Laddie bets on director visions

Producer's current endeavors boast adventure

Alan Ladd Jr. — “Laddie” to everyone — is a scion of Old Hollywood who’s managed to teach New Hollywood a thing or two about making pictures.

Says Michael Gruskoff, producer of “Young Frankenstein” during Laddie’s tenure running Fox in the ’70s, “You always knew you had a friend, but not just your friend: a friend of the project.” Gene Wilder, co-writer of that smash hit, remembers, “Laddie said the most astounding thing to me once: ‘You can write your idea on a napkin — if I like it, we’ll make it.’ ”

The son of “Shane” was born with the movie gene, but “I wasn’t a celebrity kid. I was a Valley kid.”

He’d haunt the Hollywood Blvd. double features, “hit as many movies as I could before I even realized my dad was an actor. A guy comes on the screen one day and I said, ‘That looks like my dad.’ And it was!” (The film: “Lucky Jordan.”)

Finding the craft guilds closed to an actor’s son, he learned agenting at ICM under Freddie Fields, who calls him “a wonderful kind of smart, quiet guy to have around,” especially considering some of his high-maintenance clients.

“Judy Garland was no walk in the park, I’ll tell you that,” Ladd recalls. “A little crazy. She’d call at all hours saying, ‘I cut my wrists, you’d better come over right away.’ She just wasn’t easy.”

As for his move into producing in the ’60s, he avers, “I sort of fell into it. It wasn’t that hard. You just have to be moderately intelligent and get along with people. And remember in the end, it’s the director’s ballgame. He calls the shots.”

Ladd realized he could turn being “pathetically shy and quiet by nature” into an asset: “I listen and observe, and I don’t try to be the man of the hour.”

Those qualities attracted some of the world’s best filmmakers in his orbit, an asset when he became president of Fox in 1976. Ladd says simply, “I made what I thought would work” — everything from the smash horrorfest “The Omen” to Akira Kurosawa’s comeback epic “Kagemusha,” financed at the behest of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

As longtime associate Jay Kanter puts it, “He had a wonderful instinct for commercial movies, as well as those that weren’t so commercial but had a place in the marketplace. And he treated everybody on a very equal basis, no hierarchy. You could walk into his office at any time.”

Ladd’s easygoing management style and fondness for risk-taking changed Fox. “I put all the creative people, who were all over the lot, together on the third floor so they could feed each other.” Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall as Paul Mazursky, across the hall from Mel Brooks, would toss script ideas around?

“Laddie comes from the true Old Hollywood, where one person could say yes or no immediately,” avers Mazursky, who met him while trying to set up “Harry and Tonto.” “At dinner, he quietly said he loved it, and, ‘If you can do this for a million, I think we can get it made here.’ No nonsense about, ‘You need a star, you need this or that.’ And Art Carney won the Oscar. Without a contract, I had a four-picture deal until he left.”

After previewing “American Graffiti” before the film’s release, Ladd learned that its fledgling auteur had in mind a space adventure to star Robert Redford as Luke and Lee Marvin as Obi-Wan. He made a bid for “Graffiti” (Universal said no) and signed the kid’s next project. Lucas now says, “Laddie believed in me when no one else did, and gambled on a young kid with a crazy idea for a science-fiction adventure — something that wasn’t exactly marketable at the time.”

“My biggest contribution to ‘Star Wars’ was keeping my mouth shut and standing by the picture,” Ladd says today, though he remains proud of having ignored the researcher reporting “the worst words to use in a title are ‘Star’ and ‘War.’ ” (“Into the trash that research went,” Kanter confirms. “The picture delivered. You could’ve called it ‘Hello!’ and it would’ve delivered.”)

Little known is that Ladd persuaded Lucas to omit a key plot point from all the scripts of “The Empire Strikes Back,” so that no one would learn the truth about Luke’s parentage until James Earl Jones whispered it from the screen — a rare instance of a story secret that held.

Upon leaving (“I just couldn’t take it at Fox anymore, with Dennis Stanfill and his corporate ‘management by objectives’ crap”), he accepted “the best deal anyone’s ever been offered in the business, I think”: complete production, marketing and distribution autonomy for the Ladd Co. under the Warner Bros. umbrella.

The shingle’s biggest critical success was “The Right Stuff,” but “Chariots of Fire,” originally developed at Fox, is the proudest touchstone of the Ladd Co. brand, and source of his first Oscar. Second was for a pic released under the reconstituted Ladd Co. at Paramount 14 years later, when a project he took away from his tenure at MGM-Pathe prompted a call from Mel Gibson: “Anything happening with that ‘Braveheart’ thing I read awhile back? I can’t get it out of my head.”

“I’ve always believed an intelligent actor will make a good director,” Ladd says. “He’ll absorb things from the good ones he’s worked with,” asserting that Ben Affleck, helmer of Ladd’s forthcoming “Gone Baby Gone,” “is going to be a really prominent director, I think.”

Ladd gave an early career boost to latter-day major players — Paula Weinstein worked at Fox, Jenno Topping at MGM and Amy Pascal served as longtime Ladd associate Gareth Wigan’s assistant — and it’s tough to find an unkind word said about him, which he explains by saying, “I’ve never been a bully to anyone smaller than me. I’ve only taken on people my size or bigger.”

He would have no interest in running a studio again: “It’s a young person’s game now.” (He doesn’t carry a cell phone and can’t work the Internet.) Yet he’ll commit his full resources to something he believes in, whether it be “Gone Baby Gone” or his recent successful litigation against Warner Bros.

“I did it because I knew what they were doing was wrong.,” Ladd says. “The industry is so corrupt, Warners in particular, though I had no idea it was so bad until I filed the suit. If it weren’t so corrupt, people wouldn’t be gouging up front because they’d know that they’d get their back end fair and clean.”

Still, he says, “if I had a good script and actor in my pocket right now, Warners would be chasing me as hard as anyone else. It’s a bizarre business. I had to sue Peter Falk for walking out on a picture; the Ladd Co. won, and the next day he and I had lunch.”

As an indie producer in his 70th year, he’s remarkably content. “If I died tomorrow, I can’t say, ‘I wish I had…’ I have four wonderful kids, and a sixth grandchild soon. I’ve been everywhere I wanted to go, met all the famous people, all the great stars from both eras.”

That link with an earlier era looms large. “It was great in my dad’s day, when the actors and grips were all like a family, and that’s how I tried to run my businesses. He wouldn’t go to work with strangers; he’d know all the crew who’d go from one picture to another. You couldn’t bring that system back completely, but I worked a lot with the same people, so we had a sense of continuity if not family.”

Quick one-man greenlighting decisions. Eager to encourage employees and promote from within. Even more eager to assign others credit. Never been sued. How rare is all that?

“Rare?” exclaims Mel Brooks. “It’s extinct. The French have a saying, il n’existe pas. You can’t get a ’62 Chateau Latour, and that’s Laddie. A man with faith, and a great swath of love for the movie he’s working on.

Il n’existe pas.”

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