An Oral History of Morton's: 'New Hollywood Needed to Be Cool and Eat Well'
Five years after the fabled eatery closed, Michael Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sherry Lansing and just about every other power broker tell tales about the countless deals, dish and gossip (way yummier than anything you could order) born from those 19 tables.
David Freeman, screenwriter-novelist: He was gigantic then, in flowy caftans and always with his little dog.
Ptak: PTAK New Hollywood needed to be cool and eat well.
Ruth Reichl, food writer/editor: Chasen's was about stars, Morton's was about power.
Lynda Obst, producer: The stars would go with their agents or producers or studio heads, like Rick Nicita would be there with Goldie, Dawn would take Stallone.
Robin Swicord, screenwriter: Morton's was discreet. It was nothing to look at from the outside. You could drive right by and not notice it, which I suppose was intentional.
Todd Thurman, maitre d': It was very California. Pink tablecloths, leather and rattan. Palm trees.
Tisch: Pretty much from every seat, you could see everyone in the restaurant.
Reichl: That was sort of the point, right?
Ovitz: The tables were spaced nicely, so you could talk.
Stein: That was conducive to business.
Pam Morton, Peter's sister, who ran the restaurant for 20 years: People loved the tuna sashimi, the lamb loin, the Morton's chicken. I don't want to give out the recipe.
Reichl: Morton's was saying: "It's OK to want chicken and french fries. We're going to serve the kind of stuff you wouldn't drive across town for. This is just for us."
Stein: The attraction was not the food.
Tisch: But that's what made it feel comfortable.
Irving Azoff, music manager: It was the industry commissary.
Ptak: I think that Morton's was the first restaurant to legitimize noise. You could barely hear the person across from you sometimes, but noise was good at Morton's because it meant action.
Stein: I remember thinking, "This place is too noisy, but there were so many cute girls." There used to be a lot of really, really, really sexy girls in sexy outfits hanging out at the bar. They knew where the money was.
Sherry Lansing, former Paramount chief: No one wore ties. It was relaxed.
Paul Schrader, writer-director: It was very relaxed -- if you can describe a den of backstabbers and thieves as relaxed.
Obst: It was bussing cheeks, it was chitchat. It wasn't really gossip unless Julia Phillips was there, and she was often there with her stimulants running from table to table. She was definitely a pot stirrer. In those days, it was a social town, and this was a social and business night, which is so shocking because that doesn't exist now. Now people in power are terribly reclusive. I mean, if Jeffrey Katzenberg didn't talk to you, you would feel terrible. But Jeffrey would talk to you -- once you were in, you were in.
Paula Wagner, producer: I had to work my way into Morton's at first. At first you go with some senior executives or senior agents, and then one day you go, "I've arrived."
Richard Zanuck, producer: Nobody wants to be someplace more than when they figure they can't get in.
Ovitz: It was a club that wasn't a club. You felt like you were part of something.
Lansing: You'd be sitting at your table finishing your conversation, having coffee, and then somebody would come up and join you, just like that. We were all friendly with each other. It wasn't as corporate yet.
Mike Medavoy, producer: It was private.
Freeman: If you were in love with your agent, then yes, Morton's was romantic.
Ovitz: Did I do business there? Oh my God, yes. I never went to Morton's for any other reason except to do business.
Schrader: Whenever someone got a promotion, a green light or a studio deal, Morton's was the first place they would make an appearance.
Bill: All of us in our business suffer from the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome. That's why everybody has a publicist. Showing up at Morton's was like placing an ad for yourself in the trades.
Swicord: In the 1980s, studios were black holes, dense with development projects. A recently fired executive called up every writer and producer he knew and insisted that they take him to lunch at Morton's every day to advertise to both ex and future employers that 1) he was still in the business and 2) he could still get a table at Morton's. This seemed to be the sum total of his re-employment strategy.
Stein: There would be nights when every head of every studio and every head of every network were there.
Wagner: Taking your client there, he or she could interact with studio heads. Or your director client could see actors. Movies got put together that way.
Ptak: There can be a lot of pressure in a formal meeting. People aren't as relaxed or comfortable as they are in a restaurant. Morton's allowed for a series of four- or five-minute meetings that ended with, "It's nice to see you." In and out, and no big deal, like speed dating. And suddenly you're a friend because you're in this place, so it's OK to call because you met at Morton's last Monday.