Gary Lucchesi used to have this recurring dream as president of production at Paramount Pictures, where the job entailed overseeing production of 16 movies a year.
“I was like The Terminator,” he recalled with a laugh, “and there were all these guys shooting bullets at me--but I’d just keep on walking.”
No studio chief can dodge bullets forever, and Lucchesi left his post in November of 1991. But during his years at Paramount, he shepherded such hits as “Ghost,” “Coming to America, " “Black Rain” and “Naked Gun I and 2 1/2" to the screen.
That was Lucchesi’s second Hollywood career.
In his first, he had been one of Hollywood’s youngest talent agents, rising from the legendary mail room at the William Morris Agency at age 24 to sign Kevin Costner, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich, Susan Sarandon, Sam Shepard and director Nicholas Meyer. It was a dizzying time, filled with travel, power lunches and meeting some of the town’s leading filmmakers.
Today, at 37, Lucchesi is on his third Hollywood career. As a producer at Paramount, it has fallen to Lucchesi and 15 other production companies on the lot to develop films that can fill the production pipeline in the wake of the unexpected resignation last fall of Brandon Tartikoff, the chairman of Paramount Pictures.
At the time of Tartikoff’s departure, Paramount was criticized for an embarrassing lack of product, particularly for the recent holiday season. The studio weighed in with only one film during the lucrative Christmas period: “Leap of Faith” starring Steve Martin. The movie cost $32 million but to date has brought in only $9.1 million at the box office.
Paramount currently has 14 films scheduled for release in 1993, ranging from “Sliver” with Sharon Stone and the Tom Cruise suspense thriller “The Firm,” to sequels of such hit movies as “Beverly Hills Cop III,” “The Addams Family 2" and “Wayne’s World 2.”
Tartikoff’s replacement, Sherry Lansing, chairman of the motion picture group of Paramount Pictures, has reportedly put only two films into production in the two months since her appointment and the industry is waiting to see what her taste will be. It will be a year or more before the movies she greenlights reach the theaters and Lucchesi said the challenge for producers on the lot is to provide her with films that will be financially successful.
“We are in a day and age when you’ve got to look at the business side of every film,” he said. “There is no reward to making a movie that people don’t see or that is unprofitable.”
Lucchesi is developing his own slate of projects that he hopes will get a green light from Lansing. His scripts seem more in line with Lansing’s track record as a producer for high-toned, adult themes than with Tartikoff’s youth-oriented TV spinoffs. Lucchesi’s projects include “Georgia O’Keeffe,” a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer about the artist and her love affair with and marriage to the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Other scripts in development are “Primal Fear,” a Perry Mason-in-the-'90s-style courtroom drama starring John Malkovich and “The Lost City,” a project with actor Andy Garcia that Lucchesi calls a Cuban “Godfather.” Lucchesi is also developing “Oda Mae,” a spinoff of Whoopi Goldberg’s character in “Ghost.”
Ironically, Lucchesi had never intended to make movies, let alone be a talent agent. The son of a bread-truck driver in San Francisco, he had gone to UCLA in the mid-1970s as a history major. One semester, he sneaked into a course on the entertainment business given by record executive David Geffen. Lucchesi had heard that singer Joni Mitchell was going to be there that day.
But it was the other speakers that Geffen brought to the class that fueled Lucchesi’s imagination--men like Sid Sheinberg, Mike Medavoy, the late Steve Ross and Ned Tanen.
“It was the first time in my life I had ever met rich people,” Lucchesi recalled. At the end of the semester, he asked Geffen how he could do what they did.
“You do what I did,” Geffen told him. “You go to the mail room at William Morris and get into their training program.”
In those days, working in the mail room not only involved sorting mail, but making copies on an old A. B. Dick machine. “Your hands would be all purple at the end of the day.” Morris trainees would also be required to make dispatch runs around town. “You learned how to find all the studios,” Lucchesi recalled.
