Hawk Koch has had an interesting life to say the least, one as Howard W. Koch Jr., son of famous producer and industry heavyweight Howard W. Koch (The Odd Couple, Manchurian Candidate), and another that started with his Bar Mitzvah at age 50 and a new name, Hawk, that liberated him and enabled him for the first time in his life to forge his own identity away from his father’s.
As the producer or executive producer of numerous films including The Idolmaker, Primal Fear, Gorky Park, Wayne’s World, The Pope of Greenwich Village, The Long Walk Home, Keeping The Faith and many more, Koch has had a long, successful career. That career includes stints as president of Rastar Productions; president of the Producers Guild, where he considers the creation (with fellow president Mark Gordon) of the p.g.a. mark a career highpoint; and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a year that also included significant change for the organization.
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As an assistant director earlier in his career, he worked on such iconic movies as The Way We Were, Chinatown, Heaven Can Wait, The Parallax View, Marathon Man — and the list goes on and on. For a guy who started out as an assistant on less starry projects as Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, his ascent to the top ranks of the business as someone integral to getting movies made has been quite remarkable. Of course he was born into it, but that was part of the problem as he explains in his new memoir out this week, Magic Time, written with his wife Molly Jordan, in which he chronicles his long journey in the business, his encounters with many iconic members of it, and the personal toll carrying the name of his highly successful father took on him.
Hawk Koch was living in the shadow of a famous dad, and for much of his life was struggling to come to terms with it, even as it opened doors for him in the film industry. That became the impetus and the reason for this book, in addition to telling some whales of tales about what it is like to be inside the Hollywood machine. Ultimately though, this is a father-and-son story, and a story of rebirth at an age most people would think impossible.
I recently sat down with Koch to talk about the book, and why now at 73 is the right time to tell his story to the world. Note that there are several references in the interview to the late Robert Evans, whom Koch greatly admired and worked with. This interview was actually conducted just a few days before Evans’ death on October 26.
DEADLINE: In addition to being a Hollywood memoir, this is first and foremost a real and often moving father-and-son story. How did the book come about?
HAWK KOCH: Well, I gave the commencement address at Dodge College at Chapman in 2013, and a lot of the students came up to me afterward and said, “God, we were so inspired, and we loved your stories,” and I thought, you know, this is something I really love to do. If I can inspire, and give speeches, and stuff like that, that’s another career for me. So I called a speaker’s agent, and I said, hey, you know, this happened, and she said, “Well, do you have a book?,” and I said no. They said, well, the only way you’re going to get speaking engagements is if you have a book.
So, Molly and I — Molly’s a wonderful writer, and I asked her if she’d help me. I wrote down every movie I’d worked on and the year I’d worked on it, and we drove from L.A. up to Ashland, Oregon, 10-hour drive, and she’d say, OK, this movie, and then I’d tell stories that happened on the set of that movie, with the actors, directors, crew, whatever, and then I’d also say, this is what was happening in my personal life. And it kept coming back to never being seen by people who knew my dad. For people who didn’t know my dad at all I was seen, but people who knew my dad, which was every day of my life — not just month or week, but every day — somebody would come up to me, if I was introduced to them, this is Howard Koch Jr., ‘Oh, you must be so proud of your dad, he’s such a wonderful man.” Do you know what he did for me? And they’d say, “Please say hi to him for me,” but never like, “Who are you?’, or “What do you do?” But I wasn’t conscious of that. It was just like, well, my dad is such a loved man. But he couldn’t really talk to his son.
DEADLINE: So you wrote the book.
KOCH: And so, Molly, who is a Jungian analyst, really was able to take all these stories, I think, of me and my dad, and form them into what is the truth, which is, you know, there are problems between fathers and sons, or, you know, fathers and daughters, daughters and mothers, and so I found that to be the spine, and that was the reason that I really wanted to write it. It gave me a chance to view my own version of what I had to do in order to get out from under that shadow.
DEADLINE: One way was having a Bar Mitzvah at age 50 and losing Jr. in your name?
