The Baby Moguls, Abbie Hoffman, and Me
The first time I met Richard Pryor, he was close to dead drunk. A tumbler of Scotch in hand, he stumbled into his home office, where I had been waiting for some time with Thom Mount and Sean Daniel—two executives at Universal Studios—and, after the briefest of introductions, turned to Daniel, stared at him for a second, and said, “You don’t like me, do you?”
Daniel made a nervous denial, asserting that he liked the comic—who was then by far Universal’s highest-grossing star—very much. Very, very much. Richard wasn’t buying it. Apparently, Daniel had been on the set of Pryor’s most recent movie, and although the men had barely talked, the highly intuitive comedian read something in the exec’s eyes.
The year was 1980. I had just adapted my detective novel, The Big Fix, for the screen, and as a screenwriter, I was considered the flavor of the month in Hollywood. Mount and Daniel had brought me to meet Pryor so that I could begin work on a film that was eventually released under the title Bustin’ Loose. In those days, Mount and Daniel were known as the “Baby Moguls,” so named by Time and New York for the extreme youth at which they had risen to positions of studio power. Mount was just over thirty and Daniel still in his twenties, though they both had been at the top of Universal for several years and had been involved with the making of National Lampoon’s Animal House, among other huge hits.
These young men—like the other famous “baby mogul,” Mark Rosenberg—were known to be politically on the Left. Mount came from an important Democratic party family in North Carolina. Despite having graduated from Bard College near New York City and subsequently from the equally bohemian Cal Arts, he maintained the backslapping affect of a Southern pol, calling you “killer” and giving you semi-playful punches in the shoulder. The good-ol’-boy routine was in his blood.
Daniel, a boyish New Yorker and the son of a blacklisted screenwriter who had committed suicide, was a different type. The first time I met him he couldn’t have been more than twenty-two and was trying to get me to write a screenplay about the Weather Underground. I had been intensely involved with radical politics in the 1960’s, and so it made sense for him to seek me out. Daniel pitched the idea to me at a party in somebody’s treehouse-style hippie abode in Laurel Canyon. My immediate reaction was that no one would want to make Daniel’s film and that I didn’t want to waste my time allying myself with such a project. Besides, who was this twenty-two-year-old kid who thought he could produce a movie? I had no idea that within four years he would be one of the top three executives at the biggest studio in Hollywood. The difficulty in predicting executive talent is also why there can be such meteoric rises, especially in an industry where youth is king and the seventeen-year-old boy the most reliable and therefore the most coveted audience.
In those days, the 1970’s, the average seventeen-year-old boy was still heavily under the influence of hippie culture, rock and roll, and the anti-Vietnam movement, and so having some background in radicalism was one way for a junior executive to move up to a big studio job. But this didn’t mean the baby moguls spent their time making political movies. Quite the contrary. Universal Studios was not in the business of making Battle of Algiers, and Sean Daniel knew it. A Hollywood film recommending Vietcong victory or genuine revolution, like Jorge Sanjines’s The Principal Enemy, would never have been considered by people like Daniel or Mount if you were to have brought them that kind of idea at the studio—although, of course, they would tell you, as a compadre, how great they thought those movies were and wasn’t it just too bad we couldn’t make them.
If, like me, you considered yourself a serious, aspiring left-wing filmmaker (or more precisely, if, like me, you pretended to yourself that you were one), you wouldn’t go to the baby moguls with a political project. You would go to some square-seeming studio exec who would be more likely to back it because he could thereby get credit with the creative community. The baby moguls were too afraid for their jobs. They already had liberal and leftist credit aplenty. They needed to prove something else. By the time Daniels was in the studio system, he was spending his time making raunchy comedies like Caddyshack.
I learned this at close range when I became good friends—almost best friends, for a while—with Mark Rosenberg, the man who was the most committed leftist and, for a time, the most successful of all the baby moguls. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin who had grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, Rosenberg acted as though his true aim was not to make it in the motion-picture business but rather to bring about revolution in America.
