EXCLUSIVE: Imagine if you’d written a 1974 autobiographical masterpiece of a screenplay about compulsive gambling directed by Karel Reisz and starring James Caan. Imagine also if you just found out it was being remade by writer William Monahan, director Marty Scorsese, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio and no one told you. What is most incredible, and also despicable, is that neither the original studio Paramount nor the original producers Irwin Winkler and Bob Chartoff bothered to reveal they were going back to Toback’s creative well without him. On Saturday, Toback phoned me and asked if he could write about this surreal experience for Deadline Hollywood. Here in its entirety is his sadness and anger mixed with his trademark humor, against the backdrop of the late, great, and heady filmmaking days of that decade:
Close to 3 AM on this past Friday I got my daily call from my friend and LA housemate, Brett Ratner. I was at my desk working on my 22nd revision of the John DeLorean script I was hired by Reliance and Ratner to write with Ratner directing and the legendary Bob Evans producing.
“What are you doing?” Brett asked.
“What do you think?” I said. “This is by far the toughest script to get right of any I’ve written in 35 years.”
“What about The Gambler?”
“That was lightning fast and easy,” I said. “Of course, it was my own story.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said. “Did you read Nikki Finke?”
“Always,” I said.
“What are you getting at?” I asked.
“She just reported that DiCaprio and Scorsese are remaking The Gambler at Paramount.”
“Not my Gambler!” I said. “That’s not possible! No one said a word to me!”
“Who owns it?” Ratner asked.
“I guess they didn’t have to.”
“Legally, I guess you’re right,” I said.
“Maybe that’s all anyone gives a fuck about: whether something is legal.”
The film in question, The Gambler, was financed and distributed by Paramount in 1974 and directed by the late Karel Reisz. It was derived without a syllable of alteration from the final draft of my blatantly autobiographical original screenplay and starred James Caan as Axel Freed, a City College of NY literature Lecturer whose addiction to gambling overrides every other aspect of his richly diverse life. It might seem odd that my initial response to the news of the purported remake would be something south of “flattered and honored,” but the truth is that my main feeling was one of disbelief that I was learning of these plans at the same time and in the same fashion as any of the regular devoted readers of this column. It struck me as particularly odd since I have been a friend and unlimited admirer of Leonardo’s since our initial encounter in 1994 when we were, in fact, all set to close a deal on his playing the lead in Harvard Man — a deal sabotaged only by Bob Shaye’s overriding the greenlight which Mike DeLuca had conveyed to Jeff Berg and Jay Moloney. Equally odd was not hearing anything from Irwin Winkler who, I was soon to learn, is to be the producer on this projected new version as he was on the original. Perhaps my inability to view this “tribute” as primarily flattering was additionally influenced by a recent and infinitely more felicitous experience which involved remarkably similar circumstances. My movie, Fingers, was remade as a Cesar prize-sweeping film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped by Jacques Audiard, the great French filmmaker who called me from Paris and then flew to New York to discuss Fingers in great detail before redoing it, apparently not sharing the current group’s quaint — if indeed entirely legal –notion that as long as they “own” something — even a movie — they are fully entitled to do whatever they wish to it without even bothering to consult its creator.
Of course, the French have always had an entirely different set of laws and values governing intellectual property based on the poignant notion that a writer’s work cannot be tampered with by anyone even including someone who paid money to take ownership of it. This current experience conjures up memories of a banker who owned Harvard Man and once said to me: “To you this is a movie. To me this is a pair of shoes. My pair of shoes. And I will do whatever I like with it.”
I would like to offer an unexpurgated chronology of the history of The Gambler since the movie seems, after 37 years, to have ignited the energies of all these busy and important people. So here it is, covering all incidents — in the words of Winston Churchill — “from erection to resurrection.”
