I sat down with David Permut at his Permut Presentations office in Beverly Hills on November, 14, 2001
Luke: "You were selling a sitcom based on your own story?"
David: "I decided to go for a bigger screen size. We're developing it as the feature film Promoter. In the truest sense of the word, my mentor Bill Sargent was a promoter.
"I've always wanted to be in the movie business. My family moved out here from New York when I was 13 years of age. My first job in the business was selling maps on Sunset Blvd to the stars' homes. I was 15. The prices for the maps were negotiable, from $1-3 depending on the appetite of the customer. Joe Hyams, who was married to Elke Summer, wrote a novel, The Pool, about a kid on the corner who sells maps to the stars homes. He spent hours on the corner talking to me and I was one of the people he dedicated the book to.
"Fred Aistaire used to come by and sign the map. Katherine Hepburn and Elvis Presley lived near me. I met a lot of people. And as I got their autograph, the price of the map went up. In the early '70s, I was known as the kid on the corner of Sunset Blvd and Holmby Hills. There was a lawyer across the street named Sam Zagong. He used to come over and encourage me. He used to sell newspapers in Chicago. He handled Stanley Kramer and every major director of that era.
"My business was Beverly Hills Map Company. I made my own maps and updated them every few months. I can't tell you how I got my own addresses. I had a license to sell the maps. I wanted to get cars to stop so I body painted my brother's girlfriend. "Movie Maps Here. Stop." And she was in a bikini dancing. The police didn't like that.
"A number of the neighbors in Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills wanted to get rid of me and two old ladies who sold maps. Francis's corner was Mapleton and Holmby Hills and the other woman Vivian sold in front of Gary Cooper's old house. They didn't want us around.
"We lived in the area. I came home from work one day and my mother showed me a letter that went out to all the people in the area explaining why they wanted to get rid of the maps. They're unsightly and they cause accidents.
"I found a personal injury lawyer willing to take our case because he saw publicity. I spoke at City Hall. I said I just wanted to make some money. These women could be on welfare, instead they're earning a living. Star Maps are a tradition in Hollywood. People come here by the millions. The Beverly Hills City Council made it illegal to sell the maps.
"The case went to the California State Supreme Court which ruled in our favor. The only reason you see any kids on Hollywood Blvd with signs is because of this court case.
"It was a different era then. There was an innocence. Now with surveillance and stalking and the problems of the world today. Those issues didn't exist in 1971.
"My dad comes home one night and he says he met a guy who's going to reunite the Beatles. I said, 'Give me a break. You met a guy in the bar and he said he was getting the Beatles together? And you believed him?" I was cynical. Then I turned on the TV that night to see a news flash that the Beatles were meeting in Hollywood for a proposed reunion. My eyes lit up like saucers and I ran to my dad. 'Where did you meet this guy? Who is this guy?' Dad gives me his business card with a Beverly Hills address. I thought, 'Wow, he's in Beverly Hills. He must be legitimate.'
"I tracked him down and this guy had an office on Little Santa Monica Blvd across from what is now the Peninsula Hotel. He was above a tailor shop working out of a utility room. There were no windows. He worked out of a closet with a card table and two folding chairs. He drove a Corvair Chevrolet that never started and he lived in Howard Weekly Apartments in the San Fernando Valley right next to the Ventura Freeway. He obviously had no money. And this fiery red-haired Irishman from Cato, Oklahoma, by the name of Horace William Sargent III was the guy who was going to get the Beatles together?
"He told me that he did Hamlet and made millions during the Burton/Taylor era of the '60s with a new video process called Electronovision. And he made one version of Harlow with Carole Lindley and he made millions. And he told me he made the first rock show with the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Jan Dean, Leslie Gore and every major rock star of the '60s. And he filmed it, the first filmed rock show. I go to the library and check him out and he did it all. Sargent was a promoter who was consistently erratic. He was either flying high or he was on the canvas and everybody said it was his last stand. That's when he had the resilience to pull rabbits out of the hat.
"I told Sargent about a play about the Harding Teapot Dome Scandal written by prominent writers Robert E. Lee and Jerry Lawrence who wrote Inherit the Wind and Maine. He optioned the play for one dollar. He and I joined forces to produce it. I'm 15-16 years old. I became his gopher. He's got no money. I'm loaning him money from my movie maps business. Meanwhile I'm telling my dad that I'm getting into the business. And he said, 'I don't know about this guy Sargent.' I said, 'This is how it works. You put the deal together and then you find the money. Don't worry about it. This guy knows what he's doing.'
