A Veteran Boston Writer Fondly Recalls His Hollywood Adventures
Every year, young people go west to find fame and fortune. Once upon a time, so did I. Thanks to a tough-talking producer in a leased VW Beetle and Mel Brooks, here’s what I learned.
Let’s face it: Even in buttoned-up Boston, we’re no strangers to the glamour and allure of Hollywood. Old-time stars like Bette Davis and Jack Lemmon went to school in Massachusetts. The Wahlberg boys came from Dorchester. Endless movies have been made on our streets in recent years, and we shamelessly eat it up. The Thomas Crown Affair (the original) was shot on Beacon Hill in a grand house two doors away from where I lived at the time. I met Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and desperately wanted to get their autographs. But I thought that as a Bostonian, it would be uncool to admit I wanted their signatures. McQueen’s second wife, Ali MacGraw, went to Wellesley College and dated one of my best friends. She was well known among us and ended up marrying another of my classmates.
I’m telling these show-business tales because, in the past 10 or so years, it seems that more Bostonians than ever have been heading to L.A. to seek their fortunes writing, producing, and acting. But the truth is, the entertainment world has always been a magnet for young people at the start of their careers. I know this first-hand.
I was mustered out of active duty in the Army Medical Corps and hitchhiked from San Antonio to Los Angeles in 1961 to get a job in Hollywood, writing or acting. I had some introductions in advance. At MGM, a mid-level producer interviewed me. The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, had married a Boston woman related to my mother’s family. My maternal grandfather had loaned him some money when he was starting out. He never paid any of it back, and my grandfather said, “Bullies don’t pay you back. I didn’t expect anything, and you just write it off…but never forget it.”
Thanks to my introductions fairly far up the Hollywood food chain, I interviewed at Paramount, MGM, and Columbia. In each case, their response was, “Kid, do yourself a favor. You don’t wanna go through what I had to go through to get here. Do yourself a favor,” they repeated. “Go home and go into the family business.” I was almost hired by a producer at 20th Century Fox whose assistant told me, “He liked your idea for two brothers in the Civil War.” When I met his boss, he was lying down on an upholstered lounger in his office, his eyes shut, hands folded over his ample stomach. He didn’t look up at me. He just stared at the ceiling and said, “I see two helicopters.”
“It’s about the Civil War,” I answered. He didn’t reply. I sat there for what seemed like a long time. Then I left.
A second interview was more benign, with a man who took pity on a 23-year-old. After he listened to me go on about being an English major in college, he said, “Look. I won’t blow smoke at you. Samuel Goldwyn, the studio czar, was fond of saying to people he wanted to hire, ‘I bow down and kiss the feet of talent.’” He went on. “I’m not saying that to you. You gotta pay your dues. Write scripts, pitch me ideas, get a real job. Wait on tables. Mow lawns. Dig graves. Build up experience. And write, write, write.”
I went back East, into the family business of finance. But I also wrote, wrote, wrote.
Years later, after I had authored several published books, including a money-related saga that Business Week called “One of the best books [ever] about Wall Street…and one of the funnier books [on] any subject,” I got a call from an independent Hollywood producer. He had optioned a Wall Street book called The Money Game, a series of investment vignettes that was very popular. But it had no plot.
“I want to make the definitive Wall Street movie. And I want you to write the screenplay.”
“How’d you find me?” I asked.
“I bought one of your books and looked at your picture on the back. You look like you’d love to be in show biz.”
My contract with the producer stipulated one draft and one rewrite in exchange for about $60,000, first-class travel, and first-class accommodation. I thought, in my innocence, that every Hollywood producer was rich. My guy met me at LAX in his Volkswagen Beetle. He looked a lot like Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, jolly and huggy and sweaty and sweet. “You’re gonna make me rich,” he said, “and I’m gonna teach you to write a movie, which is nothing like writing anything else.”
His name was David Goldhor, and his company was Eagle Eye Film Co. He had one named partner, an Irish actor named Redmond Gleeson, and no employees. Goldhor had an actress girlfriend who had just played a small role in a movie as a secretary. She had one line in the film, which was “Please pass the correctotype.” Both Goldhor and Gleeson belonged to a religion I had never heard of: Subud, which was founded in Indonesia and has roots in Islam. It had some interesting parts to it. One of the best was if you hated your first name, you could change it. Goldhor had been born Stephen. He hated it. “I always felt like a ‘David,’” he said. And so he became David.
