David Permut: By Permut Only
Last year, David Permut was one of the producers of the Oscar-nominated war movie, Hacksaw Ridge. Twenty-five years ago, he was best known for surviving the infamous flop, The Marrying Man. When Permut was interviewed for this profile from the December 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, he was viewed as a huckster without any real hits under his belt. Get ready to be schmoozed!
A few years ago, producer David Permut circulated a now-famous videotape to every studio head in town. On it, the producer, best known for Blind Date, Dragnet and 29th Street, appears looking very producer-like, in a blue blazer and Ray Ban’s. Beside him sits a screenwriter. On a table before them sit The Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety and Hollywood’s three politically correct varieties of bottled water. For 10 minutes or so, the pair pitch a synopsis for a comedy project called The Favor. Permut concludes the tape by slowly removing his sunglasses, flashing his big blues for the camera, and confiding, “Of course, we’re bringing this project to you first because of our very special relationship.” Over this, an “800” number flashes on the screen, suggesting that operators are standing by to clinch the deal with whoever calls first. The whole show is goofy, cynical and wise to itself. And it worked. Paramount bought the pitch, even if the movie’s never been made.
Front-page stories about David Permut appear with improbable regularity in Hollywood’s trade papers. “Permut Prepping Ambitious Slate,” shouts a Variety head line, with an accompanying article that goes on to tout 30-odd Permut projects-to-be, decorated with such names as Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and John Candy. In another piece–one appearing days after the fateful opening of his $26-million train wreck, The Marrying Man–Permut is celebrated for his new three-year, nonexclusive production agreement with New Line. Still another item marks the dubious achievement of his having signed hate-and-gross-out-monger Howard Stern to star in movies. Still another speaks about his two-hour CBS incest-and-murder movie, Breaking the Silence, that premiered last January, with perhaps others to follow. There is just tons of news about Permut. He boasts development deals at studios all over town. His recent fall releases were the nautical family-romp Captain Ron, with Martin Short and Kurt Russell, and the thriller Consenting Adults, starring Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Next up for him will be The Temp, another thriller, with Timothy Hutton, Faye Dunaway and Lara Flynn Boyle, plus Three of Hearts, in which Billy Baldwin, Kelly Lynch and Sherilyn Fenn are the three players in a bisexual romantic tangle.
Nothing against the guy, you understand, but why so much hubbub and so many deals for a moviemaker who has yet to hit a high hard one out of the park? Hoping to find out, I rendezvous with Permut early one morning at L.A.’s poshest health club. You know the scene: valet parking, Evian-fueled sweat, three-picture deals cut in the steam room. Permut’s publicists have asked me to page him on my arrival–fans and detractors alike find amusement in the producer’s enchantment with the exercise of celebrity. After enough minutes have passed to allow the paging its full effect, a compact, tanned, buzzed, David-Letterman-meets-Tony-Curtis type in a designer denim shirt, khakis and white Reeboks cuts toward me across the lobby, schmoozing all the way. He pauses to press flesh with actor James Farentino, and then to crack up one of Hollywood’s more powerful agents. Jeez, I think, this guy’s a politician on a one-man stump; if there were a mother on hand to offer up her baby, he’d probably swallow the poor kid whole.
Now Permut spots me, grins and half-shrugs in a way that seems to say, Hey-I’m-only-working-my-relationships. He introduces himself warmly while the maitre d’ ushers us in the direction of the best table in one of the club’s three restaurants. But before we get to our table, Permut stops to greet a pack of studio executives who, though they start in trying to sell him on what great things they’re doing, are soon listening to his monologue about how he’s just landed his Richard Nixon bio-flick at Disney, maybe to star Tom Hanks. Then he starts pitching them a Janis Joplin biography that’s one of his oldest, favorite unmade movie projects. “Hey, I sell the sizzle, not the steak,” he jokes, when one of them cracks wise about his deal with Howard Stern. I recall something one of Permut’s past collaborators told me: “David’s like a relative you sort of can’t help but like but who you know you shouldn’t do business with.” And something else, from a studio boss: “Beware. There’s no there there.”
As we sit, Permut orders grapefruit juice and tells me he’s been at the club since 5:30 a.m. “They say that I live the business and it’s true that I don’t sleep much. Every morning, I’m here exercising on the stair machine for literally two hours, reading all the newspapers, the trade papers, a script if I get ambitious-” Breaking off, he holds up a screenplay for Yo, Alice!, a modern urban musical based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that he hopes soon to film. “I just got this first draft and I think we’re in very good shape,” he confides.
