When you step into the living room of Jon Peters’ 4,000-square-foot condo in Westwood’s Wilshire corridor, it is hard not to think about money, what with the half-dozen authentic Tiffany lamps and a Matisse and Modigliani on the wall. It also is hard not to think about marijuana. At first, I attribute the gentle but unmistakable odor to the young woman padding through the condo in a bathrobe. But no. The pot belongs to 71-year-old Peters, not his 18-year-old daughter Kendyl.
“I took one hit before this thing,” says Peters, who, in a Hollywood career that seems inconceivable in today’s business, rose from hairdresser to running Columbia Pictures and launching the Batman movie franchise and relaunching Superman before an epic flame-out in the ‘90s. “Something about marijuana makes me talkative and communicative and present, and without it I get very quiet and watch movies and I’m kind of distracted.”
For the past 2½ years, ever since I reported that he was paid between $10 million and $15 million to do absolutely nothing on 2013’s Man of Steel, a figure confirmed by then-Warner Bros. chief Jeff Robinov, I’ve been trying to land an interview with Peters. At the time, there were rumblings that the real figure was closer to $50 million. After several rebuffs, Peters finally acquiesced, granting his first interview in 10 years. Now he sits in a living room adorned with Native American artifacts, movie posters and memorabilia as an antique pistol rests on the table. (“Yeah, there’s two bullets in it,” he says casually.) One of the first questions he answers is about his cut on Superman films. He says he took home $80 million to $85 million combined for 2006’s Superman Returns and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel thanks to backend granted for his role in jumpstarting the franchise in the ‘90s. Warners declined to comment. “I have 7.5 percent of the gross,” says Peters. “Together they did [more than] a billion.” He adds he was banned from the set of Man of Steel at the behest of producer Christopher Nolan: “My reputation scares these guys.”
The legend of Jon Peters begins in 1973 with his introduction to Barbra Streisand. He was her hairdresser, then her lover and producer on such films as 1976’s A Star Is Born, then one of the most powerful, fearsome men in Hollywood. His shameless thirst for success and bombastic sensibility invite parallels to a certain president-elect, and he embraces it. “I am the Trump of Hollywood,” he says proudly.
Together with Peter Guber, Peters became a key architect of the modern tentpole; they had a storied partnership that spawned such ‘80s and ‘90s classics as Flashdance, The Witches of Eastwick, Batman and Batman Returns, capped off by a wild run atop Columbia that generated $3.2 billion in red ink for their shell-shocked Japanese bosses at parent company Sony.
Along the way, there were breakups, crack-ups and legendary binges.
Peters’ crazy romp through Hollywood is coming full circle in 2017 when the remake of A Star Is Born begins production in April, with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper replacing Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the tale of a movie star Svengali guiding a young singer/actress to fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career spiraling. Peters is producing the remake for Warners.
Sporting a ponytail, silk lounge pants and the kind of bravado that comes with mountains of “f— you” money, Peters is soft-spoken, charming and candid.
“I never got credit for producing 100 movies, for running Sony, for coming from the street, becoming the chairman,” he says. “It was always negative. ‘Hairdresser Jon.’ As I got older, I would meet people — normal people — and see the respect on their faces and think, ‘Oh, people do appreciate the pain and suffering.’ Because when you do what I did, it’s a lot of pain and suffering. It’s a lot of fear. You’re scared to death all the time. Every day.”
Peters’ first brush with Hollywood came at age 10, with a nonspeaking role in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1956. He was a kid from the Valley. The family business was hairdressing, and after dropping out of school in seventh grade, he moved to New York, where he started out as a lowly “muff dyer,” he says. “The prostitutes had red hair, red pubic hair and red poodles. I made it so everything matched.”
He met Streisand in 1973 on the set of the comedy For Pete’s Sake (he created her wig). Although he was married to actress Lesley Ann Warren at the time, he and Streisand began an intense relationship; he quickly became her most trusted confidant, producing her 1974 album ButterFly and steering her into movies that he produced. Their torrid 12-year affair was in full swing during production of A Star Is Born, which was a remake of a remake (William Wellman did the original in 1937, followed by George Cukor’s classic in 1954). The Peters-Streisand coupling drew the kind of media attention (think Vogue photo shoots and breathless headlines like “A Star Is Shorn”) rarely seen today outside of the now-defunct Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt union. With Peters-Streisand, it’s impossible to say who was the Svengali. “She was probably the love of my life. Yeah. She was the most captivating, interesting, creative person I have ever met,” he says. “I owe her. I will always owe her for giving me the life that I’ve had.”
