December 30, 2002
He could have been smalltown famous from dating a future Miss America. Now hes hardly famous at all, but in a big-time way. Its a rags-to-riches story or, rather, a wood to Wood story. And if none of this makes sense, its because you havent yet seen the third act. The story opens in Los Angeles, a town that breathes in ocean breaths, exhaling an arid scent of nectar that drifts down the Hollywood Hills and rolls into a strange and manufactured place called Universal City.
Its a place where movies are made, and at just this minute Larry Gordon (B 58) is in preproduction to make two of them. But there are distractions. The life of a Hollywood film producer is a multiplex of marvels and mishaps--all being screened at the same time.
Lawrence Gordon Productions is housed in a cozy bungalow nestled in a corner of the sprawling studio lot. In its small reception area, Andrew Waller, a kid in his final year of film school at the University of Southern California, nervously waits with moviemaking on his mind and enough adrenaline pumping to power the fight scenes in Rocky.
This is a Big Moment by any standard in his young life. Through a connection of his parents, hes been given 15 minutes with Larry Gordon. Ostensibly, Wallers here to see if Gordon can help him with some technical aspects of a film-school project. Just as likely, though, Waller wants simply to shake hands with the Midas touch, to make himself known to The Man. In Hollywood, its who you know, and Larry Gordon is a very, very good person to know. You can bet Waller has done his homework.
He knows the titles of most of the 40-something films Gordon has produced and has seen a bunch: Field of Dreams, 48 Hrs., Die Hard, Predator, Waterworld, K-Pax, Boogie Nights, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Waller has done other homework as well. Wheres a picture of that daughter my mom keeps talking about? he says as he approaches the producers desk. Among Gordons most recent works of art is a 20- month-old redhead named Blaise, co-produced with his wife, Deirdre.
So what can I do for you? replies Gordon, friendly but focused. If he allowed it, he could spend a really big chunk of every day chatting with eager young filmmakers. Well, begins Waller, I got this thesis film. Its a great film and a great cast. Its got a Learjet, low riders and a Pomeranian dog Gordon doesnt blink. In his 40 years of filmmaking hes heard it all, or at least most of it. This spring he received the prestigious David O. Selznick Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures from the Producers Guild of America.
The organization cited Gordon as one of the entertainment industrys most consistent and successful filmmakers. Its a cherished honor, he says, because it comes from other producers, who understand the trials and tribulations of actually producing a film. This day, solving the problems of a young filmmaker is the least of Gordons concerns.
Only this morning, Gordon learned that Paramount Pictures bought a project that he says is exactly the same as one of his projects Paramount had already rejected. Then theres an unplanned logistical change thats forcing him to fight the studio for a two-week delay in the start date for filming the sequel to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
And, yeah, theres the director of the upcoming production of the film Hellboy, who is making the mistake of offering to pay for the cost of casting the movie out of his own fee before giving Gordon a chance to make the studio pay in full. And theres the studio executive on another set who is driving everyone crazy. Not to mention the manager of the star of an upcoming film who has been hounding Gordon to slip him audition tapes of other possible cast members--something Gordon doesnt intend to do. These mini-dramas play out over the course of the day through a steady stream of phone conversations.
Dont make yourself crazy over something you should already understand, Gordon tells his longtime associate, Lloyd Levin, who is irate over the failed Paramount deal, especially since Gordon and Levin produced the successful Tomb Raider, as well as its upcoming sequel, for that studio. But I dont understand, says Levin through Gordons speakerphone. Levin, who is in London, is on his way to the airport to join the Tomb Raider crew in Kenya.
Gordon, however, is philosophical, in a Hollywood kind of way. You dont look for justice in this business, he says. You dont look for justice because there are too many crazy people doing despicable things on a minute-by-minute basis. Back in Mississippi theyd be either beaten up or worse. Here, nothing happens to them.
Gordon is known in this town for being tough, and its what you kind of expect from the man who started the genre of bare-knuckled buddy films in 1982 with 48 Hrs. and reinvented action films in the late 80s with the Die Hard series. What you dont expect from a top-shelf Los Angeles player are his down-home memories from the Mississippi Delta.