Permutspeak blends movie-executive schmooze with carny-barker hucksterism, borscht-belt comic rat-a-tat-tat, Hollywood name-dropping and Beverly Hills agent ooze–skills the late-thirtyish producer honed during stints on the way to where he is now. (More on this later.) “You probably heard me talking just now,” says Permut, “about the Howard Stern project–but don’t print me calling it The Adventures of Fartman, that’s just a little joke– and also about the Joplin project, which I’ve been getting rejections on for years. I call that project my Gandhi.” He goes on, strictly on output just now, teeming with product to push and a personal myth to shape.
“I didn’t plan on making four movies at once in Portland, Oregon, New York, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, but when people start pushing green buttons, I’m not one to hold up my hand to stop them,” he says, draining his juice glass and ordering another.
“Luckily, I’ve got terrific partners on these projects, wonderful line producers who oversee the films on a day-to-day basis.”
For those searching for a common thread to producer Permut’s choice of material, it should be transparent that he’s a populist, grab-bag-style moviemaker. Comments David Friendly, a longtime Permut colleague who runs Imagine Films Entertainment Inc., “I doubt that David would make a movie unless he could already see the poster in his head.” Asserts Permut, “There are deals and there are films. I’ve done both and there’s nothing wrong with either. When I say ‘deals,’ I mean deals on projects that are, say, popcorn movies. You check your brain at the box office, have a good time, escape, do your thing. Then, there are other movies that are thought-provoking. They go deeper.” And those Permut productions would include what, exactly? “29th Street,” he says, referring to the critically well-received, Capraesque comedy-drama starring Danny Aiello and Anthony LaPaglia. “It touches emotions, the human spirit. I sat there and got chills watching that movie.”
Feeling more and more certain that Permut prefers talking to conversing, I listen as he unleashes more Permutisms. “Good material is always the bait that catches the fish, but it seems like the best projects are the ones with the most turbulent histories and that take longest to make. So, yes, at one point when these four new movies ‘came together all at once,’ it got a bit crazed. I’m not complaining. I look forward all my life to problems like being in New York with Three of Hearts and every night when I got back to the hotel, having to watch on cassette about two hours of the dailies of the three other movies shooting on three other locations. These movies represent years of a lot of people’s lives, a lot of people looking at me disbelievingly and saying things like, ‘You actually want to make a movie with a gay relationship in it?’ I feel so strongly about Three of Hearts that I put up half the money to get it made. I fought to get all these pictures made.”
Speaking of fights, I can’t resist asking Permut about his particular tactics for dealing with other people’s titanic egos. Like, for instance, actors’ egos. The talent in his movies has included Richard Pryor, Danny Aiello, Bruce Willis, Faye Dunaway, Tim Hutton and Kim Basinger. The mind reels. “There are difficult personalities,” he admits hesitantly, as if mapping out a strategy as he goes along. “Difficult actors, writers, producers, studios. I’m not going to volunteer who’s on my short list. There’s aggravation, tense moments, sure, but the bottom line is: my check. I get paid for this and, believe me, I’m paid a fair amount of money. I have a sense of humor about it.
We’re not doing brain surgery here, we’re not finding a cure for AIDS or for cancer. I mean, when you get down to it, just read the paper in the morning and it’s obvious that we’re just a pimple on the ass of the world. Fifty times a day, I tell myself I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
I wonder if he thought himself a lucky pimple during the shooting of the troubled The Marrying Man, which was rampant with skirmishes between Disney Studios, the director and the diva-like Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin. And, by the way, how does a man who boasts that one of his credos is “Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me,” justify having done two movies with Kim Basinger?
“Let’s say I have a keen sense of drama,” he says, grinning. I persist. “Okay, let’s take Blind Date,” he says, finally, referring to the 1987 comedy that teamed Basinger with Bruce Willis. “I had read and fallen in love with a script by Dale Launer, who told me one night over dinner about his best friend who went out with a Beverly Hills hair dresser named Nina on whom the word was, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let her drink.’ Dale’s Blind Date script was born from that meeting and we had three studios vying for it. Jeff Sagansky at TriStar paid such an unprecedented price for it that the newspapers did an article about Dale’s new four-story high-tech Santa Monica condo that TriStar bought.”
