Born May 28, 1931, Gerald Leider grew up in Camden, New Jersey. He attended public schools and Syracuse University. Awarded a Fullbright Scholarship, he studied drama at Bristol University in England, where he finished his Master's thesis. For several years, Leider worked as a producer/director on Broadway and in London. His Broadway shows included Sir John Gielgud's one-man show The Ages of Man, The Visit, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and the musical Shinbone Alley, which starred Eartha Kitt and Eddie Bracken.
A spry, friendly elf-like man, Leider hosted me at his office in Brentwood, April 1, 2002.
Jerry: "My mother had a flamboyant style but neither of my parents were in the entertainment industry. They were shopkeepers. My [three] sisters and I are first-generation Americans. My mother was born in Russia and my father was born in the Austria-Hungary [area]. They came to Philadelphia about the same year in the early 1900s and moved in across the street from each other. They got married, packed, and moved across the river to Camden.
"My parents were Jewish. I was raised religiously but I didn't take to it. We kept a kosher house though we had to keep our stores open on Saturdays. We lived on top of our store in a mixed neighborhood - Italian, Jewish, German, Dutch."
Luke: "Did you know Philip Roth?"
Jerry: "No, but I've got all his books. Nick Meyer just did a script on The Human Stain. Bob Benton will direct. Miramax is casting it now.
"The theater was my end-all and be-all. I headed the Drama Society at Syracuse. I married Helena [a non-Jew] in Britain. It last a couple of years.
"When I returned to the US, I went to work at MCA [run by Lew Wasserman and Jules Stein]."
Jerry gets up and walks to the wall and points out a framed copy of his first paycheck stub ($108 for two weeks of work in 1955).
"Six years ago, Lew Wasserman had a couple of committee meetings at his house. I brought this over to show him. He said, 'Jerry, you're overpaid now and you were overpaid then.'
"It was in the middle of the winter, 1955-56. Peter Falk and I lived on a five story walkup on Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. I was a secretary. My first bosses were Freddy Fields and Dave Begelman. They both left New York two weeks after I got there, and came out to California.
"There was a terrible blizzard on Friday. MCA had a secretary on each floor on the Saturday from 9AM - 1PM. This was my Saturday. The subways and buses were closed. I walked for two hours to 58th and Madison through the snow. I got to the building at 9:05AM. I walked in and got the snow off me and walked into the elevator. Just before the elevator closed, Lew came in. He was staying at St. Regents around the corner.
"I said, 'Good morning, Mr. Wasserman.' And he looked at me and said, 'You're late.'
"On one of my last gigs as head of specials at CBS, I went out with Bernie Brillstein, a young agent at William Morris, to the Miss Teenage America pageant. Did we have a good weekend. Forget the teenage contestants, it was their hostesses."
Luke: "Did you read Bernie's book?"
Jerry: "I read about half. James Aubrey, a gifted but strange guy, was my boss at CBS. He knew what he was doing for many years and then lost it. I bumped into him one day and asked him if he'd read the new book on Bill Paley. He said, 'No, I've given up reading fiction for a year.'
"After working for MCA for a year, I produced theater. In 1960, I began a three-year stretch at CBS. I was the Director of Special Programs.
"CBS chairman William Paley was remarkable. We had meetings every other week of department heads. I was the youngest one there. Bill had an uncanny ability, which I have not seen in anybody since then, to burrow in to the one thing you are most unsure of. Let's say you're giving a ten item report. And the one item that you were not quite sure of, he would spot and start probing. In every area - news, operations, engineering...
"Jim Aubrey was tough, hard working guy. You'd come in on a Saturday afternoon and he'd be there. He was twisted. A lot of people thought Jim was a bad bad man. His peccadillos got the better of him. He made some good programming moves. He brought NFL football to CBS.
"Smiling Cobra is the name of a good book about Jim. That's what he was. I befriended him after his fall. Brandon Tartikoff nicely gave him a consultancy but he had a bad last ten years of his life. He lived in a small apartment on Santa Monica Blvd and Overland. He suffered from depression. He died in the emergency room and he lay unclaimed for three days. Like David Susskind dying in a hotel room. Why are we talking so morbid?"
Luke: "Did you guys think of yourselves as the Tiffany network?"
Jerry: "Jim did. Mike Dann [key CBS executive] did. He's now a fulltime consultant for the BBC's Discovery Channel and for IBM. He's sharp as a tack and 81 years old. He had an 80th birthday party in New York September 11.
"There was an aura of invincibility.
