William Friedkin Pens Tribute to Jerry Weintraub: "He Played the Game Better Than Anyone"

Austin Hargrave
Jerry Weintraub

Fresh off 'The Exorcist,' the young hotshot director met the late megaproducer while trying to get Sinatra tickets from him in 1974. Soon after, they were making the controversial gay serial-killer film 'Cruising' together — and that's when the real craziness started.

This story first appeared in the July 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

I was living in New York in 1974 and heard there was going to be a comeback concert by Frank Sinatra at Madison Square Garden. It had been sold out for weeks. I called a friend and asked if he knew who was presenting it, and he said Jerry Weintraub. I didn't know Jerry at the time, but he took my call immediately and gave me two of the best seats in the house. I thanked him, and he asked if we could meet.

Jerry saw through the bullshit. He was skilled at laying it on, but he was more skilled at seeing right through it. He reminded me of Monroe Stahr, the character in The Last Tycoon based on Irving Thalberg, who kept "the whole equation of pictures" in his head. Jerry understood the equation of show business — not simply music, theater, television and movies, but the way the game is played. He played it better than anyone I've ever known.

Soon after we met, he invited me to dinner and told me he bought the rights to the novel Cruising, about a serial killer targeting gay men in New York, because he heard I was interested in it. I told him I read it but didn't like it. The novel was set in gay bars on the Upper East Side; as it happened, Phil D'Antoni, my producer on The French Connection, had owned the rights and had engaged Steven Spielberg to direct it. They could never get it off the ground, and D'Antoni's option expired.

Weintraub around 1970, during his music mogul days.

Ralph Macchio (left) with Weintraub on the set of 1986’s 'The Karate Kid: Part II.'

Then a series of related events occurred simultaneously: I had a friend in the New York City police department who went undercover in the S&M world to find a killer; I got to know the man who controlled all the S&M clubs; articles appeared in The Village Voice about a number of killings known as "CUPPI murders" — body parts had been found in the East River in plastic bags, and the morgue labeled them CUPPI, which meant "Circumstances Unknown Pending Police Investigation." Finally, Paul Bateson, one of the hospital assistants who appeared in The Exorcist, was accused of the murders. I went to visit him in prison. He gave me chapter and verse on what he did. So I called Jerry and asked, "Do you still own Cruising?" He said: "Yeah! And I'm waiting for you!" I said, "I think I know how to do it now."

The film was perceived as anti-gay and drew protests during filming and after it was released. Jerry got Mayor Koch of New York to give us the largest contingent of mounted policemen the city had ever deployed to guard our set from attacks — bottles, cans, rocks. Thousands of people were violently protesting. Jerry and I had death threats, as did Al Pacino. It was totally chaotic. But Jerry was a stalwart and calmly kept it all together while we were under constant attack from TV, the press and the film industry.

When I'd finished editing the film, he arranged for the head of the MPAA ratings board, Richard Heffner, to come to his house in Paradise Cove. It was unheard of for the head of the board to see a film at a producer's house. About five minutes into the screening, I'm sitting behind Heffner, and I hear moans and groans. Then I hear: "Oh, God. No! Oh, no!" And I see him stand up and take off his jacket. He loosens his shirt and tie. And when the film was over, he was red as a beet and perspiring. Jerry, paying no heed, said, "So, Dick, what do you think?" He called him "Dick," and this man was definitely a Richard. Heffner — I'll never forget his words — said: "What do I think? Jerry, this is the worst film I've ever seen in my life. There are not enough X's in all the languages for this picture."

'Diner' director Barry Levinson (right) with Weintraub, the film’s producer, at its 1982 premiere.

From left: George Clooney, Weintraub and Matt Damon in 1999, shortly before their 2001 'Ocean’s Eleven' remake was announced.

He grabbed his coat and was on his way out, but Jerry kept him there for more than an hour. He said: "Dick, you've got to help me here. You've got to do something. My life is in this!" He wore him down. Over the next few weeks, we just kept coming back to the ratings board, 50 times, until we got an R rating. Jerry took the heat. He never wavered, even though he was friends with the Bush family and at that time was socializing with Bush 41. Jerry and I saw Cruising as a murder mystery set against an exotic background, not in any way as a commentary on gay life.

Jerry had an irresistible personality and a totally positive attitude. He kept his friends close, and he had the ability to keep his enemies even closer. He was an excellent producer because he was completely dedicated and devoted, no matter the obstacles or opposition.

William Friedkin is the director of The French Connection, for which he won an Oscar, The Exorcist and Killer Joe.

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