Actually, the answer to how Permut allowed himself to tangle with Kim Basinger more than once may be that he didn’t quite tangle with her the first time. Word has it that once director Blake Edwards became involved with Blind Date, he brought with him his own producer and associate producer. “I don’t think David Permut showed up on the set more than once or twice,” insists a source close to that production.
“Essentially, when Blake Edwards came on, David was booted off and I’d wager Permut never met Kim on that movie.” Launer, who considers Permut a friend, despite what he terms their “many fallings-out,” observes, “Blind Date is a terrible movie, one which I got kicked off. That not only offended me, but I also thought David should be willing to go down in flames with me. I felt unsupported.”
Permut defends himself. “There might have been a time in my career where I didn’t have the clout that I gained along the way. We all make sacrifices at points in our careers. Sometimes, you swallow hard, move on and hope for the best. Was the movie better than Dale’s script? Was it worse? As you say, it was ‘A Blake Edwards Production.’ When I look back, I think, ‘Maybe I should have or could have done this or that.’ One never knows.”
And what about The Marrying Man? Recalls a Permut associate who ran into him at a party just after the shooting stopped, “The affable side of him, the side that shrugs off any abuse, had completely disappeared. He was fuming like a bull in a red room. It was refreshing to see.”
Permut clearly doesn’t relish the prospect of rehashing the whole hootenanny, but comments, “I’ve been involved in business in certain circumstances that have been written about–problems, let’s say–that have plagued a number of my pictures. One specifically. We both know which one I’m talking about. I’ve never talked about it. The only thing I will ever say about it which is absolutely, 100 percent the truth is that I learned more on The Marrying Man than on any other picture that I’ve produced. I really don’t want to get into it more.” Permut rattles his copy of Newsweek that sits on the seat next to him, and adds: “Look, life is tough. It’s tougher for others, perhaps. Each individual has their own thing they’re dealing with. Sometimes we’re all in terrible situations, whether it’s in business or whatever, and I like to feel that I look at the best, most optimistic aspect of something. I mean, I get chills when I hear Louis Armstrong doing ‘What a Wonderful World.’ That’s what it’s about for me: hopes, dreams.”
Permut crosses his arms, shoots me a challenging, prideful gaze, and asks, “You want to know what I am, right? I’m someone who’s doing exactly what he wants to be doing. There are times when I wonder maybe whether I was born too late, times when I say, ‘Jesus, I should have been around in the days of Adolph Zukor; maybe I should be eating at Romanoff’s.’ But the biggest challenge in this business, my source of personal satisfaction is: I love to be told no. I’m maybe self-abusive–no, not self-abusive, but I like to be abused. I mean, you get beat up in the business because it’s hammered into you, whatever the project and its challenges: You can’t do it, you can’t do it, YOU CAN’T DO IT! I like to be the guy who does it.”
So, it’s like what film executive David Friendly has told me: “David’s strengths are that movies are all he does with his life, that he’s impervious to rejection, that he has boundless, infectious likability and enthusiasm, and that he’s an unparalleled salesman. It’s like he shows you material and pretty much says, ‘Look, if you don’t want it in blue, I’ve got it in green, or with polka dots.'”
How did this guy get this way, anyhow? It probably helped that he grew up on Long Island, New York under the watchful eye of a wealthy industrialist father and a progressive, health-minded mother. His older brother was good-looking, smart and athletic, alongside his exceptionally bright, law-school-minded younger sister; Permut was the tunnel-visioned dreamer. “I didn’t do too well in Spanish class,” he recalls, “but my seventh grade teachers used to have to confiscate my Variety and Hollywood Reporter. All I wanted was to be in the film business.” After his family moved to Beverly Hills, Permut became, at 15, owner, chairman of the board and sole sales man of Beverly Hills Map Company, purveyors of maps to the stars’ homes. “It was Tijuana in Beverly Hills,” Permut says, laughing. “While other kids in my neighborhood were selling lemonade, I was stuffing my pockets by selling their parents’ addresses. I’d start at $3 a map and go down to $2 or even $1 if I had to. The best part was meeting people who came by, like Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn or Randolph Scott’s wife, who gave me an umbrella because she thought I was getting too much sun.”
