The determined dilettante

NAME: Tony Puryear

DESCRIPTION: He penned “Eraser,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s next pic.

WHAT THEY’RESAYING: Joe Eszterhas writes memos; Puryear does impressions.

NEXT PROJECT: A hot remake at Warner Bros.

Can a former chef and Madison Avenue man – a self-proclaimed dilettante who paints, writes, cooks, composes and computes but never learned how to drive – find happiness in Hollywood?

Without a doubt, says Tony Puryear, the 37-year-old writer who recently sold his spec script “Eraser” to Warner Bros, and producer Arnold Kopelson. The film, a thriller about a U.S. marshal working in the Witness Protection Program, is the next pic on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plate and will be directed by Chuck Russell. Since Puryear has never had a script produced, the Schwarzenegger deal makes the scribe, a New York native who moved to L.A. about five years ago, somewhat of an overnight sensation.

Not that he needs the confidence boost. A visit to Puryear’s modest Venice digs, walls lined with his bold and oversized figurative paintings, is a bit like sneaking under the sideshow tent. Part impresario, part mad genius and a lot standup comedian, Puryear is what used to be called an idea man.

There are the scripts, lots of them in the works. Then there are the CD-ROM games, five of them, based on his paintings but still in early development. Not to mention “Black City,” the film-noir comic-book serialized mystery game that will debut on the World Wide Web online service next month. He has a company, Black Rebel Digits (motto: “The Revolution Will Be Digitized”), and a business partner, Eric Finke.

Puryear, who is single, wants to do it all – including direct – and he would much prefer to own it all. “In a way,” he says, “talent has never been as well compensated as it is now. And yet the future is really about ownership. Technology and art are more capital-intensive than ever, and I don’t want to go hat in hand every time I create something.”

Of course, much of Puryear’s vast media empire exists only in his future. His past is no less colorful, only more verifiable. Attending Brown U. in the early 1980s, Puryear labored at a trendy Providence fish restaurant, rising to the position of head chef by age 20 and overseeing a staff of line cooks, prep cooks and sauciers.

The experience of marshaling a group of highly specialized talents convinced him he could direct films, a belief that intensified upon his return to New York, where he landed a job as art director at ad agency J. Walter Thompson. There he worked on the $200 million Burger King account under James Patterson, now head of JWT and himself a successful novelist (Above the Line, April 11-17,1994). ‘Tatterson taught me how to organize creative workers,” says Puryear. Meanwhile, he moonlighted producing rap music videos with Finke.

In 1990 Puryear moved to L.A. and entered Disney’s minority writers program. (Puryear’s father is black; his mother, a past president of the American Library Assn., is white.) The scripts weren’t supposed to be for production, since writers were paid $30,000 – $20,000 below guild minimum – but Puryear says his script, “Talk Fast,” and many others from the program are still the property of Disney.

Moving on to Columbia two years later, Puryear penned a script for Sidney Poitier called “Red Money.” It sat there. A year and a half of spec script hell finally led to the sale of “Eraser,” negotiated by his manager, Daniel Rappaport at 3 Arts Entertainment. The scribe will soon ink a deal to write a remake of what he describes as a classic 1960s sci-fi pic for Warner Bros.

Puryear’s impish streak makes much of his conversation off the record – as are his deadon impressions of the Hollywood power brokers he hopes will one day give him a shot at directing. Meanwhile, he plans to learn how to drive real soon. If he can find the time.

“Life is short,” he says. “I’m 37 years old. I’d like to make a little art.”

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