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THE CANTONIZATION OF COMEDY

Times Staff Writer

At first blush, Warner Bros. Production President Mark Canton looks like the quintessential transplanted New Yorker. On Friday nights you’ll find him with an Armani sweater draped around his shoulders in booth No. 1 at Helena’s, the trendy downtown dance club. His daily regimen includes yoga, he drinks herbal tea and he will proudly tell you that at 36, he is still a rock ‘n’ roller at heart.

In his spacious, pine-paneled office on the Warner Bros. lot, the walls are plastered not with movie posters but with gold records from Prince--the pop musician whose screen success in “Purple Rain” gave Canton’s career a burst of turbo power.

In Hollywood, illusions stretch well beyond the screen.

Beneath Canton’s laid-back exterior is one of Hollywood’s most ambitious, aggressive and restless executives. In nine years, Canton, known affectionately at the studio as “Mad Dog” for his intensity, has successfully maneuvered from the mail room to the executive suite (he was named president of production nine months ago). Along the way he traded his Venice apartment for a house in the Hollywood Hills, his ponytail for a groomed executive cut and his Karmann Ghia for a Porsche 911.

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Says producer Brian Grazer (“Splash”): “Nine years ago neither of us could afford to get our cars fully gassed. We’d have lunch in one of the commissaries and there we were, two total zeroes pretending to talk show business. But even then Mark knew what he wanted to do.”

Canton’s story provides a textbook example of how the movie business corporate game is played. A gut player with an instinct for comedy and pop music--two proven commodities in this fickle marketplace--Canton grew up in a show-biz environment where he learned to cultivate relationships that would one day offer a significant payback. A native New Yorker, he is the son of Arthur Canton, a powerful publicist who represented directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Spiegel.

As a student at UCLA, Canton says, he wanted to get away from his father’s long shadow. He was a contemporary history major; his ambition was to become a tenured professor. All of that changed, though, when Canton landed a summer job on the Warner Bros. lot delivering mail. “Even then I felt like I had the nose for it,” says Canton, who used to steal Rolling Stones records from then Warner Bros. chairman Ted Ashley (“So that’s why I never knew who they were,” Ashley later told him).

In his first job after graduation, Canton worked as a production assistant for director Franklin Schaffner, who was then shooting “Papillon.” Next he went to New York to perform similar grunt work on the movie “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” where the workday started at 5 a.m. in the bowels of a Queens subway station. “It was a tough shoot and I was getting pounded. I learned quickly that I didn’t want to get pounded; I wanted the power.”

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After “Pelham,” Canton returned to Los Angeles where he wrote a few screenplays, but that didn’t feel right. “Once I left the lot I knew that one day I wanted to run a movie company. There was never a doubt that was the track I was on.”

Canton’s game plan accelerated when he was hired as executive assistant in 1976 to United Artists Executive Vice President Mike Medavoy for $117.50 a week. Those were UA’s glory years, with movies like “Rocky,” “Annie Hall” and “Coming Home,” and Canton was getting a fast education. Two years later he would be tapped, at just 28, to become a VP at MGM, replacing Sherry Lansing.

But it was his next job that let him make his mark. While working at MGM, Canton met producer Jon Peters in an elevator and the two hit it off. Peters lured Canton away to join him at his company, then called the JP Organization (Peters would later team up with producer Peter Guber). Joining up with Peters was something of a gamble for Canton. It meant he was leaving the somewhat safer track of the studio system to join the ranks of the more volatile life style of independent production. But to Canton, the choice wasn’t hard: Here was an opportunity to actually learn more about producing movies.

In 1980 he co-produced “Caddyshack,” the Harold Ramis-directed inexpensive comedy that made a healthy profit and helped establish Bill Murray as a star. “Caddyshack,” along with “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” was something of a breakthrough: a different kind of comedy that showed there was a paying audience of young people yearning for their own comic heroes.

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For Canton, the timing could not have been better. “Caddyshack” allowed him to establish critical relationships with up-and-comers like Chevy Chase and director Ramis. When the script for “Caddyshack” was delivered, it came in at 198 pages, says Canton, and it was on this film that he got to cut his creative teeth. “For me it was the first time I got to go through the creative process with gifted people. It was a test. You had to pass it to be accepted as one of the guys.”

Canton made the move to Warner Bros. in 1980 as a vice president of production under then studio president Bob Shapiro. There he carved a niche for himself, specializing in music and comedy.

While Warner Bros. was busy turning out its annual dose of big-name star vehicles (for the past two years Warners has beaten out the other studios and held the largest share of box-office receipts with annual evergreens from consistent performers like Goldie Hawn and Clint Eastwood), Canton was developing lower-budget hip comedies like “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and later, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” He courted Prince and helped bring the enormously successful “Purple Rain” in as a pickup (distributed, not made, by Warners) for the studio.

Comedy has been Canton’s mainstay; Warners vice president Lucy Fisher once even gave him a plaque that said “Friend of comedy.” “He’s Mr. Comedy,” says the head of a small independent production company. “He has good instincts and people like Chase and Murray tend to trust him more than other studio executives.” (Still, it was Columbia, not Warner Bros., that wound up with the megahit “Ghostbusters.”)

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Competitors say that beneath that calm exterior beats the heart of a compulsive and hyperactive executive. “He’s always worried about what he’s missing,” says the head of one rival studio. “If he wants something, he’ll do anything to get it,” says a close friend who insisted on anonymity. “But he has the attention span of a gnat. Writers hate to pitch to him because if he doesn’t get it right away, he’s gone.”

That’s understandable. One of the real downsides of the typically short life spans of studio presidents is that they have to spend as much time worrying about keeping their jobs as worrying about doing their jobs. Not so at Warner Bros., says Canton, where executive management has been relatively more stable than at most majors. (Terry Semel, president and chief operating officer, has been at the studio since 1975 and Bob Daly, chairman and chief executive officer, has been there since 1981.) “I don’t worry about failure, and I believe that’s true of the entire company,” says Canton. “I’m allowed to fail, so I don’t worry about it.”

The summer slate at Warner Bros. is decidedly Cantonized. There is Prince’s second feature, “Under the Cherry Moon” (opening July 2), and a comedy with Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole called “Club Paradise” (July 11). Opening in August is “One Crazy Summer,” a broad comedy featuring John Cusack and Demi Moore. The success or failure of these pictures will undoubtedly determine the early line on Canton’s staying power at the top.

These jobs make for nervous stomachs, and Canton has lived such a myopic existence in his pursuit of this position that he even felt it necessary to explain why he hadn’t landed the job sooner .

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“I’ve gone relatively slowly for what I might have done, but if I had gotten the opportunity sooner, I don’t think I’d have been as happy. The only thing I’m worried about now is that my family is healthy (he is married to development executive Wendy Feinerman, his second wife) and that what I do is good quality. For the first time in my life I don’t have to look beyond that. That doesn’t mean I won’t go beyond that--I will. But I don’t have to worry about that now.”

Instead, Canton seems to be finally enjoying some of the trappings of his new power. On a recent Friday night, Prince pulled him off the dance floor at Helena’s and asked him to take a drive. On a hilltop overlooking the city, Prince plugged in the tape of a brand-new song. He wanted Canton’s opinion. “Right at that point I was looking out at the lights and I thought I must be the luckiest person in the world. My dreams were coming true.”

Then the song ended and Prince asked Canton what he thought. His response came immediately and without equivocation: “Fabulous.”


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