Thirty-nine years ago, the late legendary publicist Renee Furst introduced me to Carrie Fisher. Renee was representing my company, Atlantic Releasing (later Atlantic Entertainment) on a French-language movie starring Simone Signoret that we had co-financed and were distributing in the U.S. under the title Madame Rosa.
Against huge odds, the clever Ms. Furst managed to get Madame Rosa an Academy Award nomination in the best foreign-language film category. I was thrilled; this was a pretty big deal for the little movie business I had founded in Boston just two and a half years earlier.
When Renee asked me if I planned on attending the awards show (the 50th), I told her no. Madame Rosa was scheduled for its New York premiere only a few days before the April 3, 1978, telecast, and I was still a few months away from moving permanently to L.A. Moreover, the thought of attending the show was a bit intimidating for a 27-year-old working-class kid who had only stumbled into the entertainment business.
A week or so before the Oscar ceremony, Renee called again. She had been speaking with film producer and Francis Ford Coppola associate Fred Roos, who informed her that Carrie Fisher likewise was not planning to attend the Oscars. “This cannot be,” Renee said to him. Star Wars had thundered into the cultural zeitgeist the previous summer, making movie stars of Carrie and her fellow castmembers and, deservedly, scoring 11 nominations. On the phone, Renee floated the idea of Carrie and me going to the awards show together on a “double date” with her and Fred. I did not hesitate to say, “I’m in.” To my surprise and delight, Carrie said yes as well. The day before the show, I threw a tux into a bag and hopped on a flight to L.A.
The next afternoon, a few hours before the Oscars telecast, Renee, Fred and I jumped into a limousine and headed off to pick up Carrie, who was staying on Charleville in Beverly Hills. As I got out of the car and approached her front door, Carrie burst out, saw me standing sheepishly in my tux and said, “Wow — this is just like prom!” She twirled in her dress and added, “What do ya think?” Her smile lit me up, and I could only mumble, “You look great.” She was a real-life princess.
As we drove off, Carrie regaled us with a hilarious story of the adventure she had that day finding her Oscar dress. I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes as we all fell under the spell of this dazzling 21-year-old.
Our first stop was at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for a preparty for the best foreign-language film nominees. We were joined there by Madame Rosa director Moshe Mizrahi and the film’s producer Raymond Danon. We entered with little fanfare into a room that felt more like a diplomat’s cocktail reception than a pre-awards show soiree. As the rest of us stood about stiffly, Carrie took charge. This unusually poised, confident young woman charmed the guests like the second-generation Hollywood pro she was. In no time, she single-handedly had energized the gathering.
Mizrahi and Danon had failed to make arrangements for transportation to the awards, so Carrie insisted they ride with us. I did not object since I was the chief beneficiary of the more intimate seating arrangements.
In transit, Carrie asked if we could make another stop. George Lucas had rented out a restaurant and was hosting a pre-Oscar bash for the Star Wars cast and crew. Would we mind dropping by to say hello? Carrie did not know the exact address, so we stopped in front of what we guessed was the right place on La Brea Avenue, and our driver went in to check. Moments later, George and Marcia Lucas approached our car with wide grins. They ushered us into the restaurant filled with the Star Wars family, and when Carrie walked in, a spontaneous cheer broke out — their Princess Leia had arrived. The love for her was palpable. I was in awe.
Back in the limo, we were now running late as we made our way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In 1978, it was not quite the ordeal it is today to arrive at the Oscars, and we even had the option of entering stealthily in the back, which we elected to do. As we pulled up to the curb, I was amazed to see that it was not an attendant who opened our door but Steven Spielberg, who was nominated that year for directing Close Encounters of the Third Kind (still my favorite sci-fi film of all time). He had been waiting for us to arrive just so he could say hello to Carrie.
As we began to enter the pavilion, I could see and hear the grandstand full of fans in the courtyard. In those days, there was no pre-Oscars red-carpet media gantlet like there is today — just Army Archerd of Variety introducing stars on a podium with a loudspeaker. I asked Carrie if she wanted to go up, knowing that the fans would be thrilled to see her, but she did not want to draw attention. “This is George’s night — not mine,” she said.
We entered the auditorium and took our seats as the program’s opening number, “Look How Far We’ve Come,” was being sung and danced by Carrie’s mother, Debbie Reynolds. There were glamorous movie stars and industry titans all around — all I can remember thinking is the Wizard of Oz quote, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Since Madame Rosa had not opened anywhere except for the Plaza Theatre in New York just two days prior, I had low expectations of winning. I was surprised we had even been nominated. I fully expected Luis Bunuel’s masterwork, That Obscure Object of Desire, to receive the Oscar.
