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He Has a Most Storied Life

Elizabeth Jensen is a Times staff writer

On an evening late in May, Robert Halmi Sr. is holding court at the centuries-old table that graces the dining room of his villa in the hills above Marbella, Spain. Supping on a first course of garlic soup, he is musing on all the grandiose television projects he still dreams of doing before turning 80--just five years from now.

High on his list of current obsessions: the classic opera “Carmen.” Never mind that the great masses of television viewers Halmi will expect to watch aren’t familiar with the story of the tragic Spanish Gypsy. Halmi’s vision is to do it . . . without music. He giggles at the audacity of the thought--a real “hee-hee” that frequently escapes him, a surprising counterpoint to the rich, cultured way in which he spins tales.

Halmi has just arrived in Spain from another of his homes, in London, via his Learjet, to check in on the start of a three-hour version of “Don Quixote” for cable network TNT, starring John Lithgow as the delusional Spanish aristocrat-turned-knight who tilts against windmills. Listening to Halmi’s fantasies over dinner, it’s easy to imagine him in the role himself: an aging TV producer with a quest to bring the classic books of his Hungarian youth to networks more comfortable with mindless sitcoms about New York yuppies and dramas about teenage angst.

Even an evening’s meal provides a window into life as constructed by Halmi. His is a world driven by passion and seduction, elegance and taste, comfort and creativity. But it is a life that is ultimately lived on Halmi’s terms--whether it is a movie to be made, a dinner to be consumed or a dream to fashion into the reality of his choosing.

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A few months later, Halmi’s version of reality turns out to be not so skewed. A two-hour “Carmen” is under consideration at NBC, based not on Bizet’s opera but on the almost forgotten novel by Prosper Merimee. Even more remarkable he’s also persuaded TNT to go for a TV version of Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Such is Halmi’s power in Hollywood--and such is TV’s hyper-competitive state--that he can sell the work of an out-of-vogue English poet to a TV executive who is getting set to drive her kids to the beach just by evoking the specter of a giant albatross. “Trust me” is a favorite phrase.

“The question he asks me often is, ‘Am I going to live long enough to make the pictures I want to make?’ ” says one of his closest friends, retired journalist Simon Bourgin. The question others ask is: How did Halmi get to be such a taste-maker, the arbiter of televised literature who spawned a whole genre of event miniseries based on such unlikely sources?

This TV season alone, Halmi productions include TNT’s “Animal Farm” earlier this month and NBC’s four-hour “The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns,” which airs next Sunday and Nov. 8. TNT shows “A Christmas Carol” in December. February brings “The 10th Kingdom,” an ambitious 10 hours of black-humor fairy tales, to NBC. “Don Quixote” and “David Copperfield” will be shown on TNT sometime in 2000. And in May comes an unusual triumph: ABC and NBC plan to face off on the same nights with competing four-hour Halmi spectacles, ABC with “Arabian Nights” and NBC with “Jason and the Argonauts.”

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But most of those productions are already history. This week, he is off in Malaysia and Hong Kong, checking in on “The Monkey King,” which gets underway in January. After a stop in Turkey to look in on “Jason,” he’ll go next to Australia, where he is preparing to shoot perhaps his most ambitious new project, six hours of “Dinotopia” for ABC. Mid-October, while in London, he came close to wrapping up months of negotiations for the rights to what he calls “a good show to quit on,” a retelling of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” that he also envisions as a mixed-media laser light show in Las Vegas.

The list goes on: For the next three years, he has 20 projects as “definites.” (His network partners are more cautious.) The roster includes “Dante’s Inferno” and “Napoleon” for NBC; and for TNT, a music-less “Nutcracker,” and “Boss Lear,” a King Lear set in 1842 Texas. For ABC, there is a modern retelling of “Cupid and Psyche,” and a project based on the Frank Baum “Land of Oz” books that spun off “‘The Wizard of Oz.”

The list doesn’t even include the half a dozen possible ideas floating about in negotiations. And even as all these other projects occupy his time, he just can’t get the image of Hannibal and his elephants, crossing the mountains, out of his mind.

His passion for books that many have heard of, but probably not read, is as old-fashioned as many things about Halmi, a throwback to another era when dynamic European movie moguls populated Hollywood. His Old World courtliness and charm; his favorite movie (the 1939 “Four Feathers,” fellow Hungarians Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s sweeping saga of an English aristocrat who travels to the Sudan to redeem his honor). And yet, this is a man who is reaching the pinnacle of his eclectic career at an advanced age by appropriating cutting-edge technology that allows him to tell stories, such as “Animal Farm,” so fantastic that previously they could only be easily evoked by using words or clumsy animation.

