The Hollywood Seven

James Bates covers Hollywood for The Times' business section. He last wrote for the magazine about Edgar Bronfman Jr

In the summer of 1978, in such Hollywood haunts of the day as Le Dome, Ma Maison and Imperial Gardens, a button appeared on lapels that read "Free the Baby Moguls." It was an inside joke, or as inside as jokes can be in Hollywood, which is to say a few thousand people probably got it. The reference was to six studio executives and one agent in their late 20s and early 30s profiled in an article, "The Baby Moguls," in New West magazine.

The seven--Universal Studios executives Thom Mount and Sean Daniel, Warner Bros. executive Mark Rosenberg, Claire Townsend and Paula Weinstein of 20th Century Fox, Don Simpson of Paramount Pictures and agent Michael Black--were an arbitrary choice to begin with. Any one of 50 young executives--some of whom turned out to be true moguls, such as Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg--were percolating alongside them in Hollywood's farm systems at the time.

As portrayed by writer Maureen Orth, they were brash and cocky. Having just established a toehold in Hollywood, they vowed to bring to movies the kind of idealism forged 10 years earlier in protest of the Vietnam War. Working through nights and on weekends, they lived in modest apartments furnished with a few books and worn Beatles albums. They disdained traditional Hollywood--then reeling from the check-forging scandal involving Columbia Pictures president David Begelman--with the same fervor as they did the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The Polo Lounge, where Hollywood's establishment hung out, was to them "the Polio Lounge"; super-agent Sue Mengers' legendary parties were shunned, and they proclaimed the last thing they wanted to be was producer Bob Evans.

The "Baby Moguls" story was the talk of Hollywood, and the industry establishment hated it. Orth today recalls that one producer offered to bet her $50,000 that none of the seven would be in the business in five years. Still another executive called Orth to ask her to summarize her piece, because he hadn't read it and was heading to a party. Mengers told Black it was just as well the Baby Moguls didn't want to attend her parties, because it would be a cold day in hell when any of them were invited.

In the 20 years since the article was published, just four of the Baby Mogul seven survive. Simpson died from a drug overdose in 1996, Rosenberg of a heart attack in 1992 and Townsend of cancer in 1995. Daniel, Weinstein and Mount work as producers. Black last year quit the agency business to become a manager for such longtime clients as Tommy Lee Jones. The six who were studio executives left their jobs within a few years, weary of the politics and backbiting. A disillusioned Townsend dropped out of the business altogether. Although some of the Baby Moguls were involved with well-received films such as "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Bull Durham" "Top Gun" and "Dazed and Confused," none ended up a true mogul. None ranks today on any of the annual entertainment industry's "power lists."

Far from upsetting the studio system, the seven ran head-on into a Hollywood that was changing beneath their feet. Hollywood was on a cusp, but it wasn't entering a new, enlightened era. A year earlier, "Star Wars" smashed box-office records, ushering in the roll-the-dice, blockbuster mentality that dominates today. Soon, films weren't just movies but "franchises" that had to play as well in Sri Lanka as Omaha.

Filmmaker and actor Robert Redford, who befriended Townsend, calls that period "a transition between a period of ideology and hope to the reality of the '80s, when everyone moved into the market-share mentality." The more cynical voices add that the very things the Baby Moguls professed to disdain when they arrived in town--namely power and money--ultimately were irresistible. "They didn't want to be Bob Evans, but they wanted his home," Black says. "They didn't want to go to Sue Mengers' parties, but, trust me, they wanted her pool."

Orth's article may not go down with Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" or Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?" Still, it presaged the day when movie executives became celebrities in their own right, and magazines would have us on a first-name basis with Jeffrey, Steven and David. The Baby Mogul experience also serves as a reminder of how ephemeral power and status are in Hollywood--how one moment Michael Ovitz can be "the most powerful man in Hollywood " and the next all but forgotten.

*

The way he was described in the late 1970s, thom Mount--who had dated Orth--appeared headed for the absolute pinnacle of Hollywood. Life magazine, which was intrigued enough by Orth's story to steal it, described Mount as "generally considered the most ambitious young executive in Hollywood." For Mount, however, the journey would not be as smooth as the articles had all but ordained. After heading film production at Universal, he became an independent producer in 1984 following a management cleansing. He produced "Bull Durham," "Tequila Sunrise" and director Roman Polanski's "Frantic" and came to understand that producers usually came out on the short end with studios.

"I realized that, by and large, you only make your fee," Mount says today. "The studio keeps all the money. You know that because you helped design the machinery that keeps all the money."

By the late 1980s, Mount's company was financially strapped. In the early 1990s, he was plagued by accusations in court papers challenging his integrity and truthfulness. Depositions in one suit filed by a former business partner quoted associates as saying Mount misled clients, with one former secretary alleging she quit because he forced her to lie to "essentially everyone." Mount disputed the allegations; his lawyer on the case, Gregory J. Aldisert, today says his client successfully fought them off in court. Not long after that, a much-hyped deal, in which Japanese investors were to bail Mount out of his business problems, unraveled, forcing one of his companies into bankruptcy. "It was a very sobering experience," Mount says. "But in my own view of life it was a great episode, not that I'd recommend anyone go through it. One has to reconstruct one's universe by hand."

