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Producer Harry J. Ufland

Author David Rensin includes the story of Harry Ufland in his 2002 book The Mailroom:

Harry: I played baseball in the army and at one time thought I'd go pro for the Yankees. But when I left the service in 1958, I applied to CBS and to William Morris because I had this big fantasy about being a producer. I had already worked in the Paramount mailroom for a couple of summers, because my aunt, who worked for the Shuberts, had arranged an introduction. CBS and William Morris both asked me to start in their training programs. I chose the Morris office because after being in the army, I liked that you didn't have to get in until ten o'clock.

I took something to Mrs. Lastfogel at her apartment in the Essex House hotel. She was a pistol and had a mouth like a truck driver. When she tried to tip me a dollar, I said, "I'm sorry, I can't take that."

"I know how much money you make," she said. "Take the fucking tip."

In my day we were great characters and we worked with great characters, and that's completely gone. So many agents then had a real love of this business. They were not afraid to be themselves. Today you've got people who don't know how to be themselves. They're from a mold.

I met with Producer Harry J. Ufland at his Santa Monica home June 11, 2002.

Harry: "I was born and raised in New York City. I attended PS (Public School) 187. I went to Columbia for two years.

"My brother was a publicist. My aunt worked for Shuberts theatre. She used to come to dinner Friday night with tons of movie star pictures. My father was in the textile business. I went into the army for two years, 1956-58. I then started in the William Morris mailroom at $35 a week. There were half a dozen Phi Betta Kappas [elite students] in the mailroom. That kind of training doesn't happen anymore.

"I remember bringing something over to an actress at her home and she offered me a dollar. I turned it down. She said, 'I know how much money you make. Take it.' So I did.

"Ever since I knew I couldn't play professional baseball, I've wanted to be a producer. I thought that would be the way to do it. Little did I know that I'd be an agent for 23 years first.

"I started an industrial films department, which no other agents had. I signed Director Marty Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro in New York. William Morris asked me to move to Los Angeles in 1972. It was much more corporate. They tried to get to wear ties. Marty Scorsese's film Mean Streets (1973) was playing at Lincoln Center and William Morris wouldn't pay for me to go see it.

"I got a call from Freddie Fields and Guy McElwaine, asking me to join their agency CMA (which became ICM). They made me an offer that was considerably more than I was making. That was great until they sold the company to Marvin Josephson in 1974. I never liked Marvin. In 1976, I left and set up my own agency, The Ufland Agency. I represented Marty Scorsese, Bob De Niro, Adriane Lyne, Ridley and Tony Scott, Peter Bogdanovich, Harvey Keitel, Roger Donaldson [and Jodie Foster]. I burned out. I had a dozen employees. It was a large small agency."

Ufland was known as a difficult and irascible agent, prone to yelling at people and full of his own opinions. Many producers, including Dino De Laurentiis tried to go around him to the stars he represented. (Is That A Gun In Your Pocket?, pg. 116)

"I helped a friend of mine, Joe Roth, get started in Los Angeles. I'd met him in New York. We had lunch at Le Dome one day on Sunset Blvd. I said I couldn't stand what I was doing. His suggestion was that we partner up on a production company. We couldn't get out of our own way at the beginning. They weren't wonderful movies [that Harry produced and Joe directed, such as Moving Violations, Off Beat, Where the River Runs Black and Streets of Gold]. We folded the agency into a management company and then phased out all the clients except Marty and Bob. Then I found myself reading their stuff before mine. And I thought that if I ever wanted to really do it [as a producer], I had to really do it. So I set Marty and Bob up at CAA. Marty and I have remained close. He's producing four projects with me.

"Mary Jane joined our company as vice-president. The minute she walked in, I thought we'd get married. And we did in 1985."

Luke: "What did you think of Peter Biskind's book about 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls?"

Harry: "I didn't read it. I heard about it from friends. He was silly not to call me. He would've gotten great stuff about Marty if he'd phoned me. I thought he was foolish not to. A lot of these things are not well researched. People write them with their opinions, which they had beforehand and they don't want to be deterred."

Luke: "How did you get hooked up with The Last Temptation of Christ."

Harry: "It'd been Marty's obsession since Boxcar Bertha days (1972) when Barbara Hershey told him about the book [novel by Nikos Kazantzakis]."

Luke: "You loved the novel?"

Harry: "Yes. We knew it was controversial. We didn't dream that this stuff would happen."

Luke: "I don't understand why you didn't understand that there would be that much fury."

Harry: "Now it is easy to look back and see how organized they were. They were so unbelievably organized. They were selling anti-Last Temptation kits. All the letters were the same. They were form letters. These people, not only had they not seen the movie but they hadn't read the book.

