David Permut, a fast-talking workaholic producer with movies in development at just about every studio in town, had just signed a deal with Disney to make Neil Simon’s romantic comedy “The Marrying Man"when his secretary forced him to take a short vacation in Hawaii.
Just as the plane lifted off over the Pacific, Permut, 36, the producer of “Dragnet” and “Blind Date,” opened one of Hollywood’s daily trade publications and panicked. Alan King, Permut read, was threatening a lawsuit against Permut, Simon and Disney for stealing what King claimed was his idea.
It seems that many months earlier, King was holding court at a Palm Springs celebrity tennis tournament and had spun the yarn of the roller-coaster romance of shoe-store tycoon Harry Karl, who besides marrying Debbie Reynolds actually married the same Hollywood starlet, Marie (The Body) McDonald, four different times. Simon heard the story, was intrigued by the idea of two people loving each other enough to marry four times and turned that basic premise into his own fictional screenplay.
The plot, the twists and the jokes were all Simon’s and set to go before the cameras, but in the first 10 minutes of his first vacation in 10 years, Permut was working the airplane phones. He called Simon. He called his lawyer. He called anyone he could think of to help him through the interminable flight. When he landed in Honolulu five hours later, he jumped right back on a plane to L.A.
“I was in Hawaii for 26 minutes,” Permut said. “And I came back paler than when I left.”
Considering the nightmare of aggravation, profanity and flying furniture that “The Marrying Man” became for Permut and his crew, he probably would have been better off flying as far from Hollywood as modern aviation could take him.
The trouble with King went away quietly and relatively easily with an out-of-court settlement. But the trouble with the film’s stars, Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, who fell in love themselves at the outset of the shoot, did not go away at all.
The egomaniacal spats between the couple, Disney and the movie crew is already Hollywood legend. Magazine accounts of the behind-the-scenes strife, confirmed by sources close to the film, included Baldwin’s violent temper tantrums in which he threw a chair, smashed camera lenses, punched a wall and ripped a cellular phone from a Disney executive’s hand. The stories include Basinger’s feud with Simon over her dialogue and a prima-donna attitude that resulted in the firing of the original director of photography. She refused to do extra takes and demanded constant delays to “fluff” her hair. Her insistence that the sun not touch her fair skin turned the film’s Directors Guild trainee into her parasol-holder.
The dynamic duo banished two Disney executives from the set; the film’s line producer was banned as well. And both Baldwin and Basinger, especially once their own romance heated up, were sometimes hours late to the set, leaving the entire crew to sit around and wait. What was initially intended as a $15-million film topped out at more than $26 million.
Producer Permut, the man caught in the middle of the war between the studio and the stars, was not spared either. With the Disney executives banned during 10 days of contentious reshoots, Permut became the target of Baldwin’s rage.
In an interview this week, Permut declined to comment on the turbulent birth of this film, saying only that he “enjoys a certain amount of drama in his life” and that “it was an extraordinarily difficult and grueling shoot, a fierce tug-of-war.”
His feelings about what went on can probably best be summed up in the T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “I survived the reshoot of ‘The Marrying Man,’ ” that he presented to each member of the crew at production’s end.
Asked why the television commercial for the film contains scenes that have been edited out of the actual movie, Permut quipped, “We’re saving those for the sequel.”
Permut refuses to publicly dish the dirt on the behind-the-scenes fracas because he says that it detracts from what the filmmakers were able to accomplish in spite of it. He praises rookie director Jerry Rees, who had been hired relatively cheaply on the insistence of Disney Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, for “capturing the true spirit of these characters” and for “re-creating the magnificent look” of 1940s Hollywood and Las Vegas glamour. He extols the fiery chemistry between Basinger and Baldwin that is at the center of this film about heat, passion and fated love eventually conquering all.
And he shrugs off Premiere magazine’s assertion that the studios are to blame for creating these movie-star monsters by catering to their every whim in the first place. “No press is bad press,” he said, suggesting that the well-documented melees might well bring more people into the theaters just to see what all the fuss was about.
“Disney tends to be very actively involved in their productions,” Permut continued. “That’s no secret and I’m not saying that’s good or bad. This was a big movie with big stars and a big period-piece setting. It’s difficult to be the guy in the middle. The bullets are always flying. You just have to try not to get hit too badly. And look. I’m still here and I’m still making movies.”
Indeed. Permut--who as a teen-ager sold his own homemade maps to the homes of Hollywood stars and even gave personal tours of his own home when his parents were away, telling customers Jerry Lewis lived there--has plenty more balls in the air.
His “Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story” aired on CBS just this week. There’s “29th Street,” a comedy directed by George Gallo, the writer of “Midnight Run,” due out from Fox in October. Also in October, he is scheduled to begin production on two new features. He’s got another TV movie about two lawyers, murder and incest in development at CBS, a thriller under way at Paramount, a buddy-cop spoof at Tri-Star and a comedy with Steve Martin and John Candy in the works at Universal. He owns the rights for movies based on the old television hits “The Little Rascals” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” and is planning to make a film with Rodney Dangerfield. He still hopes to produce the Janis Joplin story, a project in the works now for 12 years. And over at Disney, he’s developing “The Passion of Richard Nixon,” hopefully starring Tom Hanks, Permut said, and “Palm Beached,” the true story of a Venezuelan freighter that crashed into the pool of a Palm Beach socialite, a pet project that is being developed as a musical, he said.
“The perception is that Permut plays the numbers. He’s got development deals all over hell’s half acre,” Permut said of his more than 30 ongoing projects. “But to me it’s not a hustle. It’s not just throwing a ton of things up and seeing what sticks. Hustle is selling the sizzle and not the steak. There is a lot of sizzle in the selling, but I believe that all of my projects have the steak.”
When prodded that a stake might have come in handy during production of “The Marrying Man,” Permut concluded: “You have to keep your sense of humor about all this. We’re only making movies. We’re not solving world hunger or building world peace. In the end, it’s just a movie.”