The Toys in His Attic : Barry Levinson intended ‘Toys’ to be his first directorial outing, but somehow : ‘Diner,’ ‘Good Morning, Vietnam,’ ‘Rain Man’ and ‘Bugsy’ got in the way

<i> Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer</i>

If directors such as Howard Hawks and John Ford left an indelible stamp on their work, audiences walking out of a Barry Levinson movie would be hard-pressed to identify it as his. For, with the exception of the deeply personal Baltimore projects--”Diner,” “Tin Men” and “Avalon”--films such as “The Natural,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rain Man” and “Bugsy” seemingly have little in common.

“Levinson has no discernible style . . . a ‘style sans style, ‘ as the French would say,” observes film critic David Denby. “Still, each movie doesn’t have to have a signature. The auteur period has passed. I’d rather see a good director exploring and defining himself each time out than a bad one repeating the same old ideas.”

“Toys”--an absurdist fantasy about the attempted takeover of a family toy factory by a mean-spirited general--is nevertheless a greater departure than usual: a wacky, over-the-top film more representative of Terry Gilliam than of the reserved and low-key Levinson. Scheduled for release Friday by 20th Century Fox, “Toys” draws the audience into an elaborately eccentric $38-million world inhabited by the ultimate in dysfunctional families.


There’s an ailing toy magnate (Donald O’Connor) whose pacemaker is hooked up to a propeller beanie (lack of movement serves as an early warning signal); his son (Robin Williams), a child/man who gets a kick out of “possessed” deviled eggs and sports a smoking jacket that envelops the wearer in fumes; an emotionally stalled daughter (Joan Cusack) who walks around in clip-on doll clothes she designs herself; the magnate’s brother (Michael Gambon), a three-star general turned toy factory mogul--dubbed “F.A.O. Schwarzkopf”--who’s determined to give the military a miniature shot in the arm; and a nephew (rapper LL Cool J), born of a union between the general and a woman who, disguised as a Jane Fonda look-alike, disappeared on a reconnaissance mission in Southeast Asia. Williams’ love interest (Robin Wright) provides a quasi-normal take on the surrealistic proceedings.

The movie--complete with a vomit lab (which manufactures rubber Teriyaki Toss or Hasidic Heave, depending on the meal) and “Woozie Helmets” (for going on trips without fear of luggage loss)--is considered to be a risk of sorts: unorthodox, child-oriented subject matter with an adult subtext and sensibility. Intimates say it reveals a side of Levinson that hasn’t surfaced before.

“The zaniness, the silliness, has always been there,” says Mark Johnson, Levinson’s longtime producer and partner in Baltimore Pictures. “But it’s seemingly at odds with his demeanor. Barry’s very internal. People think of him as distant. Unless you ‘earn’ it, unless he’s comfortable with you, you don’t get to see his funny side.”

Levinson’s fanciful bent first manifested itself at the age of 21 when, while working as floor director at Washington’s WTOP-TV, he operated hand puppets such as Dr. Fox, Oswald Rabbit and Marvin Monkey on “The Ranger Hal Show.” Hiding behind the sets, he says, made performing a little easier.

“I am shy,” the 50-year-old director admits, sitting at the back of the Fox studio sound stage where the climactic battle scene for “Toys” is being scored. Shoulder-length silver hair cascades onto a dapper white double-pocket shirt. Brown suede shoes tap along to the beat. “It’s with great reluctance that I get out in front. I even find meeting people at parties, making small talk, intimidating.”

Still, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in the late ‘60s, the director put himself in the most public of pressure-cookers, performing humorous improvisations with actor Craig T. Nelson (TV’s “Coach”) at the Troubadour and Pasadena’s Ice House. Hard to imagine, he now concedes. But, then, stand-up was never a craft he sought to perfect. Merely a means to some end.