Of course, if you change your name in America, you have to go to court to get it done. The newly crowned David went to court in Los Angeles to cement the change. As the proceedings rolled along, the court stenographer started to laugh out loud. The judge banged his gavel. “Order in the court,” he said. “What’s so amusing?” The clerk, trying hard to control his amusement, said, “His name is Goldhor. And he wants to change it from Stephen to David.”
That was my producer. He was leasing his VW Beetle. To keep body and soul alive, he delivered the Wall Street Journal every morning at 6 a.m. to homes in Beverly Hills and Bel Air to make $100 a week.
So where did he find the money to hire me? My first week in L.A., Goldhor came to my hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. They put me up at the Cavalier Hotel in Westwood. It was a horseshoe-shaped building on two levels surrounding a swimming pool. Each room was a small suite: bedroom, living room, kitchenette. It was $35 a night, which is like $250 today. Cheap. The treat was the tenants—movie people, actors, writers—in L.A. for productions in progress. The Alvin Ailey dancers were there for a week. They came out to the pool and put on a show, diving, dancing, bouncing on the board. As I took it all in, they asked me to join them. Then hipped me into the pool.
There is no profession as enticing as the movie business. It sucks you right in.
Goldhor was Jewish. Gleeson was born in Ireland, a Catholic.
“Why Islam?” I asked Goldhor. He was observing Ramadan at the time.
He smiled. “Judaism isn’t nearly dramatic enough for me,” he said.
What I didn’t know was that, essentially, Goldhor and Gleeson were broke. Goldhor opened his briefcase one day and fanned out about 15 credit cards—ranging from Visa to Husky Oil—on a table. They each paid about 10 bucks a month on each of the cards. They paid all of my bills with credit cards and paid my writing fee by selling pieces of the potential movie profits to wannabe characters around L.A., including a business professor at USC. They lured investors into the deal, offering a percentage of dreams that could one day come true.
Goldhor had me on a short leash. “I’m going to teach you how to write a screenplay,” he said. “It’s nothing like writing anything else. Show/don’t tell. Just let the characters run wild. Teach people about the stock market, fear and greed, human nature.”
In the book, The Money Game, Wall Street characters were described and featured. But there wasn’t much more to it. The title had the allure, though.
Here was my story for the firm: Five people—three young men and two young women—come to Manhattan from five different parts of America to enter a training program at a place like Fidelity Investments, only based in New York City. The CEO of the firm was a philosopher king, wiser than anyone. He gave them their marching orders: They were handed a fictitious $1 million. They would make faux bets on any stock or commodity in the universe of investing. They could trade them or hold them as they pleased, and the firm would track the bets. At the end of the year, the top two winners would be hired. The others would be out. It was a simple concept with lots of room for fun and games, including romance.
Goldhor had me writing every morning until he picked me up for lunch, during which he criticized everything I’d written. Then, every afternoon, I’d write until about 4, when Goldhor would pick me up and take me to a movie. Afterward, we’d have dinner, and he’d break down what we saw and drum the screenwriting basics into my head. After dinner, he’d drive me around in the VW, showing me houses of the stars in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and the Palisades. One night, he took me above Sunset Boulevard, where he parked and told me to get out of the car. “Look at the lights below us,” he said. “Twinkling. Shining. Someday, I’m going to live up here. All because we made this movie and taught Americans about money.”
I loved Goldhor. We saw several movies multiple times. “This is movie making. This is movie making,” he’d whisper to me as we sat in dark theaters. One film was American Graffiti, which I loved because it was like my high school. The other was the Richard Lester version of The Three Musketeers. “Every little detail was hysterical in itself,” he told me.
I wrote a second draft of the script as part of the contract, trying to put elements of Graffiti and Lester into the draft. My agent in L.A., Ben Benjamin—who represented Ingrid Bergman and Julie Christie, among many other notables—got an option offer from Paramount for our movie. But Goldhor said, “The pricks want to nickel and dime us to death. No friggin’ way are we going for an option. We want an outright offer.” He was the boss. But we never got an offer, and I began to learn an important lesson from the movie business. It also applies to any dream in life where you’re promised a certain jackpot: Never spend the money until it’s in your pocket.