"When you think about it, Marty is so deeply religious..."

Luke: "He is?"

Harry: "Yes."

Ufland's big black dog knocks over my glass of water and Harry ushers him out of the room. We spend the next five minutes cleaning up.

Luke: "Didn't you realize this was a sensitive topic? You're dealing with a guy who is regarded as God by two billion people."

Harry: "We realized it was a sensitive topic. People didn't really know right-wing fundamentalism at that point. You'd be silly not to know that something like that could happen now. The orchestration of the campaign was just amazing. I remember driving out to Universal one day and they had Southern California kids in shorts who they paid to hand out leaflets and to demonstrate. Who dreamed that would happen?

"I had sold it to Tom Pollock [at Universal]. He had been our lawyer. They had the guts to buy and to make it and then at the end they chose to let it go. Wasserman's house was threatened. These people really went to town.

"Universal opened the movie without any fanfare. And unfortunately, the people who wanted to see it, went to see it in the first week or so. And the rest got afraid. They didn't want to go to the movies and risk getting blown up.

"During the time that Barry Diller [at Paramount] put it in turnaround, and we went around town trying to set it up, we felt that whatever move we made, something was ahead of us. We found out that Salah M. Hassanein, the head of UA Theaters who worked for [movie magnate] Marshal Naify, a Muslim. He told studios that if they did anything to get this movie made, their movies wouldn't play at his theaters.

"Sale hadn't read the book. He assumed this would be an anti-religious picture. The book is a deeply religious book. It is certainly not an anti-Christ book.

"Joe Roth is married to Sam Arkoff's daughter. And we knew that Sam knew Salah Hassanein. We couldn't get to him so Sam got to him for us.

"We were in New York. Salah Hassanein sent a van to pick us up. So Marty, Joe and I went out in this unmarked white van. He was charming. He admitted he hadn't read the book. He said something that I will never forget. 'You don't understand. You make the movies. They don't come to your theater and destroy the theater.'

"He was basing that on a movie called Messenger of God [about the Islam prophet Mohammed]. And they destroyed the theater.

"I said to Salah, 'I don't care if you hate the movie but let us get it made. Please don't follow us around and tell people not to do it. Then do what you want when the movie is made.' And he promised to back off."

Luke: "What was the key to getting the movie made?"

Harry: "Tom Pollock stood up for it. They [Universal] wanted to be in business with Marty. Whenever you get a controversial movie made at a studio, you have to have someone who will stand up and say, 'I want this movie.' The same thing happened when we did Not Without My Daughter. There was a lot of nonsense about that too.

"Marty never went over budget. I thought it was a good picture."

Luke: "How did Universal react to the firestorm of criticism?"

Harry: "Badly. That's easy for me to say. I didn't run the company."

Luke: "So what did they do? They just didn't put much into advertising? They just let it die?"

Harry: "Pretty much. They could make a case for saying that the business wasn't there. And I don't think the business was there. But I think it could've been.

"People thought they could get hurt by going to see it. And there were enough bomb threats to justify that fear. It's a lesser version of the aftermath of 9/11 when people didn't want to fly."

Luke: "What did you love about the film?"

Harry: "I'm prejudiced because I know how much it meant to Marty. For me, the idea of presenting Jesus as an ordinary person was an extraordinary thing to be able to do."

Luke: "Do you have a Christian background? Are you Jewish."

Harry: "I am Jewish. I was not raised religious."

Luke: "What was your role on the film?"

Harry: "We seem to be going far afield from producing. There are things about that that I just don't want to go into."

Luke: "Tell me about Not Without My Daughter (1991)."

Harry: "We were sent the manuscript of the book (by a book agent at William Morris) as it was being written. The book and the movie came out at the same time."

From Imdb.com: ""Moody" is an Iranian doctor living in America with his American wife Betty and their child Mahtob. Wanting to see his homeland again, he convinces his wife to take a short holiday there with him and Mahtob. Betty is reluctant, as Iran is not a pleasant place, especially if you are American and female. Upon arrival in Iran, it appears that her worst fears are realized: Moody declares that they will be living there from now on. Betty is determined to escape from Iran, but taking her daughter with her presents a larger problem."

Harry: "It was a big struggle to sell it. It was a big struggle to get it made. People were afraid of it."

Luke: "The death threat against Salmon Rushdie was made in 1989 in reaction to his book The Satanic Verses."

Harry: "Not Without My Daughter opened at the same time as the Persian Gulf war and we were accused of trying to exploit the war. Like we knew that the war was going to happen at that time.