Even Hollywood moguls have to come from somewhere, and Gordons somewhere is about as close to nowhere as you can get--Belzoni, Miss., a community of about 2,500 that lies just north of Yazoo City, if thats any help. The sickly child of George and Natalie Gordon, Larry grew up with a frail build and abnormally aligned eyes.
All he wanted to do was play football like the other kids. But what he could do--and do well--was play trumpet. At age 7, he was marching with the high school band. The years ticked by. Gordon received surgery to correct his crossed eye, he grew stronger, played on the football team and helped out in his fathers furniture store.
In the 11th grade he even dated a girl named Mary Ann Mobley, who would go on to win the Miss America pageant in 1959. Still, he never seemed to find a comfort zone in his hometown. In postwar Mississippi, Jim Crow laws were still in place, imposing a separate and unequal status on the black residents of Belzoni who constituted 90 percent of its population. As a sensitive child growing up in one of the few Jewish families in the area, Gordon remembers the ongoing sense of foreboding and unpleasantness that permeated the late 40s and early 50s of his childhood. You have to understand these were very violent times, he says.
That time in Mississippi was a tough time. It was too rough, too unnatural, too unfair. Gordon remembers growing up scared because I wasnt a tough guy and there were tough guys all around me. Add to this a series of violent tragedies that beset the townfolk --car wrecks, hunting accidents, drownings. I must have been a pallbearer 25 or 30 times, he says. It was very bizarre. The eerie and odd reality of rural Mississippi was intertwined with magical things--ghost stories and visions of backwater baptisms--leaving the young Gordon awed at the raw beauty and power of the Deltas story.
Yet the Southern Gothic landscape afforded Gordon little leisure to contemplate storytelling, as he spent much of his free time working at his fathers store. My daddy was a very volatile guy. A little crazy--pretty much crazy. He was a real character, says Gordon, who absolutely hated the endless hours of standing on the floor of the furniture store.
I always had a craving for something more glamorous, something more exciting, he says. And I hated working on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to midnight. But my daddy said there were no jobs where you dont work on Saturday. He hoped to find those things in Oxford, Miss., where he wanted to study at the University of Mississippi. At least that was his plan. Gordons father would have no part of it and he forced his son to a smaller, private school that Gordon had barely heard of in New Orleans.
My father was determined that I was going somewhere to meet a nice Jewish girl, says Gordon. So I ended up at Tulane. I didnt know what I was going to do there. I wasnt happy being there. He also wasnt happy studying business, which his father also demanded he do. Still, Gordon managed to pull off straight As in his first year. Then he discovered the French Quarter. Gordons final two years at Tulane were spent mostly as a denizen of downtown. He shared an apartment on St. Peter Street with three other young men, spending his nights exploring the differences between Belzoni and the Vieux Carre.
Everything blew my mind, he says. The music, the art, the free lifestyle. I never went to class and, after starting out with good grades, I barely got out of Tulane. Not all was fun and games, however. Gordon was several hundred miles from Belzoni, but not quite beyond his fathers reach. Through a business connection, the old man got his son a job at Weiners, a successful Algiers furniture store.
Gordon was back in the family business. Selling furniture would have been simply a vexing intrusion on the ongoing party of Gordons life had it not been for the exceptional bond that formed between him and the stores owner, Ben Weiner (B 30).
Personable and flamboyant, Weiner was a man with whom the brash young Gordon could identify, a man who became a second--and more sympathetic--father to him. Ben Weiner would come to the store every day at noon, recalls Gordon. He would come in and say hello to all of us and then he would leave in his Cadillac convertible, with the top down and a beautiful woman next to him. They would head to the racetrack to spend the day at the Fair Grounds, watching the stable of horses that Ben owned from a table where you would find any celebrity who happened to be in town. Weiners take on the furniture business was a revelation. Success and fun were not mutually exclusive things.
As Gordon became closer to Uncle Benny, the older man would take him to his favorite haunts. As Gordon puts it, I did a lot of living. One of the citys hottest nightspots was the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, a venue for the nations top nightclub acts.
Late one night during the end of his senior year as he was cramming for finals (he hadnt opened a book all semester), Gordon received a call from a friend. He says, Jimmy Durante is at the Blue Room and I am taking out one of the showgirls, and she has a friend. Do you want to meet us at midnight? Yours is great looking. The excitement of showbiz and the allure of a beautiful woman were too much to turn down. Gordon closed his book and, without knowing it, opened a new chapter in his life.