“There is no profession as enticing as the movie business. It sucks you right in.”
Goldhor cursed the fates, and I chalked it all up to experience. But he took me to school. The challenges and fun of playing on the fringes of Hollywood was a priceless education for me, and it led me to a lifelong friend, Harry Gittes, Boy Producer. That’s what I called him. Gittes grew up in Brookline, went to New York after college, and became a successful creative in advertising. “Hey,” he told me when we met. “I hit doubles in New York. Why not go out of the park in Hollywood?”
I loved Gittes, too. He was a bachelor living in a rented house in one of the canyons. He had toy lead soldiers, funky stuff on the walls, ate walnuts and fruit in his cereal, smoked pot, drank beer, ran long distances, drove a souped-up VW and a Harley, and loved the ladies, who loved him right back. Funny and irreverent, Gittes was part of what I called “the fun squad”: Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Carole King, Tony Bill, Liza Minnelli. Gittes found me because of a thriller I wrote, The King of Terrors. On the back jacket, it mentioned that I was working on a book about Boston during Prohibition. He found my phone number. “Don’t sell this to anyone else. We need a Boston movie. Jack has never played a cop.” I told him I was coming to L.A. in the next week. “Don’t take any other phone calls,” he said. “It’s perfect for Jack.” He meant Nicholson.
In L.A., Gittes took me out to dinner at Musso & Frank’s, a famous Hollywood hangout. He had a date, the smart, lovely actress Gail Strickland. “Don’t do Boston Prohibition as a novel,” he said. “Do it as a screenplay. We’ll be partners. Much smarter, much more money.” I was seeing dollar signs, completely caught up in Gittes’s passion. “Just beef up my part,” Strickland said. I was thinking about telling my family that we were moving to L.A.
I had done a lot of research on Boston during Prohibition. The idea came from a cab driver on a random trip to Logan. He was an old-timer who said to me, “Did you know there were more killings in Boston during Prohibition than in Chicago?” I asked him if he recalled any of the names. He said, “Sure. There was the Gustin Gang in South Boston. There was King Solomon, head of the Jewish mob. Incredible characters.” Friends at the Globe got me into the files there to do research, and I wrote the screenplay in six months. As Gittes was gearing up to shop it around, a big expensive movie, Heaven’s Gate, was released in 1981. It got destroyed by the critics and destroyed at the box office, one of the biggest bombs in movie history. I got a call from Gittes.
“Are we on track?” I asked him.
“The train fucking crashed before it left the fucking station.”
“Whaddya mean?” I said.
“Heaven’s Gate,” Gittes said. “Hollywood is never going to produce a big costume movie period piece ever again. We’re dead in the aqua.”
I stuck my script in a drawer of my desk, where it still sits.
Gittes stayed a lifelong friend until his death several years ago, and as he would add, “You know what I’m saying?”
In the mid-1980s, Houghton Mifflin published my book, Sex and Money. The thesis was simple: Stock markets had been awful for some time. Americans were reeling from the despair of the Jimmy Carter years. Anxiety was palpable, and, I was sure, relationships were being challenged. I believed that if you had a lousy sex life, it would be mitigated by a new boom in the stock market. Hence, Sex and Money.
When it came out, there was movie interest from the Zucker brothers, Jerry and David, who made Airplane!, Ruthless People, and other great comedies. My wife, Susan, and I flew to L.A., visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. The brothers had Susan and me to dinner, a catered meal featuring pork chops. The brothers were sweet, kind, funny people. At the dinner was Woody Allen’s favorite producer, which made me feel more and more that “this was it.”
The next day, the Zucker brothers had scheduled a lunch with the comedy maestro Mel Brooks at the then-must-be-seen hot spot, Westwood Marquis. It was a fancy hotel, I thought, but loaded with show-business people and wannabes. Like me. Already seated was Brooks, who held forth about a project of his that he told us was going to be named Spaceballs. “Kind of a Blazing Saddles, starring people with fishbowls on their heads,” he said. Everyone said, “Brilliant” at once, including me.