"In 1963 there was a management change at CBS. Hubble Robinson came in and got rid of a bunch of us. Then I joined Ted Ashley at the Ashley Famous Agency. In 1965, the government broke up MCA [Lew Wasserman's dominant talent agency] and Ted hired many of the MCA agents and expanded rapidly.
"Steve Ross bought the agency in 1968 and then it was sold to Marvin Josephson in 1969. Steve Ross bought Warner Brothers and I moved to Los Angeles to run Warner Brothers Television.
"I married my present wife Susan Trustman in 1968. We have two boys, Matt and Ken. Susan was an actress on the TV soap Another World. And she appeared in the 1965 Elvis Presley movie, Stay Away, Joe.
"In the summer of 1966, I met Susan in the middle of the West Hampton. Around noon, I pulled up my dinghy motorboat next to what I thought was the home of writer Peter Maas and his wife Audrey. It was a hot day. All the houses look alike. I had a date that weekend who never showed up. She told me later that she'd met a rich millionaire. 'Is there any other kind?' I asked. That was the end of that relationship.
"I walked up the gangway and I saw this beautiful girl sunning herself. She was blonde and holy shit. I thought, 'Holy shit, I'm at the wrong house.' So I started slowly working my way back. Then I hear the slam of a kitchen door and Audrey comes out with a vodka and says, 'Jerry, what are you doing here?'
"She invited me back up for lunch. The girl was Susan Trustman. And we never left each other's side. But if Audrey had never left the house, I would never have met my wife 35 years ago."
Jerry: "I got tired of the television packaging business so I took an opportunity to move to Rome to run Warner's foreign theatrical releases. I thought it was a good stepping stone to get into the feature side of Warner Brothers, so I packed up my wife and my little baby.
"After two years, I came back to Los Angeles with a two-year deal to produce movies for Warner Brothers."
Leider's first three productions were TV movies - And I Alone Survived (1978), Willa (1979) and The Hostage Tower (1980) followed by two features, The Jazz Singer (1980) and Trenchcoat (1983).
An anonymous person in Santa Cruz writes on Imdb.com about Survived: "I have remembered this television movie for 20 years. The story is told mainly through the eyes of a young woman who was the only survivor of a small-plane crash high in the peaks of the Sierras, on a trip from California to Nevada. Although she is injured, she scrambles painfully down the mountain for days, trying to reach help. Her parents, meanwhile, are trying desperately to find out where the plane is, and if anyone is alive. The ending is especially moving, with a surprising twist that has the ring of truth."
Palisa66 writes on Imdb.com about Willa: "Willa (Deborah Raffin) is a hash joint waitress who's always dreamed of being a trucker. When she finds out that local produce distributor Virgil (John Amos) offers truck driving lessons in exchange for labor, she persuades him to take her on, convincing him that she can work just as hard as the men, and that she's serious about driving a truck."
RazorWolf writes on Imdb.com about Hostage: "Though the book was better, Hostage Tower is not a bad movie. It has an orignal plot, interesting characters, and lots of plot twists. The effects were not bad, for an 80's movie."
Ted Kula writes on Imdb.com about Jazz Singer: "Neil Diamond stars as Yussel in this tale of a young Jewish cantor who strives to make a career in music. Against the wishes of his rigid father and his loving wife, Yussel travels to California to play his music. Swept up by the excitement, he meets a woman who shares his dream. He grows apart from his family, and becomes confused about what he should ultimately do with his life."
Jerry: "A wonderful friend of mine was at the William Morris Agency, Tony Fantozzi. If you talk to any producer over 30 years of age, you will get raves from them about Tony. He was a unique character who retired around 1998. When I returned from Rome, he was one of the first guys I looked up to have lunch with.
"We were chatting at [the restaurant] LuCere. He'd just picked up the representation of Neil Diamond. He says, 'Every once in a while, a great American singer comes along who carves a unique place for himself. Like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Al Jolsen...'
"I said, 'Jolsen? Maybe we should do The Jazz Singer?' Tony said, 'Boy, would Neil like that.' It took a year to get the rights and a year to get it made."
Luke: "Do you see much of yourself in the story?"
Jerry: "A bit. Neil [a Jew] felt passionately about the story, and about the relationship between his father and his mom. As his mom and dad would say, 'We have two sons. We love them both. One is Neil Diamond and one sells swimming pools in the Valley.' Yeah. I bet you we know where they spend their first seder night.
"While Trenchcoat was in production, I was offered the CEO position of ITC Entertainment Group (owned by Robert Holmes-a-Court), a worldwide film and television production and distribution company."
