Man of reels: Jon Peters

The producer and former studio chief strikes a balance between films, family and philanthropy.

Jon Peters is sitting on a patio chair, relaxing in a white button-up shirt and shorts. His hair, of course, is unflappable, despite the breeze.

The producer is contemplating his 3,000-acre working ranch, located just north of Santa Barbara. Horses are boarded at the stables here -- Tab Hunter comes to ride almost every day on the trails that wind through the property -- and Peters' wife and production partner, Mindy, runs a first-rate Arabian horse-breeding operation. Stretched before him is the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and in the foreground is a lush, manicured lawn where horses gambol, and dozens of workers are busy landscaping. It's a spectacular site, the American dream with its ante upped by the inescapable lure of California.

"See the horses riding around here?" Peters inquires. "When you look around here, this was all given to us by the movie business. ... This kind of personifies how lucky someone can be, but I really think luck comes from the service of others. I think by helping people, God -- or the light, or whatever you want to call it -- has a way of giving back to you."

Wait, this is Jon Peters? The ribald former co-chairman of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, known for treading a thin line between passion and paroxysm, is now waxing Zen about life? For those who have faced his intensity when it came to his Hollywood dealings, it might come as a bit of a shock. But in the weeks before receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Peters says he finally has time to reflect on a career that has put him square in the middle of Hollywood happenings for 40 years.

"We both sort of grew up together in the industry," says Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios. "He's talented, and he's enthusiastic and extraordinarily energetic. I would think that when Jon puts his mind to it, he can accomplish anything he wants."

After being courted for years to get a star, it was Peters' children who finally convinced him to go through with the ceremony. "My kids kept saying to me, over and over, 'Daaaad! Why don't you do this?'" he says. "And I said, 'It's kind of silly, isn't it?' And they went, 'Noooo!'" We decided it would be an exciting thing."

Peters says he was stunned, earlier this month, to look at his list of credits; he never had the time or inclination to do it before. It all started in 1976, when, as Barbra Streisand's hairdresser, he had a greater vision than what to do with Babs' locks: He set up a remake of 1954's "A Star Is Born" to showcase the diversity of her talents. And while many then tittled at the idea of a hairstylist-turned-movie mogul -- how Hollywood can you get? -- Peters' continued streak of boxoffice successes silenced many doubters.

After executive producing 1980's "Caddyshack," in 1983, he partnered with Peter Guber to form Guber-Peters Entertainment, and they executive produced "Flashdance" that same year. With Guber, he set up 1985's "The Color Purple," 1987's "The Witches of Eastwick," 1988's "Rain Man" and 1989's "Batman." In September 1989, the duo was drafted to run Columbia Pictures. Their tumultuous reign produced 1991's "The Prince of Tides" and "Boyz N the Hood," as well as 1992's "Radio Flyer." Peters left Sony in 1991. In recent years, Peters has produced two of his favorite projects, 2001's "Ali" and last year's "Superman Returns" (see story on page S-10 for more of Peters' picks from his career).

And while his resume certainly mixes high culture and low culture, Peters is confident in one thing -- he has the taste for what pleases audiences. "Humbly saying, I don't test much," he says. "I can pretty much feel when people are laughing, when things are funny.
I can feel when things are uncomfortable. Some people -- studios -- they love testing. But the 'Oh, my God, we need this ...' (and the) 'Oh, my God, we need that ...' -- I can feel that. Maybe it just comes from instinct, or maybe it just comes from doing this for so long."

Indeed, to look at the boxoffice totals from Peters' films is to have visions of dollar signs dance in one's head: "Superman Returns" tallied $391 million worldwide, "Batman" flapped to $413 million globally and "Star," on a budget of $6 million, went on to earn $100 million in theatrical and DVD release combined, according to Peters, who learned firsthand on that project how star power can translate into big bucks -- another indication of his tendency to do movies big, and do them broad.

But in reflection, it's not only boxoffice figures that inspire Peters, it's the partnerships.
"When I look back and I look at Stacey (Snider), Mark (Canton) now, with (Warner Bros. Pictures') '300,' his big hit, Peter (Guber), Roger Birnbaum -- we all grew up together, we all worked together (at Guber-Peters). It's like a family of people," Peters says. "The other day, I talked to Ronnie Meyer -- we've been friends for 20 years. He was in Japan, and I was thinking to myself, 'My God, I'm getting a star,' and he called to congratulate me. It's exciting."

The current partnership that most intrigues Peters is his collaboration with Bryan Singer, who helped him bring "Superman Returns" to theaters after more than a decade of toil. It's Singer's resolve that impresses him, the director's creativity and inventiveness. "We had two weeks in Hawaii, spending time, hanging out and talking about 'Superman,'" Peters says. "He was talking about the movie he's going to do next ('Valkyrie,' about a plot to assassinate Hitler that was written by Christopher McQuarrie, who penned 1995's 'The Usual Suspects') -- this little movie before he does 'Superman.' The next thing I know, Tom Cruise is starring in it. He is a remarkable, remarkable, remarkable young man."

But for all his blockbuster bluster over the years, there's an art house side to Peters that would stun people -- and it's a side that he's eager to explore in coming projects. While he cites the "Star Wars" series and 1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" as being among his favorite films, he's just as conversant about smaller movies that have touched him. "There's a little movie that you've never heard of or seen called 'Sundays and Cybele,'" he says. "It was a Serge Bourguignon movie, a (1962) French movie about a little girl who is abandoned by her father in a boarding school, and this semiretarded fellow sees that no one comes every weekend to pick her up, and he ends up pretending to be her dad. I tried to make this movie many times, and I never was successful. That is one of my favorite movies."

Besides continuing to work in Hollywood, Peters manages his investments and real estate holdings. "He creates value in anything he does -- the movies we do, the real estate projects, the ranch here and horses," Mindy Peters says. "He knows how to create value more intrinsically than any person I've ever met."

But for the time being, it seems like charity work is coming to the forefront of his life, with a particular focus on the land north of Santa Barbara. He wants to raise cattle on the back 2,000 acres of the ranch and use its avocado groves to feed the hungry; in addition, he envisions the land becoming a retreat for inner-city youth, a place where they can escape to work with horses and see another side of life.

For the past several holiday seasons, the Peters have worked with the Heartfelt Foundation, giving kids in downtown Los Angeles a Christmas to remember. "Most of these kids are homeless," Mindy Peters says. "The thing that struck me the most when we went down there and did this the first time -- I get emotional every time I talk about it -- the first thing they go for when they come through those gates is the food." Peters nods in agreement. "The kids get a kick out of the fact Superman and Batman are feeding them," he adds.

"Jon is one of those guys who really came from the same sort of life as a lot of these kids," Mindy Peters says. "He's reached a different level in life and is now reaching back to help."

Peters, so often known for being brash, is struck by emotion. "Mindy used to sit and dream, and given where I came from, running from the cops and the street and my father dying ... when I look back now, you know, getting this star, usually when you do this, you're about ready to die," he says, winding up with a laugh. In reality, it seems that Peters is just getting ready for his second act.

Playing favorites: Top film picks of Peters' career
Honor bound: Peters' charitable efforts
Dialogue: Jon Peters