Studio boss who called it quits

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It happened the night of the first sneak preview of his studio's new $5 million film "Rolling Thunder." Alan Ladd Jr., then president of 20th Century-Fox, sat quietly in his seat in the San Jose movie theater, as the film unreeled before its first audience -- until he couldn't take it any more.

"Rolling Thunder," a picture about a former prisoner of war whose wife is murdered and whose home is robbed, had a devastating effect on the audience.

"When he saw the audience reaction to the film he was shocked," his wife remembers. "He left the theater because people were getting so violent."

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Mrs. Ladd told him, "Laddie, you've got a $5 million picture there. You're stuck with it. . . ." They talked about how part of the audience had gotten up and left in protest, but the ones who'd stayed had been whipped into a frenzy by the film's brutality.

"Rolling Thunder," originally okayed by Ladd, was made to fulfill distribution and budgetary requirements at the studio. But Ladd, after seeing it screened, made what his wife calls his "tough decision." She remembers he found the audience reaction "frightening"; he decided the film's influence was not healthy, nor was its image good for the company.

As a result of his stand, 20th Century-Fox never released "Rolling Thunder." It was sold instead to an organization that specializes in exploitation films. Suppressing the film entirely would have involved a lossm impossible form the studio to bear, but now at least its circulation was not so widespread, and it would play to an audience that was only too aware of what they were in for.m

It was a compromise, but by June 27, 1979, his decision had earned him the respect of most of Hollywood. On that date he stunned the movie world by quitting the job that earned him $2 million a year in salary and bonuses as head of 20th Century-Fox on a question of principle.

At the time Ladd was the highest paid studio executive in history, with a string of financial and critical successes trailing him like the wake of a comet: "Stars Wars," "Julia," "The Alien," "The Turning Point," "Young Frankenstein," "An Unmarried Woman," and "Silver Streak." "Star Wars," which he backed when no other studio would take a chance, had broken all box office records, including that for "Gone With the Wind," and "The Godfather," grossing

Suddenly Ladd was throwing it all over and taking with barely into his teens when he went on location to watch his father's superb performance in George Steven's "Shane."

The first film he ever saw?

"Snow White.' . . . I've seen 'Gone With the Wind' many times, 'On the Waterfront,' 'Singin' In the Rain,' 'The Wizard of Oz.' There's just a whole group of pictures one would see over and over again. . . . 'Casablanca,' is on [TV] once a month, and if I see it at the time I'll say, 'Oh, I think I'll watch that again.' There are certain movies you never get tired of. . . ."

That is an unprecedented fusillade of words from Ladd, who is in general of the Gary Cooper "Yup" or cryptic school of interview. To someone meeting him for the first time he seems almost painfully shy.

You wonder, though, how a man who seems as taciturn as Cal Coolidge ran 20th Century-Fox or any studio in a film world known for hype and mega-publicity. Gareth Wegan, who followed him to the Ladd Company, explains how.

Wegan admits he's "withdrawn. He's not extroverted. He doesn't put on a show. But he's a remarkable listener; he hears everything and remembers everything. . . . And he is a great believer in hearing other people's views unencumbered by their first having heard his.

"He prefers to conduct meetings in a very informal and unstructured way . . . . Nothing much seems to be happening, but a lot gets said and done by the end . . . . The reason he succeeds without being an extrovert is because he just is so very good at doing what he does . . . . He has produced not only a record of both quality and commercial successes, but there was also a collective team or family spirit, an inter-reliance and affection in the group at Fox that was quite extraordinary. That went out to a very large number of Fox people in New York and around the world who felt . . . that they played a part in making film X or Y a success."

Another of Ladd's former associates at Fox, Paula Weinstein, who has just resigned as senior vice-president of worldwide production, tells a story about the kind of caring that resulted in an almost family feeling among Laddie's employees there. One of the Fox employees had left the company after one or two months of work in a new year, and was startled at the end of the year to receive a call from Ladd.

"Come on over and pick up your bonus," said Ladd, who had arranged in a business not known for such niceties, a bonus check for that portion of the year the man had worked at Fox.

Paula Weinstein calls Ladd "a generous, kind, loving man, the least chauvinist person I've ever worked with.' (It was under Ladd that 20th Century-Fox produced several pictures with strong female leads -- among them "Julia," "The Turning Point" and "Norma Rae" -- the first to emerge from a major studio in the '70s.)

Ladd, the man who picked more than half of Fox's all-time top money making films, is said to have "a hot hand" for choosing winners. But he seems the least egotistical person in a land where ego is cultivated as carefully as the lettuce crop.

His explanation: "I just think that it's a collaborative effort . . . . It's like somebody who goes out and plays quarter-back. Without the rest of the team doing what they're doing, he's not going to be very successful. But as long as everybody is sort of playing on the same team, everybody looks good.' . . . I think it's very important that we really care about one another over and above the everyday work that goes on. Otherwise it ceases to be fun coming to work in the morning. And I think that's the most important thing, to have a very happy environment in which to work."

He had that environment at Fox, which his wife says he loved, found it "difficult, a wrench to leave. He doesn't like physical change very much, would have liked to pick up his office and move it to Burbank."

She suggests that he feels ultimately, though, the break has been good -- has forced him to set up his company, which he might not have done without the conflict.

Ladd himself is reticent about the break."It was basically a question of principle . . . . I make no judgments on [the corporation], nor should they upon me."

