After a quarter century covering the film business and speaking directly to the industry from my house in the sticks of Long Island, I am taking the Hollywood plunge. I will spend half of each month in Los Angeles beginning November.
The hope is to take as much ground as I can for Deadline Hollywood and help it continue to evolve. The tone and the urgency and irreverence of this site will always be trademarks of Nikki Finke (when I try to write with attitude like she does, I often hear in my head that Bob Seger lyric, “All of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks”), but I am eager to see how I can do it better. I think Deadline is thriving despite a recent batch of articles implying otherwise, and it pisses me off when journalists cheap shot us (I disagree with New York Times’ reporter Brooks Barnes and his assessment that Deadline has grown bland. The only thing that concerns me is Barnes could teach a master class on how to write blandly, so he’s as close to an authority as you’ll find on the subject).
People often ask how I managed to get away with covering Hollywood on an inside-baseball level from so far away. It just sort of happened and luckily for me, most people were unaware I was doing it. It started when I was a gossip reporter at New York Newsday and heard that a movie about the guys who created Woodstock fell apart because its stars Ralph Macchio and Emilio Estevez couldn’t agree whose name should go first. I tracked down the producer, Peter Bart, who listened to my version, paused, and said, that is absolutely true. I didn’t know who he was, but I made sure we had a nice chat every time I discovered a Hollywood story.
It was only when he took the Weekly Variety job that I learned about his exploits as a journalist and a studio exec who played an integral role in my favorite film The Godfather. For a Long Island-raised wannabe journalist, working at Newsday seemed like the dream, but it wasn’t. I grew up there alongside tabloid giants like Mike McAlary, Jim Dwyer, Peter King, Murray Kempton and Jimmy Breslin, but as the gossip guy I was eyed as the man only when the task was revealing a romantic breakup or chronicling a fist fight at a party.
I became Peter’s first reporter hire at Weekly Variety, back when it was a messy read, and you walked away with inky hands. We overhauled it, I started a column called Buzz and broke a lot of feisty scoops. We started a section called Missing Persons, designed like the back of a milk carton. I chased down formerly prominent Hollywood people who fit the description of, hey, whatever happened to that guy? Getting a call from me became like an embrace from the Grim Reaper—one director told me I exacerbated his cancer, though he later thanked me for helping put him back in the social map. I was surrounded in that New York office by journalistic anarchists like J. Max Robins, David Kissinger, John Brodie and, from LA, guys like Charles Fleming. We took outrageous chances, laughed all day and pushed as far as Peter and his number two editor Caroline Miller would allow us. I remember once when Peter and publisher Gerry Byrne brought higher-ups from the parent company for an office tour. There we were, all 30 of us in the conference room, watching a porno tape highlighting the work of Long Dong Silver. He was my Missing Person assignment that week during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy, and after I secured the tape, everyone wanted to see it, in the name of news gathering. I recall Peter and Gerry just shaking their heads, but their companions were ashen.
There were certain stories our sister paper Daily Variety wouldn’t cover but I sure would. I remember calling Heidi Fleiss before the Hollywood Madam had been written about. After telling her I couldn’t get her lawyer to return my call and wanted her to know that people like the Mayflower Madam wagered she would never divulge her clients, she paused and said, “People have been screwing with me too long, and the first person on my doorstep with $1 million gets my black book.” I nearly fell off my chair. Another time, a person intimately involved in Who Framed Roger Rabbit told me that animators inserted in-jokes in the frames, some of which could be viewed on the laser disc version. One of our editors, George Vernadakis, had a laser disc and there I was, splayed over his coffee table with a camera, fast forwarding to all the key scenes. Some had been scrubbed, including the scene where Bob Hoskins walks into a bathroom and suddenly discovers the floor is gone. On the wall, I was told, was scrawled “For a good time, call” followed by then-Disney chief Michael Eisner’s home phone number. But when a car carrying Jessica Rabbit spun in an oil slick and she was ejected and twirled in the air spread eagle, sure enough I discovered that, as I put it in a column that got picked up worldwide, “you can see right down Broadway.” I’d exposed a naked iconic Disney cartoon character. What paydirt! Disney was outraged and threatened to cancel ads, until they discovered they sold the entire laser disc inventory. I first got to know Gotham titans like Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin through knock down drag out battles (both, I hope, now swear by me more than at me). These were great times in a newsroom informed by the witty cynicism of Spy Magazine in its snarky heyday. Peter then took over Daily Variety, moved to LA and invited me to do the same.
By then, I was married with a 2+ year old daughter who was already the great love of my life. I brought my wife and daughter to Los Angeles for a trial run, had dinners at at the homes of friends, and tried to get her to warm to the weather and the palm trees. After returning, I told her a move a move West would be a great opportunity for me. She was blunt: “Go if you like, but I am staying and so is your daughter.” That ended that, and I tried to work a West Coast beat on a New York clock. I broke a lot of the multi-million dollar spec script and book deals that seemed to happen twice a week during the prime of Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas. Those deals never closed until at least 8 PM Los Angeles time, which meant I’d catch the LIRR train to Babylon after midnight and get home at 2 AM. I finally summoned the courage to tell Peter it was too much and he said, stay home. I took over the Dish column when Claudia Eller left to join the LA Times and most people never even knew I was dialing long distance.
My wife’s decision to stay put was brilliant. She is first generation Italian and has as close knit a family as I do. My kids grew up with all their cousins. I got to cover a great business while achieving any father’s dream. I watched my three children grow up and was there for every significant moment. I coached their soccer teams; I made every game, saw every dance recital, attended every school play, put money under the pillow for every lost tooth. I can’t say how many times I would tell an agent or studio executive to hold on while I reeled in a fish on the boat. I always felt I was getting away with something.
My oldest daughter is 23 and lives in Boston, my son is busy at college and my youngest is a self-sufficient high school junior consumed with her cross country time. It feels like a good time for a new adventure. All these years when I took week long LA trips by myself, I’d pack in 30 meetings and go all hours, a pace I will do my best to replicate. More face time will do me good, as will the motivation to shed the 40 or so pounds I’ve gained since I joined Deadline and started filing up to 15 stories per day.
At Daily Variety, notching three front page stories and one on page 3 was a great day. Here, you often do that by lunch and it’s a lot of stress and that is the downside of working at a home with a stocked fridge. I put that boat in a dock space around Memorial Day, and didn’t turn the engine over once this summer. Too busy. But I’m not complaining. I love this real time game a lot better than the 20 years I spent at Variety gathering, writing and polishing stories so I could tell you tomorrow what I knew today. This is more visceral, and way more fun.
Long story short, if you know me and are having a weekend barbecue in your LA backyard that will not be ruined by the presence of a journalist, please think of me. Because the worst thing that can happen is me sitting on a couch in L.A. during the weekend, remote in one hand, food in the other. I do that here.