Dark Prince of Hollywood, Producer Gavin Polone, Opens Up About Unlikely Directorial Debut
It is an oven-hot late-summer afternoon in saugus, a dusty neighborhood in the wildfire-prone city of Santa Clarita, some 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Here, the cast and crew of the new ABC Family dramedy Jane by Design are filming scenes in a sweltering auto repair shop that is standing in for a New York City cab company.
Overseeing the action is a gaunt, 47-year-old man whose dark eyes and striking features might have served as the model for an Egyptian mummy portrait. Legendary onetime agent, former manager, producer and all-around shit-stirrer Gavin Polone -- ominously known as the Dark Prince of Hollywood -- is making his directing debut in what at first seems a highly unlikely mismatch: an ABC Family show about a teenage girl who juggles high school with a demanding job in high fashion. (It premiered Jan. 3.)
At this moment, Polone, who famously and publicly once accused his former partners at United Talent Agency of just about 31 flavors of unseemly, and perhaps unlawful, misconduct, seems less like Satan and more like a kid with a particularly awesome new Lego set: excited, engaged, even happy -- keeping an eye on the clock but also chatting between setups with his young cast about such subjects as the range of private jets and the best way to order pet food. Polone has plenty of experience in these matters, the former because he's rich enough to be an active NetJets customer (his wealth is estimated at eight figures, thanks in part to lavish compensation as the erstwhile agent and manager of such clients as Larry David and Conan O'Brien) and the latter because of his menagerie of rescues: three dogs and three cats (he has no interest in marriage).
April Blair, the writing executive producer on Jane, says she first got to know Polone when HBO paired her with him on a project that never got to a green light. "The worst mistake you can do before you meet Gavin is to Google him," she says. "I was terrified." (The first story that pops up: one from 1994 in which he calls the stars of Friends "six morons.") Says Jane star Erica Dasher: "His reputation precedes him. But really he's nice."
Polone long has been known in the industry for many things. Being nice is not usually one of them. A onetime wildly successful TV agent, he has a well-established reputation for being fiercely litigious. He also is known as an ascetic and a bit of a weirdo (in a town with some pretty weird players). He rises at dawn in his midcentury modern Beverly Hills home with sweeping views, restricts his calorie intake (2,000 calories a day, give or take; no meat or refined carbs) and works out like a ninja in training. He believes this regimen might lead to exceptional longevity. "I have no interest in dying," he says. "If there was some way of living forever, I would."
Polone is fully aware of his extreme reputation. Last year, one of those crudely animated videos with the monotone audio tracks hit the web, created by a former assistant. "You are worthless, you lie all the time, and I'm pretty sure you are stealing from me," the Polone character (strangely blond), intones flatly. "I went home last night and immediately went to the gym for six hours. Then I woke up at 4 and went to the gym. I'm just so exhausted from going to the gym and working out and being awesome." Polone says he was in on the joke and gave notes on the video, in which the assistant responds to him with a torrent of abuse.
Clearly, Polone, who oversees four employees under his shingle (aptly named Pariah), has a zest for his own notoriety. He's become a blossoming pundit. In 2007, during the writers strike, he infuriated guild members by challenging their strategy in a TV interview. A couple of years later, in the midst of the Tiger Woods meltdown, he turned up on MSNBC to question monogamous marriage. With the possibility that people might live 150 years, he said, the idea "doesn't make sense." Marriage might have to be more "like a mortgage, where you have an adjustable rate."
He recently raged (in these pages) against what he perceived as Michael Moore's hypocrisy in associating himself with Occupy Wall Street; he also pens a column for New York magazine's website, where he's slammed lavish deals for producers and offered unsolicited advice on how to fix NBC (example: "Push the limits of acceptable content" when it comes to language, nudity and violence). Politically, he leans libertarian where the town leans left. "I'll vote for Ron Paul in the primary and then I'll probably vote for Obama," he says. "I'm not sure I'd want Paul to be president, but I like what he's talking about. I don't want a nanny government, and I don't know why we have to be involved in every war."
Polone's penchant for speaking up baffles longtime friend and ex-client, screenwriter David Koepp (Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man). "He'll weigh in on an issue that has no relationship to him whatsoever and I'm like, 'Why on earth would you want to do that?' It's inexplicable," Koepp says.
He finds it far easier to understand why Polone is drawn to directing, even risking some embarrassment by trying his hand on an episode of an ABC Family show. "A lot of his decisions in his personal and professional life are the equivalent of shaking his fist at the lack of control one has in the universe," Koepp says. "Your body's going to leave you, your career is going to erode. Directing, you have at least the illusion of some control."