One time, on a first-class plane ride to New York, he proudly showed me his extensive FBI file, which he had just obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It went on for pages—they had obviously been watching him closely—with many sentences and paragraphs blacked out. Some of those, he alleged, concerned his relationship with the Black Panthers, and the FBI didn’t want to jeopardize its sources. Mark told me that he had, among other things, given the Panthers the use of his credit card so they could travel and purchase necessities, including, he implied, weapons. Mark was a master at turning this past to his advantage. Part of the reason for this was his warm, outgoing, almost glad-handing personality. His politics also gave a veneer of do-gooderism to a life * that was at heart not so far from that of the fictional Sammy Glick.
As a young man in New York, fresh out of Wisconsin, he had developed a close friendship and an alliance of sorts with the young Paula Weinstein. Paula, who would herself become a producer and studio executive at Twentieth Century Fox, was the daughter of Hannah Weinstein, a producer who had moved to London during the McCarthy period and had been among the only people to employ blacklisted writers.
This had made Hannah famous on the Hollywood Left, so in a sense the Weinsteins, mother and daughter, were a royal family with deep roots and many connections into the past. I attended Hannah’s memorial service in 1984. It was held in a private room at the Beverly Wilshire and was attended by, among other luminaries of the literary and cinematic Left, playwright Lillian Hellman. Dressed in a luxurious mink coat in southern California, Hellman entered in a wheelchair with—I am not joking—the labor anthem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” discreetly playing, naturally in the famous Paul Robeson rendition, as memorial background music over the five-star hotel’s loudspeaker.
Rosenberg came to Hollywood with these impressive contacts and soon enough landed a job at a talent agency. He was aggressive at wooing new clients, using the political soul-brother connection to whatever degree was necessary. He used it extensively on me, mixing it with the usual “I can make you a great writer-director” line, and stole me from my first movie agency, William Morris. It wasn’t long after that, however, that Mark left the agency business and became a Warner Brothers executive. At that point he had never made a deal for me as an agent, but having a friend inside the studio promised good things. We could, he said, exploit the system to make revolutionary films.
As it turned out, the revolution would have to wait. Rosenberg, like the other baby moguls, made few, if any, genuinely left-wing films. In fact, once ensconced in their positions, he and Daniel and Mount were as graspingly materialist as any true believer in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, riding around in studio Mercedeses, going to expense-account dinners, living very high on the hog. Through Mark, however, I did experience one odd exception to the no-real-left-wing-movie rule. In 1979, just before I was supposed to leave for Castro’s Cuba to attend the first festival of the New Latin American Cinema—an event Mark was also supposed to attend but ultimately bypassed for “business reasons”—I received a phone call from him. A screenwriter named Jay Presson Allen, whose credits included The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Cabaret, had now turned producer and wanted me to write a film for her. The movie would be based on the life of Bertell Ollman, an eccentric NYU politics professor who had invented a Marxist version of Monopoly, the board game, called “Class Struggle.” Ollman was actually trying to promote the game in the normal manner—flogging it at toy business conventions and so on—not for the purpose of making money but to advance his radical agenda.
Rosenberg said he and Allen agreed I was the only one they could think of with sufficient left-wing background and sense of irony to pull this off as a commercial film. Upon my return from Cuba, I started working on the script with Jay at her estate in Litchfield County, Connecticut. By the end, we had turned out what we both thought was a rather wry screenplay in the tradition of the Italian comedies of Pietro Germi and Lina Wertmuller. We called it Class Struggle.
Rosenberg was enthusiastic when he read the draft. “I knew you could do it!” he exclaimed. “This is an absolute go picture!” I was still young enough to believe him. Within a week or so, the real word came back from the studio. The script was not what they had “expected.” What had they expected? A love story between a bumbling downtown professor and a glamorous Park Avenue debutante was suggested. Did we really need this Marxist Monopoly game? Perhaps he could be a geology professor instead. The political material was unnecessary and would just “confuse” the audience.