That end, as it turned out, was comedy writing. Levinson wrote for KNBC-TV’s rowdy variety program “The Lohman and Barkley Show,” creating such absurdist soap operas as “Lawyers and the Pigs” and “Doctors and the Viking.” He sold material to “The Steve Allen Show.” After working in TV for Tim Conway and Carol Burnett, he apprenticed himself to actor-director Mel Brooks and, between 1975 and 1977, co-wrote “Silent Movie” and “High Anxiety.” With first wife Valerie Curtin, he turned out screenplays for “. . . And Justice for All,” “Inside Moves,” “Best Friends,” a remake of “Unfaithfully Yours” and “Toys”--written in 1979 and intended as his first directorial outing.

At no time, Levinson insists, did he formulate a game plan. Heading out to L.A. was a way of extricating himself from a boring administrative spot at another Washington TV station. Writing was a way of ridding himself of the snippets accumulating in his mind. To the chagrin of hard-working writers everywhere, the director recalls dictating “Tin Men” and “Avalon” off the top of his head--unconsciously stepping in and out of character while speaking into a tape recorder or having someone take notes. It’s re- writing that doesn’t come easily, he says.

Though Levinson never knew what he wanted to do, what he didn’t want to do was quite clear. “My greatest nightmare was the thought that I’d end up selling TVs and refrigerators in my father’s appliance store,” he says, eyes twinkling as he lays on a hint of a Borscht Belt accent. “My father, in fact, approached the movie business that way. When I told him I wasn’t selling my sketches, he said, ‘At least you’ve got inventory.’ When I became a director but had no giant hits, he told me to write Sylvester Stallone movies--whether I liked them or not. ‘Let me tell you,’ he said, ‘if blond furniture sells, I carry blond furniture.’

“The difference, I explained, is that he was selling blond furniture, not making it,” continues the director, for whom “pitching” a movie is still an ordeal. “To do a film because there’s a market for it--that’s the cheat. I do the movies I want to do. If I seem schizophrenic, it’s because a broad range of topics excites me.”

Though films such as “Diner” and “Tin Men” were well received by critics, not until 1987’s “Good Morning, Vietnam,” his fifth outing, did the director score big. If any doubt remained about his box-office viability, winning the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for 1988’s surprise blockbuster “Rain Man”--a film that had already been tackled by a number of others--cemented his place on Hollywood’s A-list.

“Barry has enjoyed his success by ignoring the rules,” notes critic David Ansen. “ ‘Rain Man’ is the perfect example. All the previous directors tried to insert more ‘story,’ make the movie more ‘high-concept.’ Barry, for whom ‘narrative’ has never been central, was content with a character study. So what, he figured, if nothing happened? Whereas (Steven) Spielberg and Sydney Pollack tried to ‘solve’ the movie, Barry Levinson said, ‘Don’t solve it . . . just film it.’ ”

Even so-called “genre” films, acknowledges the director, become twisted in his grasp. And those “good guys” and “bad guys” that make for accessibility rarely turn up.

“ ‘Diner’ wasn’t quite a ‘50s coming-of-age film,” Levinson explains. “MGM hated it because it wasn’t ‘Grease’ with goofy guys standing in convertibles snapping their fingers. ‘The Natural’ was funny, preposterous, larger-than-life . . . much less straightforward than previous baseball films. ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’? Vietnam and comedy was considered the kiss of death . . . yet that $12-million picture brought in $130 million domestically.

“Though it may sound silly, I never even thought of ‘Rain Man’ as a way to make money,” he says of the film that grossed $175 million domestic and $225 million foreign. “ ‘Autistic? What is it? Sounds depressing.’ People stared blankly when I brought it up.”

“Toys,” Levinson and Johnson, acknowledge, was an even tougher sell. Fox, nervous about the seemingly “dark” cross pollination between kids’ video games and military computer warfare, put the movie into turnaround in 1980--up for grabs to anyone willing to pay back the investment. Columbia’s David Puttnam wanted to produce it, but Fox had second thoughts and refused to give him the rights. Not until former Fox chairman Joe Roth came along did the studio give “Toys” a “go.”

“We felt like we had a pariah on our hands: No one would agree to make the one film Barry really wanted to make,” Johnson recalls. “We kept using the word ‘whimsy.’ The studios kept reading it as a black comedy--a genre which has never been profitable. A part of me actually laments the fact that we finally made it, though. There was something nice about being on the list of the top 10 unproduced screenplays year after year.”