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Longevity seems the least of the issues Halmi has to confront as he races through the world’s classic literature. During his May trip to Spain, when guests at Casa La Neblina--"House in the Clouds"--convene for breakfast, he has already been up for two hours, sitting on the terrace, playing his daily games of nine-card solitaire and plotting a cast for “Leprechauns.” On a trip to his favorite antique warehouse, he confers via cell phone with his son Robi back in the States on “Dinotopia.” He whips around mountain curves in his Volvo on the drive to the “Don Quixote” set, passengers clinging to armrests, their only consolation the knowledge that he has raced cars most of his life.

Indeed, there’s little Halmi hasn’t done--experiences long since woven into his mythology. He grew up financially comfortable and surrounded by bohemian artists in Budapest; his father was a photographer to the Royal Court and the Vatican and his mother a writer and theater critic; they divorced when he was 2. He learned to play eight chess games at a time in his head and got a rigorous education in the classics at the English-language program of Budapest’s elite school Sarospatak. Hollywood fascinated him: the movie visions of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, “the big staircases, the huge four-poster beds.” And when he turned 17, a taste of the fast life came with his father’s gift: a Bugatti race car.

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Halmi studied international economics at the University of Budapest during most of the war, later joining the Hungarian partisan movement and ending up in a German slave labor camp. When the war ended, he became an interpreter and driver in Hungary for Vogue correspondent Lee Miller. And he hooked up with Bourgin, who was then working for the U.S. Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. “He was handsome, very bright, street-smart and spoke perfect English,” Bourgin recalls. After being arrested by the political police, he escaped to Vienna, then Salzburg, where he worked as a photographer, smuggled refugees out of Hungary and roamed across Europe despite a lack of documents, meeting Walter Cronkite, now a good friend.

In 1950, with visas for Brazil, Australia and Canada, he set out for America instead, with only contact names including those of the other famous Hungarians, the Gabor sisters, and a camera. When he didn’t have daily cab fare, he hired a limo whose bill was due at the end of the month. With Bourgin’s help, he forged a new career as a photographer during the heyday of picture magazines.

“We lived all night and slept all day,” Halmi says. He snapped scantily clad women for Esquire and got an in at magazines such as Life and Sports Illustrated by taking dangerous assignments no one else wanted. The work took him deep into caves; he hung by a helicopter for a vertical picture of the Empire State Building; got trapped on an ice floe for several days; and covered wars in Africa. Halmi was already producing. An occasional photo was staged, he admits.

“I did many stupid things,” Halmi says, recalling the drugged hyena in the back seat of his Piper Cub airplane that woke up too soon and started eating through the seat; or the helicopter crash in Africa that killed the pilot.

His love life has had just as many twists. He met his first wife on a park bench in a still-smoldering postwar Budapest. “It was like a B-movie set; out of the smog comes this gorgeous blond,” he says, adding that they never divorced; he just walked away a few days later. He divorced his second wife. His third wife, the mother of his children, passed away. A fourth marriage didn’t last. He’s now in a long-term relationship with a woman who worked as a reader for his company.

On his first trip to Africa, to photograph a bow-and-arrow game hunt for the rich, he fell in love with the region and returned often, buying a series of houses and writing a book about a Masai chief that he later turned into his first movie. Along the way, he also ventured into TV, producing documentaries and the series “Outdoors With Liberty Mutual.” In the 1970s, with picture magazines a dying breed, he bluffed his way into a full-time career as a producer, starting with bread-and-butter two-hour TV movies and rising to the big-screen heights of 1990’s “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

With his son Robi in charge of the business side, the company went public in 1979, increasing its production and getting better projects, including an occasional “Hallmark Hall of Fame” special. In 1988, it was bought by Australian company Qintex Group, which soon filed for bankruptcy, taking the Halmis’ paper wealth with it. The Halmis started over, buying the assets out of Chapter 11.

The classics have long been a source of material for Halmi, starting with his 1980 Ernest Hemingway story-based movie “My Old Man.” “News is really sad; there’s nothing good happening,” Halmi says. “And novels written today are shallow.”

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Eventually, he began to make pictures the way he lives. At a time when the big-event miniseries of the “Roots” era were largely thought to be passe, Halmi stuck with them. After CBS asked Halmi to come in on the hit “Lonesome Dove,” he pitched them “Scarlett.” Hallmark Cards bought the company in 1994, for $365 million; it now produces a slate of movies and children’s TV series, although Halmi himself is only involved in some of the projects.

The big breakthrough came in 1996. “Event television” became the strategy for shrinking broadcast networks to stave off cable, and Halmi’s “Gulliver’s Travels” for NBC mesmerized the public with its familiar feel and updated computer special effects--Ted Danson as Gulliver surrounded by tiny Lilliputians. Suddenly, networks were clamoring for projects such as the upcoming “Arabian Nights” that Halmi had percolating in his head but had been unable to sell for years.