"We got an all-star cast for the play - Lloyd Bridges, Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Robert Culp, William Wyndham, Tom Bosley. It was going to be a limited-run stage show filmed on stage in San Francisco. This is one that Sargent couldn't pull off. He was screwing around trying to get the money. Ultimately, he disappears four weeks before the curtain was set to go up and the play never went on.
"About three years later, in 1974, I went to college. And Sargent called me at my job as a junior agent. They said, 'There's somebody on the phone who says you'll know him by his initials.' What are his initials? 'BS.' I pick up the phone and he says, 'Goddam, where are you, you little Jew?' He used to call me 'LJ.' I say, 'Where are you? You let me down...' He said, 'I'm sending my limo to pick you up.'
"He sends an angel-white phantom Rolls Royce to drive me three blocks to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He's in the penthouse suite. Warren Beatty had the other penthouse suite. This elderly guy in Sargent's apartment turns out to be John Tanent, the largest shareholder in Georgia Pacific and in the lumber business. Sargent bought a Mormon church in Salt Lake City with Tanent's money and converted it into a 32-track state-of-the-art soundstage studio.
"We go see a play, Give 'Em Hell, Harry. Sargent buys the one-man play and four weeks later, we videotape the film. It cost $230,000 including a lavish party we threw in Seattle. We transferred the tape to film. The quality was horrific. It looked grainy and terrible. But it didn't matter because the actor, James Whitmore, was brilliant. No studio wanted to distribute the film. Sargent said, 'We will distribute it ourselves.' How do we do that? He picked up the phone and called Sumner Redstone and Sal Halassee, chairman of United Artists, and he booked the theaters. You couldn't do that today but in 1975, there won't several major releases every week. There were openings in schedules.
"The picture opened on 300 screens that Sargent booked. Whitmore gets an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The picture does about $11.5 million. As Bill Sargent used to say, 'We're shitting in high cotton.'
"Sargent takes over 1888 Century Park East, in Century City, the entire seventh floor of the highrise. I'm president of the company and he's chairman of the board. We're on the map in a big way. The floor is decorated like a gothic castle. When the elevator doors open, the voice activated recording booms, 'Welcome to Bill Sargent's Theater Television Operation.' Flickering lights. My office is the size of a football field. I have a sunken wet bar and I don't drink. I had a library with vintage books. At the time, I wasn't an avid reader.
"His big dream was to reunite the Beatles. I wanted to capitalize on Give 'Em Hell, Harry and do other shows along that line. Other shows we could videotape and film.
"In 1975, Bill Sargent convinced the world that the Beatle were getting back together when he made them a $50 million offer. And Bill Sargent wound up on the cover of People magazine convincing the world that the Beatles were getting together. Lauren Michaels does a takeoff of Bill Sargent on Saturday Night Live, offering him $7 to get together again.
"We had $3 million in the bank. Where were we going to get the other $47 million? Sargent said, 'Don't worry about that. It's a technicality.' I'd set up a meeting with George Harrison's attorney David Braun. Sargent started by offering him $30 million then upped it to $50 million. It was a seven-and-a-half minute meeting then David threw us out. I'm depressed because the meeting went whacky. And Sargent says, 'We've got 'em.' And in five minutes, he went back to our offices, picked up the phone, called Western Union and sent four telegrams to the Beatles offering them $50 million.
"Then our offices are barricaded. You can't get near our offices. Security is called in. He convinced the world that the Beatles were getting together. The phone lines lit up like Christmas trees. I had friends of mine from high school who I didn't care for particularly, who said, 'Hey Permut, are you part of the Beatles now?'
"Sargent said, 'You're young. You talk to the media.' I'm doing interviews with the media. I'm living at home at the time. I'd come home for dinner and my dad would say, 'You were on the news tonight talking about the Beatles.'
"What made Sargent such a great promoter is that he believed himself that the Beatles were getting together. And the irony is, if they would've answered the telegram, he would've gotten the $50 million and we would've enjoyed a Beatles reunion.
"His next promotion was a fight between a man and an 18-foot Great White killer shark. "Death Match." Either the man or the shark would die, live under water. It was on the heels of the success of Jaws.