Gordon and the showgirl hit it off. After a couple of weeks of dating, she invited him to follow the troupe to Las Vegas. Having freshly squeaked through his final exams and graduated without honors from Tulane, Gordon set off to Sin City with $300 in his pocket. In Larry Gordon--The Movie, his stay in Las Vegas would neatly segue to his rise to prominence in Los Angeles.
Life, however, tends to be more intricate in its unfolding. After spending 18 months in Vegas, doing odd jobs and a lot of gambling, Gordon returned to Mississippi to attend law school at Ole Miss.
He lasted one year and then returned to Belzoni, working in his fathers store to amass enough money to once again leave the state. The old man despaired at what he considered his sons lack of seriousness, and the two would inevitably end up fighting. With a meager amount of savings he took off again, this time to Houston to hook up with a former Tulane roommate, Sidney Shlenker. The two purchased and began to operate a nightclub called Club Gulf Gate, a brief but successful endeavor that gave Gordon the taste of excitement he so desired.
Too much excitement, perhaps. One night a drunk cowboy threatened Gordon at pistol-point. The incident was enough to give Gordon his fill of the nightclub business, and he soon beat it out of Houston, flying back to Las Vegas. He checked into a hotel and headed to the casino floor, where he proceeded to blow the last $400 he had to his name. By now, Gordon might have begun to question whether his father had been right all along.
Still, down but not quite out, he managed to get himself to Los Angeles, where he discovered he had a single contact--his ex-girlfriend Mary Ann Mobley, the former Miss America. Like Gordon, Mobley was a long way from Mississippi. She had been working on her acting career in LA for a short time and currently was dating a television producer at Four Star Studio Productions named Aaron Spelling.
Gordon and Mobley met and were catching up over lunch when Mobley remembered that Spelling was looking for a gofer to help him manage the details of his personal and professional life. Gordon was broke and needed either a job or a plane ticket back to the Delta and a life of furniture sales. Spelling agreed to interview Gordon for the position but then proceeded to break every scheduled meeting. Frustrated and totally broke, Gordon booked the only flight scheduled for Mississippi, a red-eye to Jackson. Then the rains started.
Unexpected and torrential, they deluged the normally sunny City of Angels, grounding all planes headed in and out of town. Gordons flight was canceled one, two, three nights. On that fourth day of rain, Mary Ann called and said, He wants to see you, recalls Gordon. If it hadnt rained, I would have been gone. Back to Belzoni.
Hanging out with Spelling suited Gordon. He was paid $50 a week and given a room in Spellings house. I got to go everywhere he went. Id drive him to Judy Garlands house for a party with Mickey Rooney and Natalie Wood. There was something about Los Angeles and the entertainment business that suited Gordon as well. Oddly, his experiences in a small town where people interacted with others from every strata of society made Gordon particularly fit for his new job. He found he had an affinity for dealing with people.
People learned that the best way to get through to the hard-toreach Spelling was to go through me, he says. So I had VIPs coming to me--a gofer--asking for favors. Gordon thrived in the sun and society of LA. He was soon writing scripts for Spellings hit TV series Burkes Law, and eventually began working with Spelling as an associate producer. Mobley introduced Gordon to her roommate, Margie Nelson, a beautiful lead dancer on the No. 1-rated Dean Martin Show who would become his first wife and mother to his sons, George and Ben (who now also work in show business as a screenwriter and recording industry executive, respectively).
Gordons career took off, plotted at the breakneck pace of a Die Hard film. By the mid-60s, he was head of West Coast talent development for ABC television. By 68 he was vice president in charge of project development at American International Pictures. He bounced over to ScreenGems television as a vice president, where he developed the classic television tearjerker Brians Song before returning to AIP to lead the company's worldwide production.
His projects included John Milius Dillinger (1973) and Ralph Bashkis groundbreaking animated hit Heavy Traffic (1973). In the early 70s Gordon formed Lawrence Gordon Productions and initiated a long and successful association with director Walter Hill, beginning with the New Orleansset Hard Times (1975) and continuing through The Driver (1978), The Warriors (1979), 48 Hrs. (1982), Streets of Fire (1984), Brewsters Millions (1985) and Another 48 Hrs. (1990).