Polone is determined to do well in his new role, but he doesn't quite have it in him just to be grateful for the gig. Kate Juergens, ABC Family's executive vp of original-series programming and development, has known Polone for a couple of decades and was a WB network executive on Gilmore Girls, which he executive produced. As a rule, Juergens says ABC Family does not allow executive producers to take a run at directing in a show's first season (and most do want to try). But Polone was not to be deterred on Jane (which has Dasher's title character reporting to a demanding mentor played by Andie MacDowell). "He has that warrior personality," Juergens says. "It's almost impossible to say no to him. He'll just keep coming back until you say yes."
Polone asked to direct the second episode; ABC Family agreed to let him try on the fifth. His goal is to get behind the camera on a feature film, but for that he'll have to wait. "Like any director, he has to take what he can get when he's first starting," says Juergens.
Polone says he plotted out his episode obsessively. "There were a couple of shots in there that we wanted taken out because we felt they were big cliches," Juergens says. He resisted, and lost, "but he did a great job. He worked really, really hard." And he also was the happiest she had ever seen him. "He was so happy," she says. "He was crazy happy."
"Happy" -- like "nice" -- is not usually the first word associated with Polone. "Confrontational" seems a more likely choice. Over the years, he sued UTA (which had fired him but now represents him); the IRS (over its attempt to tax the settlement that he got from UTA); Warner Bros. (over profits from Gilmore Girls); and Summit Entertainment (for dumping him as producer of the upcoming thriller Man on a Ledge). He says all these cases were settled to his satisfaction except the IRS suit, which he tried to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. (The Court declined to review it.)
But Polone insists he is happy; rich and entanglement-free, he plays poker and owns a restaurant called The Waffle in Hollywood. He's been learning Spanish. Once the owner of five cars (simultaneously), including a Ferrari and a Porsche Turbo, he now drives a 6-year-old Honda Civic that runs on natural gas. (He installed a fueling station at his house.) Its trunk closes only with the help of electrical tape. Now, if he sees someone in a Ferrari, he thinks, "What an asshole." He's cut back on his use of private jets, too. "I'm starting to feel like it's somewhat gross," he says. "It doesn't feel like me anymore."
Polone says the urge to direct became compelling when he butted heads with HBO over Cinema Verite, a project about the making of the seminal documentary series An American Family. Polone had helped to develop the movie, but HBO brought in husband-and-wife team Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman to direct. Polone says the couple told him they wouldn't make drastic changes to the script but then rewrote it.
"I wanted them off the project immediately. I never really wanted them on," he says. "HBO would not back me and allowed them to rewrite a script that was great." Polone ended up walking off the project and never watched the movie, which aired in 2011. "It really catalyzed this idea -- I'm not really doing this to make money anymore," he says. "I felt f--ed over, and it drove me to want more control of the process." HBO declined comment.
Clearly, Polone still has an appetite for combat when he feels wronged. By now, he feels at home giving depositions. "For me, it doesn't work to say, 'I've been treated badly and I'll let it go,' " he says. He has the stomach and resources to fight and scoffs at the notion that the studios might retaliate. "I've sued Fox twice and they have a pilot with me every year," he says. "Nobody can kill me or stop me from doing business."
From an early age, Polone made it his mission to be invincible. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, a child of an unhappy marriage. His father, a busy real estate lawyer, and his mother, a housewife, split when Polone was in the eighth grade. Polone remembers himself as a weak, hyper-sensitive kid and it seems that much of his life has been spent attempting to eradicate any hint of that, physically and intellectually.
Take the workout regimen, for example. "I haven't missed in 12 years," he says. "I haven't missed if I've been injured or had a 102-degree fever. … People can't deal with it. It doesn't matter if I'm playing poker at Commerce -- wherever I am -- people want to talk about it. Usually guys."
Koepp says Polone is "a strong flavor -- not for all tastes. But he's remarkably consistent. I've known him for, like, 24 years and I can't really say intellectually he has changed. There's no flip-flop in that guy."
Intellectually, Polone was strong enough to graduate from U.C. Berkeley in three years. He flailed briefly, getting a realtor's license and applying to work for the CIA. In 1985, at 21, he was hired as an assistant at ICM. Eighteen months later, he became an agent. He had a beard and a ponytail, took up martial arts, wore black and vowed that he would kill for his clients. Koepp remembers: "People used to call me sometimes and say, 'Your agent is crazy. Now that we've closed this deal, we can tell you that his demands are ridiculous and he was difficult.' I'd call him and say, 'Don't they understand that cements my relationship with you?' " But Koepp admits that sometimes he was rattled by Polone's demands on his behalf.
