By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Coming out of the American Film Institute in the late ‘70s, Cornfeld, at 23, was reportedly the youngest producer of a studio film up to that time (Fatso, starring Dom DeLuise, but still). It was a short walk from that film’s director -- Anne Bancroft -- to Mel Brooks, Bancroft‘s husband, and Cornfeld’s employer for most of the ‘80s. Soon after, he began sharing an apartment with legendary hipster Mason Hoffenberg (Terry Southern’s collaborator on Candy), just then in the latter stages of heroin addiction. It is between those two poles -- borscht-belt comedy and bohemian rhapsody -- that Cornfeld‘s hipster sensibility was galvanized.
With his bald pate, red beard, roly-poly physique and power-casual Hawaiian shirts, Cornfeld vaguely resembles Santa Claus if he had spent his early years as a pot farmer on Maui. He grew up in Hollywood, and his first conscious memory is of appearing on the Art Linkletter TV series Kids Say the Darnedest Things -- which he did twice, both times managing to broach the subject of death. His mother’s cousins played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, and at 12, he himself appeared in the religious short subject The Day the Temple Disappeared, which, he says, instilled in him to this day an aversion to moral absolutism. His father was an efficiency expert at Mattel toy manufacturers, and in some ways, Cornfeld inherited the family business: He‘s still the guy in the toy store charged with making the model trains run on time.
After getting a psychology degree from Berkeley and a series of odd jobs on the periphery of show business -- managing the Ash Grove rock club in Santa Monica before it mysteriously burned down, opening mail for Joni Mitchell, taking the U.S. Census along the seamier stretches of Hollywood Boulevard -- Cornfeld found his way to what would soon be christened Brooksfilms. There, he and fellow assistant Jonathan Sanger decided to set up a script by Sanger’s baby sitter‘s boyfriend -- The Elephant Man -- and dragged Mel Brooks to the Nuart on opening night to see David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
”Mel‘s reaction to it,“ Cornfeld remembers, ”was, he said to David, ’You‘re the only guy who truly understands what parenthood is about.’ Mel used to call himself my ‘mentor-tormentor.’“
”Stuart‘s a talented guy,“ says Brooks. ”He was very prescient back then. He showed me this weird flick, and I got it immediately. So I said, ’Stuart, set up a meeting with me and this guy David Lynch, whoever the hell he is.‘ I really expected a guy in a cape, kind of a Max Reinhardt type. And in walked Charles Lindbergh -- close-cropped hair, white shirt buttoned at the neck. He couldn’t believe I was serious about having him direct something.
“Stuart goes through a lot of strange transitions. Some of them are physical -- he gains weight, he loses weight. He‘s a crazy guy. If Franz Kafka had worked the Improv, that would be Stuart. Living with his demons, only a tortured soul could come up with such creative flights from it.”
While at Brooksfilms, Cornfeld also produced David Cronenberg’s The Fly, which ended up being the highest-grossing film in America for three weeks running. “Stuart‘s a fantastic guy,” says Cronenberg. “He’s very witty, very well-read, and he‘s got a ferocious intellect. So in pre-production, when it was conceptual, he was terrific. But when it came to actually figuring out how to be a producer, I think he was still learning. And I had already figured out pretty much how to be a director. So Stuart is the only producer that I’ve ever thrown off my set. It was kind of a friendly throw, but a throw nonetheless.”
Cornfeld also logged time at Barry Levinson‘s Baltimore Pictures alongside veteran producers Gail Mutrux and Mark Johnson, where he produced Kafka for Steven Soderbergh and Glenn Gordon Caron’s little-seen Wider Napalm. Offered the job of head of production at New Line in 1990 by Bob Shaye -- the job Mike De Luca eventually took -- he instead opted to suspend his career as a producer, to write and regroup. (That hiatus produced at least one memorable screenplay -- IHave Smelled the Future -- co-written with Bryan Higgins.) Later, he returned to AFI to teach part time for several semesters, and among his proteges was future Pi director Darren Aronofsky.
“I can understand why Stuart is reluctant to call himself a mentor,” says Aronofsky, “because Stuart definitely tried to treat us as equals. But when I showed him an early cut of Pi, he was the first to give me a confirmation from Hollywood that this could actually play outside my mom‘s basement. And when I first wanted to do Requiem for a Dream, it turned out he was a huge Hubert Selby Jr. fan, and he said, ’You‘ve got to do it!’ just at the time when everyone else was saying, ‘Why don’t you do something more commercial?‘ People who have taste and a conviction of what’s good and what they like, that‘s worth its weight in diamonds.”