During his tenure, ITC premiered nine features including the Academy Award winner Sophie's Choice, The Dark Crystal, the critically acclaimed thriller The Stepfather, and Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael. Additionally, ITC produced more than 30 television and cable movies including the highly-rated Malice in Wonderland, The Ann Jillian Story, and the critically acclaimed David and Unnatural Causes as well as such network miniseries as The Billionaire Boys Club, Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story, and Sidney Sheldon's Windmill of the Gods.
Jerry: "When I got to ITC, Sophie's Choice was in post-production. I saw the rough cut and I told the director Alan Pakula that I thought it was too long. So he trimmed it by about 40 seconds (final running time is 150 minutes). We had several fights over the length. I thought it was 15-minutes too long. I gave him a lot of suggestions.
"The Billionaire Boys Club was my most interesting adventure into destroying the myth of how you get a mini-series on TV. The subject matter was so hot. ABC was also trying to do it. Two producers came to me, each claiming to have the rights to the project. So I put them together - the late Donald March with Annabell Weston and Marci Gross. That was not a marriage made in heaven.
"Because of the urgency, and that the trial was going on, NBC committed to make the mini-series on the strength of the outline. We didn't get a first-draft of the script until four days before we started shooting. Yet the show was successful financially and critically. Director Marvin Chomsky did a wonderful job organizing that show. And it came in under budget.
"The best movie we made at ITC was Unnatural Causes starring John Ritter as a Vietnam Veteran dying from his exposure to Agent Orange."
"In 1989, Alan Bond took over ITC. Then he got into financial trouble. We were able to get a bank in England to back a management buyout. In 1992, I was asked to leave. Then I started my own company. We've cranked out two features - My Favorite Martian (1999) and Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995) - and several TV movies - Cadet Kelly (2002), Trucks (1997), Home Song (1996), Family Blessings (1996), Morning Glory (1993) - and one miniseries - Sidney Sheldon's The Sands of Time (1992) - and one TV series - Payne (1999).
"I'm working on the movie Coast to Coast to be directed by Paul Marzursky for Showtime and we have Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, starring Hillary Duff, for New Line. And I have a series going on PBS next week called Myth Quest."
Luke: "Everyone's telling me that the TV movie business is in decline."
Jerry: "They're all stroking you. ESPN, A&E, SciFi, USA, Lifetime, TBS, Showtime, HBO, Hallmark, are all doing TV movies. Don't tell anyone. I'm busier than I've ever been. I'm calling on everybody. It's a myth. What has disappeared is the network TV movie that you can own."
Luke: "I've heard such pain and suffering."
Jerry: "They're lazy. They're all my buddies. They're just too old. They're 40, 50 years old. They want to retire. They're full of it. Tell them to go into the shoe business. Let them eat cake."
Luke: "You've been making TV movies during a time of dramatic change in the business."
Jerry: "Yeah. I remember when Barry Diller came to us at Warner Brothers [around 1969] and said, 'I'd like you to make these 90-minute picture [TV movies] for $575,000 each.' And we said, 'That will never work.'
"But I don't like to talk about the past. I'm only interested in the future. I have a big career ahead of me. I'm sure you find that with all the guys my age who are still working."
Luke: "Find what?"
Jerry: "That they're only interested in the future."
Luke: "You guys are like conductors."
Jerry stares: "The guys on the trains? For a writer, you're really reaching. Waiting for another one to come by?"
Luke: "No, like the classical music conductor, still going strong at 75 years of age.
"I was at Fred Silverman's home a couple of weeks ago, perhaps the biggest estate in Mandeville Canyon. He and his wife Cathy have two homes. He was the most brilliant TV programmer ever. He was my student at Syracuse.
"Fred told me that he'd just got this consultancy gig with Disney. Michael [Eisner] and Bob [Iger] needed some help. "I like this idea better than producing. I never really liked producing.' I said, 'Freddy, you're sitting in this $20 million home. You were born in Brooklyn. And you're not sure that you like producing? You should be ashamed of yourself.' He laughed."
Luke: "You did the TV series Payne, based on what I think is the funniest TV series ever, Fawlty Towers."
Jerry: "We did a terrible job. I don't think the writers that the network wanted us to use were good enough. Perhaps John Larroquette was wrong for the part. Who knows? As Samuel Goldwyn said, 'If the people won't come, nothing will stop them.'"
Luke: "Which of your movies has the most meaning to you?"