"Sargent used to be a boxing promoter. He promoted Cassius Clay aka Mohammed Ali.
"An 80-foot diameter ring was constructed with nine cameras under water. Universal threatens to sue us. The letter comes to the office and Sargent loves that. 'Oh God, we're being sued.' As though it is the greatest thing that's ever happened.
"David Binder, who directed Give 'Em Hell, Harry is now scouting locations for the shark fight. Our offices are now barricaded again. The International Humane Association holds a special session at the U.N. to ban the fight in U.S. waters. But our attorneys say that we come under the same provisions as bull fights. As long as we hold it outside of the US, we can promote it. Jimmy the Greek places odds on the shark in Las Vegas.
"Meanwhile, we're having problems because we can't catch a shark. So the project went south. And Sargent disappears again.
"I got started in the business at that time cultivating stories. I wanted to make movies not promote fights between a man and a shark. I realized that the power is in the material. I didn't have access to stars and directors but I did have access to writers. And I started working with a number of young writers. I started my own production company. Most of the writers were bartenders and stereo salesmen. I make my first development deal with Columbia Pictures.
"Then a phone call comes. 'Goddam you little Jew. Where are you?' It's Sargent and it is 1979. He's infectious and seductive and I love him for that. He's got a glint in his eye. He's like the Pied Piper. You get a magic carpet ride with him. We made history again when we shot Richard Pryor live in concert over two nights at the Long Beach Terrace Theater. Every studio turned the film down. And again we released it ourselves, about four weeks after it was shot. It grossed $32.5 million on a budget of less than one million.
"It was the most successful concert film ever and was turning point in the career of Richard Pryor.
"One night I was having dinner with a television executive who asked me how I got started in the business. So I regaled him with stories about Sargent. And he said, 'This is a series. We've got to talk to the network.'
"I always knew it would be a book or a movie. I tape-recorded, with Sargent's approval, hours of telephone conversations with him about the shark fight and the Beatles...
"When I went around to the networks, I was very prepared with a colorful show. Pictures and videos. All three networks wanted to do the show. We developed it at NBC before we realized that it is more of a movie. Eventually perhaps we can spin it off as a series.
"I started making conventional films after Richard Pryor. My first success was 1987's Dragnet, my idea. It was the first TV series to go over as a feature film. I was watching TV one night and it was an old rerun of Saturday Night Live starring Dan Akroyd. And two channels away, was a rerun of dragnet with Jack Webb. And it dawned on me that this is a great concept. To take over the Jack Webb persona and have Dan Akroyd play Joe Friday and sendup the straitlaced show.
"I went in to Universal and gave the shortest pitch in history. I hummed the theme from Dragnet with Dan Akroyd standing next to me. Eighteen months later, we were in production. Dragnet put me on the map.
"I'm attracted to conceptual movies. Blind Date evolved from Dale Launer. I knew him when he was selling stereos before he became a successful writer. It was a true story about a blind date. Bruce Willis made his film debut. I've made 20 odd films since."
Luke: "Where's Bill Sargent today?"
David: "Sargent's living in Cato, Oklahoma. He's not wealthy. But when he's on the canvas and counted out, that's when he has the resilience to bounce back. The last time I spoke to him, he told me, 'I'm building an indoor city. I have an 822 room hotel. You know what's the biggest waste in hotel space? Halls. I've got no halls. I'm talking to the Japanese.'
"I don't know what the hell he's talking about but you could read about him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal tomorrow. He's the same guy who offered to buy the Super Bowl and take it off free television and put in on pay cable.
From IMDB.com's description of Blind Date: "Walter Davis is a workaholic. His attention is all to his work and very little to his personal life or appearance. Now he needs a date to take to his company's business dinner with a new important Japanese client. His brother sets him up with his wife's cousin Nadia, who is new in town and wants to socialize, but when he was warned that if she gets drunk, she looses control and becomes wild. How will the date turn out - especially when they encounter Nadia's ex boyfriend David?"
Luke: "George Gallo directs many of your movies?"
David: "I loved Midnight Run. George and I first met when he was driving a Pepsi truck in New York. We cultivated a relationship that evolved into George directing his film 29th Street about Frank Pesce.
"Frank's a film historian. He brought me the idea for Double Take.
"Eddie Griffin, who starred in Double Take, stars in three major movies opening next year. He's the next Richard Pryor. I'm going to shoot him in concert in January."