR: It’s about a love that happens but then doesn’t, and it’s very triste—very sad— but brilliantly written and poetic. The story takes place in Italy in the summer of 1983, and it features this father that every gay boy wishes he could have had—the kind of dad who when he discovers his son’s romance with another man, tells him to treasure it because it’s the only time he’s ever going to have a first love, something he wishes he’d done when he had the chance.
The movie is based on a groundbreaking book by Andre Aciman. When I first read it ten years ago, I said, “Holy shit, this is the book of our generation!” It’s the kind of gay book that comes around just once in a long while. It’s the new incarnation of The Front Runner, City of Night, Running with Scissors, or Maurice.
Did you know right away that you wanted to make it into a movie?
Immediately! Years earlier I had read Aciman’s first book Out of Egypt, about his Sephardic Jewish roots in Alexandria. I just loved it! So about ten years ago, when I was acting on the set of Milk, I got a call from a good friend of mine. He said, “I just read Andre Aciman’s new novel and I remembered that you love Out of Egypt. This one has your name written all over it.” I read it that night. A novel about Jews who have gay experiences, what could be closer to my heart? The very next day I got a call from Peter Spears who was my producing partner on HBO’s John From Cincinnati. He says, “I just read this manuscript that you must read ASAP!” Of course, it was Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. Peter and I became producing partners on the movie. He did a Herculean job to get it made.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. When I called up Aciman’s agent, she was in the midst of negotiating with someone else who was trying to buy the rights. But I know her very well and I said, “Really, I’ve got to have this book!” And she gave it to us. Adapting it into a movie was more difficult. We went to Luca Guadagnino’s Italian production company—he did A Bigger Splash and I Am Love—but we got off to a rocky start. We went through three or four directors before the whole thing came together. We introduced James Ivory to Luca, a longtime fan, and they decided to co-write and co-direct the movie.
James Ivory? Wow. He must be 100.
He’s 89! James ended up not being able to direct it, but luckily Luca had a few free months before he was supposed to start directing a remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, so he took over the helm. He got Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet to star in the film, both of whom are brilliant. Timothée got the lead in Woody Allen’s new movie. He’s on the cover of Interview. Armie Hammer is, well, Armie Hammer. They’re big, breakout parts for both of them. They’ll do incredibly well.
The movie is already getting all kinds of Oscar buzz.
Moonlight won best picture last year. Do you think the Academy will award Best Picture to another gay film?
I have no idea. Hopefully, the Academy will judge it on its merits. We’re up against a tough slate of films: Dunkirk; Spielberg’s new movie, The Post; The Big Sick. But I think our film might be nominated. I hope we’ll win. Even when we were filming, I knew this would be a special movie, though I never expected it to become such a phenomenon. When Luca finally sent me a two-hour cut, I watched it on a Saturday morning and dissolved into tears by noon. He’s a genius, and I don’t use the term loosely. He knows how to brilliantly evoke the sensuality and eroticism of time and place.
Is Luca gay?
He is. He’s married to Luchino Visconti’s niece’s son, Ferdie, also a director. Luca gets you into the physical space and strange sexual mind-sets of both of the leading characters. Armie’s character is straight, and they’re both having affairs with women all summer long. It’s very gender-fluid, and it hits the nail on the head about sexuality of young people today, even though it takes place in 1983.
How did Timothée and Armie get into their roles?
Timothée really got into his role. They spent a lot of time together beforehand, getting to know each other—not in any carnal way, but enough that they both felt comfortable exploring each other’s sexuality onscreen. They were both incredibly open.
You found them to be believable homosexuals?
Very much so, though you can’t really tell who’s gay and who’s straight these days.
This is your 37th movie. Is it the one you’re proudest of?
Well, there are some documentaries I’m very proud of. Common Threads, my movie about the AIDS quilt, won both an Oscar and a Peabody. The Celluloid Closet was nominated for an Oscar and won a second Peabody. I did a documentary about rape called Brave Miss World—about a former Miss Israel who gets raped and goes after her rapist—that was also important to me. I’m also proud of Father of the Bride and Family Man, though they were much more commercial, of course. But they paid the bills.