In 1984, Gordon became president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Century Fox. Under his watch the studio produced Commando (1985), Cocoon (1985), Jewel of the Nile (1985), Aliens (1986) and Broadcast News (1987).
Equally as important, perhaps, Gordon brought to the studio outstanding producers such as James L. Brooks (The Simpsons), Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue) and David E. Kelley (Doogie Howser, MD, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope). Running a major studio can be a lot of fun, he says, but it also can drive you nuts. Being the head of a studio is very much like being a five-star general commanding a worldwide army that is at war with other studios armies.
The pressure was enormous. At midnight I would be calling all over Europe to talk for hours with our people there. He found himself sleeping two hours a night and developing artery disease. Part of that had to do with the absolute insanity of it all, he says. Gordon sees insanity inhabiting every nook and cranny of the Hollywood Hills. It is a crazy business filled with crazy, insecure people. And a lot of them never had a girlfriend or played any sports and are continually looking to break out of anonymity. And they all gather here and it makes for crazy things to happen.
This business is kind of like Revenge of the Nerds. Gordon left Fox and entered perhaps the most remarkable years of his career in which he produced the Schwarzenegger blockbuster Predator (1987), followed it with the next summers smash, Die Hard (1988), and chased them both with the Academy Award-nominated Field of Dreams (1989). That same year he formed Largo Entertainment with the backing of JVC Entertainment of Japan.
Gordon steered the company for the next five years, producing such films as Point Break (1991), Unlawful Entry (1992) and Used People (1992). Leaving Largo, he worked out his current deal with Universal, and launched it with the production of one of the most expensive films of all time, the $200 million Waterworld (1994), which received mixed reviews but a positive return at the box office.
During the last few years, Gordon produced a typically eclectic palette of films, including serious, thought-provoking dramas such as the critically acclaimed Boogie Nights (1997), an oddly sweet and sad epic about the porn business; K-Pax (2001), a quiet, smartly ambiguous tale that is part science fiction, part mystery; and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), a slick and stylish action flick that opts for beauty over brawn. (In it, actress Angelina Jolie became the first female lead in a big-budget action film.)
Now, at 66, Gordon says he would like to slow down a bit, search for really good material and maybe, just maybe, snatch the one honor that has eluded him over the years an Academy Award.
Yes, yes, yes, responds Gordon when asked if he would like to have an Oscar of his own. Its a surprisingly earnest answer from a man who could just as easily deliver a cynical judgment of the Academy of Motion Pictures highest honor. But despite his status as a Hollywood insider, Gordon is still enamoured with a business he calls magical. His name appears in 10-foot letters at the beginning of each of his films, he has met U.S presidents and he has lunched with the most famous celebrities in the world. But the aura of Hollywood remains.
Theres an old song, Life is But a Dream. Thats how I feel. When I received the award from the Producers Guild, the first line of my speech was, This is a hell of a long way from Mississippi. A long way maybe, but not so far as to disconnect Gordon from his past. Particularly when it comes to his relationship with his father, who died in 1965, but remains very much in Gordons heart and mind today. Theres a letter framed on his office wall. Its dated 1959 and is written by Gordons father to Ben Weiner. Its a memento that Weiner gave to Gordon years after his fathers death, when Gordon was head of Fox.
For Gordon the letter is so laced with pathos and irony that he says it can bring me to my knees. After a short introductory paragraph, George Gordon writes: Ben, I cannot begin to thank you for being so nice to us when we were in New Orleans, and for what you tried to do for our son. I am sincerely sorry that things didnt work out better, but Natalie and I both feel that Larry is just going to have to find out for himself that what he is looking for doesnt exist, and sooner or later he is going to have to come to earth and realize that life is not just a round of glamour and romance and adventure, and we feel that when he does find this out for himself, he will be ready to settle down and make something of himself.
You see, my daddy died very suddenly at the age of 56, when I was just starting my career, says Gordon. He got to see none of my success. He never even saw my wife and my kids. In fact, when he died I was out of work and we were still fighting about whether I should go back to the store. Which is why hell tell you that Field of Dreams is the film that, more than any other he has produced, resides closest to his heart.
