Hollywood Throwback: Dinner at Sam Goldwyn Jr.’s with Charlton Heston and ‘Master and Commander’ Author Patrick O’Brian
Twenty years ago, entertainment royalty gathered to welcome the author whose book would become an Oscar-winning film — APA’s Steve Fisher writes for THR about one of his most memorable nights as a young agent.
The death of legendary producer and studio executive Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Jan. 9 was a loss for his family and for Hollywood. As everyone knows, Goldwyn had a storied career in the entertainment business and was the son of the even more legendary Samuel Sr., one of the true early moguls and pioneers of the Hollywood film industry. When I think of Sam Jr., I am reminded of a dinner at his home 20 years ago that I attended with my client, author Patrick O’Brian, and a guest list few others could have imagined, much less assembled.
As a then relatively new literary agent in Hollywood, I negotiated the deal for the film rights to the Master and Commander series of novels by O’Brian that eventually became the epic film directed by Peter Weir. I worked for H.N. Swanson, a small, old-line literary agency that had been credited with being the first of its kind in Los Angeles. Having Patrick as a client was a major coup. In the film business, especially early in one’s career, you are often (sometimes painfully) reminded of where you stand. I knew representing Patrick would open doors, not only for me but also for the agency, and I felt privileged to work with him. I witnessed his metamorphosis from a revered writer with a cult following to a major bestseller with profiles in everything from People to the Wall Street Journal and beyond. Now Goldwyn had bought an option to the book series, and we all had high hopes of seeing this on the big screen. It was an important deal for my career, and certainly a point of pride to be associated with it. Soon after the deal closed, I got a call from Mr. Goldwyn’s office asking for my help in arranging a dinner for Patrick at his home.
At that time, O’Brian had never been to Los Angeles. He was now well into his 70’s and a man of Old World manners. He rarely left his home in France, and his presence stateside was an event unlikely to be repeated. He and his wife Mary led quite a reclusive existence and that was clearly how they liked it. Regardless, Mr. Goldwyn arranged for him to be flown down from an appearance in San Francisco to attend the dinner. As many weeks of preparation followed, I spoke first with Goldwyn’s Head of Development, then in the final weeks, most often his personal assistant. O’Brian would be accompanied by his wife, Mary, as well as his editor and his wife (who were traveling with the O’Brians) and me.
Not long after these preliminary arrangements were sorted, the first of many hand-wringing calls began to come from my partner in London, Patrick’s publishing agent.
"Patrick has certain... eccentricities that I think they should know about," I was told. So I’d heard.
"There are things he will not tolerate." Like what?
"For instance, being called by his first name. He considers it terribly, well, familiar." I promised to have a word with Goldwyn’s people.
"But that’s not all. He dislikes any questions of a, uh, personal nature." When I inquired further, I discovered virtually everything about Patrick’s past — and indeed present — was considered to be personal. I, again, promised to pass this along, and it was made clear to me that left untended, the evening could be a minefield of biblical proportions.
Having no direct acquaintance with the man himself and eager for this evening to go well, I deemed it more appropriate for me to have this conversation with Sam... in person. For me, the stakes were high. I could not afford a misstep. The thought of having to report to my boss Monday morning that we’d likely lost this client was truly unthinkable.
The night of the dinner, I made sure to be the first to arrive. I wanted to be punctual, and to explain the eccentricities that had so concerned O’Brian’s London agent. So I arrived very early and waited up the block from the Goldwyns’ home. Sitting there in my second-hand Acura, ticking the minutes away in my newly purchased off-the-rack, seriously-on-sale suit, I could not help but feel a certain anxiousness at what was about to be my first brush with true Hollywood royalty. Sure, I had a place at the table... but compared to the other guests, I had hardly earned it.
At exactly the stroke of 7 p.m., I pulled up to the beautiful Beverly Hills home of the Goldwyns. A long curving driveway led to the sprawling ranch-style enclave with immaculately kept ground. Once at the door, I was greeted by a uniformed maid who promptly fetched Mrs. Goldwyn. An attractive and elegantly attired woman arrived moments later and asked, ever so politely, who I was. I introduced myself, explaining somewhat nonplussed that I was Patrick O’Brian’s agent. This was met with another, more pregnant, pause.
