“I started at the top,” Fred Weintraub says of his film career. With no previous studio experience, the former baby-furniture salesman and Greenwich Village coffeehouse owner was hired in 1969 as the vice president of creative services at Warner Bros. Pictures, placing him at the top of the studio during the early days of the countercultural cinematic movement that would become known as “New Hollywood.”
I spoke to Weintraub about his new memoir, Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me, in which he offers a peek behind the curtain at the important cultural events he helped shape, facilitate or document.
A self-described showman, Weintraub's passion is for giving a platform to those who crave an audience. He happily disassociates himself from fellow Hollywood moguls like Robert Evans, who seek and receive the attention of the public for themselves. Like Evans, however, he has a great love for the self-answered question. “Do I have a story to tell? You bet I do,” he writes in his introduction.
The story spans more than 50 years in the entertainment industry, and frequently jumps around in time based on the whims and associated memories of the storyteller himself. His tale is told out of chronological order, beginning with the story of his friendship with Bruce Lee and his work as a producer on Enter the Dragon.
“I've never seen a celebrity like that,” he recalls of Lee, reminiscing about walking down the streets of Hong Kong with the martial arts legend and being overwhelmed by hundreds of fans looking to get a piece of their idol. “Before Enter the Dragon, every town in America had a church and a beauty parlor. A few years later, every town had a church, a beauty parlor and a martial arts studio with a poster of Bruce Lee.”
Weintraub's memories of Lee are not all sweetness and light; there's as much time devoted to breaking down the myths that spring up around such a well-known figure. The book touches on Lee's belligerence and mistrust of those around him, and his inability to handle the self-imposed pressure of a project that he saw as being his one and only chance at being a movie star in the United States. “Bruce was dedicated and smart,” Weintraub says. “Bruce lived on the edge. When the pressure was on, he couldn't handle it.”
Happier are Weintraub's memories of owning and managing the Bitter End coffeehouse in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. “It just happened. It was serendipitous,” he replies when I ask how it came about. “The most wonderful period,” he says of his early days, showcasing many of the definitive voices of the time, including Bob Dylan, Woody Allen and Judy Collins.
It was a friendship during this time with talent agent Ted Ashley that brought Weintraub to Warner Bros. shortly after Ashley's appointment as chairman of the company. During his tenure at Warners, Weintraub's greatest claim to fame is his involvement in getting the documentary Woodstock made. Having a hand in aiding every stage of the filmmaking process, he exemplifies the creative executive of the period.
After leaving Warners, Weintraub struck out on his own as an independent producer. In addition to Enter the Dragon, his focus was primarily on martial arts and action fare. He holds a long-lasting love for Chinese “chopsocky” films, likening their action sequences to a dance. He credits his success in the industry to a philosophy borrowed in part from Winston Churchill: “If you have the passion, and you really care, work hard, and can go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm, those are the qualities you need.”
His enthusiasm remains intact. In addition to a publicity tour to promote his memoir, he is still developing projects in Hollywood, including a proposed prequel to Enter the Dragon. He's optimistic about the state of the industry, and the democratizing effect that the Internet and crowdsourcing have on the creative process. “People today have a feeling that the opportunities aren't there in the entertainment business. But the future's gonna be the greatest ever.”