Today, NBC’s movie chief Lindy DeKoven talks to him almost every morning (“Such a worrier,” Halmi says affectionately). When Susan Lyne took over ABC’s movie unit, her first call was to Halmi. Julie Weitz says she “stalked” him to get him to return to TNT after a rift of nearly a decade.

Not everyone in Hollywood is so adoring. Halmi’s detractors call him stubborn and arrogant. But there is a sizable contingent of Halmi partisans over the years who have been drawn to him. His circle has included Kirk Douglas, Walter Matthau and the late George C. Scott. Late in James Cagney’s life, the actor became a friend, throwing a party when Halmi became a U.S. citizen in 1961; Halmi ended up a pallbearer at the funeral, recalls Bourgin. Today, a younger cadre of Hollywood stars, from Isabella Rossellini (who helped celebrate his 70th birthday by riding a Harley-Davidson, a gift from his son, into Manhattan’s tony Metropolitan Club ballroom) to Patrick Stewart, form what is increasingly almost a repertory troupe of actors he draws on. Actors like him “because he leaves them alone to do what they believe in,” says former agent Bill Haber.

Or maybe it’s his fondness for good living: The trips on his 89-foot yacht, Bad Caroline, which he boasts is the “fastest boat in the [Marbella] harbor.” (He knows, because he went around and checked the others out.) The way he walks into Antonio’s port restaurant and asks for the spicy garlic shrimp. The copious amounts of sangria he orders whether on his boat or lunching by his pool.

“He’s got a strong streak of the sybarite,” says Lithgow, who recalls a post-African-shoot stay in a jungle tent, when Halmi hauled in a battery-powered VCR so he could show his guests “Four Feathers.”

Detractors say Halmi gets his projects on the air because of a complicated financing scheme that allows networks to get big-name stars and lavish production values without having to pay full price. (ABC paid less than half of “Cleopatra’s” staggering $30-million budget, which is double the usual per-hour TV movie budgets.) There is considerable skepticism in the business that the projects break even, but the company says it recoups the rest of its costs through overseas broadcasts and video sales, which alone cover 15% to 20% of a film’s budget.

Moreover, financing can’t force a network to buy something it doesn’t believe will work. The Halmi seduction process typically starts in his midtown Manhattan office, with its wall of 5,000 books, the classic literature featured prominently and the three-volume “Greatest Bathroom Book” hidden in a smoky-doored bookcase.

When a network executive drops by for a visit, Halmi will just happen to have a lavish book of his next idea--an oversized tome, perhaps with rich Gustave Dore illustrations, maybe even a first edition--lying on the coffee table. And then he begins to unfold his vision.

“He spins stories,” says ABC’s Lyne. “There is nobody better at getting you excited about what a miniseries can be. He not only has a book-filled room, but you know he has read all these books and cares deeply about them. He has first editions and handles them like beloved objects.” And if the books aren’t enough, there are the postcards, posters and touristy figurines he has collected in his travels, “anything that gives him a way to visualize what the story should be,” Lyne says.

“You have to be careful with Bob because he is a such a phenomenal salesman,” DeKoven says. “You have to take a breath and say, ‘Is this going to work for me?’ ” DeKoven fought against the upcoming lengthy “10th Kingdom.” “He pushed and pushed and pushed,” says DeKoven; he also turned in a fantastic script, she says.

Although NBC often pitches him ideas, a typical exchange, DeKoven says, starts with Halmi throwing out the name of a book and DeKoven asking for more details, to which Halmi will respond, “It’s great, it’s fantastic, it’s remarkable, we have to do it.” By the time one of DeKoven’s deputies has researched such issues as plot, Halmi is already calling back telling her who’s directing it, “and I have to say, ‘But Bob, we haven’t bought it yet.’ He has incredible passion and enthusiasm, and it gets you very excited.”

Patrick Stewart got the same treatment when he went to Halmi hoping to be cast as Ahab in “Moby-Dick.” “I found instead I was swept away with a wonderful torrent of passionate language, which, I subsequently worked out, was him insisting that I should do the project. . . . It wasn’t just that we were going to make ‘Moby-Dick,’ or Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’; it was, ‘We’re going to make it the god---- best classical storytelling in the history of television, that people will be watching for the next 100 years.’ ”

It’s almost too easy a sell for an industry in need of the kind of over-the-top events he can produce. Television loves nothing more than to copy the last hot thing, so when “Gulliver’s Travels” hit the jackpot, it was clear there would be more such stories to come. Since then, Halmi has cranked out everything from “The Odyssey” to “Merlin” to Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” with rarely a ratings miss.

