THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A PRODUCER

Times Staff Writer

On June 2, producer Art Linson arrived at New York's Astor Plaza Theater for the world premiere of "The Untouchables," his latest project. In 15 years, none of Linson's six previous films had opened in such a fashion, and he was excited that his moment had come with film No. 7.

Linson and friend Sean Penn (who vaulted to stardom after appearing in the Linson-produced "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") exited their limousine and walked into the theater, amid blinding lights, cameras and celebrity action.

It was any producer's dream.

The next day a picture of the two ran in a morning paper. "Sean Penn and bodyguard," it noted.

Linson--a continent away from New York and sitting atop a bona- fide hit--laughed as he queried in martyred tones, "I thought, 'Which part do I send my mother on this one?' I finally make a movie that's going to do really well and it's 'Sean Penn and bodyguard.' "

Stranger things have happened to the producer of--among other films--"Melvin and Howard" and "American Hot Wax," he acknowledged during an interview.

There was the time he suggested to then-Universal Pictures' production president Ned Tanen in 1973 that making a movie about a day in the life of a car wash could be a good idea. Tanen agreed. In fact, "Car Wash" went to Cannes, where it got rave reviews from the French communist press.

Then there was the idea to put the gonzo exploits of journalist Hunter S. Thompson on film, with Bill Murray in the lead. Linson's directorial debut drew threats of violence from Thompson, who threatened to brain Linson with the baseball bat he carried after seeing the rough cut of "Where the Buffalo Roam."

Stranger still is Linson's incredible comeback from "The Wild Life," which he produced and directed. When it was released in 1984, the movie left critics decidedly unaroused and inspired Universal Pictures to boot him off the lot.

"People have to tolerate a lot of pain in this business," Linson said.

His comeback involved "The Untouchables," a Paramount Pictures production with Brian De Palma directing a script from Pulitzer-prize winner David Mamet.

The one-time producer of low-budget, quirky films has a current big-budget, big-star slate of films at Paramount. It includes a screenplay by Mamet loosely based on Paramount's 1955 escaped-convict story "We're No Angels," which will star Robert De Niro and Sean Penn; "Casualties of War," based on a New York magazine article, to be written by playwright David Rabe and directed by De Palma, and "Scrooge," with Bill Murray.

To understand Linson, one must first understand the concept of "producer's Angst ." It's indigenous to the profession and reflects producers' relative insecurity about their position in Hollywood. No one--except producers--really understands what exactly a producer does, so an underlying sentiment among writers, directors and studio executives is that producers don't really do anything. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.

Linson's producer's Angst takes a highly comedic form. He's happiest praising the work of others who have been involved in his films, but he's funniest when asked about his chosen profession. Then the stories tumble out--cynical, but darkly funny.

Some examples:

On directing: "Other directors have done great work when I've produced them, but when I produce myself (as director), I stink. I let me do whatever I want. That's a big, big mistake."

On studio executives and film making: "To them, putting a film in production is like committing suicide. They like making movies the way most of us like rat poison. They know that once they say yes and you're shooting, they've lost complete control. It's like a bomb drill; they say 'Go!' then get under their desks with their hands over their heads and wait to see the rough cut. Brian (De Palma) describes it as 'snails looking for their shells.' "

Linson didn't know De Palma, Mamet or De Niro in 1984 when, after seven years in residence at Universal, he was asked to leave.

"I was cold as a Dove bar," he maintained.

However, his longtime friend and mentor Tanen called him a short time later with news that he'd been named president of Paramount's motion picture group.

Tanen had tried several times while at Universal to acquire the rights to "The Untouchables" from Paramount, but the studio--although it had no real plans for a movie version of the TV series--refused to let go. Now that he was in charge, Tanen headed for the vault and then called Linson.

"I'm a big fan of Art's," Tanen said in an interview. "He's very inventive and creative and very good at working with creative talent. And he had a really good point of view on the subject matter."

Linson fidgeted a bit when Tanen's words were repeated. He is much more comfortable talking about other people's work, rather than his own.

"The secret is developing great material. What that takes is a good idea and a good writer. Ultimately good writing makes a producer look good."

Linson's emphasis on the importance of a writer and the script isn't just talk. Cameron Crowe, who wrote both "Fast Times" and "Wild Life," confirmed it: "Art is great with material; you can't get him involved in a phony drama. Plus, he's adept at dealing with the studios. He protects the writer and he protects the material."

The making of "The Untouchables" has been chronicled in Newsweek and American Film magazine cover stories, in Time magazine and countless newspapers.

But there were a few stories not yet told and Linson, eager to avoid the subject of Art Linson, proceeded to tell them. (In all fairness, he did reveal that he attended law school at UCLA. "Jacoby and Meyers were in my class, what else can I say?").

There was the time in New York when Linson, his old friend Robbie Robertson (formerly of the rock group the Band) and Mamet discussed De Palma's hiring during a cab ride.

"The conversation went something like, 'Hey, I think Brian is a very exciting choice,' while David was saying, 'Yeah, he's good, but now I'm going to have to do all these rewrites.' There was a lot of talk, pro and con, about Brian as a director," Linson recalled.

"All of a sudden, the cab driver turns to us and says, 'I don't care what anybody says, if he doesn't do another movie after "Dressed to Kill," it's good enough for me.' "

"When you make a movie that's a hit, everybody says, 'Of course--you have David Mamet, De Palma, De Niro, (Sean) Connery--this was a walk in the park.' Well, it wasn't."

Although he felt it was a good movie, it took a trip to Boston to convince Linson that others felt the same.

In other words, it was time for a test screening--not one of Linson's favorite activities.

He shuddered, "It's the ultimate horror."

Linson, Tanen and De Palma attended the screening.

"Ned and I were pacing in the lobby and we must have looked bad; the concession girl finally came over and said, 'Is there anything we can do for you?' She saw two completely crazed people."

De Palma was in the theater, "but he wasn't looking at the movie," Linson recalled. "He was turned around in the front row watching the audience."

Linson groaned. "Ned kept saying, 'Get a grip on yourself and get back in the theater,' but I couldn't. There were guys in there with hand-held computers.' "

So the two ducked in and out to watch the crowd react to various scenes. It was during one of those moments, Linson said, that he knew he "had a movie."

It came during the much written-about baby carriage-on-the-train-station-steps scene. "There were five guys--big Boston guys--sitting in front of us," Linson said. "When the guy on the stairs got shot, these guys jumped up and gave 'high fives' to each other. I told Ned, 'I think we're gonna be OK.' "

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