Hollywood vet launches dream with 'Sex Tax'

David Landsberg found way to make movie on his own terms

When writer-producer David Landsberg invited friends to join distributors, sales agents and exhibitors for Thursday's screening of the low-budget, high-concept comedy "Sex Tax," his pitch wasn't just come to see the film but also to celebrate his life and the launch of his indie production company.

"What I told everybody is, 'Don't come to my funeral. Don't come see me when I'm dead,' " Landsberg said. " 'Come when I'm alive, when I'm doing something, not when I'm a little box of ashes.' "

It was pure Landsberg. After 35 years in Hollywood as a commercials and TV actor before moving behind the camera as producer and writer on "Herman's Head," "The Cosby Show," "Love Boat" and other series, Landsberg had suffered through several heart attacks -- an experience that changed his views about himself and the world.

"As a writer, I had been Tony Thomas' voice, Aaron Spelling's voice, Dudley Moore's voice, but I had never been mine," he said. "After the illness, I decided it was time to put myself out there, my own plays, my own writing, my own movies. I decided to spend the money this industry has allowed me to attain on my own projects."

After doing a TV series pilot that didn't sell and several plays in his friend Garry Marshall's Falcon Theater in Burbank, Landsberg decided when he turned 65 last fall that it was time to make a movie. He pulled out a script he had been working on for five years, a fictional take on the true story of a short period in 1999 when the IRS took over a Nevada brothel.

In real life, it was sold quickly. In "Sex Tax," an IRS auditor goes there to run the whorehouse, and it changes his life.

Landsberg spent $50,000 to convert his ranch-style home and guesthouse in North Hollywood into a movie studio, complete with state-of-the-art digital technology. Then he put up $350,000 more to shoot in HD with a creative team of energetic newcomers including director John Borges and editor Sean McPherson, along with industry vets who wanted to make a comeback including director of photography Mark Woods and casting director Fern Champion.

"I didn't give people jobs," Landsberg said. "I gave people opportunities. I said, 'If you have a dream, come with me. I'll help make your dream come true, and while I'm doing that, you will help make my dream come true.' "

Landsberg shot under SAG guidelines, paying minimums but with the promise that when the movie was sold and his costs were recovered, they would receive an amount equal to their entire pay for the movie plus a share of any profit. That went for everyone from the stars to the extras and even included musicians whose music he licensed for the soundtrack.

"My star (John Livingston, who plays the IRS auditor) will make as much money as any big star if this is a hit," Landsberg said.

Landsberg already has two other projects for his Landsberg Studios and hopes to shoot two or three movies a year as long as he is able. First up is the romantic comedy "Leading Man," followed by a comedy about the Vietnam War, "The Last Man Drafted," which he has been trying to sell for years.

The Vietnam movie is based on his own experiences. Landsberg, who grew up in New York, was drafted at 22 and sent to Southeast Asia. After his discharge and college, he worked for an ad agency in New York before deciding he wanted a different life. He became an actor and, during the 1970s, did more than 300 commercials and more than 1,000 radio ads. He was a series regular on NBC's "CPO Sharkey," guested on dozens of series and appeared in a handful of movies, including "The Jerk," before moving behind the camera.

He wrote and produced movies for Cannon before serving as head writer and executive producer on "Cosby Show" and "The Love Boat: The Next Wave."

Although Landsberg is the sole backer, the movie is no mere vanity project but the culmination of years as a successful writer and producer. Given his puckish personality, it promises to be witty.

So why didn't Landsberg seek outside financing or a distribution deal, which he now hopes will result from Thursday's screening?

"Because that means opinions," he said. "I'm done with other people's opinions. There were no notes on this. I did this all on my own."
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