Perhaps he did. When local residents circulated a petition that aimed to drive Permut and his fellow map-sellers from the neighborhood, the adolescent took a meeting with his local councilman, Ed Edelman, along with his two friendly competitors, both older women. He recalls telling Edelman, ‘”Look, I could be on drugs, these ladies could be on welfare,’ but Ed sided with his powerful constituents. So, I got a lawyer who had represented me years before when we had a situation when my electric blanket caught fire, and, with the ladies, I proceeded to launch lawsuits. This was to be a test case.” Already media-wise, Permut videotaped the police arrest of one of the old map-hawkers, then sold the tape to NBC. The case went to the state supreme court. Bottom line: Permut claims he made “a small fortune” at his business and today, on the corner of Baroda and Mapleton, that same woman still sells maps to the stars’ homes. All very “you can fight City Hall,” of course, but surely more was expected of the son of an industrialist. “My parents thought I was very enterprising,” Permut protests, tongue firmly in cheek, then admits, “but they thought it would be a good idea to have something to fall back on.”
For Permut, something to fall back on was film studies at UCLA. But during his freshman year, when he was 18 and working summers at a PR. firm booking Chuck Norris into high schools for karate demonstrations, his father mentioned over dinner that he had met in a bar “a fiery red-headed Irishman from Oklahoma who claimed he was going to reunite The Beatles.” Enter entrepreneur Bill Sargent, one of Hollywood’s most fabulous, legendary hucksters, and the man who would become perhaps the most important influence on David Permut’s professional life. In the mid-’60s, Bill Sargent had made millions by shooting on video, transferring to film, and releasing as movies such “events” as the The T.A.M.I. Show, which featured astonishing performances by James Brown, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Chuck Berry.
Later, in fabulous “Electronovision”–that is, also on video–came Richard Burton in Hamlet and Carol Lynley and Ginger Rogers in Harlow, the latter rushed into theaters to beat out producer Joseph E. Levine’s expensive, hugely publicized version of the life of the ’30s screen siren. Permut tracked down Sargent–who, at the time, operated out of an office the size of a table, drove a Chevrolet Corvair, and lived next to the Ventura Freeway–and became the entrepreneur’s assistant, or as he puts it, strapped himself in “for the wild ride of my life.
“Sargent, who used to call me, affectionately, ‘Little Jew,’ is either a billionaire or on the canvas and counted out. He was seductive, infectious, an anachronism. The Beatles reunion got sidelined for a while when I found a Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play, The Gang’s All Here, that I’d read in school. Bill optioned it for a dollar and signed Lloyd and Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Robert Culp, Ben Johnson, Arthur O’Connell, Tom Bosley and William Windom to do a limited-run stage show at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco and to film it as he had Hamlet and Harlow.
Meanwhile, Maude Chasen was letting him eat free at her restaurant and he was borrowing a Cadillac because he couldn’t take Lee Grant out in a Corvair, and I’m giving him my movie map money to keep things flowing. Also, meanwhile, we’re dealing with Western Costume, phones that never stop ringing, and stars leasing homes in San Francisco.” The curtain never rose. Cameras never rolled. Sargent couldn’t secure the finances and, according to Permut, “disappeared, literally, leaving me there in an empty office with the phone ringing. I didn’t hear from him again for years.”
Permut got involved in the production of a succession of seat-of-your-pants flicks and, later, served a brief, unfulfilling stint as an agent. Then one day in 1975 Permut’s phone rang and his secretary said, “There’s a man on the line who says you’ll know him by his initials: B.S.” Permut found himself being whisked in a Rolls to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where Sargent was ensconced in a suite replete with spiral staircases and magnums of champagne. Flush from an investment by one of Georgia-Pacific’s larger shareholders at the time, Sargent proceeded to train five cameras on James Whitmore during his one-man performance as Harry Truman in Give ’em Hell Harry, and released the results three weeks later in about 1500 theaters. The movie, which cost, says Permut, “$230,000, including the party,” did $11 million at the box office.
Permut and Sargent wanted to tackle other, bigger video-to-film “events”: A Chorus Line, Evita, Walter Matthau as Casey Stengel, and the prize: a reunion of The Beatles. The two took a meeting with one of George Harrison’s attorneys. “Bill said, ‘I want to make an offer–$40 million,’ then, three seconds later, he said, ‘No, make it $50 million!’ We were thrown out of the office but Bill said, ‘We’ve got ’em! They’re just playing hard to get!’ He sent four telegrams to The Beatles offering them $50 million. I’m telling him, ‘We have exactly $2 million in the bank, where are we going to get the other 48?’ but he told me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s a technicality.’ He rented us the entire seventh floor at 1888 Century Park East, all of us had to have our own limos, WATS lines, a Learjet, offices full of antiques. He was a dreamer, so convinced that he would be the man who would reunite The Beatles that it wound up in 1976 on the cover of People. Had he succeeded, think what could have happened.”