How did a nice Jewish boy from Long Island end up becoming a Hollywood producer?
Well, it was not a very direct route! I had to survive a Mideast war and Leonard Bernstein! Long story. My parents are both seventh-generation Israelis. Even after they moved to America, we went back and forth between continents. When the 1967 war broke out, I was in med school. My cousin Aryeh—the one who dated your mother—said to me, “If war breaks out, we’re going to go, right?” I said, “Absolutely.”
How old were you at the time?
I was just 20. On the evening of June 4, 1967, Aryeh shows up and we take a cab straight to the airport. We got on a jet and landed in Israel the next day.
You hopped off a plane and they made you a soldier?
No. A cousin of mine introduced me to an army commander who gave me a very quick internship. Basically, he taught me how to use a bayonet. I was a med student, and what they really needed in Israel were medics. During the war, I did triage and amputations in a Gaza Strip field hospital. After it ended, I got transferred to the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
Which is where you met Leonard Bernstein, right?
Yes, I met Leonard Bernstein, who was in town to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony on the newly reconquered Mount Scopus. He came to the hospital one day to visit all the volunteers. He took one look at me and says, “Oh, my God—you look exactly like a young man who waited on me at a discotheque in New York!” I had been obsessed with Leonard Bernstein since I was a kid—I loved him! Shaking, I managed to say in Hebrew, “Maestro, I was your waiter. The discotheque was called Arthur.” He kissed me on the lips and gave me four tickets to his concert. And so began our relationship.
Was Bernstein’s wife there?
No, Felicia was in Italy at the time. At the party after the symphony, Lenny asked me to be a gopher on a documentary about him conducting the Israeli Philharmonic for the IDF in the war zone. Isaac Stern was playing the violin! At the time, that war zone was strictly off-limits to most people, but I really wanted to see Bethlehem and Jericho, so I accepted. In a way, Bernstein is responsible for my career. One night, we were in his tent and he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “You’re too much of a great storyteller. Leave medical school and go into the arts. You’ll never bow to the mistress of science.” Later, he took me on vacation with his wife and three children to Italy.
That must have been awkward.
No, because Leonard always traveled with an entourage, and his wife was very open. He and Felicia treated me brilliantly.
So you went from being a bayonet-wielding medic to Leonard Bernstein’s gopher. Is that how you got into filmmaking?
Kind of. After the war, I went back to med school, but I kept hearing Lenny’s voice bouncing in my ear: “You’ll never bow to the mistress of science.” So I took a leave of absence. I called Lenny one day and said, “Hey, I took your advice. I’m back in New York now!” And he said, “Well, as you know, I’m still married with three kids, but I’ll introduce you to two of my best friends.” One of them was Katharine Hepburn, who was doing Coco, a musical about Coco Chanel. Alan Jay Lerner of My Fair Lady fame had written the book and lyrics, and André Previn composed the music. I became Miss Hepburn’s assistant. That was my entrée into New York.
Wow. What was that job interview like?
She summoned me to her house on 49th Street between Second and Third, and the first thing she said was, “Are you punctual?” I said, “Oh, I am so very punctual, Miss Hepburn!” She also loved that I was in med school, because her father was a doctor. She hired me on the spot.
Katharine Hepburn sounds like she’d be a scary boss.
In some ways. She was a stickler for punctuality and preciseness. You couldn’t exaggerate about anything. But she could also be really warm to me. One day, I got very sick during a huge snowstorm and I couldn’t reach her to say I couldn’t come in. So I’m feverishly lying in bed in my postage-stamp-sized apartment on 64th Street between Park and Madison—on the fifth floor with no elevator—sure that I’d be fired, and all of a sudden I hear a knock at the door and this bellowing voice: “It’s me, Howard! Miss Hepburn! Open up!” After making it through five feet of snow, she trudged up five flights of stairs, ran into my kitchen, and proceeded to fling open every single cupboard door. “Where’s the tureen, Howard? I have to make you some chicken soup.” Of course, I didn’t have a tureen—I didn’t even know what a fucking tureen was—so she runs back into the storm to Kaplan’s Deli on 59th Street, six blocks away, and comes back with quarts of chicken soup with matzo balls, which she served to me on my gross-anatomy med school book. That’s what Katharine Hepburn was like.
