The Man Who Brought Beatles, Bond & More to Movies
By David Weiner
Who's that man posing with the Beatles? He's the Hollywood producer who signed the Fab Four to star in A Hard Day's Night before they touched down in America for the first time. He's also the guy who launched the James Bond movie franchise by giving the green light to make Dr. No, then saved it by luring Sean Connery back for one more movie. He also discovered the likes of Steve Martin and Woody Allen on the stand-up circuit and started their movie careers. Many movers and shakers in the entertainment industry are hidden in the fine print and not seen in the spotlight, and now legendary producer David Picker is stepping out with a new memoir – Musts, Maybes, and Nevers: A Book About the Movies – and sharing some Hollywood tales with ETonline.
"I've been a very lucky guy," says Picker. "I wound up in a situation where I was able to work with the whole spectrum of talent, from the best to not the best of my time. … It was an amazing run."
The grandson of the co-founder of the Loews Theater Group, Picker got his start as a producer at United Artists in Hollywood, then became president of Paramount Pictures and later Columbia Pictures, greenlighting and guiding some of the greatest films of the '60s, '70s and '80s.
"I was in a unique position because [at United Artists], the company that I spent most of my time with, our goal was to make available to independent filmmakers the ability to make the projects that they cared most about, as opposed to the major studios, where you were bound to all sorts of ground rules [and expectations]."
At UA he was responsible for such films as Midnight Cowboy, Tom Jones, Last Tango in Paris, Lenny and Help! along with recruiting legendary filmmakers Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle and Sergio Leone. At Paramount, he shepherded such classics as Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Heaven Can Wait, Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke and Ordinary People. At Lorimar, he was responsible for such films as An Officer and a Gentleman, Being There, Escape to Victory and S.O.B. At Columbia, his fingerprints are all over Punchline, Hope and Glory and The Last Emperor. As an independent producer, he made the Steve Martin/Carl Reiner-directed The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains, plus Beat Street and The Crucible with Daniel Day-Lewis, among others. On the TV side, he set up Arli$$ and such miniseries as P.T. Barnum and The Tempations.
As for capturing the Beatles before they broke out, Picker explains, "Through sheer good luck, we wound up having a three-picture deal with this group. We made a low-budget movie deal with a rock group because we thought they were kind of good … but they hadn't broken beyond their local market [in Liverpool]. … [After they became a sensation in London], I walked into my boss's office and said, 'Guess what? We've got the Beatles.' … Now the question is, what do you do with them?"
Picker takes credit for having the idea of matching up the band with filmmaker Richard Lester to create their first legendary film in 1964: "I honestly believe A Hard Day's Night would not have been made had I not seen this short [by Richard Lester] called The Running Jumping Standing Still. … It was a marriage of two talents, Dick Lester and the Beatles, who had a vision and made it work."
As for Bond, Picker was an avid fan of Ian Fleming's work and tried to get the ball rolling with Alfred Hitchcock directing a 007 adaptation, but Fleming didn't like movies and didn't want his creation ruined onscreen. Later, the author changed his tune and gave Cubby Broccolli and Harry Saltzman the option to produce his novels. Their $1.1 million budget request was turned down by their regular studio, Columbia, as being too high, so they went to United Artists and Picker, who gave them the green light for 1962's Dr. No.
"My vision of it and their vision of it was exactly the same," says Picker of the 007 films, adding with another laugh, "Everybody got rich off it but me."
Sean Connery was cast as James Bond, and the rest is history. But after five Bond outings, each one doing bigger and bigger box office, Connery was feeling unappreciated by Broccolli and Saltzman, who would renegotiate their deals for more money -- but never gave the actor his just rewards for becoming the face of the franchise. Connery left the series after 1967's You Only Live Twice, and was replaced by George Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, "Which lays an egg," says Picker matter-of-factly. "Sadly enough, the Lazenby film was a disaster, and probably there wouldn't be any more Bond movies" if Picker hadn't brokered a deal with Connery for a king's ransom – and a deal to make any two other movies of his choice -- to bring him back for one more picture, 1971's Diamonds Are Forever.
"Sean realized he could trust us, came back, did the one movie, and saved the series," says Picker, who adds, "One of the terms of his deal was that he would not have to talk to the producers. It's laughable, but on the other hand, he was deeply offended and he had every right to be, because they treated him like shit." Connery subsequently gave his $1.25 million salary entirely to The Scottish Educational Trust Fund.
He adds, "Sean is famous for being cranky; I've never experienced it, he's never been anything but cordial, but he was heard to say that the only movie executive he'd ever liked was me."
For every huge success there's also failure, and in Hollywood there's plenty of failure to go around. While Picker details in his book what went wrong with such films as Leap of Faith with Steve Martin, Leonard Part 6 with Bill Cosby and the epic James Michener novel Hawaii, he also lists a couple doozies that slipped through his fingers. Movies that crossed his desk that he saw potential in -- but turned down or just couldn't get approved for various reasons -- include Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Planet of the Apes.
"We made a lot of good movies and we made a lot of bad movies and made a lot of disappointing movies, because that's the nature of the beast," he laughs. "I remember the bad ones – I financed a bunch. … There are no guarantees in life; it's kind of fun when they work, and I don't care what you say, it hurts when they don't. It really does. There's just as much hard work in a bad one as a good one."
Picker concludes of his career, "The thing that I treasure the most are those movies that I honestly think might never have seen the screen, had I not believed in the combination of talent and content."
David V. Picker's Musts, Maybes, and Nevers: A Book About the Movies is available now.