Sargent’s show-biz undoing came with “Death Match,” a proposed closed-circuit TV, beamed-around-the-world fight in an 80-foot diameter pool between a man and an 18-foot great white shark. “It got pretty insane,” recalls Permut, who was 22 at the time and still living at home. “The U.N. tried to ban the fight in U.S. waters. We got chased out of Fiji, because they considered the shark godlike, and we wound up in Western Samoa. Caesars Palace was going to broadcast the fight to the main showroom. We had Madison Square Garden, the Forum. Jimmy the Greek had odds on the shark.” In the end, the whole sideshow imploded when Sargent could only rustle up a sand shark considerably smaller than the one he’d promised.
Sargent was to turn up for a third time in Permut’s life, in 1979, to film Richard Pryor’s one-man show on two consecutive nights at the Long Beach Terrace Theater. Though the whole project cost only $750,000, no studio wanted to touch it, so Sargent and company booked the movie themselves and it made over $30 million domestically.
When the Pryor movie allowed Permut to “go legitimate,” he and Mark Travis, another Sargent protege who’d been in on the Pryor film, landed a deal at Columbia, during which they were instrumental in bringing Cheech and Chong to the studio. Later, Permut struck an agreement with Lorimar and, later still, with United Artists. But Permut admits that none of his projects–which included a Sargent-like filming of the Broadway show Ain’t Misbehavin’–clicked until, one night, while “lying at home, flipping through 30 channels, which I constantly do, I watched an old ‘Dragnet’ rerun and, two channels away, saw Dan Aykroyd on a ‘Saturday Night Live’ rerun doing a ‘Dragnet’ skit. I’m not a rocket scientist. The next day, I went to Universal with Dan Aykroyd and sang a four-note pitch: ‘Dum-dum-DUM-dum.'”
The resulting movie, which starred Aykroyd and Tom Hanks, was sufficiently successful to flood Permut’s offices with ideas for more of the same. “I wasn’t interested in, you know, Flipper: The Movie” says Permut, “and I wasn’t interested in being the illiterate producer who gets his ideas from sitting home and watching TV.”
Nevertheless, Permut initiated The New Little Rascals, which he says Universal is actively developing; and with Dale Launer, he will be an executive producer on The Beverly Hillbillies, which Fox has in the works. Today, Permut has some 40 projects in various stages of development–including the long-delayed , Palm Beached, a musical comedy-drama based on the real-life adventures of a socialite onto whose beachfront estate landed a grounded Venezuelan tanker full of sailors.
Permut is scrupulously guarded when it comes to questions about his personal life (for the record: he’s single, is very close to his father, lives in a high-rise luxury condominium in Westwood, is building a home in Tucson, Arizona, is a fixture at events like premieres and the MTV Movie Awards). His anecdotes veer pointedly away from the personal just when they promise to be revelatory. For instance, he merrily describes his experience of going to a Native American sweat lodge, replete with “chanting Indians, people stripping naked, very other-worldly,” but ask him if he experienced any life-changing experiences and he shrugs and says, “No, but I sweated a lot.”
He’d rather boost his movies. So, Three of Hearts is “not an issue picture, but seductive, compelling, emotional, elating,” and The Temp “should have audiences laughing and screaming.” Still, for all his defenses, he’s rather touching when he admits that one of the main reasons he does what he does is … well, let him tell it.
“One of the biggest reasons I produce movies is access to people like [socialite] Mollie Wilmot [whose story is the basis for Palm Beached] in Palm Beach, who has introduced me to people I wouldn’t have met in a trillion years if I were, say, an accountant in Century City. I mean, I go to Canyon Ranch to relax and over there is Don Simpson or Herb Allen or Paula Abdul or Joel Schumacher.” So, hanging with the rich and famous is a perk even for the rich and only slightly less famous? “Well, yeah,” he says, laughing, “that and an article or two along the way that gives me something nice to send to my Aunt Jean in Miami.” Hope you like it, Aunt Jean.
Stephen Rebello is a contributing editor of Movieline.