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Tom Pollock Remembered: Universal Pictures Chairman ‘Didn’t Believe in Playing it Safe’

Tom Pollock, left, and Ivan Reitman
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Tom Pollock, the former Universal Pictures chairman who died Aug. 1 at the age of 77, had a shrewd eye for business. Even before he took the reins at the studio in 1986 to embark on a decade-long run, Pollock had established himself as one of the savviest dealmakers in the entertainment industry. As a lawyer, he had negotiated deals for the “Superman,” “Indiana Jones,” and “Star Wars” franchises. In the latter case, Pollock made George Lucas not simply rich, but Midas-level wealthy by giving him the rights to make sequels and profit off of merchandising related to a galaxy far, far away.

“From a studio standpoint, it was one of the major mistakes of all time,” Pollock said in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It essentially took a billion dollars away from the studio and transferred it to George.”

And yet, friends and colleagues say, what really drove Pollock was not an emphasis on turning a profit, but a deep and abiding love of movies.

“Tom was a brilliant businessman and dealmaker, who also happened to have a huge heart,” said Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote and directed “Field of Dreams” and “Sneakers” for Universal while Pollock was in charge. “He loved movies and he loved moviemakers and you never felt his business expertise came at your expense. He was there to further your ability to make the movie you wanted to make.”

In the instance of “Field of Dreams,” a baseball story and fantasy that unfolded in the Iowa cornfields and involved the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pollock greenlit a movie that no other studio in Hollywood wanted to make. The script crossed his desk at a time when high-concept movies, industry term for films that could be succinctly described in a single sentence such as “‘Die Hard’ on a bus” = “Speed,” were king. Pollock joked to Robinson that “Field of Dreams” was the lowest concept film ever made. And yet, he rolled the dice, because some voice told him that it was a movie he’d be proud to have made.

“I showed it to him for the first time in a screening room and when it was over the lights came up and Tom turned to me and said, ‘I can’t wait to show this to my father,'” Robinson remembered.

That love of directors and that willingness to take risks resulted in many classic films. Under Pollock, Universal backed the likes of “Casino,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Apollo 13,” as well as blockbusters such as “Jurassic Park” and the “Back to the Future” series.  In the case of “Do the Right Thing,” a searing look at racial tension that looks remarkably prescient given the current political moment, Pollock and Universal took over the movie when the original studio, Paramount, balked at Spike Lee’s pull-no-punches ending.

Not everything worked, of course. Pollock was at the helm when Universal made the ill-fated decision to go out to sea with Kevin Costner on “Waterworld,” a plagued-production that failed to generate much excitement at the box office despite its massive budget.

Robert Zemeckis, who made a name for himself by directing the “Back to the Future” films, praised Pollock for being “very respectful of the filmmaker’s vision.” But he also said he appreciated his willingness to take a chance on emerging talent. When he was still an attorney, Pollock offered his services to the director and his “Back to the Future” co-writer Bob Gale.

“Tom signed Bob Gale and I when we were novice screenwriters and no one else would give us the time of day,” Zemeckis said.

When Seagram took over Universal in 1996, Pollock left the studio, telling the Los Angeles Times that he wasn’t sure what his future would hold, but that he planned to be guided by his philosophy to “never do the same thing twice.”

True to that creed, Pollock struck out on his own, forming the Montecito Picture Company with Ivan Reitman, a production company behind such hits as “Old School” and “Up in the Air.” He also became became the chairman of the board of the American Film Institute, where he helped support rising generations of filmmakers.

Bob Gazzale, president and CEO of the American Film Institute called Pollock “our man for all seasons.” That’s because he served on almost every committee — from investments and finances to artistic standards. Gazzale notes, “he was never a passive participant.”

“I would have a breakfast meeting with him every month,” Gazzale remembered. “I would arrive a few minutes early, and he would have already read the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. It’s that thirst for knowledge that drove him. The thing that was unique about Tom is that he used that force for others. There was no more brilliant attorney, and yet it was all to ensure that young filmmaker’s dreams could make it to the big screen.”

Pollock’s collaborators believe that in a corporatized, conglomerated Hollywood of today, his style of filmmaker-friendly leadership has become nearly extinct. Studio executives today are much more obsessed with finding new franchises to exploit than they are in nurturing distinct voices. Pollock had a different style.

“The business has become so vertically integrated and so beholden to Wall Street. It was always bottom-line oriented, but there used to be people who would buck trends and Tom was one of them,” said Robinson. “Think about the movies he made in 1989 when ‘Field of Dreams’ came out — ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ — those are challenging films. He didn’t believe in playing it safe.”

Jim Sheridan, who directed “In the Name of the Father” at Universal, remembers how Pollock had a make-shift office in a van decked out with a computer that he’d work in while being driven from his home in Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. It was particularly impressive because it was on the cusp of the internet. Like Robinson, Sheridan sees Pollock as one of the last of a certain breed of executives.

“It was a different era back then,” said Sheridan.  “People returned your calls and they weren’t all screamers. The thing I remember most about Tom was how generous he was to work with.”

Pollock’s devotion to championing storytellers, those close to him, has been a guiding force from the onset of his career. His longtime friend Shep Gordon, a talent agent and producer, says people wanted to work with Pollock because he was loyal and objective.

“He didn’t interject his ego into things. He had great longterm view and knew the value of his clients,” says Gordon, who traveled with Pollock to Cannes Film Festival many times over the years. Though Gordon retired and moved to Maui 15 years ago, he says he would still meet with Pollock every time he came into town for what he lovingly called an “old Jews club reunion.”

“It’s not uncommon for people in movie business to be opportunist more than loyal,” Gordon said. “And he was always loyal.”

Decades after Pollock’s historic “Star Wars” deal, the space saga returned to the big screen in 2015 with “The Force Awakens.” Disney pulled out all the stops for the world premiere, shutting down most of Hollywood Boulevard to screen the movie in the Dolby, El Capitan and TCL Chinese Theatres. For Pollock, who attended the glitzy night, it was a chance to see the enduring impact of the “Star Wars” universe on legions of fans.

“I saw Tom on the red carpet,” Gazzale recalled. “He gave me a big hug and said, ‘Gazzale, we made it to the best night of our lives.’ This is how excited he could still be. Thirty eight years went by, and he was there at the beginning, and he still had a child-like exuberance about it all.”