After eight months in the mail room, Lucchesi was made a secretary to Stan Kamen, who at that time represented many of the big stars, and became an agent at 24.
One of his big breaks occurred when Lucchesi and his wife took actor Peter Horton (“thirty-something”) and his then-girlfriend, Michelle Pfeiffer, out for dinner at Jack’s at the Beach. After driving back to Horton’s home, Horton and Deborah Lucchesi sat down at a piano and played side-by-side for two hours. Lucchesi, meanwhile, went over to talk to Pfeiffer. While the music played in another room, he convinced Pfeiffer that he should be her agent.
Lucchesi also credits his wife with bringing Kevin Costner to his attention.
“She was casting ‘Mike’s Murder’ with a woman named Wally Nicita,” Lucchesi said, when someone sent in a photo of an obscure actor named Costner. “We met this young guy and he was one of the most personable people I’d ever met. In those days, you weren’t supposed to sign unknown talent at Morris, but I did.”
Costner’s first film for Lucchesi was “Fandango.”
Lucchesi met Malkovich when the actor was performing in a Sam Shepard play called “True West” in New York.
But Lucchesi said he wanted to do more than make deals, so at 28 he took a job as a vice president of production at TriStar Pictures, only to find that no matter how powerful an agent he had been, being a mid-level studio executive was humbling. “I left being a substantial young agent to become a nobody,” he said.
In time, TriStar elevated him to senior vice president of production, where he was associated with such films as “Places in the Heart” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
Then at 30, Ned Tanen--one of the guest speakers at Geffen’s UCLA class--who was then head of Paramount’s motion picture group, brought Lucchesi to his studio. In five months, Lucchesi became president of production.
It was an exhilarating experience, he said, despite the seven-day work weeks and frantic phone calls detailing the latest crisis on some far off movie set.
Like the time he learned that a mock submarine built for the naval thriller “Hunt for Red October” dove beneath the surface of the ocean off Santa Barbara--and never came up.
Or the time he was about to leave with Deborah on an Hawaiian vacation when the phone rang late one night. There was a crisis on the Virginia set of “Crazy People.” The director had done such a poor job he had to be replaced immediately. Then Lucchesi discovered that one of the stars had had a nervous breakdown. While Lucchesi hopped on a flight to the East Coast, his wife flew off to Honolulu.
Although he loved the work, Lucchesi said “all of a sudden, you become a business person rather than a creative person. The more you rise as an executive, the more you talk in numeral terms and try to turn the business of moviemaking into a science.
“I think the founding fathers of the movie business were closer to the public than we are today. Samuel Goldwyn was not a good reader, but he understood the common man. The movie executives who rise up today . . . try to be more Wall Street than Main Street.
“In the old days, a vice president (of production) could develop what they wanted and the president of production would greenlight it,” he continued. “Today, the president of production develops projects and it’s the head of the studio who does the greenlighting.”
Among the films he was most proud of having a hand in was “Ghost,” which had the unorthodox cast of Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. At the time, Goldberg had not been in a hit for a long time, Moore was in a few hits and a few flops and Harrison Ford had passed on the project five times until Swayze read for it. The film went on to gross $217.6 million.
Lucchesi said his biggest regret was that he passed on the Academy Award-winning Western “Dances With Wolves.”
“I just kicked myself. I vowed at that point that I would never distance myself emotionally and intellectually again from talent.”
Two weeks after leaving his studio post, Lucchesi was asked to try and rescue a film then in production called “Jennifer 8,” a suspense thriller starring Andy Garcia. At the time, the production was 18 days behind schedule and $3 million over budget. Lucchesi replaced the line producer, production manager and first assistant director, but the movie took in only $11 million at the box office.
Still, Lucchesi said being a producer gave him an opportunity to become “more intimate with the creative process.”
“I think as one grows older, you keep reinventing your life,” he said. “My first incarnation was as an agent. My second was as a studio executive. Now, I’m trying to combine both of those skills into that of a producer.”
Without dreaming of Terminator 2, of course.