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John was just someone whose company you treasured. He was at Sony as head of the studio when I was hired. We had some common interests. Both of us liked old stories about Hollywood and television. We had many mutual acquaintances and read the same thrillers and mystery stories.
One day he said, “I’ll report to you. I don’t want to report to Japan.” Which I think is unheard of in the hierarchical world. But that’s what he was — completely un-hierarchical. As the CEO of a studio, he cared about the movies but he sure didn’t care about running a bureaucracy. The reason he was un-bureaucratic is he was very comfortable in his own skin.
I’d come out and have dinner with him at Orso’s many times. He went through stories of the past in the way the great raconteurs can do. They tell stories on themselves, not about themselves. He’d tell the story of leaving Warners and they didn’t want him to go, so they kept him on contract. He went six or seven years on Fishers Island still being paid and when he wanted to come back, they paid him to return.
Meanwhile he’s doing sports car franchises and all kind of entrepreneurial energies. He married Miss Czechoslovakia. He didn’t speak Czech and she didn’t speak English.
It didn’t bother him.
He’d tell the story of going to a screening of The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews, who he really liked. And when the lights came up he said, “Don’t worry, Julie. Your career will get over this.” I think he meant it because he wasn’t much of a musicals fan, but he did realize he made a terrible mistake. He’d tell stories about movies he missed out on and ones he had a good time making. He’d keep you entertained for hours.
I think he saw the studio and that world as a kind of amiable playground. By the time he came to Sony he was the wise man of the movie industry. He trusted Amy [Pascal] and she’d come to him for advice. With me, we didn’t talk about balance sheets very much. We talked about movies that were coming and why something screwed up and why it might not.
I don’t think John had a formal education. He went in the American Army and started at the bottom at NBC. I don’t know. He got where he did in the early days by force of personality and because he forged alliances with some very important people who stayed with him throughout his life.
But he didn’t collect people for the sake of it. Hollywood is full of celebrity conversations that begin and end on the moment. With John, when you connected, you wanted to see him again. He didn’t try to be all things to all people. And that’s not so common in Hollywood. John was someone who’d you think, “This is a man I want to spend some time with.” That’s a magic circle that some people create. And like all magic circles, it can’t be crowded. When you had a relationship with him, it felt very special. It was something to be cherished.
–As told to Bill Higgins
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