By 1989, ICM had become suspicious that Polone was plotting to defect -- wrongly, he says -- and fired him. He joined the Bauer-Benedek Agency, bringing in such television clients as The Simpsons showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss. A couple of years later, Bauer-Benedek merged with Leading Artists Agency to form UTA.
The agency was a mass of dysfunction, and Polone was just the provocateur to make things worse. He eventually became de facto head of the TV department, the agency's biggest moneymaker. He worked obsessively and was richly compensated. By 1995, according to court documents, his salary was $2 million a year plus a substantial bonus.
But still he was unhappy. He was confrontational and full of complaints: Agents in his department were underpaid, money was being wasted and worse. More than once, Polone threatened to leave. "I was always bitching," he acknowledges now. "I think I acted immaturely in many cases, including my constant complaining and expressing my superiority to other people. I was young and I had no mentors and nobody ever said, 'Hey, you're being a dick. Why don't you calm down?' Or the people who said that to me were being adversarial, not avuncular, so I took it as an attack." And Polone says he was often rewarded for bad behavior.
The meltdown came in 1996. As Polone wrangled with his partners, spurning an offer to extend and enrich his contract, he was plotting to set up his own agency. "I wasn't even that cagey about it," he says. "They clearly needed to get rid of me. They just did it the wrong way." The agency abruptly fired him, publicly citing concerns that his treatment of a female television agent who reported to him had been "inappropriate." Polone claimed that he had been defamed and still says the implications were false. "I'm not saying I wasn't difficult, but I did not sexually harass anybody and I do not believe that I was abusive by any standard," he says.
Faced with the threat of litigation, UTA quickly apologized and paid Polone $6 million. But peace was not restored. The following year, UTA sued Polone, alleging that he had breached the terms of the settlement by helping Endeavor poach UTA clients. (Endeavor represented Polone as a producer and handled a number of clients whom Polone managed.) Polone responded by suing UTA, and what followed was one of the most extensive examples of public linen-laundering in the history of Hollywood litigation. Such battles obviously cemented Polone's earth-scorching reputation, but he sees these fights as a matter of ethics. "He's interested in what he views as the correct result so he can live truthfully," Koepp says. "If it means a bunch of shit has to come out, so be it. He truly is an Ayn Rand character."
Having burned his agency bridges, Polone transitioned into management and producing. But in 2002, Polone shed all of his management clients except O'Brien (whom he keeps to this day because, as he says, "How can you not?") to focus on producing. "There are managers -- not all -- who don't really do the producing. They just get a credit and money and I didn't want to be that guy," he says. (Without flinching, he acknowledges he was that guy on some projects, such as as Curb Your Enthusiasm.) Polone indulged his appetite for combat in the counsels of war during the spectacular meltdown of the relationship between O'Brien and NBC. Meanwhile, another dramatic rupture was in the making. In 2011, Polone jettisoned a 10-plus-year relationship with his agents (formerly of Endeavor, now part of WME) to return, improbably, to UTA. Polone and WME still have many common business interests and both are vague about the cause of the split, but sources say the breach arose when WME left him to battle Warners on his own over Gilmore Girls profits. Now Polone is focused on pulling together a violent thriller called Psycho Killer, to be produced by Eli Roth (Hostel). That seems pretty far afield from his ABC Family show, but Polone says he doesn't have a specific type of movie that interests him. "If it feels good, I want to do it," he says. (He says the idea for Jane came from observing the daughters of his girlfriend at the time and noticing their desire to appear more grown-up.) If he can't get the movie pulled together, Polone says he'll direct more episodes of Jane to build experience. ABC Family has committed to and shot 10 episodes so far.
Will the rewards of directing bring Polone to a lasting peace? Blair, his producing partner on Jane, says the person she knows doesn't resemble the Polone that she found through Google. She calls him warm, big-hearted and kind. Others aren't so sure. A formerly close associate says Polone "is quieter than he had been," but still "better working on his own than with others." To Juergens, Polone is still "brutally, aggressively honest" but amusing. "I get high entertainment value out of him," she says.
Koepp allows that "time has done its thing a little bit. It's an extremely exhausting way to live when you insist on a rigidity of viewpoint and a way of life. … The stress will kill you."
But Polone seems to be thriving. At this point, he says, directing seems fun -- he enjoys "the process of visualizing the film" -- but if he can't get his arms around it, he says he'll do something else. "All my eggs aren't in one basket," he says. "Every day I have something to do that I like doing."