Was she a lesbian?
I don’t know. As Tallulah Bankhead replied when asked if Tennessee Williams was gay, she said, “I don’t know, darling, he’s never sucked my cock.”
Leonard Bernstein also set you up with Stephen Sondheim, didn’t he?
He did. Stephen was the most fantastic person—so generous and open. He and Lenny were two of the greatest geniuses I have ever met.
What was your relationship with Sondheim like?
Well, after we first met we talked all night long, three nights a week, for over two years. We just drank and talked, smoked and talked and drank. I knew about a lot of things he was fascinated by, that he didn’t know about—like Israel. I think he found me kind of exotic.
He must have been much older than you.
I was 22 when we met, and he was maybe 49. He’s 87 now. He was my most important mentor, I think.
Was it a romantic relationship?
I don’t want to talk about that.
No. But I will share a funny story with you about Armistead Maupin, who I understand is also in this issue. After Armistead became famous in the mid-’70s, I was desperate to get a meeting with him. I thought he might be good to write a movie. But he got famous and suddenly he became very hard to get. It took a lot of finagling, but we finally got a business lunch on the books. Well, the night before our lunch date, I went to this sex club on Fairfax and Melrose called Basic Plumbing, and met this great guy. We played together all night, we said our goodbyes, then I went home alone. I show up to the lunch the next day and guess what? It’s Armistead!
That’s insane! So what was that encounter like?
Hot. Incredible. Fun!
Not the sex club, Howard. What was it like when you saw him at lunch?
Oh, we were both just stunned! And of course we laughed all the way through the lunch at Ma Maison!
But it wasn’t a love match, I guess.
We really liked each other, but he had a boyfriend.
Have you ever slept with anyone who wasn’t famous?
Look, I had a nose for genius. It was the only thing I was interested in. I’m turned on by smart, talented people. Twinks have never done it for me.
Was Stephen Sondheim married when you met him?
Stephen wasn’t married, but he had dated the actress Lee Remick, if I’m not mistaken. He was madly in love with her. And Lenny was madly in love with Felicia, but he also liked guys. And, as you know, I fell madly in love with Kitty Hawks, who was the gorgeous daughter of the director Howard Hawks. I never expected in a million years to fall in love with a girl, but when you’re young and your hormones are raging, you fall in love with whoever you fall in love with. The gay relationships just weren’t discussed back then—not by me, anyway.
How did end it with Kitty Hawks?
Eventually I realized, well, I’m gay. It wasn’t fair to her. But we stayed best friends. I spend Thanksgivings and Christmases with her and her husband, Larry Lederman. Before Larry, I introduced Kitty to my close friend Ned Tanen and they got married.
Your path to Hollywood also involved the director Joel Schumacher, didn’t it? When did you first cross paths with him?
During the Stone Age! I met Joel a few weeks after I moved to New York. He was a window decorator at the time. I was warned to keep away from him because he was dangerous.
A dangerous window decorator?
He wasn’t just a window decorator; previously, he had been the head of Revlon’s entire visual department. But then he started getting into trouble.
What kind of trouble?
Well, he’s spoken about it publicly: drugs. Schumacher was making $150,000 a year in 1965. He was a part of the New York jeunesse dorée. He designed Betsey Johnson’s first line, and then Halston’s first line. He was a brilliantly talented guy. We hated each other when we first met, but a mutual friend reintroduced us a year later and said, “The two of you should know each other because you both want to go out to Hollywood.” We ended up falling in love, creatively. We both adored the Supremes and Motown and R&B, and we combined all three to come up with our first movie, Sparkle. It was about three black girls in Harlem in the 1950s who form a girl group.
This was before Dreamgirls?