Mark delivered this news to me in a matter-of-fact manner with no mention at all of our previous conversation, assuming that naturally I would cooperate in the evisceration of my own work. I didn’t. I passed not so much for idealistic reasons but because I knew I could never write the movie they had in mind to anybody’s satisfaction, assuming there was something at all in mind, really. But this only underscored what I suspected then and know now. The politics of the baby moguls were not to be taken seriously. They were more of a pose than a real view or commitment, and continue to be so to this day. What the baby moguls really wanted was to be rich and powerful. Everything else—including and especially the politics—was a means to that end or, more precisely, an excuse for it.
Pryor understood all this better than anyone. He had lived in Berkeley before hitting it big and knew that scene intimately, would make fun of it when we sat together working on the script for what was then called Family Dream. But the hypocrisy of all this pseudo-leftism didn’t bother him. It just amused him. It didn’t bother me much in those days, either. I was profiting from it.
I had been using Pryor’s bungalow on the Universal lot to write the screenplay, since the comedian almost always preferred to stay at his mansion in Northridge. The bungalow had several rooms, which I basically had to myself. The major perk of writing at the studio for me was the free use of the screening rooms. A writer or producer could simply call a studio number and order up a film for “research” purposes, a delicious privilege in that pre-videocassette and -DVD era.
One day I decided, thanks to a desire both to procrastinate and to fill a gap in my film history knowledge, to request a viewing of To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy about an actor disguised as Hitler. As it happened, the subject couldn’t have been more appropriate. I was alone in the screening room, watching the movie, sitting in the back row to be near the telephone if the movie was boring—it was anything but—when the door cracked open. I peered through the darkness as a man slipped into the room followed by a woman and a child. I could only see them in silhouette when the man spoke to me in a stage whisper: “Roger?”
I strained for a look as the man drew closer, his Harpo Marx-like hair outlined against the black and white movie screen like a costumed character out of the Lubitsch film. The surreal shadow could have been cast by only one person, at least only one person I knew. “Abbie?” I whispered, wondering if I sounded as incredulous as I felt.
Abbie Hoffman nodded. I looked from him to the woman and child who were still by the theater door. I assumed that they were his wife Anita and son america (with a lowercase “a”). Or it could have been that other woman Johanna he was rumored to be with. I didn’t know. In any case, what was he doing there? Hoffman, the radical activist and leader of the Chicago Seven, was on the lam and probably on the Ten Most Wanted list at that very moment.
“It’s amazing to see you here,” I said.
He took a couple of steps forward. “I saw your movie,” he said coldly. Apparently this was not a friendly visit. I didn’t know the man well, having only met him once at a party years before, and looked at him apprehensively.
“Why’d you do that to me?” he demanded.
“Do what?” I asked, but almost immediately I understood. The movie version of The Big Fix had been in theaters three weeks or so at that point. An important part of the plot centers on a search for a character from the 60’s, Howard Eppis, who has gone underground. In the movie (as opposed to the novel), the audience gets to meet Eppis “hiding in plain sight,” as the saying from mystery novels goes. The former revolutionary is living a very comfortable bourgeois lifestyle—thank you very much —under a new name as a successful advertising man in the San Fernando Valley. “If you can write ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/ Viet Cong is gonna win,” Eppis tells Moses Wine, while flipping burgers at his poolside barbecue, “you can write Coke commercials!” I meant it as satire, but Abbie took it as a personal insult, especially since some reviewers had identified Hoffman, the indefatigable Chicago Seven defendant, with Eppis, the sell-out.
I don’t remember precisely what Abbie said after that, but it ended up with my apologizing guiltily and asking him not to take what I did seriously. It was a movie, after all, and Eppis was a composite character, more Jerry Rubin—Hoffman’s fellow Yippie from the Chicago Seven—than Abbie, anyway. All this happened in a minute or two before Hoffman, somewhat mollified, told me he had to go. He had an appointment elsewhere in the studio. On his way out, I asked him what it was that brought him to Universal anyway, risking apprehension. He was there, he said, to sell the film rights to his tome, Steal This Book. He had a meeting with Thom Mount and Sean Daniel.
Needless to say, they didn’t make the movie.
* Rosenberg died tragically in 1992 in a freak accident while filming a movie in Texas. At the age of forty-two, he choked to death on some food on the set.