An Oral History of Morton's: 'New Hollywood Needed to Be Cool and Eat Well'

 Andy Friedman

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.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation CEO: For 10 years, Michael Eisner and I had dinner at Morton's every Monday night, just the two of us -- we did our business there for a decade. To be more precise, the 10 years that I was at Disney until I was fired. Then we stopped having dinner at Morton's.

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Ovitz: Monday was the night. It was an odd thing. I really don't quite understand how it happened. People just started showing up.

Wagner: If you were there on Monday nights, you could do more business than you could all day.

Stein: The restaurant was not open on Sundays, and they used to call Friday and Saturday nights "Valley night."

Ptak: So then the restaurant goes across the street …

Ladd: The second Morton's didn't have the same attraction. They didn't have Monday nights. It wasn't a little club anymore.

Freeman: I think the new room was too big and spread out.

Wagner: I was an agent then at CAA, and let me tell you, it was a different business. We had car phones, but we didn't have cell phones. So deals were made with a lot more face time over lunches and dinners. That's not done so much anymore. Now phone business is everything.

Lansing: People don't even phone anymore! It's e-mail. "Is Brad Pitt interested? No? OK, thank you."

Wagner: Those were the days of the handshake. Your word and handshakes meant more than any piece of paper. If an agent said you have a deal, you had a deal.

Ladd: At that time, it was really a people's business. Hollywood was a community where everybody knew everybody. Now everybody hates everybody.

Freeman: When the place closed in 2007, I remember hearing Peter Morton was getting held up by the landlord for a preposterous sum.

Pam Morton: The last day was the 22nd of December, 2007. I remember [manager] Bernie Brillstein getting up and giving an impromptu speech. How wonderful it had been. For all these years.

Ovitz: It hasn't been replaced here by anything that I know of.

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Make Deals: One of the most historic was Eddie Murphy's $15 million, five-picture deal -- catapulting the actor to the top of the industry food chain -- with Paramount's then-head of production Michael Eisner in 1987.

Date: Part of Morton's lore is that it was the site of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger's first date (she was 45 minutes late) and where Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche fell in love at first sight (at the 1997 Vanity Fair Oscar party, one month before DeGeneres came out).

Showboat: Whether getting a new job, a new deal or a new company, Morton's was the place to be seen and celebrate. Case in point: It was Larry Tisch's obligatory stop as the new president and CEO of CBS in 1986.

Save Face: Or attempt to. After Allan Carr's disastrously produced Oscars show in 1989 featuring Snow White and Rob Lowe, he strode into Morton's with bravado, but unfortunately, he was shunned. Some diners turned away from his table and some extended their lunches, hoping the producer would leave first. As former Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne recalled in Robert Hofler's Carr biography Party Animals: "No one wanted to talk to Allan Carr. I hadn't previously seen that so dramatically displayed by so many people in Hollywood as that day at Morton's -- like they'd catch something, like it was a disease."

Have Your Memorial: In 1996, the memorial for Don Simpson -- the larger-than-life producing partner of Jerry Bruckheimer -- was among the most coveted invitation-only events at the restaurant that year. Barry Diller, Michelle Pfeiffer, Will Smith and Warren Beatty were among those who packed in to honor Simpson, who died of a drug overdose.


POWER SEATING: Getting the right table was critical -- and six mattered. "The closer to the front the table was, the more powerful," recalls Ben Stein. Adds Lynda Obst, "Of course, you could only be on the right side."

Siberia: Woe to those placed behind the palm trees. "If you were there, you were in bad shape," says former maitre d' Todd Thurman. Some (including Barbara Walters), though, liked the privacy afforded in the back.

Tables 1 and 2: Prime spots for Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Ovitz, Paul Schrader and Julia Phillips. From there, "you could see the whole restaurant," says Thurman.

Tables 3 and 4: A power move was getting a reservation for just two at these coveted four-tops.

Table 5: While Jerry Weintraub claimed this table as his own, Lew and Edie Wasserman also were fixtures.

Table 9: The only A-list round table, favored by Marvin and Barbara Davis. Because the hefty Marvin required a bigger chair, his driver always brought in one of Davis' own wingbacks. "When people saw that chair, everybody knew he was coming in," says Thurman. "If it wasn't there, everybody was like, 'Where are the Davises tonight?' "

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