The film, says Levinson, is not an “anti-military” statement--merely a reflection on how unreal and amoral warfare has become. “The title is ironic,” the director begins, clearly uncomfortable with having to “explain” his work. “Big toys, little toys--it’s all a game, watching that missile go down the chimney blowing up that factory in Iraq could have been in a video arcade. The timing of the movie, actually, couldn’t be better. Communism has collapsed and it’s hard getting money to raise the flag. Investing in a force of tiny, remote-controlled $5,000 planes instead of a $450-million one is one way of beating the cutbacks.”

At some point, Levinson says, he’ll be returning to his semi-autobiographical Baltimore films. (“Why is that any different from Tennessee Williams writing about the South?” he asks a bit defensively.) A couple, in fact, are already simmering. Colleagues forecast seven or eight before he steps down.

“Baltimore runs deep in Barry,” observes “Bugsy” star Warren Beatty, a close friend of the director. “It’s not that he’s caught up in the past. He just wants to understand its relevance to the present. His frame of reference goes far beyond movies.”

Friends say much can be learned about Levinson from “Diner”--his difficulty communicating with women, the male-oriented perspective that informs his films. (Annette Bening in “Bugsy” had one of his few, fleshed-out female roles.) Still, they note, like most artists, he’s a bit on the periphery--more of a detached observer than “one of the guys.”

What sets him apart, they maintain, is an unshakable sense of self. When he was a writer on “The Carol Burnett Show,” Levinson asked his mother what part she liked best. “I loved it when they danced,” she replied. “I didn’t write that,” he pointed out. “I know,” she said. Though Levinson evidently cared enough to recount the incident to friends, he insisted he was unperturbed.

“Barry told me that most of us spend our lives on psychologists’ couches figuring out how to please our parents,” recalls Johnson. “That, he said, never motivated him. If Barry is pleased with something, he doesn’t care what others think. We’re all devastated by bad reviews and low turnout. Barry is just fine.”

Such security and detachment, however, can also translate as “remote.” On the set, the director is all business, not given to chitchat. Clear in his vision, he--like many directors--has trouble articulating it and knowing upfront how to achieve it. Some crew members and stars express frustration with the lack of information. Others find the approach very liberating.

“Barry, especially for a writer, isn’t wedded to his words,” notes Robin Williams during long-distance phone conversation from Morocco where he’s shooting Bill Forsyth’s “Being Human.” “We put my (pre-battle) speech to the windup toys together in five or six different takes: a little Patton, a little Henry V, a little Abraham Lincoln. His confidence in what he’s doing makes him very free.”

Beatty compares Levinson to veteran director George Stevens (“Giant,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane”). “They’re both very funny,” he observes. “And part of the fun is figuring out just what they have in mind. By not forcing you into any particular mold, Barry takes a lot of the pressure off.”

There’s never any doubt, however, as to who is the boss. Though Levinson’s mellow ways have enabled him to work compatibly with some of Hollywood’s more demanding superstars--Beatty, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman--he’s also a man who doesn’t suffer foul-ups gladly. On “Toys,” the most technically challenging film he has undertaken, a couple of glitches set him off. One flare malfunctioned 22 times. An inept plane crash--initially intended as a one-shot deal--required that an intricate model of New York City be rebuilt.

On every film, Johnson says, he and Levinson engage in one “knockdown, drag-out fight”--fueling rumors (and self-doubt) about the endurance of their partnership. “In Bangkok (for “Good Morning, Vietnam”), we were screaming so loud outside the hotel that observers were convinced I’d be pulling a gun,” he says, only half-jokingly. “But usually we have a very easy relationship. I consider myself the luckiest producer in town since Barry works all the time. I don’t have to wait three or four years between movies.”