Their relationship, which lasted longer than any of his marriages, finally wrapped in 1985. They remain close — “I just talked to her yesterday. I saw her on the cover of W,” he says, pointing to the magazine emblazoned with a wowza pinup shot of the 74-year-old Streisand. “She looks gorgeous. I said, ‘You look 20 years old. The legs!'” — but he has not yet admitted to her that he voted for Trump. “She would not talk to me if she knew,” he says. (Streisand declined to comment.)
“I voted for Trump because I felt in my heart that he could really actually do a great job, but I thought Hillary was going to win,” explains Peters. “I thought that every time he said stupid things and he acted like a fool, and all the women and things, I thought it was going to kill him. It didn’t because a lot of people are like him. Like to look at pretty girls. Wish they could talk to a pretty girl. Wish they could do this. I’ve been a Democrat my whole life. I voted for Obama twice. But this is a brilliant man. I saw a brilliant man who ran an empire, and I thought that he could run the country.”
While his romance with Streisand captivated the masses, it was his bromance with Guber that transfixed Hollywood. In 1980, the two friends formed the company Boardwalk with music impresario Neil Bogart. By 1982, Bogart was dead, but Peters and Guber were just getting going. Their first box-office hit together was 1983’s Flashdance. That led to a lucrative producing deal at Warner Bros., where they made Tim Burton’s Batman movies, which marked the first time a superhero franchise became a zeitgeist-defining global phenomenon. Despite their complete inexperience running a studio, Sony tapped the pair as chairmen in 1989, ponying up half a billion dollars to release them from their contracts with Warner Bros. Their reign was marked by wild spending (Heidi Fleiss was a billable service) and mild box-office returns (remember Brian “The Boz” Bosworth’s star vehicle Stone Cold?). After firing Peters, Guber was shown the door himself three years later in 1994.
Then again, their split could be chalked up as another failed marriage for Peters (he had four, including with producer Christine Forsyth-Peters). Like many Hollywood divorces, there was a lavish settlement (Peters’ severance package was estimated between $30 million and $50 million — $53 million to $89 million today) and a dishy tell-all, Hit & Run, co-written by Kim Masters, now THR editor-at-large. Peters says he hasn’t read it, though he admits he doesn’t read books.
“When we had Sony, Guber and I went to therapy once a month together to talk about our differences. Our love affair. We loved each other. We were brothers. I mean, he was my best friend, he was my everything, and I was the same to him. We did things together that nobody knows and nobody ever knew,” he says.
On the subject of Guber, Peters vacillates between affection (“I love the guy. I’ll always love the guy. We never had one argument in 10 years as partners”) and animosity (“Peter was a bad boy at the end. He cheated me out of a lot of money and turned into someone different than I knew for 15 years. Sometimes power and greed do that to people. And Peter is one of the most ambitious men I ever met in my life”). Guber, now the head of Mandalay Entertainment and co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, declined to speak for this piece, saying he is traveling with his team. But a source close to both says that when Peters’ name comes up, Guber becomes apoplectic.
The biggest reason Peters has eschewed the press for the past decade is due to what he calls a mischaracterization of his contributions, perpetrated by the Hollywood press. From today’s multinational-run Hollywood perspective, where top agents and executives are compelled by corporate policy to fly coach, his heyday antics seem fantastical (he confirms the story that he once commandeered the Sony corporate jet to deliver flowers to supermodel Vendela Kirsebom in a successful effort to woo her). As for other high-profile affairs, he mentions Pamela Anderson but then chides me (“You’ll have to do your research. I can’t even remember anymore”). But he offers up one more doozy involving a then-married Michael Keaton. During the production of Batman, Peters says he began courting his star Kim Basinger, who was married to makeup artist Ron Snyder. Peters recently had divorced Forsyth but was adopting a child with her (they have two daughters, Caleigh and Skye). “Kim had a husband who was abusive. And one day I grabbed him, and she connected with me because I protected her, and we became friends and ended up having a big affair,” he recalls. “Michael Keaton had the eye for Kim Basinger. I remember he got mad at me when she and I hooked up. He felt rejected ’cause he was the star. He’s Batman. Yeah. I was a hairdresser who could talk to women. We lived together on the set. She helped me write the third act.”
