Missing in Action

During his micro reign at Columbia Pictures, David Puttnam has always seemed among the most accessible studio bosses. (He once called Outtakes from a phone booth at a London airport to clarify a point in an item!)

So it was curious that he wasn't present in Aaron Latham's opus on Puttnam's hazardous duty tour--titled "Puttnam Busters"--in the November issue of Manhattan Inc., complete with an illustration in which a rather ghostly Puttnam is popping out of the "Ghostbusters" logo.

The drawing--like the article's subheads (which included "The Mission," "Local Hero-Local Anti-hero" and "The Way We Were")--is chock full of meaning. After all, Puttnam reportedly once took a shot at Bill Murray. As the story goes, he said that "Bill Murray is a taker," rather than someone who gives back to the industry. Well, this so steamed Murray that he has refused to do "Ghostbusters II" for the studio.

We asked Latham about the missing man.

"I tried desperately to get in touch with him," he said. He put in several calls to his office at Columbia. When he learned Puttnam was in Tokyo at a film festival, "I called some of the Toyko hotels, hoping to find him. But I never made contact."

Latham also tried to convince Puttnam chums to talk. But most proved evasive.

Puttnam was in continual controversy. Like the oft-reported tiffs with Bill Cosby, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Like behind-the-scenes intrigue involving magna-producer Ray Stark, who has a preference for big stars and big budgets that Puttnam publicly deplores.

But even in his departing weeks, Columbia execs quoted in the piece weren't anxious to go on the record about Puttnam and went nameless and faceless.

"There's no question they were paranoid," said Latham, who explained that one exec would only meet with him at his hotel "because he didn't want to be seen with me on the lot."

When Latham went to the studio to interview another exec, it was in the guise of a story meeting (Latham did the scripts for "Urban Cowboy" and "Perfect")--"as a kind of camouflage."

One thing that wasn't camouflaged in the piece: its pro-Stark leanings.

In fact, some insiders are snickering that Stark supporters supplied much of the article's ammo against Puttnam.

"That's not true. As it happens, I never talked with Mr. Ray Stark for the piece. I left messages, but never heard back from him," said Latham, adding, "but I did talk to his office."

(Don Safran, director of marketing for Ray Stark Prods., denies that he or anyone else from the office participated in Latham's piece. "But why ask, anyway? It's not really the kind of article you need sources for. I mean, it's a satirical piece--more about Hollywood than an individual.")

Stressing that the piece was "as balanced as it could be under the circumstances," Latham said he's reaped a lot of praise ("some of it from Puttnam's friends")--and he pointed out that NYC columnist Liz Smith called it one of the best magazine stories of the year.

After the piece came out in print, Latham got a phone call from Puttnam.

"I went over to his house, and we had a long, long, off-the-record talk--for probably an hour and a half," said Latham.

Turns out that Puttnam never got wind of Latham's interview requests. "He said that if he'd known I was looking for him, he'd have gotten in touch," said Latham. "And, he said he'd wished more of his friends had talked with me."

There were other things said, too . . . things that Latham would like to put into print.

"I'm not saying that it would be a vastly different article--but it would express his point of view."

He says he's awaiting some word from Puttnam--now deciding if he should/shouldn't go on the record with his side.

Postscript: Over at Vanity Fair, an article's said to be in the works about Puttnam. Reps for the magazine wouldn't talk about it . . . but one source claims it's about "how Ray Stark got David Puttnam."

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