KOCH: The Rabbi was the key. He said, for your anniversary, you’ll be given your own name. I broke down, and he said, because he only knew me, like, 45 minutes, and he said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, I just realized for 49 years I’ve had my father’s name. I’d like my own name. And then he said the words that changed my life: “You can have your own name.” What? I can have my own name, and it came crashing in, like, of course I can have my own name. But 49 years old, having been in the movie business, and had three kids, and wives, and he was the key, but he said to me, what’s your Hebrew name, and I said, my parents are non-religious, I didn’t have a Hebrew name. And he said, well, for your 50th birthday you will. He said, did you ever have a nickname? And I said, well, my initials were HWK, and you write them on your school books, and they kind of stick, but in fact, nobody called me Hawk for many, many years. And he said, do you know anything about hawks, and I said, yeah, it’s a bird of prey. He said, no, hawks mate for life, and I said, well, that was something I tried, but I wasn’t very good at, you know (laughs)?
And then he said, well, hawks can see from horizon to horizon, and they can see, like, a squirrel a half a mile away. Wouldn’t it be great if you could see the panoramic of your life and the detail always at the same time? And I thought, wow, this guy’s pretty cool, and that would be great, because funny enough, as an assistant director, and then as a producer, my whole job was always, in every meeting, on every set, you have this peripheral vision, like, people always say, how come ADs can see behind them? Well, that’s kind of a learned thing, and you hear every conversation.
I thought, wow, that’s really cool, to look at everything and the detail. And then I said, but isn’t Hawk a pretentious name, and he said, it’s only pretentious if you allow it to be. And man, I thought, wow, could I change my name? And I went up to Telluride, and I think I mention it in the book, but there was this Native American who was selling little trinkets, and there was one that had a cloud, a lightning bolt, and the word “Listen,” and I said, what does that mean? And he said, do you know the way we are awake and aware, and all of our senses are attuned between the lightning and the thunder. You can smell the lightning, you know, you can taste it, you hear it, you feel it, you see it. He said, wouldn’t it be great if you could, all of your life, be that awake and aware and have your senses attuned? And I thought, HWK, and that’s the A, to be awake and aware, to try and be awake and aware all the time, and I’ve strove to do that ever since.
DEADLINE: You tell so many stories about the business with such detail — how did you remember all of it?
KOCH: What was surprising is, a lot of people say, how do you remember all this stuff? I don’t know, and hopefully the memory stays, but I think most surprising is I saw things, as I told the story, I saw things about myself, and about my friends, and about life in general that maybe I hadn’t really been conscious about, and I saw the mistakes I made. I was able to really put it down. I like to think it’s a kind book. I don’t trash anybody. If somebody’s looking for gossip, I don’t think it’s there. If somebody asked me, you know, who did you diss, who did you have dirt on, I didn’t because that wasn’t the purpose of the book. The purpose, I mean, for years, on every movie set, whoever it was would say to me, God, will you please write these stories down? You know, you got to write these stories down. So, that was really what I did. It was the fun stories that I was telling.
DEADLINE: There’s one story you tell in there that I just love, the one about the Warner Bros Neil Simon comedy where De Niro gets fired because he wasn’t funny, and it was your very first credit as a producer. A true disaster.
KOCH: Destroyed me. Destroyed me that the first movie I was producing called Bogart Slept Here with Mike Nichols directing, a Neil Simon script, Robert De Niro and Marsha Mason, Tony Lo Bianco, Sam Elliot, you know, great cast. Nichols fired De Niro on day seven. The movie was never made. I had prepared Mike better than Mike had ever been prepared. John Calley said, “Mike’s never been able to be so prepared.” And then Neil Simon, I don’t know if you know this, he rewrote that script, and it became The Goodbye Girl and Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar two years later. And it gets nominated for best picture. So, out of the ashes comes this great thing. Only I had nothing to do with it then.
DEADLINE: That kind of experience might make you just want to give up on the business. How did it affect you?
KOCH: On top of that my wife at the time told me she wanted a divorce, and that was on the same day Calley said we were shutting down the movie. So, I was kind of in a fetal position when I got a call from Robert Evans, and Bob said, “How you doing?” And I said, “I’m not doing real good, Bob, how are you doing?” He said, “I’m not doing well either.” And I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I’m doing this movie, Marathon Man,” and I said, “yeah, how’s it going?” He said, “We’ve been shooting 10 days.” I went, “Yeah?” He said, “We’re 10 days behind.” So, I said, “Well, what’s the problem?” He said, “How the hell should I know? Why do you think I’m calling you?” which was a nice compliment, but at the same time, and this is only perfect Bob Evans, I said, “Where are they shooting?” He asked somebody in the room where they were shooting, and it was on Mount Kisco — it’s about an hour outside of New York City. So, I said, “Is that where you are?” and Bob said, “No, I’m at the Carlisle with a blonde.”
