The first time I met Ray Stark, he threatened me. In the daily jousting between Hollywood business journalists and moguls, that’s nothing new. But Stark is still the only show-biz guy ever to threaten me with a smile. “Girlie,” (he always called me girlie, probably so he wouldn’t have to remember my name), “if you ever fuck me, I’m going to personally come over to your house and give you a hysterectomy.”
That’s why I wept upon hearing that Stark had died of heart failure early Saturday at age 88. We won’t see another like him anytime soon. Forget power, forget money: Stark wore the title of Most Vindictive Man in Hollywood more proudly than if he’d won an Academy Award. (He never did, only one of those Lifetime Achievement sops.) And what a pity that none of Stark’s pro forma obituaries captured the essence of the producer (Night of the Iguana, The Way We Were, The Goodbye Girl, Annie and Steel Magnolias) about whom it was said: “If you run him over, you’d better make sure he’s dead.”
Don’t feel left out if you’ve never heard of Ray Stark. That he wasn’t a household name is the truest measure of his power. For Stark, ever secretive, had always been the quintessential show-biz insider. To describe his unique position in Hollywood is to understand the role of Cardinal Richelieu in 17th-century France: a plotter lurking behind the throne whose whispers to kings guided decisions and crafted policies, all the while crushing, then punishing, and ultimately replacing disobedients.
In turn, he was admired by the Industry more for his guile than his considerable success, intelligence and philanthropy. A master of intrigue, he was wily and manipulative, always maneuvering for an inside edge and getting off a few bons mots while doing it. Like the time he was close to finalizing a deal for a movie with Warren Beatty starring, Robert Towne writing and Elaine May directing, when, in her trademark soft voice, May suddenly said: “It’s all fine with me, but I want creative control and final cut.”
Stark couldn’t believe what he was hearing that late in the game. “Darling,” Stark declared to May, “you’ll only get creative control and final cut at your own circumcision.”
Dressed in Levi’s and rayon shirts, or that ratty old bathrobe he wore even when guests had breakfast with him at his Bel-Air home, Stark came off like a very rich and eccentric uncle used to getting his way, no matter what. To Stark, the game itself was as exciting as the outcome. While anyone else would take a straight path, Stark would zigzag just to make it more fun. Like the time he went up to director Hal Needham at a restaurant and asked him to read a script. “But, Ray, we’re in court suing each other,” Needham said with surprise.
Stark grinned. “Oh, that’s over Smokey and the Bandit. I’m going to send you my new project.”
He knew how to smile and beguile, but Stark could also be venal and potentially lethal. Stark demanded respect but enjoyed more being feared (maybe because he was so physically unprepossessing). He not only knew where every body in Hollywood was buried, he’d draw you a map and lead you there. Studio executives were afraid of him. The managers and agencies were afraid of him. Mike Ovitz was afraid of him, especially after Stark joined forces in the early 1990s with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg to end the then–CAA chief’s stranglehold on Hollywood. (Not only did Stark start secretly badmouthing Ovitz to reporters and to Wall Street, he almost thwarted Ovitz’s much-ballyhooed deal to create ads for Coca-Cola.)
And while he could be your worst enemy, he knew how to be a good friend. The late movie producer Julia Phillips wrote in her tell-all, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, that when she was losing her way because of cocaine addiction, Stark tried to save her career. When Joe Eszterhas’ infamous letter to Ovitz became public, Stark sent ICM a check for a no-strings-attached, $2 million loan to make sure the screenwriter wouldn’t lose his new house if Ovitz’s “you’ll never work again in this town” threat proved real.
For most successful people in Hollywood, their title or their product or their money define who they are. Not Stark (though the trappings of his vast wealth were impressive — the $30 million Monet, the Santa Barbara ranch, the champion racehorses, the private jet, and on and on). Instead, he was so much more than Hollywood because of the rarefied corporate, art, advertising and celebrity circles he traveled in.
It wasn’t always that way. Beginning in the entertainment business as an agent for Charles Feldman’s Famous Artists, a still wet-behind-the-ears Stark was sent on a European tour to visit clients Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Mel Ferrer, but he created one crisis after another. Waiting with Kirk Douglas in Rome was a wire from Feldman: “Congratulations. We’ve just lost Lana, Ava and Mel. Suggest you come home.” Stark quit when Feldman wouldn’t listen to his sage advice to step up to the battle with rival MCA by merging with Ted Ashley’s TV agency. (“Don’t bring that little bellhop into the office again,” Feldman warned. When Stark eventually saw the headlines announcing the deal, he sent off a telegram to Feldman: “Congratulations. The bellhop bought the hotel.”)
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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