By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Stark became a major player in Hollywood the old-fashioned way: He married the only daughter of the very rich vaudeville and radio star Fanny Brice. As a result, Stark was a force to be reckoned with even before he made his first power play. That came when, through a series of contacts, Stark founded the production company Seven Arts, which, after a buyout, became Warner Bros./Seven Arts. When the company later sold to funeral-home and parking-lot king Steve Ross, Stark’s stock in the studio made him even more millions.
In 1968, he formed his own production company, Rastar, to make Funny Girl, based on the life of his famous mother-in-law. By then, Stark was making movies at Columbia, but by 1973 the studio was in a financial free fall. When Stark saw Columbia’s stock drop from $9 to $4, endangering his personal franchise, he turned for help to his surrogate son, Wall Street investment banker Herbert Allen Jr. (Stark met Allen at a time when the young scion had just lost his father and gone through a bitter divorce. Stark himself had lost his eldest child, Peter, in what police said was an apparent suicide fall from a 14-story apartment building in Manhattan.) Stark urged Allen to buy Columbia and turn it around. Allen, whose family already had ties to Hollywood, liked the idea.
When Allen bought a controlling interest in Columbia that July, Stark purchased a healthy block of stock for himself, orchestrated longtime pal David Begelman into the studio’s No. 2 job, and became a board member. Over the next decade, Stark transformed Columbia into a personal feeding trough, not just with an unheard-of housekeeping deal of $1 million, but also by arranging for the studio to buy Rastar for 300,000 shares of stock while still leaving Stark in charge. In turn, during Stark’s heyday, his films made Columbia a billion dollars, launched the careers of Barbra Streisand, Herbert Ross and Sydney Pollack, and began the Neil Simon franchise.
After Begelman was outed for fraud by actor Cliff Robertson in 1977, Stark’s fight to keep him in the job cemented the producer’s role as Columbia’s kingmaker. It became common knowledge that Begelman’s successors had to wait until Stark was out of the country to make deals without the producer’s meddling. After Coca-Cola took over the studio in 1982, Stark’s producing slowed but his power was still at full throttle. Witness what happened when David Puttnam was installed as production boss. Within a week of the British iconoclast’s arrival, he found himself at war with Stark. It started when Puttnam declined the producer’s invitation to a private MOCA preview. “I’m too busy reading scripts,” Puttnam explained.
“You’d better get your priorities right,” Stark snapped back.
Soon Puttnam began making Industry gaffe after gaffe, and Stark was on his ass, warning Allen: “Why doesn’t David keep his mind open — and his mouth shut?”
To keep Stark happy, all Puttnam had to do was greenlight Revenge, which Stark had spent five excruciating years trying to get made. Instead, rumors circulated that Puttnam wanted someone else to produce the project. After ducking Stark’s calls, Puttnam agreed to a breakfast meeting at Stark’s home.
“Am I going to make pictures at Columbia?” Stark wasted no time asking.
“If you’re asking me on principle, that because you’re Ray Stark would I say yes to you, the answer is no,” Puttnam said.
Stark stood up from the table and threw his napkin down: “Well, fuck you, then.” With that, Stark worked his longtime relationships with Columbia’s owners on Wall Street to get rid of Puttnam in 1987. Debate raged whether it was a matter of one arrogant man self-destructing or a more arrogant man exacting retribution.
After Sony acquired Columbia in 1989, and the Thalberg Building became a revolving door for executives, Stark’s career and health began to wane. But a close relationship with suit Jeff Sagansky kept Stark’s company alive. Even after a stroke completely sidelined him, a surprising number of moguls paid weekly homage by calling or visiting him to the very end. When it came to Stark, they didn’t dare not to.
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