Oh, my God, way before! Dreamgirls ripped us off! I sold that idea to Peter Brown, who was running Robert Stigwood’s production company at the time. Stigwood is the guy who produced Grease, Tommy, Evita, and Saturday Night Fever. I met Peter Brown’s former boyfriend, a clothing designer named Tommy Nutter, at a discotheque one night, and I went home with him. When we woke up the next morning, Peter joined us for breakfast. This was another era, obviously! So Tommy Nutter tells me, “Howard! Tell Peter about that movie idea you told me last night.” I was so drunk, I didn’t even remember. But eventually I told Peter the story that became Sparkle, and he hired me and Joel to develop the idea. He paid us $5,000. Curtis Mayfield ended up writing the music, and Sam O’Steen directed the movie. But before that, I came out to Hollywood to make a television movie for Barry Diller, who I’d run into socially in New York. Barry had just been appointed to head up the Movie of the Week at ABC, which he created, and he hired me to do some movies for him.
So making TV movies for Diller was your first Hollywood job?
Right. I did five TV movies for Barry, and then I set out to make Sparkle. Oh, I also made a movie with Gloria Swanson called Killer Bees!
Dear God! How old was Gloria Swanson at the time?
Very, very ancient! After she appeared in my movie, she scored a big part in Airport, but unfortunately she passed soon after. I went on to make Joel Schumacher’s first movie, Virginia Hill, about Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend. It starred Harvey Keitel and Dyan Cannon. I produced [Grease director] Randal Kleiser’s first movie, as well as John Badham’s. He went on to direct War Games, Dracula, and Saturday Night Fever.
What does a producer actually do?
There are lot of definitions, but generally the producer is the first one in and the last one out. I’m a more creative kind of producer, so I come up with an idea for a movie, I find a writer, I go to a studio or production company or private equity to get money to develop my idea into a treatment and then a screenplay. Finally, I hire a director, help with casting, and we make the film. I’m not just a money guy; I’m a cheerleader and a psychologist. You have to deal with a lot of crazy people in my line of work.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a producer?
When I was nine, my mom took me to see Gone with the Wind. Afterwards, I asked her, “Who made that movie?” “Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh,” my mother said. But I wanted to know who hired Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. My mother trudged to the Far Rockaway library on Mott Avenue and came back with Memo by David Selznick, about the making of Gone with the Wind. That’s when I knew.
I imagine Hollywood must have been a bit of a culture shock for a boy from Far Rockaway.
Oh, it was a tremendous culture shock, as you know. My first home in L.A. was the El Palacio Apartments on La Cienega and Fountain. Joel Schumacher inhabited one wing of the apartment complex and I inhabited the other.
Schumacher moved to L.A. with you?
He moved here right before I did. At the time, in the early ’70s, I was working in advertising. Joel did costumes for my commercials. Eventually, Woody Allen hired him to do the costumes for Sleeper. His career quickly took off as a costume designer, but I was the first person to hire Joel as a director.
Hollywood can be a lonely place, but you seem to have a gift for making friends.
Oh yes! I’ve been very lucky that way. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Edward Albee. I’ve been blessed. A week after I left medical school, I had brunch with Barry Diller, David Geffen, and Sandy Gallin at P. J. Clarke’s in New York.
How did you get a seat at that particular brunch?
Well, Tennessee Williams’s agent had introduced me to Barry Diller at a party for medical students. It was right after he started at ABC.
I didn’t know Barry was a med student. What did you think of him?
Barry was not a medical student, but one of his friends went to medical school. Well, it was clear that he was a genius. I knew immediately that he was going to become Barry Diller. I had the same feeling about David Geffen. They are the smartest people who have ever existed in show business. Once-in-a-generation brilliant geniuses. And they both started out in the mailroom of William Morris.
Why do you think that gay Jews do so well in the entertainment business?
It’s because when you’re gay you get rejected a lot. That goes double if you’re gay and Jewish. You have to become very smart and develop a very tough skin. Both of those traits will serve you very well in Hollywood.
Did you experience much discrimination in Hollywood because you were gay?
On the contrary—I’ve actually found it to be quite helpful sometimes.
In what way?
Like most other tribes, gay people look out for each other. All through my career, gay people have recommended me for jobs and introduced me to people. They’ve given me advice and have become my mentors. David was very generous to me. Barry was very generous. Sandy, too. I’ve been very lucky.