"It's so tough to get a movie made. It wasn't nearly what I thought it might be. It's a flawed movie."

Luke: "What happened?"

Harry: "We had a bad director [Brian Gilbert]. Even though it was a flawed movie, we still run into people at parties who love that movie. Particularly women. Women see it and see it again."

Luke: "How did you get the movie greenlighted?"

Harry: "When Sally Fields signed on. Although I think [MGM studio executive] Alan Ladd would've made it without her. It was Ladd's suggestion that we go with Brian Gilbert as director. Brian rewrote the script and it was his version that got it made.

"We shot in Israel using the production services of Globus [owned then by Menahem Goland and Yoram Dohan]. That was something. We worked with a guy named Itzik Kol, who was a charming rogue. He was sharp and funny and fat. He wore jeans with suspenders. We lived in Israel for almost a year. There are people we met on that shoot who've remained lifelong friends.

"Living in Israel is different from going on one of those five-day junkets. When you go on a five-day trip, everything you see is wonderful. When you live there, you see what's wrong with it."

Luke: "Tell me about 1993's Freaked."

Harry: "Alex Winter and Tom Stern came to us with it. Mary Jane, Joe Roth and I thought it was their thing, their vision, it's not going to cost much, so let's back it. It is a flawed movie. Some of it is very funny. That was probably the nicest time we ever had on a movie. Everybody rolled up their sleeves. We funded it partially through Fox and partially through private funds. We had to make a speech before the crew that we didn't have the money now but we will work it out. And everybody stayed and worked for nothing.

"Movie crews are extraordinary. They want to help. I have never seen a crew that doesn't want to help. The only thing that turns them are foolish producers and directors who just won't acknowledge them. I've said to directors, 'Do you know the names of anybody? Why don't you just acknowledge them?' It's extraordinary that some directors get so into their own head, that they don't acknowledge anybody."

Luke: "Tell me about One True Thing (1998)."

Harry: "I was given the book [by Anna Quindlen] and I just loved it. My wife and I love true stories [this novel was based on Quindlen's life]. The movie disappointed me. You are happy to have gotten it made. But the process can you take you to a place you don't want to be. Everybody sees things differently. The movie that Karen [Croner, screenwriter] and I wanted to make is not the movie got made."

From Imdb.com: "When a tough New Yorker's (Renee Zellweger) mother (Meryl Streep) is stricken with a serious illness, she is forced to quit her job and her relationship with her boyfriend to take care of her, finding out a lot of things she didn't know about her mother and father (William Hurt) and her life along the way."

Luke: "You worked with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall on 1999's Snow Falling on Cedars. They are regarded as the top producing team in the business."

Harry rolls his eyes. "Good for them. And good for the people who regard them as such."

Luke: "Tell me about your 2001 movie Crazy/Beautiful."

From Imdb.com: "Crazy/Beautiful gives Kirsten Dunst the opportunity to portray a character who doesn't have it all figured out. Dunst is Nicole, a rich girl with emotional problems who falls for the straight-edged Carlos, played by Hernandez, who lives on the poor side of town. It follows their relationship and it's ups and downs, while in their final year of high school. This movie was different from Bring it On and Get Over It as Dunst was able to show off her darker side, a feat which she does beautifully. Dunst shows real depth as the vulnerable and untrusting Nicole and her tears, trials and tribulations appear genuine and allow the audience to see another side of Kirsten altogether."

Harry: "Oh God. Mary Jane and I went in to see [studio executive] Todd Garner. He said he didn't want to do another comedy. He wanted to do a melodrama about highschool kids. So we met with a bunch of writers and started thinking about what we wanted to do and we came up with the thought that it would be terrific to have a good latino kid and a bad white girl. We went with two young writers we liked a lot [Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi]. Then we went through the process of getting a director. [president of Disney's movie division] Nina Jacobson insisted on John Stockwell."

Harry's voice turns grim.

Luke: "Were you pleased with the final result?"

Harry: "No. I thought it was very flawed. It was not the movie we set out to make. The movie I wanted to make was about his dreams and it no longer is. The whole experience was a disappointing experience."

Luke: "That's common theme through our conversation. These movies are breaking your heart."

Harry laughs. "My little boy asked when I'm going to make a movie I like. I said, 'If you ever like them, they start getting worse.' People see things differently. Because of availabilities and everybody having different opinions, you get to make movies with people you'd probably prefer not to make them with."

Luke: "When did you sense the project getting away from you."

Harry: "When Nina insisted on John Stockwell."

Luke: "Have you agreed with the direction of any of your directors, aside from Scorsese?"