"And what," she asked in a manner that was more blunt than rude, "are you doing here?"
It became apparent the Goldwyns had no knowledge of me, nor my planned attendance at the dinner, nor that the O’Brians would also be accompanied by Patrick’s editor and his wife. Clearly there had been some catastrophic breakdown in communication between me and Sam. But no matter how convinced I was that his office had dropped this particular ball, it now became my problem as Mrs. Goldwyn, gracious and hospitable, invited me in as she hurried off to the kitchen exclaiming, "I’ll alert the cook there will be three more for dinner."
A bit stunned, and none too comfortable with this turn of events, the maid ushered me into a sitting room where Mr. Goldwyn and a female executive at his company stood chatting. I looked around the well-appointed room. If memory serves, there was a Renoir on one wall, a Picasso on another, and the room was filled with gorgeous antiques and plush, inviting furniture, all in the warm, hospitable glow of a roaring fire. In short, it was lovely, tasteful... and way out of my league. I was quickly given a glass of white wine — which I heartily gulped.
After a few minutes of small talk with another guest, I finally had time with Mr. Goldwyn — who now insisted I call him "Sam." He was a bear of a man, well over six feet tall, but seemingly affable and friendly. I settled, or rather sank, into the couch facing the fireplace. Sam stood over me — towered, actually. I’m almost 6'3" and would have looked up to him even standing up. I began to explain about Patrick, his eccentricities and his dislike of the use of his first name. Sam indicated he thought he’d read that somewhere (so far, so good!).
"And Patrick is also uncomfortable with any questions of a personal nature," I added.
Before I could explain further, Sam visibly stiffened, his gracious smile evaporating before my eyes as he looked down at me and said grimly, "I am not in the habit of asking a man personal questions."
I sputtered and stammered as Sam tuned me out, turned his attention to another guest across the room and moved on. Slack-jawed as I stared into the fire, I replayed the previous few moments in my mind, wondering what in the hell had just happened. How had I so miscalculated my choice of words? I had crashed this dinner, been there less than 10 minutes, and insulted the host. Things were not going well.
A short time went by before Patrick, Mary, his editor and his wife, and Charlton Heston walked in the door. Heston was a surprise, even though I’d known he was a huge O’Brian fan. Dominick Dunne, who had been covering the OJ Simpson trial and regaled everyone with his tales of the “Trial of the Century,” was there, too. I would read later that he complained that every time he went to a dinner party, he could not get away without being prevailed upon for his opinions of OJ. He didn’t seem to need much prompting that particular evening, though. A few of us with liberal sensibilities whispered about the many topics we should avoid from raising with Heston in the room. Sam tried to goad him into talking about politics, but he, to our immense relief, demurred as the conversation flowed. O’Brian was charming in his cryptic, Old World way. Sam asked him his impressions of Los Angeles, and Patrick said he found it "fresh." I’m not at all sure any of us knew what exactly he meant by that, but we all chuckled knowingly. The meal went well. The food was terrific. Beautifully prepared course after course arrived at the table. The salad was served last. I’d read somewhere that was very European. I was learning.
Hours later we were ushered outside. The evening seemed to be a success. The fresh summer air seemed to enliven everyone after hours indoors. The Goldwyns were beaming. My client seemed content. Sam seemed friendly, even to me — the interloper. Very cognizant of being new to the business, I felt I had made an extraordinary connection with hallowed Hollywood history. I drove home that night happy — and immensely relieved it was over. Maybe there was a place for me in this business after all?
Seeing the film Master and Commander years ago (Patrick died in 2000, unfortunately before it was even filmed), I have to say that I think Patrick — make that Mr. O’Brian — would have been pleased. It has scope, and yet is personal and true to the spirit of the books. What might have been Patrick’s reaction? Probably that it seemed "fresh." I would have inquired no further, as to press him would no doubt have seemed entirely too familiar.
Steve Fisher is Vice President/Literary at APA (Agency for the Performing Arts).