While we were talking, a short, somewhat bland young man came over and said, “I don’t care what you’re pitching. But we think we are perfect to do the music.” It was Al Jardine from the Beach Boys. “You’re in,” I said. “It’s called Sex and Money. And there’s a ‘Barbara Ann’ moment in it.”
“Pretty good for a Bostonian,” Brooks cracked.
After that, I left the Zucker brothers to pitch Mel Brooks, and I kept turning my head as each of them banged the concepts about. It was like watching tennis. When our lunches of Cobb salads were done, Mel Brooks said to me, “Don’t worry, kid, I’ll take care of you.” I thought he meant the money, and I believed him. “I’m coming to Boston next week, kid. For a bar mitzvah. Staying at the Ritz,” Brooks told me.
“Wonderful,” I said to him. “I’d like to drop off something for you to read. I only live a few blocks from the hotel.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” he repeated.
The next week I was back in Boston. That Saturday morning, I walked over to the Ritz (now the Newbury) and went up to the front desk with a book for Brooks. “Could you deliver this to Mr. Mel Brooks? He’s here for the weekend.”
The clerk checked the register. “No Mr. Brooks has checked in.”
“Are you sure?”
He was sure. I called the hotel later in the day and the next morning. Bar mitzvahs are on Saturdays.
Mel Brooks never came to Boston. So he never took care of me.
The Zucker brothers decided that “Sex and Money isn’t really for us.”
As I’ve said many times in my life, “Back to the drawing board.”
Even now, my last two books have been optioned by an independent producer in L.A. to turn the material into a half-hour sitcom. He has high hopes. I do, too.
Sex and Money wasn’t the only one that got away.
In the mid-1960s, Boston’s favorite football team was the New York Giants. Harvard-trained Alan Trustman was a corporate lawyer at one of Boston’s biggest law firms. His weekend love was Y.A. Tittle, the quarterback for the Giants. Every Sunday, Trustman watched Tittle. Trustman was what I called “a good acquaintance” at the time. He told me, “Y.A. Tittle retires. Suddenly, I have nothing to do on Sunday afternoons. But I’ve had an idea for a long time about how to rob the First National Bank of Boston. I knew I could never write a book. But maybe I could write a movie.” He had the name of a New York literary agent and, through Harvard connections, bullied his way into the agent’s office and pitched his idea. Trustman was very smart and very sure of himself. He also was never going to take conventional paths or be dissuaded by anyone saying “no” to him. And he did not suffer anyone he took for a fool very well. His idea turned into the great movie starring Steve McQueen: The Thomas Crown Affair. The film was shot on Beacon Hill in one of the classic mansions of America, now owned by the billionaire Amos Hostetter.
Trustman followed this with Bullitt. “It’s opening in New York, and when I arrived at the theater, the line to get in went on for several blocks,” he told me. “I said to my wife, ‘This is it, the big bonanza.’” Shortly thereafter, he left his law practice and began writing movies full time.
One of my books at the time was being serialized in the Atlantic. Trustman called me and said, “Let’s do a deal together. You do the novel. I’ll do the screenplay. We’ll have a split.”
“I don’t play well with others,” I said. “I don’t collaborate.” But Trustman wore me down. The book idea was sold to Little, Brown and Company by my agent. Trustman put the potential movie sale into the hands of his über agent. I would get the major share of book deals. Alan would get the biggest percentage of a movie sale. He got paid for the Little, Brown sale, the paperback rights, the foreign book deals. I got zero for the movie sale. Because it never sold to the movies.
But all creative people live in hope that next time, the big bonanza is waiting. The adventures I’ve had always remind me of the last lines of The Great Gatsby. I won’t quote them because I’d rather you look them up for yourself, the words that sum up the aspirational nature of this country better than any.
Even now, my last two books have been optioned by an independent producer in L.A. to turn the material into a half-hour sitcom. He has high hopes. I do, too.
But I’ll repeat the advice I learned the hard way from Hollywood: “Don’t spend it until it’s in your pocket.”
First published in the print edition of the December 2022 issue, with the headline “Adventures in La-La Land.”