JUST TEMPERS IN A TEAPOT AT THE BLACK TOWER?

Times Staff Writer

S o, did they fight or didn't they? Was it a push or a punch? Was the Black Tower shakin' from shovin', or was it just heavin' from a lot of huffin' and puffin'?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Did Sidney J. Sheinberg, in the white corner, wearing the red trunks, out of Corpus Christi, Tex., by way of Columbia Law School, the president and chief executive officer of MCA-Universal, at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, and Frank Price, in the black corner, wearing the green trunks, from Decatur, Ill., out of Michigan State, the chairman of the motion picture group of Universal Pictures, at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, trade blows or not?

The New York Post's sizzling Page 6 gossip column reported last Friday that there had been an "uproar" the day before on the 15th floor of Universal's executive building and quoted un named studio sources as saying it "erupted into a fistfight" between Sheinberg and Price. It was already an old yarn here. By Thursday night, every alert waiter between Burbank and Beverly Hills had heard 10 different versions.

The steadiest buzz was that Sheinberg and Price had gotten physical during a finger-pointing session over the box-office egg laid by George Lucas' $35-million "Howard the Duck."

Reportedly, Sheinberg called Price and his marketing lieutenant Marvin Antonowsky on the carpet for pre-ordering network advertising time that couldn't be withdrawn after the bad opening weekend, and was reminded by Price that it was he who had committed the $35 million in the first place.

Being called on the carpet in Sheinberg's office can't hurt you. It's about a foot thick. But you never know about an elbow, or a knee. Does workman's comp cover this sort of thing? As a rumor, the "Tiff in the Tower" has potential for greatness. On the face of it, it's absurd, outrageous, too preposterous to pass on without some embarrassed qualifier. ("I don't believe they actually hit each other, but so-and-so swears . . . "). The idea of two middle-age executives (Sheinberg is 52, Price 56) duking it out within the peaceful glow of Sheinberg's "E.T." poster sounds like something out of "Dr. Strangelove." ("You can't fight in the War Room.") By the middle of this week, the fight had become such a dazzling piece of cocktail gossip that the chatter itself became news. When 20,000 people are saying the same thing at the same time, the noise takes on its own reality. I mean, somebody covered St. Vitus' dance! Price and Sheinberg, neither of whom is often asked if he's punched anybody in the last week, had different reactions when asked about the tiff in the Tower. "You mean the fistfight?" Price said, laughing. "Have you checked intensive care at Cedars Sinai to see how Sheinberg is doing?"

Price said that when the item was published in the New York Post, he joked to Sheinberg that as a way of stopping the rumor, they should get studio makeup people to dress them out with blackened eyes and puffed lips, then release a photo with a formal denial.

Sheinberg said he took the suggestion seriously. "We very nearly did it," Sheinberg said, before giving way to his anger. "There is not one scintilla of truth to it," Sheinberg said. "I don't know how something goes from Page 6 in the New York Post to a serious inquiry from The Times. It's a rumor started by idiots for the consumption of idiots." What makes the rumble rumor different from ordinary Hollywood gossip is that the town was predisposed toward hearing about a blowup between Sheinberg and Price. It's accepted as common knowledge in the industry that the two executives have had a cool relationship ever since MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman asked Price to rejoin Universal in the fall of 1983. (He ran the studio's television division during the '70s.)

Most industry fight fans date the Sheinberg/Price feud back to 1981, when Universal bought the rights for "E.T." from Columbia Pictures, then headed by Price, for the $1 million Columbia had spent devel oping it, plus 5% of its net profits.

Price says he had wanted to make "E.T." but that Spielberg insisted on it being a co-produc tion--a la the near disastrous "1941"--with Universal, where Spielberg and Sheinberg had enjoyed a long, productive relationship. "E.T." went on to become the biggest box-office hit in history and Price went on to take the heat for letting the big one get away. (There was a moral victory ahead, though. "Gandhi," which Price picked up for Columbia distribu tion, squashed "E.T." in the Oscar race.)

Studio insiders talk about the "two camps" in the Black Tower, one loyal to Sheinberg, the other to Price. During the last year, it's been like a studio within a studio, they say, with the Sheinberg camp rooting on the two Shein berg/Spielberg movies ("Back to the Future" and "The Money Pit") and the Price camp rooting for his pet project, "Out of Africa."

At that, all hands had a good year. "Back to the Future" was the 1985 box-office champion; "Out of Africa" won most of the Oscars.

Since then, things have not gone quite so well. "Legal Eagles," a Price project, has not earned back half its $45-million production and marketing costs. "Howard the Duck," green lighted by Sheinberg, is destined for an even worse box-office fate.

"Legal Eagles" met with mixed reviews when it opened June 20. When "Howard the Duck" arrived Aug. 1, it seemed that nearly every critic in the country leaped up from a blind and began firing. The only review that Universal has been quoting in its ads for "Howard" is from USA Today's Tom Green, who, in fact, concluded that "Howard" is a "lame duck."

In the meantime, there have been persistent rumors of Price going to another studio, first to old MGM, then to new UA, then back to Columbia. Right now, you can't get better than even money betting that he will be at Tri-Star before dawn Monday.

Price said that he is not leaving Universal for Tri-Star, and that there was no confrontation with Sheinberg over the advertising dollars committed to "Howard the Duck." No fight. No shoving. Not so much as a carpet burn. "Utter nonsense," he said. "I don't know how these things get around. Usually, I can make sense of rumors. This one I have not figured at all."

Price acknowledged that feelings get frayed in the wake of a disappointment as large as "Howard the Duck," but if there were words, there were no blows. "That is not what starts fistfights. I haven't had a fistfight since I was 16."

Even then, it wasn't his idea. Price said he and some high school friends were walking down a street in Flint, Mich., when a carload of other teen-age boys drove up, exchanged a few words, then leaped out and began swinging.

"I remember I was eating an ice cream cone when this guy jumped me," Price recalled. "I tossed the cone in the gutter, ducked and started punching him in the stomach. A police car arrived and we ran."

That was 40 years ago. Is he in fighting shape today? If people are going to talk about the fight as if it were feasible, what kind of scrap would it be? Price has a lower center of gravity, but Sheinberg has the reach. Who'd whip whom?

"I don't think I could go very long," Price said with a laugh.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°