After graduating from Harvard in 1966 I taught literature and writing in a radical new program at CCNY whose additional faculty included Joseph Heller, John Hawks, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Adrienne Rich, Mark Mirsky and Israel Horovitz. I also wrote articles and criticism for Esquire, Harpers, The Times, The Voice and other publications. Most of all, I gambled — recklessly, obsessively and secretly. It was a rich, exciting double life with heavy doses of sexual adventurism thrown in for good measure. Inspired by the life and work of my literary idol, Dostoyevsky, I embarked on the writing of The Gambler intended originally as a novel. Half way in, it became clear to me that I was seeing and hearing the “novel” as a movie and I abruptly decided to turn it into one. When I hit full stride I felt as if I were a recording secretary, simply putting down on paper dialogue and images I heard and saw as if they were not sounds and pictures at all but rather real life action existing in my brain.
When I finished the script I showed it to my high school friend Steve Witty who gave it to his Yale buddy Mike Siris and they brought in a producer named Alfred Crown. Peter Boyle, the star of Joe, expressed a profound desire to play Axel Freed. Six months later, the group reluctantly admitted it couldn’t find financing for the film.
At this point, my dear, beloved and late friend, Lucy Saroyan, daughter of the great and hilarious William Saroyan and a budding actress said: “I know the actor you must use. I study with him. I’ve fooled around with him — but that’s not why I’m telling you he’s the one. It’s because he’s a genius. I’ve known Marlon since I was a little girl. I’ve fucked Marlon. I love Marlon. And this is the only guy on earth who is going to be as great as Marlon — Bobby DeNiro.”
“Let me meet him immediately,” I said.
Lucy set it up. Bob and I had an instant communion. He read the script. He didn’t just learn it — he digested it. He became Axel Freed. And since Axel Freed was I, he became James Toback. (He even got a Caesar haircut from Carol at Vidal Sasoon because that’s where I had my hair cut and how I wore my since vanished locks.) He wore a navy Cardin blazer with a French collar shirt and jeans because I did. He had the character inside out, up and down, front and rear.
The problem was that at that point no one except Lucy Saroyan was calling DeNiro a genius and I still couldn’t raise the money. Ed Pressman — a friend from early childhood and a budding independent producer at the time — tried to get financing and met with similar frustration. Finally, my literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, gave the script to Mike Medavoy, head of the Motion Picture Division at what is now ICM.
“I’m gonna get this picture a ‘go,'” Medavoy barked on our first conversation.
“What’s a ‘go?’ ” I asked.
A long silence ensued as Medavoy drank in the inference that he was talking to a rube.
“I’m gonna get it made.”
“Great,” I said. “How?”
“I’ll call you in a week,” he said and hung up.
The next week Medavoy called. “Get ready,” he said.
“I am ready,” I replied.
“Good. You’re going to London.”
“Karel Reisz, the best director in England, wants to direct the movie and Paramount is buying it. You gotta meet with him in 48 hours.”
Medavoy also told me that a producing team called Chartoff-Winkler was being put on the movie by Frank Yablans, the New York head of Paramount, at Medavoy’s suggestion. Chartoff would be off on another movie and Winkler would be the half of the team assigned to us.
The next day I learned that I was to receive $50,000 and, concerned that the whole thing might be fishy, I demanded the money before I left. Medavoy said: “That’s not the way things are done.”
“I need the check before I’ll go,” I insisted.
A check for $50,000 was delivered to me by messenger. I went to the bank at the Gulf & Western building (Paramount’s home at the time, the current Trump International at present, and a former property of my grandfather’s for forty years.) I presented the check. “Cash it, please,” I said. I was told I needed a signature from a Paramount executive. Paramount was run at the time by Yablans and Bob Evans in Los Angeles. Since Yablans was closer I took the elevator up to his office and told his secretary that I needed to see him immediately.
“He’s busy,” she said.
“We’re all busy,” I said and walked by her into Yablans’ office.
“Who the fuck are you?” Yablans queried.
“James Toback. I wrote The Gambler, the script you just bought.”
