Death of a salesman

Eva Marie Saint and Judd Hirsch should attract new patrons and many stargazers to Playmakers' production of "Death of a Salesman." But lovers of Arthur Miller's play will look for less sophistication and elegance in Willy and Linda Loman.

In a town where studios are ringed with small legions of rent-a-cops, the chameleonic figure of Aziz Ghazal penetrated swiftly and deeply into Hollywood in the guise it fears the most: the charming but deceitful outsider.

So when the producer ended his life with one bullet from a .380 caliber pistol after bludgeoning to death his estranged wife and 13-year-old daughter last Dec. 1, studio execs huddled a bit tighter at lunch and wondered how they could have let Dr. Jekyll in the door and ended up with Mr. Hyde.

Among those whom the boyish, good-looking salesman in khakis and loafers charmed into taking him seriously were Jodie Foster’s Egg Prods., Touchstone Pictures and Oliver Stone.

While creative two-timing has been around since before Sammy Glick, Ghazal signed legally binding deal memos with two companies for the same property and was crushed by that dilemma even before he loaded his gun.

Insiders say Ghazal, who had only two bargain-basement pix to his name, could have had it all before he lost control. They also have no clue who they were really dealing with.

In the early summer of 1993, the 38-year-old Ghazal was fast becoming a favorite rookie find of industry power players. A novel he had optioned was gathering steam on development desks.

“The Brave,” scripted by Paul McCudden from Gregory Mcdonald’s novel, is about an impoverished man who agrees to let himself be killed in a “snuff” film if his family gets the profits.

The story was so good that Jodie Foster’s Egg Prods. at one time committed to sign him as a producer and make the film. Simultaneously, Touchstone Pictures even offered to let him direct the pic. Ghazal, ever mercurial, agreed to do both.

All deals disintegrated around Thanksgiving 1993 when Ghazal’s bitter divorce from his wife, Rebecca Vollstedt Ghazal plunged him into areas where reality yielded to dark fantasies.

“The Brave” includes a key Christ-like sacrificial element, in which the character gives hope to his community before going willingly to his death. Insiders said the concept enraptured Ghazal.

“You know, it is really strange,” said one top exec who met with Ghazal and was a bit spooked by the preppy, gregarious newcomer. “Sometimes when I talked to Aziz about ‘The Brave,’ I got this weird feeling that he didn’t want to direct this thing — he wanted to live it.”

Reps at Michael J. Fox’s Universal-based production outfit Snowback Prods. also read the script, since McCudden used to work for company topper Matt Tolmack. Snowback never actually bid on the property.

Born into a poor Arab/Jewish family in Israel in 1955, Ghazal emigrated to California, where he became stock room chief at the USC School of Cinema-Television in 1983 — a job he was fired from two months before the murders for an alleged theft.

Producers Carroll Kemp and Charles Evans Jr. from indie outfit Acappella Pictures worked closely with Ghazal in setting up “The Brave” until the murders — and were ultimately kept in the dark.

When Oliver Stone and Ixtlan turned down “Brave” in summer 1993, Ghazal’s United Talent Agency rep Barry Mendel set his sights on Egg. Meanwhile, Ghazal was already patching together his own financing.

By late summer, Egg had agreed to give Ghazal producer credit and various other production authority.

Meanwhile, Acappella Pictures — urged on by Ghazal, who hinted that Egg was “cooling off”– in good faith started talking to Jordi Ros, a creative exec at Touchstone Pictures, who was interested in making Aziz the picture’s director/producer out of the studio’s discretionary fund.

On Aug. 31, Ghazal’s attorney David May closed his deal with Touchstone. Then, suddenly, everyone’s wires got crossed.

A Sept. 1 story in the Hollywood Reporter was headlined “Foster’s Egg Home of ‘Brave.’ ” A furious May insisted the Touchstone deal was still on. Mendel then had to correct him: He had closed the Egg deal Monday evening. And Ghazal was caught in the middle.

Realizing Ghazal was going to put up a fight, Egg “began to drop the entire idea because they did not trust Aziz,” sources said. At this point, Mendel also let Ghazal know he would no longer rep him. Over at Touchstone, despite doubts about Ghazal’s veracity, the deal was going ahead.

Touchstone execs just wanted the neophyte to do a director’s test before having higher-ups put “Brave” on the slate. But Ghazal’s inability to give a straight answer made studio reps nix the test.

Ghazal now began displaying signs of “deep depression,” according to sources close to him. But when Touchstone’s business affairs department then came back wanting to put a profit cap on Mcdonald’s part of the deal, Ghazal snapped alive , sources said: “Aziz told them he and Mcdonald were old buddies and that he’d be glad to fix the matter personally.” Remarkably, Touchstone agreed.

It became clear to observers that Ghazal was stalling and not contacting Mcdonald. Acappella had to postpone “The Brave.”

When Ghazal finally did call Mcdonald the day before Thanksgiving, the writer recognized in his voice the sound of someone close to breaking down and suggested Ghazal come spend the weekend.

On the last night Ghazal spent at Mcdonald’s house in the rural South, he begged Mcdonald to call his wife for him, saying he was “desperate” to talk to her; Mcdonald packed him off to bed. Ghazal left for L.A. Sunday morning.

When Acappella staffers got into the office on Monday, Nov. 29, a distressed Ghazal claimed he was not yet “at terms” with Mcdonald. A huge blow-up with the principals ensued.

The next day, Ghazal showed up after noon, staying for only 10 minutes. He screamed at “Brave” staffers, “I’m not gonna do it (at Touchstone.) I’m gonna take the project somewhere else.”

Ghazal did not show up for work Nov. 31. By the next morning, deputies from the Sheriffs Dept. called Acappella, explaining that Ghazal, still at large, was suspected of killing his wife and daughter and trying to torch his wife’s house near Idyllwild.

On Friday, Ghazal’s housemate discovered four farewell notes among Ghazal’s effects: Written three days before the murders, they included cries for help such as “I can’t subject my kids to any more of this” and the more ominous “Please forgive me for what I am about to do.”

While walking a trail near Rebecca Ghazal’s house on Jan. 10, hikers discovered Aziz Ghazal’s decomposed body with a bullet hole to the head. Police speculated he shot himself right after killing his wife and daughter.

The Acapella toppers have recently started shopping “The Brave” around.

Death of a salesman

Paul Green Theater; 501 seats; $25 top

  • Production: A Playmakers Repertory Company presentation of a drama in two acts by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jeffrey Hayden.
  • Crew: Set, Sarah L. Lambert; costumes, Sharon K. Campbell, Caryn Neman; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; sound, Peter S. Blue; production stage manager, Maura J. Murphy. Opened, reviewed Feb. 5, 1994.
  • Cast: <B>With:</B> Zane Lasky, Susanna Rinehart, Kenneth White, Ray Dooley, Jeffrey West, Paige Johnston, Ed Wagenseller, Barbara Ellingson, Kristine Watt.