Like Gordon, the films central character, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), is beset by unresolved issues with his deceased father. The film, which is co-produced by Gordon and his brother, Charles, provides a fantasy where at least some of those issues are resolved, where a father and son can play pitch and catch and reach an unspoken understanding. In Hollywood, all things are possible. Well, almost all. Gordon doesnt expect to hear voices whispering through the cornfields anytime soon.
But even real life is not without its plot twists. Gordon recently discovered a batch of old recordings from his fathers antiquated wire recorder. I gave them to the head of the postproduction department. He sent them to the FBI in Washington, and they found a recording of my daddys voice. Gordon seems awed by that short sample of sound. What do you give a man who must have nearly everything he wants? A piece of himself, a precious sound-bite that plugs into his past and makes it come alive.
Its dawned on Gordon that at 66 he is now one of the old guys in the business. Along with jump-starting the careers of Eddie Murphy, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Kim Basinger, Gordon was the first producer to give directing assignments to Walter Hill, Penny Marshall, John Milius, David Seltzer and Roger Spottiswoode. Hes learned a lot about making films during those years, including something about his own demeanor.
I was told once that I have a reputation for being a very tough guy. Tough? Where I come from if somebody didnt like you they would beat the crap out of you or worse. I learned that in show business, when they are really mad at you, the worst thing anyone can do is throw me off the lot. And they dont physically throw you anywhere. You get into your Mercedes, pack your stuff and drive off. He remembers the old days when the business was more fun and driven by seat-of-your-pants-type people. He laments that the business now is more about financial reports, running the numbers and cost projections.
Though hes mellowed in recent years, he still believes an uncompromising stance is a virtue in Hollywood. You may have been in the business for 40 years and you are talking to a studio executive whos been in the business for four years. Hes never made a movie and after reading your script he says its crap. Now theres one thing that has always made my career work. I dont ever listen to anybody who tells me no. To me a good studio exec is one who agrees with me.
It took Gordon nine years to get Field of Dreams made. Every place I would take it people would say, What, a guy plows under his cornfield? What are you talking about? Gordon likes the role of a street fighter, a tough guy who whimsically sees himself as Charles Bronson with a speakerphone and a bottle of Evian. Poised in power, he quietly drums his fingers on his desk as Andrew Waller, the kid from USC, finishes his pitch. So to complete the film I need help in color correction, work some kind of deal for grip and electric and get advice from a stunt coordinator. Those are the three things. The actual three things.
Gordon stops drumming his fingers, leans back in his chair, considers the request. Yeah, well, you didnt see a red cross on the door anywhere, did you? he asks. No. Well this is not the Red Cross. Im not in the help-the-filmmaker business. I am in the make-movies business. Sure. Gordon goes on like this for a minute or two. About the diffi- culty in granting such requests, the unavailability of the talent Waller needs, how it isnt his style to pull strings.
Next thing you know hes on the phone with Lisa Rogers, the No. 2 person in post-production at Universal. Hello, Lisa, how are you doing? I have a young man, a friend of mine, Andrew Waller, who is making his senior film at SC. And he needs a little help Before Waller knows whats happening, Gordon has him up and out of his chair and headed for a golf-cart ride across the studio lot to meet with Rogers. I'll call Simon Crane, our stunt coordinator whos working with Angelina Jolie right now, and see if he also can meet with you, Gordon calls out to him as he leaves. As for grip and electric, youre on your own.
Larry Gordon, tough guy, settles back to work, shouting into his speakerphone. Rick, has Lloyd gotten on the airplane? Well, e-mail him in Kenya and tell him to call me as soon as he lands. In between phone calls, Gordon philosophizes. Had the kid come to me later in the day, I might not have been able to help him. There's no textbook on how things work in this business. It's all timing. A lot of it has to do with breaks.
Outside his window, the LA sun shines in its warm and benevolent way, inviting Gordon to remember a time long ago when the sun didn't shine and the rains washed the hills for four days and four nights. He knows his story could easily have turned out very differently. But he was lucky. He got the happy Hollywood ending.
Nick Marinello is senior editor in Tulane University publications and frequent contributor to Tulanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 email@example.com