Mount, 49, has a new production venture in Century City. Of the surviving Baby Moguls, he is the only one who fervently believes that '60s culture changed Hollywood for the better. "I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced, that the baby boom generation would change the face of Hollywood, and I think they did. A world in which a 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' could be made didn't exist before then."

*

Shortly after becoming an independent producer in 1985, Mark Rosenberg was so appalled at how studio executives behaved that he joked half-seriously to his wife, fellow Baby Mogul and producer Paula Weinstein, that he wanted to take out a full-page ad apologizing to anyone he might have offended while a studio executive himself.

A passionately liberal activist and former member of the Students for a Democratic Society, Rosenberg climbed the ranks at Warner Bros. and was named head of production in 1983. He helped bring difficult, critically acclaimed films such as "The Killing Fields" to the screen. A large man who struggled with his weight, diabetes and smoking, Rosenberg also lived it up. He was the kind of person, his brother Alan recalls, who would take a film crew out to a jazz club at 2 a.m. or order for the entire table at restaurants.

Rosenberg left Warner Bros. in 1985 after he was replaced by his junior production executive, Mark Canton, and formed a production company with director Sydney Pollack. Rosenberg and Weinstein, close friends for years through spouses and loves, had married the year before, and in 1989 opened Spring Creek Productions, named for Rosenberg's favorite fishing spot in Montana. Shortly before his death in 1992, Rosenberg drove a pickup truck from Montana to the set in Stanton, Tex., where he was producing "Flesh & Bone." Along the way, he passed through a Texas town founded by former slaves; there he spent the day eating barbecue. Giddy with excitement, he called Weinstein to tell her about it. Arriving on the set, he was sitting with crew members when a heart attack killed him. He was 44. A standing-room-only service was held in Hollywood; speakers included Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Black Panthers and Michael Black, who eulogized him as "a fellow Baby Mogul." Days after Rosenberg's death, the daughter that he and Weinstein had arranged to adopt was born.

Three years ago, Rosenberg's brother Alan, an actor, appeared on an episode of "ER," playing a man with a bad heart who dies when a transplant can't be found. Walking around the Warner Bros. lot, Alan was asked repeatedly if he was Mark's brother--not by stars, writers or executives but by the ordinary people he had crossed paths with. "They'd say he was the best guy they'd ever had around," Alan says. "These were people in places like finance." For his work on the episode, Alan received an Emmy nomination.

To this day, Weinstein cringes when she hears "Baby Moguls," as if it is a curse. "It wasn't the way I saw myself," she says. "I was a person beginning in the movie business on a huge learning curve."

One of the first women to break into Hollywood's production ranks, Weinstein had just left Warner Bros. for Fox when Orth's article appeared. She later moved to United Artists before becoming an independent producer and going into business with Rosenberg.

Weinstein, 52, argues that the only real power in Hollywood is the "power of real vision" that good filmmakers have. "The other power, which I had as a studio executive, is endowed power. It's not really power."

Weinstein is now moving into a new phase of her career, having merged her production company with director Barry Levinson's. Still, she says she doesn't want to end up having to make movies a 70 and fantasizes about returning to live in Europe, where she spent part of her childhood.

"I don't want to be pitching people," she declares, "who are now in junior high school."

*

Of all the baby moguls, the most enigmatic was Claire Townsend, if for no other reason than she was the only dropout. The daughter of Robert Townsend, author of the bestseller "Up the Organization," she had worked for Ralph Nader and crusaded against nursing home abuses. As a creative executive at United Artists and 20th Century Fox, she helped launch "Under Fire" and a project that evolved years later into the film "Awakenings." But she quickly tired of Hollywood. Redford, on whose Sundance Institute board Townsend served, recalls the frustration they shared trying to launch a film in the early 1980s about the the Amazon rain forest. "She did not have the stomach for studio politics," Redford says. "She wanted to do meaningful things that had something to do with social responsibility."

By 1982, Townsend was experiencing pains in her knees and took it as an omen. "She'd ask: 'If this were a dream, what would it mean?' She saw symbols everywhere," recalls her brother Jeffrey, a movie production designer. Adds her sister, Jill: "Claire said it meant she was being brought to her knees. That she had to get out."

She quit her job on her birthday, Feb. 20, marrying on the same day an herbal-health specialist whom she would divorce. "She said she fell out of everybody's Rolodex as soon as she left," her sister says. "It was a great eye-opener."

Townsend earned a law degree in 1990, then produced, with virtually no budget, a video documentary called "The Spirit of Peace." During its production, she discovered a lump in her breast. It was cancer. To the anguish of some of her family, Townsend shunned conventional treatment and moved to Ojai to live with her sister. In late 1995, the cancer spread to her liver. She died Dec. 19, 1995, at 43.

As a child, Townsend was inseparable from her brother Jeffrey. The youngest children in a large family, the two would scramble to ride in the rumble seat of the family station wagon and make up stories about whatever scenery had just passed.

