Can This Man Come Back?


Hollywood loves a comeback story. John Travolta got years of goodwill from his return in “Pulp Fiction.” Francis Coppola has resurrected his career over and over. Charlie Sheen just went from a direct-to-video loser to the star of “Spin City.” Sly Stallone seems to make a comeback with every movie. If nothing else, the back-from-the-dead angle is a great way to hype a new project.

But when Tony Kaye showed up for breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel the other day, trying to sell me on his comeback story, he tried a different approach. “I think I’m dying,” he said, pointing to a blemish on his cheek. “It’s been bleeding. I must have some awful skin cancer.”

Leave it to Kaye, best known as the conceptual artist turned film director who crashed ‘n’ burned making the 1998 film “American History X,” to pitch a comeback story by announcing that he’s dying. The cancer scare was a false alarm. But the British director’s career in Hollywood remains on the critical list, the result of his legendarily bizarre behavior during a pitched battle with New Line Cinema over “American History X” that resulted in his berating the studio in a series of trade ads that quoted everyone from John Lennon to Patanjali, the Indian founder of yoga. Kaye unsuccessfully petitioned the Directors Guild to have the film released with a director’s credit of Humpty Dumpty.


Since then, Kaye has been persona non grata in Hollywood. He fired his agent. He stopped eating in restaurants: He had black coffee at breakfast, saying, “I don’t like having to choose things that take ages to come.” Most bizarre of all, for a long time he stopped talking on the phone, forcing people to have conversations with him relayed through a personal assistant.

For example:

Me: “Tony, what do you mean you don’t talk on the phone anymore?”

Kaye’s assistant: “Tony, what do you mean you don’t . . . “

Me (breaking in): “Tony, you’ve got to be kidding!”

Kaye’s assistant (deadpan): “Tony, you’ve got to be kidding!”

As you can imagine, this Abbott and Costello-style routine quickly scared off all but the most ardent Kaye admirers, the ad agencies who still pay him millions to direct high-profile TV commercials largely shown in England and Europe. In fact, Kaye is going to Miami this week where he will receive the Clio Awards’ first lifetime achievement award for his groundbreaking commercials.

But Kaye wants to be more than just a cult commercial director--he wants back into the Hollywood club. His talent remains unquestioned. Not long ago, when I asked “Pearl Harbor” producer Jerry Bruckheimer to name three directors he’d most want to work with, he immediately cited Kaye. The question is: Will today’s no-nonsense Hollywood take him back?

In the 1970s, Coppola, Michael Cimino and William Friedkin were at least as outrageous as Kaye, in an era fueled by drugs and oversized egos. They made great movies, and the studio bosses of the day were willing to forgive almost any bratty escapade. Directors were treated like mad royalty.

“The business has gotten much more buttoned-down today,” says Peter Biskind, who chronicled the ‘70s directors’ outrageous antics in his bestseller, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” “In the ‘70s, the whole Hollywood culture indulged extreme behavior--Tony Kaye would have fit right in. It was almost impossible to be too crazy to work in Hollywood, unless you were Dennis Hopper and you were really crazy.”

Bruckheimer believes he could hire Kaye and keep him on an even keel, but he acknowledges that in today’s Hollywood, “it’s all about attitude and how you present yourself to the community. Of course, success helps. After he made ‘The Hand,’ everyone lost Oliver Stone’s phone number. He had a really rough reputation. Yet when he came back and won an Oscar with his next picture he was back in action.”

Some transgressions are easier to forgive than others. Once on everybody’s hot new director short list, Marcus Nispel was dropped by a leading commercial production company after he ran an ad during the recent commercial-actor strike that featured a bare-breasted elderly black woman with the declaration: “In South Africa, this is what SAG means.” But popular actors Robert Downey Jr. and Matthew Perry have had little trouble working, despite repeated drug relapses. Roman Polanski still gets hired as a film director, despite having fled the United States after pleading guilty to one felony count of having sex with a minor.

Director Victor Salva, who was convicted of child molestation, works regularly, having directed several films since news of his imprisonment surfaced. He has a new film, “Jeepers Creepers,” due out in late August from MGM Films. “I had friends tell me they were shocked after I hired him,” recalls Davis Entertainment Classics chief Todd Harris, who produced “Rites of Passage,” a 1999 film Salva directed. “But Victor went to jail, paid his debt, and I felt he wasn’t a danger to anybody. In fact, I’ve never worked with a more decent person. If artists weren’t given a second chance in Hollywood, we’d have a lot of gifted people who could never work again.”

So where does that leave Tony Kaye? He seems intent on orchestrating his comeback on his own terms, which appear as bizarre as ever, though he has started talking on the phone again. He recently approached UTA, his old talent agency, about working with him again. He even went to Cannes last week--the mecca for all publicity seekers--where he played a late-night set at a local club with TKOH, his new rock band that features Kaye on rhythm guitar. He even has an agent who’s been sending him out on auditions as an actor. He recently tried out for a part as a mentally retarded man, saying, “I think I pulled off the retarded part really well, but I couldn’t do the American accent.”

He claims he’s looking for a “proper film with a real script,” but for now, he’s been putting all his time into a pair of personal projects; “Lobby Lobster,” a film Kaye describes differently every time he talks about it, and “The Lake of Fire,” a documentary about abortion he’s been shooting for the past decade. He also recently told the London press that he and his pal Marlon Brando paid 350,000 pounds (about $500,000) for long-lost footage of the Angel of Mons, a ghost that appeared to British troops during World War II. But it turns out the ghost footage doesn’t exist--it’s a hoax Kaye cooked up for a conceptual art project.

Kaye’s fondness for pranks got him in trouble in the first place. When New Line tried to make peace with Kaye during his battle over “American History X,” he showed up at a high-level studio meeting accompanied by a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan monk. Kaye’s behavior has earned him little sympathy in Hollywood, where everybody feels once burned, twice shy. When Kaye approached UTA recently about repping him again, the agency passed.

“Tony’s incredibly talented, but I told him that until he could prove that he was willing to skip the stunts and be an adult that people weren’t going to take him seriously,” says UTA’s Dan Aloni. “As an agent, my job is to make people comfortable. I knew when he called me up and asked if we wanted to represent him as an actor that nothing had changed.”

Having seen Kaye filming “Lobby Lobster” at his Hollywood Hills home with a cast of unknowns, I have trouble imagining him getting a crack at “Charlie’s Angels 2.” For a while Kaye claimed that Brando would play a role in the movie as a female judge, but Kaye admits that’s off now. He also claimed he had foreign financing for the project, but that’s off now too. All along, Kaye’s biggest problem has been his inability to complete anything longer than a 30-second TV spot. New Line took “X” away from him because he wanted another year to finish the movie. The abortion documentary remains unfinished, and it’s hard to imagine “Lobby Lobster” will reverse the trend. Last year Kaye said the film was about a schizophrenic poet. Now it’s a portrait of an actor who has a meltdown. Who knows what it will be in six months?

“You can always begin all over again,” counters Kaye. “I go into something new, make all my mistakes right away and then come out ready to try something new. Da Vinci only finished a dozen paintings in his lifetime. Most of what we know of his work is only notes and rough sketches. But the stuff he did finish was amazing.”

If only we could say the same about Kaye. He’s a gifted artist with little focus or self-discipline, which in today’s Hollywood is a prescription for disaster. As novelist Michael Cunningham recently put it, great artists are people who realize that their strangeness is part of their strength, that they must be willing to “court reputations as fools, romantics and hysterics.” But the movies today are much more about business than art. So Kaye doesn’t have to convince people that he has talent--he has to convince them that he knows what to do with it.

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