Jerry: "The Jazz Singer. I had to get rid of the first director, Sidney Furie, and replace him with Richard Fleischer. I still meet people who love the movie. It was a big seminal event in their lives. I know every frame. I edited a lot of it. I wrote a few scenes."
Luke: "Cadet Kelly was the Disney Channel's highest rated show ever."
Jerry: "We went in there to pitch a show. They didn't want it. They told us about the type of shows that they did. So I was sitting at home. I said to Susan, 'We should do a show at a junior high school setting that doesn't depend on that stupid opening shot of the kids coming down the hallways, with the lockers on both sides. How do you find a different junior high school scene?'
"I went to my computer and I found that there are seven military schools in the United States that are coeducational from seventh grade on. And I came back to the dining room and said, 'Susan, Private Benjamin in military school.' I called my partner Robert Shapiro, former president of Warner Brothers features, and told him my idea. Private Benjamin was one of the movies he worked on.
"Gail Parent was one of our writers on Payne. We resumed our friendship. I told her my idea and she loved it. [Gail co-wrote Cadet Kelly.]
"We screwed up My Favorite Martian in casting. We should've focused at nine, ten, eleven year olds. It should've been Brendan Fraser time. We were talked out of it by a couple of executives at Disney who thought we should be making a Men in Black show rather than George of the Jungle or Inspector Gadget."
Luke: "What happened to your movie Fall From the Sky?"
Jerry: "That's a dreadful story. We were two weeks away from shooting when CBS pulled the plug. We were supposed to start shooting October 4th . They said the subject matter would not be acceptable for our audience. The story takes place in the future, in the era of big jumbo jets that can seat 700 people. During normal takeoff, one of the planes crashes. We find out later that it is pilot error. This is the story of a NTSB investigative team trying to find out why the plane went down. And they're pressured to say it was pilot error. They find out later it wasn't pilot error but a conspiracy between a couple of congressmen and the owner of the airline and the manufacturer to make it look like pilot error to hide a built-in flaw in the electrical system. It had nothing to do with terrorism."
Luke: "Post September 11, people don't want to make projects casting a negative light on government."
Jerry: "Unfortunately for us, CBS decided that they had no liability for the bills we ran up. So we're going to have to sue them."
Luke: "How did you come up with Mythquest?"
Jerry: "David Braun came to me with an idea. I gave him one wrinkle on it, which sold the show. Thirteen hours are on the air and we're getting financing now for the next 13.
"I'm a consultant to the Miss America organization. We're working on a series of one-hour shows 'Behind the Icon.' It looks like Hallmark wants to buy 13 hours. We're taking each of the Miss Americas, and doing a before, the year [of her reign], and afterwards. There are some fabulous stories. A lot of pain, a lot of heartache, warts and all."
Luke: "Wouldn't the Miss America organization want to put forward a certain sanitized image?"
Jerry: "They're fine with this. It's promotion. It gets more people interested in the pageant.
"The Miss America organization is a non-profit agency founded in the 1930s primarily to keep tourists in Atlantic City for the week after Labor Day. Now it gives out millions of dollars worth of scholarships a year."
Luke: "What causes you to want to make something?"
Jerry: "I pass on a lot of things that I don't think I can sell. That I sign on to a project does not mean that I am personally passionate about it. I have to be passionate about the opportunity. If I spot an opportunity, I get going.
"If I call an agent at CAA, he'll three or four days to return the call. If I call Michael [Eisner, Disney CEO] at 10AM, by noon, no matter where he is, I'll get a call back from him. The heads of companies are always like that."
Luke: "How do you feel about Warner Brothers, turning into this behemoth with AOL?"
Jerry: "I have no feelings about it. It doesn't put a dime in my pocket. My job is still the same - to convince the guy sitting on the other side of the desk that my idea is a good idea. These big companies don't have exclusivity on ideas. If you sit down and say, 'Private Benjamin at a military school,' that's an idea. Ed Scherick said it best. 'The independent producer guy gets up in the morning, he shaves, he looks at himself in the mirror, and he says, 'I think I have a good idea today.' That's the power.'"
Luke: "What's your favorite part of the job?"
Jerry: "Not being interviewed.
"Watching it happen. Seeing the pieces of the project come together. In the filmmaking process, my favorite part is post-production. I loathe casting sessions. They drive me up the wall. I can't stand seeing an actress come in, reading, and being dismissed. It's heart breaking. I like the script process. I like the beginning and end of a project, the stuff in between..."
Luke: "The stuff at the beginning and end you have more control."