I was saddened to read of Peter Falk’s death over the weekend.
Peter also was the central figure in one of my favorite Hollywood moments.
Starting in 1976, I worked for Ray Stark, my first mentor and one of the legendary Hollywood producers of all time. As background for the Peter Falk story, here is a brief excerpt about Ray from Bringing Back The Old Hollywood:
As a producer, he made a huge string of hits, starting with Funny GirI. He also produced Funny Lady, The Way We Were, The Night of The Iguana, Fat City, and others. In the 1970s, he began a collaboration with playwright Neil Simon that resulted in such films as The Goodbye Girl, The Cheap Detective, Murder by Death, and California Suite.
As a deal maker par excellence, he engineered (through his dear friend Herbert Allen) a complete refinancing and restructuring of Columbia Pictures where he was the string-puller and most powerful single influence.
Ray had a fabulous house in Bel Air where he entertained the crème de la creme of filmdom in his screening room.
On a personal level, Ray had charisma to burn.
He was in his early sixties when I started working for him, but he wore jeans to the office every day and acted more like a thirty year old.
He had a wild, wicked, hilarious sense of humor and laughed heartily much of the time. He played impish practical jokes and squealed with delight when they actually worked.
He had a relentlessly curious mind and was always telling me that he learned something new and exciting every day of his life.
He was neither afraid of nor intimidated by anyone. When it came to taking chances on movies, and cooking up the most brazen and breathtaking schemes imaginable, he had cojones the size of truck tires.
As Ray’s wife Fran was one of my mother’s the closest friends, Ray was none too thrilled about having to tell my mother that he was going to facilitate my leaving the secure practice of law for the wild uncertainty of a film career.
On the other hand, he had dearly loved my birth father and saw my Dad’s passion for movies in me.
I kept after him and, one day in February 1976, in a move he later admitted to me that he thought I would refuse, he offered me a job on three conditions.
First, he would pay me two hundred dollars per week, no more. He knew I was making pretty good money as a sports lawyer and thought I would have to refuse such a pay cut.
Second, I had to start the very next day. Again, he thought there was no way I could leave my practice on such short notice.
Third, I had to agree to sit on the couch in his office and simply observe for three months. No questions, no discussions.
To Ray’s shock and chagrin, I accepted all three conditions right on the spot and became his anonymous and voiceless assistant the very next day.”
With that as background….
We had worked with Peter Falk on Murder by Death in 1976 and 2 years later hired him to star in The Cheap Detective. As with many Hollywood contracts at that time, the terms were agreed to (or so both sides thought), and the lawyers then set out to negotiate a long form contract. Filming then began and ended, and Peter was paid according to the deal that had been “made.”
As we entered post-production, we became aware that there were some issues with the contract and that there was some disagreement about what had actually been agreed to. Ray seemed to think that the new deal mirrored the previous deal. The other side thought otherwise. Peter was at that time represented by Bert Fields who was then, and still is, one of the best and most powerful lawyers in the film industry. Unfortunately, Ray and Bert made a cobra and a mongoose look like lifelong friends. For reasons that were never quite clear to me, they had a very adversarial relationship.
Our lawyer Bob Price and I finally convinced Ray that we couldn’t actually distribute the film without a formal contract and a meeting was arranged with Bert Fields.
Formal if strained pleasantries were exchanged but, before long, the cobra and the mongoose were fully engaged in their ongoing feud. Finally, exasperated, Bert stood up and said to Ray: “The hell with this, Ray. Peter’s not going to do the picture.”
Ray very quickly shot back: “Great…because I don’t want him. We’ll find someone else!”
Bert got up to leave as Ray glowered behind his desk.
Just as Bert started to head for the door, I saw the realization hit both of them at the same time: the film had already been made with Peter in it!
Both men cracked up at the same time and sagged into chairs in gales of laughter…and the contract was eventually worked out.
I’m not sure if the feud, such as it was, was resolved that day, but, for that moment, two industry titans shared a moment of mutual “oops!”.
And that’s Hollywood.