“Congratulations. What do you want?”
I told him I needed his signature on my check. He looked at me as if I had three heads but went ahead and signed the check. I ran back down to the bank and was told that they needed the signature from the head of Business Affairs, not from Frank Yablans. I went back upstairs and told Yablans that his signature was insufficient. He accompanied me back down to the bank and told the manager of the branch that every dime of Paramount funds would be removed from that bank if the sufficiency of his personal signature was ever doubted again.
I flew to London and met Karel Reisz. Within a week Karel and I formed not just a friendship and highly constructive working relationship, but a mutual love as well which lasted to his death in 2002 and which continues in my heart to the present. Karel, the son of Czech parents who were carted off from Prague by the Nazis into the gas chambers of Auschwitz, was shipped to England before he had reached puberty. He eventually joined the RAF, became a loyal British citizen, a critic, an editor and finally, a great director.
“I don’t know this world of yours,” he said, “but I read your autobiographical memoir on Jim Brown and I think I see possibilities in your script that you haven’t fully developed. If you want to talk to me and write more, I would be willing to go to New York and Las Vegas, meet your family on whom you’ve clearly based some of the characters and the gangsters you seem to know as well and then decide if I can actually make this movie.”
“Square deal,” I said.
Bob Evans was an irresistibly charming, glamorous, witty and powerful figure in Hollywood. He had just decided to quit his executive job at Paramount after having overseen an unprecedented string of excellent and financially lucrative films to become an independent producer on the Paramount lot. His assistant and friend, Gary Chazan, called me and said: “Bob is going to make The Gambler his first production at Paramount and that’s great for you because it will give the movie top attention.”
“Sounds terrific,” I said. “But Karel hasn’t agreed to go ahead yet. I have a lot of writing to do first.”
“Don’t worry. It’s going to happen.”
“There’s another problem,” I said.
“Irwin Winkler has already been put on the movie.”
“Fuck Irwin Winkler,” Gary said. “Evans will offer him five other Paramount movies in exchange and he’ll jump ship in a minute.”
The next day I got a call from Winkler.
“You and I don’t know each other,” he said, “but you’re gonna learn something that Bob Evans is going to learn too: Irwin Winkler ain’t no whorer! Bob Evans can offer me fifty movies. It don’t matter. No one is getting me off The Gambler.” He turned out to be right. And Evans ended up producing Chinatown instead.
Meanwhile, Karel’s ideas inspired me to write a widely expanded and deepened movie. I had been in psychoanalysis for two years with Gustav
Bychowski, one of Freud’s last proteges, and my meetings with Karel often resembled analytic sessions in the Freudian style. They also involved my tutoring him in the nuances of American university lectures and student-teacher relationships as well as the intricacies of degenerate sports and casino wagering. After a few weeks we went to New York and Las Vegas and he agreed to make the movie. The next task was casting the lead actor. Winkler proposed Warren Beatty (later to become one of my closest friends but a stranger at the time.) Medavoy wanted Redford.
“Axel Freed is a New York Jew,” I said.
“Redford’s a great actor,” Medavoy countered, “he can play anything.”
Karel interviewed Richard Dreyfus and Chris Sarandon and others, but inexplicably resisted meeting DeNiro whom I relentlessly pressured him to hire.
Finally, shortly before a legitimate deadline would be transgressed, Karel –having followed every other suggestion I had made — agreed to have dinner with DeNiro but insisted that I not come along. I spoke to Bob and he said: “Call me as soon as Karel calls you after the dinner!”
Late that night Karel did call and asked me to come over to Joel Schumacher’s apartment which he had sublet.
“Jim,” he said firmly, “I want to make your movie. And I want you — I need you — to be with me every day until the end. In fact, I can’t make this movie without you. But if you are going to insist on my using DeNiro I will not make the movie.”
I was stunned.
“He’s the guy! How can you not see that?”
