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

10:00 AM PST 09/21/2012 by Sam Wasson
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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.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For nearly 30 years (but especially during the 1980s), Hollywood's big, big money -- its new, blockbuster money -- converged, with era-defining consistency, on the corner of Robertson and Melrose at Morton's, which Peter Morton opened in 1979 as a grown-up alternative to his Hard Rock Cafes. Come 7 p.m., nowhere else saw as much action: Power was spread out in Manhattan, but in Hollywood in those days, it resided in only one place. With all the deals discussed over those (only) 19 tables -- including Eddie Murphy's historic $15 million deal with Paramount in 1987 (see sidebar) -- it's a wonder Morton didn't hire a security guard and call his place an agency.

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From being one of only three CAA-approved expense-account restaurants to the place where even the maitre d' was a star (Rick Cicetti was cast by Larry Gordon and Joel Silver as a security guard in Die Hard), Morton's pulled in an entire universe of movers and shakers -- including Barry Diller, Ron Meyer, Alan Horn, Scott Rudin, former Columbia Pictures head Dawn Steel, former Time Warner CEO Steve Ross and former 20th Century Fox owner Marvin Davis -- as well as celebrities (even Jack Nicholson felt comfortable eating at the bar alone). Unassuming on the outside, it had the industry juice to be the signoff to Spy's biting Hollywood columns by the pseudonymous Celia Brady ("See you Monday night at Morton's"), a central location for Julia Phillips' roman-a-bile You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (the writer was banned after it came out) and the subject of New Hollywood lore: It is said that when a man suffered a heart attack and was carried out on a gurney, nobody noticed amid all the dealmaking.

In 1994, when it moved across the street to the intersection's southeast corner, Morton's transformed from commissary to the epicenter of glamour, becoming known as the site of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's Oscar party (see sidebar.) While the old guard bemoaned the less clubby feel, the music biz also moved in, rounding out the restaurant's twilight years. Jennifer Lopez threw her engagement party (to Cris Judd) there in 2001, and in 2002, Sony held its post-Grammys bash at Morton's, with Celine Dion, Tony Bennett and Destiny's Child attending. By the time Morton's closed in 2007, says actor-writer Ben Stein, "It had passed its time by five or six years at least." More than 20 regulars, all interviewed separately -- including Paul Schrader, Jerry Weintraub, Lynda Obst and, before he died, Richard Zanuck -- tell the story.

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Steve Tisch, producer: When Peter started construction -- it was originally an old interior decor showroom -- my offices were literally one building south. I introduced myself to Peter one day in the parking lot.

Ben Stein: Peter had already started the Hard Rock, and he knew the powerful people.

Tisch: It was a hit right away. Word-of-mouth spread. We knew this was going to be our version of The Brown Derby in the '40s or Chasen's in the '50s.

John Ptak, producer/former agent: You could smell the butter on the wall at Chasen's.

Linda Lichter, attorney: By 1976, the old places were full of old men in plaid pants and white belts with comb-overs.

Ptak: When cable television, TV movies and home video started, new money came to town. Star Wars, Jaws and Close Encounters caused people to take notice. The financial world figured out there was money to be made.

Tony Bill, producer-dircector: People stopped wanting to eat crappy commissary food.

Carol Wolper, screenwriter: Right around when Risky Business was becoming David Geffen's first hit movie, suddenly Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Eric Eisner, president of The David Geffen Co., producers Steve Tisch and Jon Avnet and Peter Guber -- all these guys were starting to hit. They could hardly keep enough Cristal in stock.

Michael Ovitz: You had Dan Tana's, which wasn't that popular, by the way; Le Dome, which was a big music crowd; Scandia, which was a celebratory place; The Palm; the Polo Lounge; Il Giardino. For lunch, there was Ma Maison.

Lichter: Orson Welles had a corner table at Ma Maison every single day. People would come in just to say hello. Hello, hello, hello, hello.

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