Even more than Washington, Hollywood is famously the land of, “if you want a friend, get a dog.” Pals, business associates, even lovers come and go in this, the country’s last freewheeling bastion of untrammeled capitalism, in which “what have you done for me lately?” is not a reproach but a perfectly reasonable question.
So it is with great sadness that I learned, up here in the New England woods, of the death on Tuesday of my friend, rabbi and mentor, Daniel Melnick, the former head of MGM and Columbia, best known for Straw Dogs, Altered States, All That Jazz, L.A. Story, and That’s Entertainment. Dan was not only a great producer, with a story sense second to none, a sense of history, both cinematic and American, a steel-trap mind, and an amazing memory (he could read version after version of a treatment written by an idiot – in this case, me – and always find the new material. And then tell you what was wrong with it). No, he was much more.
He was also a brilliant raconteur, genial host, avid poker player, legendary art collector and keen talent scout. The boy from Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, a true autodidact who dropped out of NYU because he had better things to do, rose to become a programming chieftain at ABC and David Susskind’s partner at Talent Associates. Along the way, he met and married Linda Rodgers, one of the great composer’s two daughters, and had a son, the composer, Peter Rodgers Melnick, whose new show, The Last Smoker in America, is now playing at the 45th Street Theatre in New York. (He also has a daughter, Gabriela Wilkerson Melnick.) Larger than life in every respect – Dan would have been equally at home as either a kindly rabbi or a Jewish gangster (say, Gurrah Shapiro) from the Lepke heyday of the 1920s and ‘30s – Melnick was a mad man before mad men were fashionable.
My first encounter with Dan was over the telephone. We had been introduced by a mutual friend, the late art dealer Mark Glabman, and when Dan heard I was working on a book about the Prohibition heyday of gangster Owney Madden, he called to ask to see the material. That book, And All the Saints, went on to win the 2004 American Book Award for fiction
More important, it got sold to MGM, and therein lies a Hollywood tale. After I had sent the partial manuscript to Dan, I got a call out of the blue from Jeff Berg at ICM, who told me he’d like to represent the project. In short order, Jeff set us up at MGM and, in one stroke, I was playing in the Great Game. As Jeff told me last night: “Danny successfully bridged the gap from television to film as an executive and a producer. He had great wit, elegance, and was a prescient art collector. His dinner parties brought together an eclectic mix of movie people, painters, scientists and civil rights lawyers. He was great fun.”
I’ll say. At a dinner party one night in Dan’s old house in the aerial “bird streets” off Doheny – he bought it from Madonna and sold it to Leonardo DiCaprio – Arthur Cohen, the former head of marketing for Paramount, asked me how I’d gotten into the Industry. I told him the story of Dan and Jeff and he looked at me a beat, then said, incredulously: “That never happens.” Well, it happened to me, which means it can happen to you, too. On another evening, Chevy Chase and I wound up at Dan’s piano in an impromptu keyboard improv contest as a poster of Bessie Smith beamed down upon us. That’s what makes Hollywood magical.
Dan’s influence extended in all directions. One night I got an invitation to sit in at the famous Gourmet Poker Club game, which was minus both Johnny Carson (recovering from an illness) and Steve Martin. Being just a poor corrupt official – excuse me! I mean, “writer” – I hesitated at the sight of the mortgage money flying out the window for the next several years, but Dan talked me into it and up the hill I went, to certain doom. The players that night included Carl Reiner, David Chasman, Doc Simon, Dan, and Barry Diller. I recall being incredibly flattered that Reiner knew me in my former incarnation as classical music critic of Time Magazine, and incredibly scared when Diller (this was in the early days of the dot.com bubble) asked me what would happen if somebody grabbed the domain name barrydiller.com before he could. “Who would I sue?” he inquired as I quaked ignorantly in my Florsheims. (For those keeping score, Reiner was the big winner that evening. I survived to pay the mortgage.)
One final point, and it’s important, especially these days: politics never entered into our relationship. It’s not that we didn’t discuss them, but it was after the fashion of Yankee fans versus Mets fans: it never affected our professional and personal love for one another. Dan was a classic NY/LA liberal. I was, well, the multilingual son of a Marine Corps officer who had spent much of my career in eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union, who was there at the Berlin Wall with a sledgehammer when the Wall came down 20 years ago next month. But – and this is a truth I keep pounding home on both sides of the contemporary political divide in our wonderful town – none of that mattered if the story was served. And that’s the way it should be. In the end, in our business, story – and execution – will out. The rest is, or should be, commentary.
So ave atque vale, Daniel. (We always called each other by our full first names.) Many thanks for the hours spent up on Oriole Way, for the stimulating conversation, the whiskey, the dinners at Spago Hollywood before it closed, the evenings at Chianti Cucina before it closed, the lunches at Joss and Hamburger Hamlet. Thank you for the introductions to Jeff Berg, to Sherry Lansing, to my writing partner Gail Parent, to Joanna Cassidy, and everybody else You believed in truth, and beauty, and in the movies, and a higher accolade than that I cannot give you. Rest in peace.