Harry: "That's part of the problem. When you grow up in this business with perhaps the best director in the world, it makes it hard to work with people who are significantly less. The reasons that these movies happen is so strange. Disney decided they wanted something and were willing to go with somebody they shouldn't have gone with. Nina liked him. She's entitled to like him but everybody does have different taste. I would always want to shoot higher. When you're working with Marty or people I used to represent like Ridley Scott, you are working with guys who are really talented."

Luke: "Are you pleased with the final result of any of your films?"

Harry: "No, I think they all could've been much better. There are so many people involved in the process that it has hurt the final result."

Luke: "I hear that in features the director is the king."

Harry: "I'll never forget the first day of shooting Not Without My Daughter. When Director Brian Gilbert said 'Action,' behind me Alan Ladd and Jay Kanter [MGM/Pathe studio executives] said, 'The ship has sailed.' It turned out to be true. The studio today does back the director unless he goes wildly over budget. It becomes hard once you start shooting to do anything."

Luke: "Do you sense that the producer today has less power than when you were an agent?"

Harry: "Much less power unless you are a Jerry Bruckheimer."

Luke: "How do you and your wife divide up your roles?"

Harry: "Mary Jane is extraordinary with writers. She has enormous focus and patience. She's the fastest reader I know. I'm a bird dog in getting the material and getting the deals made. I also have a good ability at picking new directors, which is what I did as an agent. We both have to like it to pursue a project and we work on it together.

"I can get along well with writers. I don't like an hour meeting taking six hours. I don't have the patience."

Luke: "Is it good for a marriage to work so closely together?"

Harry: "I think it is great. Dick Zanuck and Lili Zanuck are close friends of ours. They've done it and it's been great. Lauren Shuler and Dick Donner."

Luke: "Has being a father changed you as a movie producer?"

Harry: "Yes. I had five kids in my first marriage but it was a different time because I was on my way up. Mary Jane and I have a wonderful ten-year old boy who is one of the main reasons we work from home, so we can be around him. We're always talking about making movies that he can see. Not that I would ever want to come away from the tougher pieces we have done."

Luke: "Have you ever worked on a film that has changed you?"

Harry pauses. "That's a good question. Mary Jane, Luke has just asked me if we've ever worked on a film that has changed us, has changed me."

Mary Jane makes an inaudible comment and Harry gives a cynical laugh.

Harry: "Mary Jane says that each one leaves an imprint. My answer to that would have to be Last Temptation because it showed me that you never give up. That took 18 years. If you believe in it, you have to stay with it. The speed mentality of weekend grosses and then go on is not who we are. If there's a fault, it's probably that we work on them too long."

Luke: "Was it worth the trouble?"

Harry: "Oh yeah. It was worth it because it was something Marty had to do. And my devotion was to him and I would do anything to help him realize his desire to make that movie."

Luke: "Do you think that filmmakers have a moral responsibility to society, and if so, how have you exercised that?"

Harry: "I think this goes in phases where people blame movies for violence. I think it's like blaming schools for it. I think you have to blame parents. If a kid has a good upbringing, a movie is not going to make him a bad person.

"We're doing a complicated script now based on the Jerry Spence book Going For Justice. It's a case that Jerry had 25 years ago. A friend of his was blown up by a bomb set by a psychopathic maniac. Jerry took the case as a prosecutor. And he's vehemently against the death penalty. And this case became a death penalty case. It's the case in his life. I hope we get to make it. It gets tougher to talk these people [financiers aka studios] into something of value. And every time there's a Spiderman [smash hit], then it makes it worse. People don't realize it. They think it is good for the movie business. I think it is terrible for the movie business."

Luke: "You seem to be primarily a story-driven producer."

Harry: "Characters drive us. Even though we say, 'Gosh, we've got to get out of this true-story thing because it is so hard to do them,' we do like them."

Luke: "I find Martin Scorsese's films disturbing."

Harry: "That is the reason the numbers haven't been greater. But a lot of life is. Marty's movies are very real and you get an experience from those that you don't get from anybody else."

Luke: "Your least favorite parts of your job?"

Harry: "Shooting is not exciting. Going to studios. Driving to studios bothers me. And then having to sit with all those people. The process of selling a movie is extremely frustrating. It's out of both sides of the mouth all the time. 'We think this should open the third weekend in July.' Then, two minutes later, 'We think the best time would be the second weekend in February.' There's no rhyme or reason for any of it. I find the process of using testing insanity.

"I'll never forget the time I was representing Bob [Robert DeNiro] and we were out testing Deerhunter. In Detroit, the projection broke and the thing was a disaster. All the Universal people weren't talking to us. And the next night in Chicago, everybody loved the movie so we were all best friends again."