Another stone unturned

Times Staff Writer

HE has a brand new Richard Meier house, his son is/was dating Lindsay Lohan, "The Art of Happiness" by the Dalai Lama is on his desk, and the dean of the UCLA medical school is on the phone.

For years, it has been difficult to categorize Peter Morton -- "restaurateur" never quite covered a man who co-founded the ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe and the elite Morton's on Melrose (not to be confused with the Morton's steakhouse chain, of which he is no part) any more than calling him a hotelier does justice to creating the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

A Chicago boy, and son of the late legendary steakhouse mogul Arnie Morton, he has become almost quintessentially L.A. -- famous enough and rich in a big way, he collects modern art and recently joined the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

He has an eponymous building at UCLA (where he sits on the executive board for the Medical Sciences with friend and Paramount Chief Executive Brad Grey), and his name is scattered on donor walls around town. But he's not terribly flashy -- at 7,000 square feet, his Malibu home may be a Meier, but compared with its neighbors, it is a model of self-restraint.

Now, having sold the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and with it all vestiges of the empire he built with Isaac Tigrett, he is, at 60 and for the first time in his life, between jobs. Which provides a good excuse to check in with Morton if only to figure out why he has decided to prove one of the few truisms about Los Angeles: If you stay in this town long enough, you will become a producer.

Oh, he's considering another hotel venture, somewhere, sometime, as well as several ventures with his eldest son, Harry. He has given Morton's to his sister Pam, who has run the restaurant for many years, though his office is just behind the eatery. But lately what's kept him the busiest, besides his three children, is "Stardust," a film directed by his godson Matthew Vaughn, which Paramount plans to release next year.

"I don't know if it's permanent," he says, refusing to commit to his new job description. "I did meet with [Chairman and Chief Executive] Jeff Berg at ICM to talk about creating a role in which I'd be ... a dealer, to use a gambling analogy. Because about film, I profess complete ignorance. We'll see where it goes."

That he's talking about talking about it is development enough. For years, Morton has played laid-back host to Hollywood's elite, so purposefully unfazed by fame and glitz that he regularly took a pass on Vanity Fair's E-ticket Oscar party, which has been held at Morton's for the last 12 years. Sure, he mingled with the stars (and took on a few, including Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone, when they invested in the entertainment-themed chain, Planet Hollywood), but he very publicly preferred the rock scene to the red carpet. He enjoyed presiding over the town's deal-making hub, he just didn't want to get involved in any of the deals.

Not that he hasn't had ample opportunity. Like most local rich guys -- he sold his shares of the Hard Rock Cafe in 1996 for $410 million -- he has been approached over the years about financing various film projects, but he always said no. Until nine years ago, when Vaughn asked him if he wanted to put up money for a film he was producing. As Morton tells it, he didn't even bother to read the script, though he did show it to "my good friend [producer] Steve Tisch." He simply wrote a check and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," made for about $1 million, went on to become something of a sleeper hit, launching the career of first-time feature writer-director Guy Ritchie. The two repeated the process with the bigger-budget "Snatch," which turned its $10-million budget into a $30-million gross.

So when Vaughn approached Morton with a film he had co-written and wanted to direct, Morton was immediately in.

"I've made two films with this guy, and he's always made me money," Morton says with a shrug. "I'm not going to say no. Besides, it's a great story."

It's also a film that makes Morton officially a big-time producer as opposed to a multimillionaire helping his godson out. There's nothing "sleeper" about "Stardust." Set to be released next year by Paramount, the story of a young man who visits a magical land to return a fallen star has a budget of $100 million and a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sienna Miller. Again, Morton neglected to read the script before ponying up -- "I have ADD," he says. "Seriously. I can't read scripts. I said, 'Just tell me the story, I'll know if I like the story' " -- but this time, he spent a fair amount of time on the set in England, keeping things moving, doing what producers do.

"It's been fun, watching Matthew create, write, direct and edit," he says, "while I'm trying to politic this movie through production. If another good deal like this came along, I'd certainly get involved," he says, adding that he recently had lunch with "a studio executive who was recently dismissed" to talk about putting together a "fund that would help us produce movies."

A production company?

"A fund," he says, with the obliqueness of an industry insider.

Meanwhile, he's been busy selling the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for $770 million. While the deal is awaiting clearance by the gaming commission, Morton points out with a grin that he's got a $50-million nonrefundable deposit "so I'm good."

He has, he says, an idea for a new restaurant, but he doesn't want to share it, and has a couple of sites in mind for a new hotel but doesn't want to share them either.