“I’m sorry. I won’t discuss it. He’s simply wrong for the part. He has the wrong temperament.”
“Let him read for you. He’s sensational!”
“If you continue trying to persuade me, I’ll have to resign from the movie tomorrow,” Karel said harshly. “We can talk about anything else. I will not talk about him.”
I knew Karel well enough to know that any further entreaties on my part would be fatally counterproductive. Later I called DeNiro and gave him a virtual transcript.
“Jim,” Bob said in a state of high agitation, “the guy didn’t even let me read. You’ve gotta get him to let me read.”
“I can’t,” I said. “He won’t do it.”
“You don’t know the business the way I do. You’ve gotta tell him you won’t work on the movie if he doesn’t let me read.”
“No. He won’t. He wants to make the movie.”
“Yes. But not with you. I don’t get it myself. I’ve never seen him so resistant.”
“I’ll tell you something else,” DeNiro said. “The changes you made are all wrong. He got you to turn a great script into something not nearly as good.”
I don’t remember defending the script. I remember, rather, thinking: I’ll never know — because we’re only going to make one version. I’ve remained friendly with DeNiro over the years but we’ve had nothing like the creative collaboration which might well have evolved from his playing Axel Freed.
James Caan, fresh off The Godfather, met Karel and charmed him off his feet. As unresponsive to DeNiro as Karel had been, he flipped wildly for Jimmy to whom he introduced me and who charmed me with great dispatch as well, Karel met my mother and my grandfather and then a captain of a major Mafia family, the biggest bookmaker in New York, and some lower level wiseguys who appeared as semi extras in the movie. Karel also came up to my classroom at City College which we used as the classroom in the movie. (I used several of my students as students in the movie as well.) Karel and I practically lived together for the next year. Early screenings of The Gambler drew rhapsodic responses. Evans, Sue Mengers, David Begelman, Freddie Fields, Sidney Beckerman, Dick Zanuck, Ron Meyer, the Schneiders, Robert Towne, Warren Beatty himself and many others who effectively ran Hollywood got the word out that The Gambler was the thing!
Frank Yablans was equally excited and appeared in a 60 Minutes segment on Lauren Hutton, an actress in the movie, to bless it with his personal proud send-off.
However, in an unfortunate example of the all-too-frequent phenomenon of bad timing in studio politics, Charles Bluhdorn, the Chairman of Gulf & Western which owned Paramount, fired Frank Yablans one week before the movie opened. Barry Diller, who replaced him, had no personal stake in the success of the movie and the helium quickly seeped out of the balloon. Despite some great reviews and a virtual crusade by the immensely influential Charles Champlin, film critic for the LA Times, the movie never got anything like the top-drawer push a Yablans/Evans team would have supplied.
Over the years my greatest personal reward on The Gambler has come from members of Gamblers Anonymous, an organization whose meetings I have attended in dozens of rooms in cities around the country. I have yet to attend a single meeting without at least four or five members approaching me with the assertion that The Gambler is their story, that I know them and that they know me and that now they can finally be understood by their families and friends by simply saying: “See The Gambler!”
So learning of the plan to “remake” my movie at the same time and in the same fashion as any other devoted reader of this esteemed column, I suppose I should feel… what? That a tribute is being paid to a creation I left behind? I suppose. But one doesn’t always feel what one is supposed to feel.
As the late, great Jackie Wilson sang:
Just a kiss
Just a smile
Call my name
Just once in a while
And I’ll be satisfied.
Rudeness, on the other hand, and disrespect yield their own unanticipated consequences.
A footnote: Now that such an esteemed bunch of luminaries seems so inspired by The Gambler that they are contemplating the devotion of masses amounts of time, money and energy to redoing it, perhaps the home video crew at Paramount will consider making The Gambler available on DVD and Blu-Ray which it presently isn’t. And perhaps by On-Demand as well — if it isn’t there already. They can look it up and find out if they have the time.