On the last day of November, the production deal between 3-year-old Baltimore Pictures and TriStar came to a close. And, given the history between the two, it’s no doubt the end of that bond. Levinson believes that both the 1990 “Avalon” (an $18-million saga about the end of the extended family that took in a paltry $15 million domestically) and last year’s “Bugsy” (a critical smash that grossed a respectable, if unexceptional, $50 million at the box office) needed special attention. The former, he says, couldn’t be easily sold in a 30-second TV spot. (“Where was ‘Avalon’s’ merchandising?” Williams quipped.) The latter needed to be distinguished from unsuccessful gangster films such as “Billy Bathgate” and “Mobsters.” Twice, he charges, TriStar’s distribution wing failed to come through.

The director is critical of the fact that the studio opened “Avalon” in six theaters and, without allowing the film to build, immediately increased that number to 600. “Bugsy,” he says, was booked into 1,200 venues--nearly half of them second-rate. In Atlanta, Levinson discovered, two of the weekend 8 p.m. shows were given over to another picture to create a “split bill.” Not only did the studio give its tacit approval, he notes, it failed to apprise him of the move.

“We all have movies that don’t succeed but, at least, we should put our best foot forward,” the director asserts. “Instead of assessing the values of each film, laying the problems out on the table, and adjusting its distribution accordingly, TriStar treats each film exactly the same. That ‘Hook’ came out at the same time (as “Bugsy”) certainly didn’t help. TriStar is less able than other studios to distribute more than one film simultaneously.

“ ‘Terminator 2’ is a pre-sold item,” he continues, “but my movies aren’t straight on the mark. Proper handling would have helped ‘Avalon’ get its feet on the ground and added maybe another $15 million to ‘Bugsy.’

Michael Medavoy, chairman of TriStar Pictures, makes no apologies to Levinson. ‘ ‘Avalon’ wasn’t a wide-market movie,” he says, “and we spent a lot of money to prove we could do it well. Putting it in a lot of theaters maximized the chance of making back our investment. Maybe we guessed wrong, but I don’t think anyone in the business could have squeezed another nickel out of it--or ‘Bugsy,’ for that matter.

“TriStar has a wonderful marketing team, the best in the business,” he adds. “We’re capable of handling not only two pictures, but three at a time. We may have had problems with Barry, but I like him a lot. Hopefully we can be friends and, who knows, even make movies together.”

Baltimore Pictures is currently assessing not only its options but its goals. Should the nine-person company continue to serve as executive producer for a host of films directed and produced by others, (most recently, Tim Robbins’ “Bob Roberts”), they will merge with another independent--possibly Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises--to better handle the work load. Even if they decide to narrow their sights, a change of distributors is in the offing.

For the moment, however, the plate is full, with a production slate that includes: “Wilder Napalm,” a Glenn Gordon Caron comedy with Debra Winger and Dennis Quaid; Clint Eastwood’s “Perfect World,” starring Kevin Costner; Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show”; “Sniper,” starring Tom Berenger and Billy Zane; “Waco’s Convenience,” to be directed by Vince Gilligan, who wrote “Wilder Napalm,” and an HBO movie about the life of CBS founder William Paley.

Levinson has also embarked on another foray into the small screen, producing (and directing the first episode of) “Homicide: A Year in the Street,” a gritty NBC mid-season replacement series, based on a book by reporter David Simon about a Baltimore homicide squad. Last June, Levinson and Simon went public with a plagiarism claim charging that Warner Bros. had lifted scenes and dialogue from the author’s work for its CBS-TV series “Polish Hill.” Changes were made in the pilot episode, however, and the dispute was resolved. “There will be no car chases, no shootouts,” says Levinson of his new show, admitting nonetheless that it’s “a little on the sick side.” Six episodes have been completed and the program has been picked up for three more.

A nice spot to be in, considering that Levinson never set his sights high. “Barry is in an extremely enviable position in Hollywood: the ultimate insider as well as the ultimate outsider,” Ansen says. “Though he’s undoubtedly part of the Establishment, friends with (CAA chief) Michael Ovitz, working with all the top stars, he makes movies on his own terms.”

Still, editing his TV show while engaged in down-to-the-wire post-production on “Toys” has pushed Levinson to the brink. After four years of back-to-back movies, he’s telling his friends that a break is in store.

One gets the sense, however, it won’t be for long.

“Just as I never imagined a time when I’d be making films,” Levinson says with a sly smile, “I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be making them.”