Alan Ladd Jr. is uncomfortable talking aboutm himself, but not uncomfortable with himself. He has an athlete's easy grace, as he leans back in a beige chair and drops words reluctantly, like pebbles into a pond. His white shirt, pencil-striped in black, is open at the neck. No tie. There is a thin gold chain around his neck. He wears charcoal gray trousers, black socks, black Gucci loafers. His skin is the deep tan of a native Californian, his hair a dark, glossy brown, his eyes so dense a brown they are almost black under thick black eyebrows.

He has an attractive face, but it remains closed looking until near the end of the interview, when it opens with a smile of relief that there are no more questions about himself.

A biography of film star Alan Ladd by Beverly Linet suggests that as a child Laddie, his son by his first marriage to Marjorie Jane Harrold, was sometimes kept out of camera range by the star's agent and second wife, Sue Carol, who didn't want the first marriage publicized.(Sue Ladd is the mother of actor David Ladd, former husband of Cheryl Ladd of "Charlie's Angels," and of Alanna Ladd Jackson.)

Laddie himself mentions that he didn't go to live with his father until he reached high school age. By then his father's chiselled blond handsomeness and tough-guy charm had already made him a star in films like "This Gun for Hire," "The Blue Dahlia," and "The Great Gatsby."

Did living in the glare of publicity have any effect on his son?

"Probably. I think that's why I don't like interviews and can't stand to have my picture taken. It has a lot to do with people making comparisons."

Alan Ladd straddles the inevitable question about the effect of growing up in the shadow of a famous father: "I can say that it had great advantages or great disadvantages . . . Whatever you're going to achieve you basically achieve of your own, not by what your name is."

From the beginning Alan Ladd Jr.'s objective has been filmmaking, not acting. "I was never interested in acting, guess because I'm fairly introverted."

But he did try being a stuntman for a while, to earn money when he was studying business administration at the University of Southern California. While he was still at USC he met his wife, Patty, who was studying dental hygiene. In a community where multiple marriages and divorces are common Alan Ladd says, "I feel very fortunate that we've been married 20 years and have never had any trial separations or any separations. . . . My wife is very supportive, and so are my [three] children. Patty works full time as a partner in her own building contracting business at David Ross and Associates and says her husband has always encouraged her in her work.

He had quit USC nine units short of graduation, and was called up in the Air Force Reserve during the Berlin crisis. When he came back to Hollywood a year later, he took a $65 a week job running errands for the Creative Management Agency. He quickly became a top agency executive. Next he became a partner with Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin in the independent production of overseas films in London: among them, "X Y and Z" starring Elizabeth Taylor, "The Nightcomers," starring Marlon Brando.

When European production went into a slump he came back to Hollywood and was hired in 1973 by Stanfill as vice president of production at Fox. Stanfill was impressed by Ladd's track record, developing hits like "Young Frankenstein" and "Harry and Tonto," which helped pull Fox out of the slump it had been in since near-bankruptcy in 1970, when Stanfill took over. Ladd flew up the corporate ladder, to senior vice president, worldwide productions (1974), then in 1976 to the job once held by one of the most legendary moguls of them all, Darryl F. Zanuck -- president of 20th Century-Fox.

Does Alan Walbridge Ladd Jr., enjoy being a mogul?

He winces. "I've never thought of myself in those terms.

I don't know that I enjoy being what I'm not."

What then is a mogul to him?

"It's described or thought of in this business as somebody like Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner. But I don't think of myself in that category."

Is film a cutthroat business?

"Oh, I think in many respects yes, because you're dealing with very insecure situations at all times," Ladd says. "And there's no way of running things through a computer, doing market research or any of the tools you have in other businesses . . . . And every time you make a picture you are going to succeed or fail with it. Therefore it breeds a great deal of insecurity. So I think that's why it gets a reputation for being cutthroat. But most of my friends are in this business, and I think of my friends as nice, honorable people."

Ladd is an admirer of the films of Capra, Zinneman, George Stevens, Truffaut. But it's a David Selznick film, "Gone With the Wind," that's at the top of the list of pictures he wishes he'd made.

If he has a credo in setting up the Ladd Company it's that he will make "basically what I made at Fox. I don't think my attitude has changed. Those pictures went all over the place. There wasn't any specific theme to them. . . ."

Even with pictures like "Alien" and "The Omen," which he admits were "exploitation pictures, I think we tried to do it with more quality and style than just ripping off a theme."

The Ladd Company goes into production April 1 with "Madonna Red," a thriller in which Paul Newman plays a Vietnam veteran who turns from a violent life to the priesthood. Joseph Mankiewicz, ("All about Eve," "Sleuth") is writing and directing the film. It is budgeted at about $10 million, the first of the 10 or 12 films the Ladd company is expected to make annually. Its backing -- substantially more than a previously reported $75 million the first -- comes from Warner Communications, which will release the films. But Ladd himself retains control over every facet of their production, advertising, and distribution.

As the interview closes, Alan Ladd walks me to the door, shakes hands, smiles and turns back into his office. For a second, it's like a flashback from one of his father's films: it's like seeing Alan Ladd the actor, back to the camera, that same tough grace as he walks, shoulders squared, resolute, until he disappeared out of the frame.

And I think of what the son said about the father: "The most important thing I think I learned from him, indirectly without him saying it, is . . . a great love of this business. If my father had been someone else, I don't know whether I would have . . . had this kind of passion for it -- the kind of passion for it that I do now."

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