"We called it the 'Way Back Machine,' " Jeffrey says. "It was conducive to fantasy, to storytelling."

Hanging on the wall of Jeffrey's home today is the gift he surprised Claire with on her 40th birthday. It's a drawing of a station wagon. In the rear is the Way Back Machine.

*

Sean Daniel grew up around the entertainment business and liberal politics--his father was a blacklisted TV writer--but his biggest love was movies. Raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, he planned his weekends around the movie schedules at neighborhood theaters stretching from Nemo at 110th Street to the Loews on 83rd.

Daniel, 46, was the youngest of the Baby Moguls and the label to this day causes him some embarrassment. "It's a phrase that the minute it appears in print it's self-satire," he says. When the New West article appeared, he had just joined Universal Pictures as a production vice president, overseeing "National Lampoon's Animal House." Of the Baby Moguls, Daniel probably fit in best with the studio system. He would work 12 years at Universal, a lifetime in an industry where jobs rarely last five, and produce such films as last year's "The Jackal." He recently moved his company--named Alphaville after Jean-Luc Godard's film--to Paramount Pictures.

Daniel never really believed that the children of the '60s would have much impact on Hollywood: "I thought it was an interesting premise to debate, but I didn't agree with it. I thought that it was glib to think that political organizing somehow translated into the very chaotic mix of creativity, money, marketing, vision and entertainment."

What's really changed, he notes, is the money. In his Baby Mogul days, the $2.2-million budget for "Animal House" was considered substantial. "If you told any of us back then we'd be working on movies where the average price is $50 million and the average marketing cost is $30 million, we would have said, 'What universe are you describing?' "

*

Michael Black, 50, was a protege of agent Sue Mengers when Orth proclaimed in her article that "the hot young agent" was "most likely to inherit Mengers' power and position." A Georgetown Law School graduate, Black had left entertainment law to represent stars he worshiped as a youth, such as Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn.

But Mengers' old-fashioned agenting was just then giving way to the new, more corporate style epitomized by Ovitz and his partners at Creative Artists Agency, who ruthlessly courted and kept clients and packaged them in movies with other agency clients.

"It became more of a business," Black says. "It was no longer about the show. It was all about the deal."

Through a merger, Black joined what became International

Creative Management, where he stayed until last year. "My days are magic, and garbage," he says. "Every now and then, a magic day keeps you going."

Like Daniel, Black says the biggest change is money.

"Actors used to thank me for getting another first-class tick-et for their girlfriend," he says. "Now, if you don't get a private plane, you'd better eat crow."

*

Don Simpson had no pretenses about making films with a social conscience. An Alaskan, Simpson cultivated the image of a hunter from the north ready to bag his prey in Hollywood. Orth's story may have marked the first time the onetime University of Oregon journalism student discovered how well he could manipulate the press.

"It put him on the map of larger Hollywood," says Charles Fleming, author of an upcoming biography on Simpson.

Simpson's producing career with partner Jerry Bruckheimer soared in the mid-1980s with "Top Gun" and "Flashdance," then flamed out after the big-budget disappointment "Days of Thunder." They made a comeback in 1995 with "Bad Boys," then split up after 13 years, allegedly caused in part by Simpson's drug use. Simpson was found dead of an overdose in one of his bathrooms on Jan. 19, 1996, at 52. More than 2,200 pills were found stored in alphabetical order in his bedroom closet.

Simpson had long had a severe drug habit, which makes one of his quotes in Orth's story especially ironic: "From Monday through Friday, no alcohol touches these lips," he said. "Then one night a week I give myself a good time--I go out to dinner with somebody I do business with." Even then, friends didn't believe him.

In the Orth piece, Simpson boasts of being a Phi Beta Kappa at Oregon; Fleming says he found that Simpson was, at best, an average student there: "He brought the same kind of story sense that made him successful in Hollywood to his own history," Fleming says.

Simpson also told Orth a story that he would later call his "Rosebud" moment: that he had decided, at age 10, to go into the movie business after watching "The Greatest Show on Earth" and becoming so distraught that the clown, played by James Stewart, turned out to be a murderer that he asked the theater owner to change the ending. Fleming says Simpson told several versions of the story, including one to him personally.

"It's a great story," Fleming says. "And probably not true."

Simpson's brother, Lary, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying only: "There are many good, positive things about him that overshadow the negative things the press has focused on." Last year, Lary and other members of Simpson's family established a scholarship in Simpson's name at Oregon. It's to help aspiring journalists.

*

At the end of Orth's piece, Weinstein summarizes what appeared to have been at stake:

"The '60s will have come to nothing if we have come through them and don't know how to apply those cultural experiences, if we become so involved in power and the accouterments of power, the big bucks and fast money, that we forget the passions we've learned. We've got to keep them," Weinstein insisted, invoking her generation's gut disdain for the World War II generation, unaware that what she and her peers were creating would soon dwarf what they were rejecting.

"It's the only way to make films the people out of the '50s couldn't make."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°