So, as you’ll read in the book, because of losing my job and losing my family, what happened on day one of that movie, on Marathon Man, when I got there, was how I stood up to three Academy Award winners — Dustin Hoffman, John Schlesinger and Conrad Hall — and changed the trajectory of that movie and really changed my career. But I was 29 and if I hadn’t lost everything, I wonder if I would’ve had the courage, which is another one of my tenets, would I have had the courage to stand up to those guys? I don’t know that I would’ve, but I know that I did, because I had nothing to lose. I had already lost my job, and I had already lost my family. The movie was in deep sh*t anyway, so why not tell it like it is? And it worked.
DEADLINE: How did you come up with the title of the book, Magic Time?
KOCH: We had a lot of titles, none of them as good as this, but since the time I was a little kid, being on a movie set was magical to me. I loved working with the crew, I loved, you know, setting everything up, and then, all of a sudden, boom, right in front of the camera was all this, they’re putting this together. Being in a movie theater the first time I saw The Ten Commandments at the Stanley Warner, it was the Stanley Warner Theater here in Beverly Hills, and I saw The Ten Commandments, huge, and I thought, wow, it’s magical to see a movie.
And then, I got to work with Jack Lemmon a couple of times in the ‘60s, and Jack had done this movie called Days of Wine and Roses, and he was playing an alcoholic, and he took a drink in the role but before he took it, he went, “Magic time,” and then he’d take a drink. Well, when I worked with him, he used the words “magic time” to focus himself when the AD yelled “Roll.” So, if you and I were having a conversation, and I’m Jack, and we’re talking, we’re laughing, and he hears, “Roll camera,” he goes, “Magic time.” He walks in, and he’s totally focused, and I thought at that point in my life, when I was behind the camera, any time we were ready, I thought to myself, “Magic time.” It’s time to make magic, the magic of movies. And then, when I was going on the Oscar stage in front of over a billion people that night, I did a primal scream outside of the Dolby, because, you know, I’ve never spoken in front of a billion people. I don’t know how many people have, but I had never done that, and I came back in, and just as (host) Seth MacFarlane was announcing my name, I just said to myself, “Magic time,” which gives me the ability to just push everything out, and just be focused.
DEADLINE: Are you upset about the state of the business now, that maybe the “magic time” is fading?
KOCH: The changing is in the offices, in the creatives, and in the business. I’m thrilled that all these streaming services are happening, because that means there’s a lot of content, which means everybody in the business should be working. So, if you’re any good, you should have a job, and you get to do what you love, but I’m just hoping that the young people who watch the streamed movies, because there are, some top talent are doing streamed stuff, that maybe they’ll come back to the movie theaters and not just want to watch Aquaman … but they’ll come and go see a Moonlight or a Green Book.
But when I was there, I felt like if a studio was going to make 20 movies, maybe 12 of them made absolutely financial sense. This is why we’re making it, but there was guts, like Robert Evans had the guts to say, you know what, I’m going to make Godfather. I’m going to make Love Story. I’m going to make The Conversation, and those few movies, because those studio executives were filmmakers, loved film. Listen, there were a few executives around, a few of them aren’t around anymore, and we know who I’m talking about, but they loved film. And they made movies because they loved movies, and I’m hoping that even though corporate America has taken over our business, that they will allow some real filmmaker-executives to make the kinds of movies that I want to see.
DEADLINE: So final question. Instead of me sitting here across the table from you it is your father instead. What do you think he would say after reading the book?
KOCH: Good question. First, I think he’d be very proud of me for what I did at the guild, and brought back the respect of the producer, and what I did at the Academy, and that I’m the only second-generation president of the Academy.
And I think — I’m actually going to get emotional now because nobody has ever asked me this question — I’m hopeful he would say to me, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t communicate with you more, because you know I loved you.” And then I might’ve been able to say, “I was scared because you were such a big man, that I couldn’t ask you.”
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