The velvet mafia at work.
Oh no! There’s no such thing as a velvet mafia.
Really? It was a group of gay people who helped each other out, right?
Right, but it’s not correct to describe it as a “mafia.” They were just guys who were smart and generous and helped out their fellows. It had no nefarious or dark connotations—none of the negative stuff that the term has taken on.
Earlier in your career you tended to do pretty mainstream, blockbuster movies. What made you interested in gay films?
I think AIDS had a lot to do with it. Sometime around 1981, all my friends began to die one by one. I was scared and I knew I was in trouble.
What kind of trouble?
It all started shortly after I made The Main Event with Barbra Streisand…
Say no more!
[Laughs] Well, that movie made a ton of money. Barbra Streisand is the gift that keeps on giving! After the fact, Barbra Streisand tried to change the terms of our deal, but I was able to turn the tables on them. I doubled my deal, in fact!
Did your friendship survive the experience?
No! I’ll just say this: I was obsessed with Barbra Streisand. I came to Hollywood specifically so I could make a movie with Barbara. And then just let’s say this: I am no longer obsessed with Barbra Streisand! But things got scary and dark and all my friends were dying. And then one day my doctor informed me that I probably had AIDS, because I had a lesion. So I prepared to die.
How old were you at the time?
It was 1982, so I was 37. I was not in great shape. I was coming off the ’70s, Regine’s, Studio 54. Lots of drugs and sex and craziness, getting into a lot of trouble. I was burying all my friends, and I kept getting sick with the same symptoms of AIDS—sweating, diarrhea, fainting.
No wonder you were scared.
I was scared out of my mind. I never told my parents that I was sick, but my sister knew, and she lived in Tel Aviv. So I went to a doctor in Israel and he said, “Obviously, you have a very nonvirulent strain of this virus”—because I never got ill. But in preparation for the worst, I gave up everything: the house in Hollywood, the drugs and alcohol, the sex. I got sober and went to Israel to be with my sister and die. But I didn’t die and I didn’t get sick. Later my doctor and I realized I was just lactose intolerant.
Lactose intolerant? When did you realize you didn’t have AIDS?
In 1986, they finally came out with an AIDS test, and my friend Dr. Arnie Klein…
Michael Jackson’s dermatologist?
The very one. Arnie took me to take my first AIDS test, and to my surprise I was negative.
How did your life change when you thought you were going to die?
It fucked me up for a long time.
How? Did you start drinking again?
No, I never drank or took a drug again. But facing death caused me to radically rethink my priorities. I initially came to Hollywood to get invited to the right parties and restaurants—and to make movies with Barbra Streisand. But now that I had a second chance, I realized that the most important thing was the work itself. So I recommitted myself to my career. And I started giving back. Out of that period came Common Threads, Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175, Brave Miss World—movies that had a purpose. I started a nonprofit with Marianne Williamson called Project Angel Food, a Meals On Wheels–type program for AIDS patients. Two months ago, we served our eleven-millionth meal.
Was it hard to jump-start your career when you moved back to L.A.?
It was very difficult, because I still had this awful party-boy reputation to live down. And I was in my forties by then. Everyone counted me out. I knew I had to find a good script, so I came up with this idea of a boy who is put into an institution against his will. The only way he can get out is by killing the head of the institution. That became the plot of my movie, Lost Angels. The Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz played the boy. Donald Sutherland starred as the head of the hospital. I convinced Hugh Hudson, who directed Chariots of Fire, to make the film. Then David Geffen rallied behind me and I was back!
Geffen wasn’t going to help you until you proved yourself.
Exactly. But once I did, he reintroduced me to Sandy Gallin and I became the head of Sandy’s film company, Sandollar, which is where I ended up making Father of the Bride.
How did that film come about?