Even when it falls short creatively, a Halmi production has become such a brand name that, particularly when coupled with aggressive marketing such as NBC’s, it can generate audiences despite the most scathing of reviews.

“Just Say No-ah” was Entertainment Weekly’s pithy headline over its pan of last season’s “Noah’s Ark”; undeterred by the almost uniformly bad reviews, viewers turned it into the season’s highest-rated miniseries. “He really has a good feeling for the pulse of the American public,” says media buyer Paul Schulman. “And with the exception of ‘Noah,’ most of these miniseries are an awful lot of fun to watch.”

As a result, Halmi says, the networks “are afraid to reject something, because everything works. Even if you come up with silly ideas.” He’s aware of the risks, however: “The first time I don’t get numbers, the genre is over.”

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It’s hard to blame Halmi for striking while the iron is hot, but the sheer volume of movies he is churning out may prove to be too much. Production values on “Noah” slipped when he turned his attention away; DeKoven says, “I have warned him many times that there’s a risk he will dilute the franchise if he is spread too thin in the community. He is the master of that franchise, but how many of these things can you do and do well?”

Adds ABC’s Lyne, “I think that if Bob were making one miniseries per year, they would all be glorious, but when he’s making four, five or six, they don’t all get his complete attention. One of the interesting things is psyching him out about which of his projects are his pets.”

The tension goes both ways. After many years of successful collaboration with CBS, the relationship unraveled when a movie executive came in whom he didn’t care for. Halmi still likes to needle them. "[CBS President] Leslie Moonves bet me that ‘Gulliver’s’ wouldn’t work; now he imitates me,” he says. After his TNT rift, “it took many a meal for him to trust us,” says Weitz.

Nasty faxes are part of doing business with Halmi. ABC found that out when it told him it couldn’t afford to fly the “Cleopatra” stars to New York for a “Good Morning America” appearance, an expense Halmi footed himself. “Bob knows that when a network takes on one of these, they are expecting it to be a big home run, so his flares are because he needs the network to be as aggressive in marketing these things as he is producing them,” says Lyne.

Like his Hollywood colleagues, TV critics divide vehemently on his works. Halmi sniffs that he’s doing movies only to please the public and says he is hard-pressed to name a picture he thinks didn’t work, although he finally admits that the 1997 “Apocalypse Watch” just might have fallen short.

A day later, however, he rattles off a list of critics who have earned his wrath--and scathing faxes--for reviews he didn’t like. Later, he gleefully recounts that he once got a TV critic fired after he wrote one of the few bad reviews for “Gulliver’s.” In fact, then-Boston Globe critic Fred Biddle left the paper for the Wall Street Journal some 18 months after the review. Not only did Halmi protest the review, Biddle says, but he followed up with yet another missive after the miniseries won an Emmy.

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Lately, Halmi has been criticized for rewriting the classics, changing the grim ending of “Animal Farm” to an optimistic one, and turning Old Testament chronology topsy-turvy in “Noah’s Ark.” Never one to back down, however, he went on Christian radio to argue historical research with his critics.

As for the ending to “Animal Farm,” he argues that the book has been the bible of his life, the work that sustained him through a time of oppression. Hearing him tell that story at the premiere, Stewart says, “I realized why he moves me so much is because these deep feelings are present in him.” His justification for changing the ending: Orwell didn’t live long enough to see the Berlin Wall tumble, giving hope that oppression can be overcome. The ending “was totally my idea,” Halmi says simply.

His decisiveness and willingness to spend money on projects has earned him a loyal cadre of writers, directors, producers and crew. The son of a cameraman on his first African movie now works for Halmi 25 years later.

Dropping in on the “Don Quixote” set, Halmi takes a look at one actor and immediately orders his “beard off and a haircut.” Later, at a nearby production room set up in an old stone building, on a 13-inch monitor, he casts a quick eye over the promotional tape of “Arabian Nights” being shipped off to ABC. Then, with no advance notice, he and his top creative and business team are in a huddle about “Jason” logistics. After a debate about the shape of the Bay of Agadir, in five minutes they’ve settled on shooting in Morocco, with Turkey as a backup.

That sends people like line producer Chris Thompson scrambling to come up with a budget without benefit of time to go scout out the situation. “Because he makes decisions immediately, he wants answers immediately,” says Thompson. Though exhausting, he says, there is always the lure of “the Robert Halmi fix of more exciting adventures ahead. It is hard to resist.”

Indeed, Halmi is already hard at work on what he considers an important part of the current production: the perfect location for the wrap party. He has his heart set on the town’s ancient bullring.

Back on the set, Lithgow, as Don Quixote, is engrossed in his books and preparing to set out on his quest, exclaiming, “Where is the honor? Where is the test of the virtue? Where is the glory of adventure?” It’s not so difficult to see Halmi in the role at all.


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