With anecdotes like that, it’s no surprise that the Peters mythology tends to overshadow the filmography. He has been credited as the inspiration for both Shampoo and American Gigolo. Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed American Gigolo, shoots down that notion. “Not so,” he says.
Peters cooperated with writer William Stadiem on a book proposal that sold to HarperCollins in 2009 in a memoir deal that was rumored to be eight figures. But the proposal was leaked to the press, prompting Peters to pull the plug at Streisand’s urging. Guber called the proposal a “vile betrayal” and a “work of fiction.” Stadiem turned the experience into a Vanity Fair piece, which Peters calls “a big hack job” and “mean-spirited.”
No Hollywood legend is complete without substance abuse, and Peters has that, too. It stemmed from years of training to become a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, which took its toll on his body. “I blew out my knee, so 10 years ago when I went through my divorce [from Kendyl’s mother, Mindy Williamson], I got hooked on Vicodin,” he says.
He beat the habit, but it still wields power. Currently recuperating from knee replacement surgery, he was prescribed Percocet. Sensing potential danger, he stopped abruptly and now only uses marijuana. In a fortuitous twist, he invested in two pot groves four years ago. “It’s exploding,” he says. “We’re looking to open a couple of stores every couple of years.”
Peters’ colorful personal story and prominence in the gossip pages tended to make his massive success look easy. But that’s a false trope, says Bill Gerber, who also is producing the new Star Is Born and describes Peters succinctly as a “legit motherf—er.” Gerber knows better than most, having known him for more than three decades. They first met in the ’80s through David Geffen, frequently lunching together at Geffen’s Malibu beach house. “Jon in the ’80s vs. Jon now. Same thing. The hair. It’s still got that f—ing pop to it,” he quips.
But it wasn’t until the ’90s that Gerber began working with Peters, when the former joined the studio as a young executive. “When I first came to Warner Bros., Jon and Peter had a significant producing deal here. I was under the impression that they were kind of glamorous Hollywood film guys who got whatever movies they wanted made and didn’t have to work that hard,” says Gerber, who eventually rose to co-president of production at the studio. “But with Batman, Jon went to England and lived there and pounded that movie out like he needed a job. He may be the hairdresser who fell into it, but the other half of that story that no one seems to know is he worked his ass off to keep it. He’s been a bad guy and done bad things to a lot of people, and he’s been a good guy and done good things to a lot of people. He’s been a f—ing asshole to me half the time. But he gets shit done.”
Forsyth-Peters echoes that assessment despite her own battles with her ex: “He’s not filtered,” she says. “People are now so much more cautious about what they say. They’re politically correct. Jon never had that. He was always the guy who could say whatever he thought. But he opened eyes with his insight. And that’s something that is missing now. When Jon’s creative juices are flowing, he’s a genius.”
For the past decade, Peters has lived mostly on a 3,000-acre ranch in Santa Barbara, in self-imposed exile. “Everybody’s reclusive when you make a certain amount of money. Especially if you’ve had a tough life, you try to fortify yourself with your friends and kind of keep the world out,” he says. “I used to date all young girls, and then it was like, ‘I could be your grandfather. What am I doing?'” he says. He wakes up every morning at 5:30 to play the stock market, his most time-consuming hobby. His social circle is tight and mostly involves lunch dates with other like-minded men from the old guard, including former Columbia exec Michael Nathanson. “I’m very close with [Jack] Nicholson,” Peters says. “That’s my guy.” He rarely goes to the movies, but as an Academy member, he watches every screener. He “loved” Hacksaw Ridge, but “it turned me off. Too violent.” The 2016 Oscar winner Spotlight was “kind of boring.” He’s in bed by 7:30 every night.