Cindy Williams—Shirley, of Laverne & Shirley—was a friend of mine. At the time Carol Baum and I were running Sandollar, Sandy Gallin’s and Dolly Parton’s company. Cindy had a meeting with Carol and she pitched the idea for a remake of Father of The Bride. Carol knew that I was obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor, who starred as the bride in the Spencer Tracy original. Carol ran into my office one day saying we had to remake the film for Jack Nicholson. So I reached out to Ted Turner, who owned the rights, and tried to option it. I was told, “Ted needs a check for $150,000 on Friday!” Well, I didn’t have near that money at the time. But one Friday, I wrote Turner a check for $150,000—knowing full well I had minus-eight dollars in my bank account—and sent it over to him, confident that he’d have to wait through the weekend before cashing it. Then I called up Disney’s head of production, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was a good friend, in a panic and said, “Oh, my God, Jeff—you’ll never believe the stupid thing I just did!” But everything turned out okay. Jeffrey says, “You own the rights to Father of the Bride? That’s a brand! You’ve got a big pair of balls. Mazel tov. I love that movie! I’m going to give you the money.”
That movie was culture touchstone— especially the gay wedding planner, Franck, who was played by Martin Short. Some people found that character a bit homophobic. Did you?
Not at all. I loved him, actually. All the writers wanted to cut him, but I knew he was commercial gold. In fact, I had to trade Diane Keaton to keep him in.
Well, all the writers wanted Diane to play the mom, but she was box-office poison at the time; she was coming off a long string of bombs. So I told them, “If you keep Franck in the script, I’ll convince Jeffrey Katzenberg to go with Diane Keaton.” And that was our deal.
When you worked there, Sandollar was managing a constellation of big stars, from Dolly Parton to Michael Jackson.
Yes. Also Streisand, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Neil Diamond, and the Pointer Sisters. The list went on and on. I was the head of his film company, Nation Films. Michael was a genius— very entitled and completely out of his mind. Very creepy.
Did you like Dolly? She seems like a big drag queen.
Oh, not at all. I love Dolly Parton. She’s so smart and funny.
You seem to get along with everybody—even Mike Ovitz, who was the most hated man in Hollywood.
Mike was always nice to me, in part for financial reasons. When I was at Sandollar, I oversaw an incredible pool of talent. Our clients took in hundreds of millions every year. Since managers can’t legally make deals for their clients, we had to refer their deals to agents. I usually referred everyone to CAA. Essentially, we were writing a $30 million check every year to Mike Ovitz. So he was on his best behavior with me.
The word on Ovitz was that he was kind of a homophobe, though. Not a very nice guy.
That was the word. But I was not among his haters. We actually had a pretty cordial relationship. He even convinced Dustin Hoffman to do the narration for Common Threads. I think Ovitz tried to court me because I was very close to Geffen and Diller and Sandy at the time, and he knew they didn’t like him. He thought I would help him gain their trust.
How did that work out?
Not very well. They all continued to hate Ovitz. And David destroyed him in the end.
Is Geffen as vindictive as he seems?
Not to me he wasn’t.
You guys were all close at one point, and then there was a story on Geffen in the New York Times in which you were quoted as saying that if you got on Geffen’s bad side, you should kill yourself. Reportedly, he went ballistic and ended your friendship, which ironically proved your point.
Oh, that is so long ago now. I said things in that Times article that I shouldn’t have said. I should have been more discreet. David got angry with me.
Was that the end of your friendship?
No, we’re still friends. Not as close as we once were, but we’re still friends.
There’s a certain Mean Girls quality to Hollywood relationships that doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in other industries. Did your schism with Geffen affect your career?
It affected my career to some extent, but happily I was able to rebuild it. I don’t fold that easily. And that whole situation was more complex than people presume. After I left Sandollar, I went to Brillstein-Grey. That’s what really damaged my friendship with those guys.
What advice do you have for people coming into the business now?
You know, as corny as it sounds, I think the best advice is to do what people did when I was starting: Get a job in a mailroom. Stay as long as it takes to prove yourself and get on a desk. You’ll learn all about the mechanics of the business. If you’re any good, someone will notice.
If you had to choose one characteristic that got you to where you are today, what would it be?
I’d have to say persistence…tenacity. It’s not rocket science. You’ve got to take the hits and keep getting up. And believe in your vision. That’s not only true in movies—it’s also true in life.