Eva Marie Saint and Jack Valenti were the award presenters for best foreign-language film. When it was announced, “And the winner is … Madame Rosa, France,” I was stunned. Carrie stood up and cheered, but those of us involved in the film — who had not thought to discuss any acceptance protocol — froze. Finally, Mizrahi ran down the aisle toward the stage, and Danon climbed over seats to follow him. Carrie gave me a nudge to join them, but I could not move.
My memory of what happened during the rest of the show is a blur. I recall cheering for all seven Star Wars wins, Vanessa Redgrave’s controversial speech about the Palestinians and Annie Hall winning best picture in an upset. Most of all, I remember feeling this was easily the greatest night of my young life! It could not possibly get any better — could it?
Back in the day, there was only one important post-Oscar party, and that was the Governors Ball at The Beverly Hilton. The limo ride over — our two golden statuettes in tow — was raucous and joyous. The Academy had awarded only one Oscar statuette to Madame Rosa, which Mizrahi received onstage and had no interest in giving up, so apparently Danon had helped himself to one backstage without permission. The Academy tried for years to get it back from him without success.
Entering the Hilton ballroom, we encountered our first group of photographers and journalists. Carrie smiled and waved but did not stop. Inside, with our table displaying two Oscars, we drew some attention, but it was Carrie who was the magnet for other stars. The first of many to come by was John Travolta, who was at the height of his popularity. Carrie, so comfortable and in her element, had a brilliant quip for all. She even sang a bit and was radiant and charismatic. And yet somehow she still made me feel like I was the center of her attention.
Sitting with our backs to the dance floor, I heard a familiar voice behind me say, “Well, aren’t you going to introduce me?” and turned around to see the beautiful and elegant Reynolds. Carrie, true to form, replied, “Mother, this is Tom, the man I have been living with for six months!” Surely not fooled and playing along, Debbie said, “That’s good, dear. How very nice to meet you.” Carrie then said to her mother, “Tom has been wanting to dance all evening, but these new shoes are killing me — would you mind?” And that’s how it came to be that I waltzed with the extraordinary woman who had danced with Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and other greats. She was lovely and made me feel like Astaire.
As this dreamlike night was winding down, Carrie asked if Renee, Fred, Moshe and I wanted to go to a private afterparty. Cut to 3 a.m. at Richard Dreyfuss’ apartment in Beverly Hills. Richard had won the best actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl earlier in the evening and was holding court at his kitchen table. Seated around him were Spielberg and his wife, Amy Irving; George and Marcia Lucas; and John Belushi. And even amid all that star wattage, Carrie shone brightest.
The sun was rising when I dropped Carrie off at her place. I barely had time to stop by my hotel and pick up my bag before heading to the airport for my flight back east. Still, I arranged to send her flowers before departing. Within hours, I was back in my office — dealing with the welcomed challenges of releasing an Oscar-winning film — when I received a call from Carrie. “No one ever sent me flowers after a date before,” she said. We talked for a while and made tentative plans to meet in New York (I think she was going to appear on Saturday Night Live). We spoke several more times over the following days, but sadly for me, the next rendezvous never happened.
I moved to L.A. soon after the 1978 Oscars and continued to run my movie business, got married and had two children. Carrie, of course, starred in more Star Wars movies and had a very public marriage and divorce.
It was around 1984, at a small industry event in L.A., when I saw Carrie again. She was standing off in a corner, and I headed over to greet her. “Do you remember me?” I asked, and a small smile appeared on her face. We talked, and although she recalled me fondly, she seemed a bit different — the light in her eyes a little dimmer, a touch of sadness about her. I remember her saying that she was envious of me because I could have a “normal life.” It was a comment I did not fully understand at the time. After I said goodbye and began to walk away, she called out, “I really did have fun that night.” I smiled and waved. I subsequently learned about Carrie’s struggles with substance abuse and mental illness, which she so candidly and courageously detailed in her books and plays. Acknowledging her genetics as both a gift and a curse, she emerged an even more remarkable artist and person.
Over the years, I delighted in her career as an author, playwright, actor and social commentator. I watched Carrie become a mother and caretaker, an outspoken champion of human rights and a feminist icon, all while fully embracing her role as Princess Leia and General Organa. On- and offscreen, she inspired and empowered multiple generations of girls and women.
Like so many others, I was shocked and saddened to learn of Carrie’s sudden death at the end of 2016 and Debbie’s tragic, poetic passing only a day later. The outpouring of tributes to her has been extraordinary and a wonderful testament to a life well lived in the public eye. Most gratifying to me is that she is an inspiration to my daughters.
My Oscar night with Carrie will always be one of my most cherished memories, a time when everything seemed possible. And I am so grateful for my brief moment with this wonderful woman.
Coleman is CEO of Innovativ Media Group and founder of the Atlantic Entertainment Group and RadioTV Network. He is the producer of numerous films and a 30-year member of the Academy.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.