"I feel like this is a new adventure stage," he says, "for me, for my children. I'm starting something new, though I'm not sure what."

Morton is trim and fit, cloaked in the sleek, expensive casualness and preternatural tan of the local gentry. Though he looks years younger than his age, the lines in his face seem well earned; one doesn't spend most of one's adult life hanging with rock stars without seeing a bit of high-octane action.

"The only regret I have about moving on," he says of his final parting from the Hard Rock franchise, "is leaving the rock scene behind. I will miss announcing the arrival of the Rolling Stones at a concert."

So why, then, did he sell?

"I never got a thrill beating people in the gaming business," he says. "I have addiction in my family, and gambling is just another form of addiction. So when we had a great day, we were making money off people with addiction issues, which never thrilled me. And of course," he adds, without missing a beat or changing expression, "the local prices were high, there was a lot of liquidity up there, and we were in a very good position to sell."

With his quiet voice and unflinching eye contact, Morton has all the hallmarks of a player -- you don't need to be boisterous when you're a billionaire. He is the sort of man who categorizes himself -- "I'm a straight shooter," he says several times -- and who references the many people he calls upon for support: his therapist, a child psychologist who helped him during a rocky family problem, his children's doctors, his many famous friends.

During a series of interviews he is also scrupulously punctual and unfailingly polite, gentlemanly even. When, over lunch at a famous local restaurant, the chef sends out complimentary appetizers, Morton looks pained. "I'm very sorry," he says, "but I don't eat dairy." Then he adds, to the clearly flustered waiter: "Don't worry. It doesn't matter at all."

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Down-low demeanor

DIVORCED from model and socialite Pauline Stone for years, Morton, who is single, has tended to keep a low personal profile. "Generally it makes me feel uncomfortable to talk about things, to talk about myself," he says, adding with a laugh, "but you know, I've just sold my business, and I don't want to fall off the radar."

His last name, anyway, is back in the news, sprawled all over the Internet as son Harry, 25, fended off rumors that he was either proposing to Lohan or breaking up with her.

Sitting at the desk in his office, Morton is surrounded not by photos of rock's rich and famous. Instead, the walls and shelves are full of family photos and children's drawings -- he points to a shot of his 11-year-old daughter (for reasons of privacy, he does not want his younger children named) jumping her pony in competition with pride. "Most expensive hobby in the world," he says, shaking his head. "But she's so good."

That he keeps in constant touch with his three children is clear -- Harry, now chief executive of the Pink Taco, with restaurants in Las Vegas and recently Scottsdale, Ariz., has an office next to his father's. During one interview, he stops by to bust his dad's chops about putting him on the spot "with the Venice thing." Lohan wanted a reluctant Harry to accompany her to the Venice Film Festival, Morton explains later, and had appealed to Morton for support. "I told him he should go. Why wouldn't he? It'll be fun." (Harry went.)

And aside from the UCLA dean -- Morton became a benefactor of the Medical Center four years ago after his younger son was successfully treated there for a brain injury after falling from a tree -- the only other call Morton takes during that interview is from the boy, now 14, whom he addresses as "honey" and reminds that they still need to go shopping for a back-to-school backpack.

Playing with a poker chip, the only noticeable memento of the Hard Rock casino in his office, Morton remembers the horrors of the day his son fell, how after it had all turned out miraculously well he had wanted to thank the people involved. "What one gets involved with philanthropically is usually based on something pretty personal," he says. "And my friend David Geffen has great faith in UCLA, which made it easier."

Morton says he is selective with his charitable contributions. He funds scholarships used to send poor children to private schools, the Painted Turtle camp for terminally ill children as well as arts-related programs. For years he's supported the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group; the Hard Rock, he points out, was one of the first commercial chains to address environmental concerns.

"We were always a restaurant with a conscience," he says. "We had a Save the Planet campaign long before it was on anyone's radar. We put up an electronic billboard keeping track of the diminishing rain forest and the world's population. It was a lengthy commitment."

But, he adds, the business again trumping the personal, he got out when it was time to get out. "The market was saturated with entertainment-themed businesses," he says. "It was time to take all the chips off the table. I am smart enough to know that I don't know everything," he adds. "But if there is one talent I have, it is gambling. I know when to go in, and I know when to get out."

Which pretty much explains why, after more than 30 years in L.A., he's finally entering the biggest game in town.

"The film business is just another form of gambling," he says. "So that's interesting to me."

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