The chance to remake A Star Is Born — a sexy, serious cautionary tale with a moderate budget, the type of movie the major studios rarely make — gradually drew him back into the business. It has been an on-again, off-again project for 10 years, as big names such as Clint Eastwood and Beyonce have come and gone. “There were a lot of complicated deals on Star Is Born, a lot of heavy-hitters,” Gerber adds. “And Jon could not have been more helpful in getting it all in line.” The script now is getting a preproduction polish from Oscar winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump).
After Star Is Born, Peters plans to revisit one of his earlier films with a remake of Caddyshack and reignite his long-gestating biopic Africa about famed conservationist Richard Leakey, which was once a month away from production with Angelina Jolie directing and Brad Pitt starring (Roth wrote the screenplay). He also wants to bring back sexy thrillers with a concept he has been mulling for 25 years called Private Dancer (think the Tina Turner song). “It’s Flashdance meets Klute with strippers and dancing girls and a crazy killer and a cop,” he says. “It’s in my head. We haven’t written a page yet.”
Though his days of being paid tens of millions to stay away from a movie probably are in the past, dealmaking remains a great passion for Peters. He says he could have pushed for that hefty 7.5 percent cut on every future movie that Superman appears in via Warner Bros.’ expanding DC Universe, but he accepted a much smaller cut to gain support for his other projects. “That’s how I’m able to make Star Is Born and do all these other movies, because I help them, they help me, we all help each other,” he says. “That’s what I like about the studio. I could have fought them. I could have insisted that I do this and that. My deal was ironclad. It was written by Peter Guber, who is smart as a whip.”
Peters says people have tended to underestimate how much he struggled to make it to the top. “Maybe I didn’t see myself that way, being ruthless and aggressive and ambitious and violent and all those things. I’ve been all those things at a given time, but I remember right after finishing Star Is Born, they asked me to produce the Academy Awards. I didn’t do it because I was too insecure. Maybe I had low self-esteem. Maybe I had two Jons: the one Jon that was out there like a hurricane putting millions of things together, and the other Jon that felt little and insecure. And maybe the reason that I had the other Jon was to make the little guy feel bigger. I don’t know.”
PETERS: KING OF THE POPCORN MOVIE
A Star Is Born | 1976
Barbra Streisand, who stars opposite Kris Kristofferson, is depicted as a Grammy winner. In real life, the film’s song “Evergreen” won her both a Grammy and an Oscar.
Caddyshack | 1980
Chevy Chase and Bill Murray starred in the comedy classic. Now Peters is looking to remake it at Warner Bros. as an old guard vs. millennial golfer comedy, with Jack Nicholson in the lead.
An American Werewolf in London | 1981
Though the John Landis-helmed horror film never became a box-office superstar (earning $31 million), it spawned several spinoffs and is getting the remake treatment at Universal with Landis’ son Max directing.
Flashdance | 1983
The romantic drama about a welder by day, exotic dancer by night (Jennifer Beals) was a breakout hit for Peters and Guber, earning $93 million. The film’s theme song, “Flashdance … What a Feeling” won an Academy Award for best original song, hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and is ranked at No. 26 on Billboard’s All Time Top 100.
The Color Purple | 1985
The period drama based on Alice Walker’s novel earned 11 Oscar nominations, including one for Oprah Winfrey as supporting actress, and also was a box-office success, earning $98 million.
The Witches of Eastwick | 1987
The dark comedy directed by George Miller marked Peters’ first collaboration with friend Jack Nicholson (the other: Batman). The film helped solidify the star power of actresses Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Rain Man | 1988
The Dustin Hoffman-Tom Cruise starrer nabbed the best picture Oscar as well as best actor honors for Hoffman. Directed by Barry Levinson, the film about a selfish yuppie (Cruise) and his estranged savant brother (Hoffman) was a megahit, earning $355 million worldwide.
Batman | 1989
On its $35 million budget, the film earned $411 million ($160 million of it overseas), demonstrating the global potential of superhero movies. Star Michael Keaton generally is praised as the best Batman ever.
Ali | 2001
Will Smith was nominated for his first best actor Oscar for his turn as boxer Muhammad Ali. The Michael Mann-directed biopic earned $88 million worldwide.
Superman Returns | 2006
After nearly two decades away from the big screen, Peters brought back the iconic superhero with this Bryan Singer outing. Starring Brandon Routh as the Man of Steel, it earned $391 million worldwide.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.