Hollywood's survivors share their secrets to success -- where, they came from, how they made it, and how you can too
In a heyday of reality television and overnight stardom, it's easy to forget that most players had to work hard to make it big. How I Broke into Hollywood brings together dozens of Tinseltown's greatest success stories, from legends Sydney Pollack and Lalo Schifrin to rising starlet Erika Christensen to über-producer Gavin Polone. Icons of their industry -- writers, actors, directors, designers, cinematographers, executives and more -- they were once outsiders themselves, and their beginnings have all the grit and glamour of the best Hollywood films. Among the figures profiled:
Comedian Bernie Mac, whose earliest stand-up shows were on subway cars and at funeral parties.
Actor Charles Dutton, who was convicted of manslaughter at age seventeen, then went on to the Yale School of Drama and a brilliant career on stage, screen, and television.
Actor Peter Gallagher, who suffered a crippling bout of stage fright moments before leaping onstage as Snoopy -- but whose jitters moved him to a performance that brought the audience to its feet and launched his career.
Superagent Jay Kanter, who started out as a mailroom guy -- before nabbing Marlon Brando as his first star client.
Producer Caryn Mandabach, whose first job was making beer runs for the production guys at the Olympic Auditorium -- but who paid attention and soon was developing such hits as The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and That '70s Show.
Director John Landis, who hunted down his first job as a production assistant by buying a one-way ticket to London, then hitchhiking and hopping trains all the way to the set . . . in Yugoslavia.
How I Broke into Hollywood shares the voices of nearly fifty Hollywood survivors as they revisit the highs and lows of their careers in their own words, dishing dirt and imparting the wisdom they gained along the way. We learn what drew them to the industry and what made them stay, what inspired and appalled them, and what secrets propelled them to professional stardom. (Hint: a good attitude -- and an unflappable ego -- don't hurt.)
The road to success is a bumpy, angst-ridden, star-studded thrill ride -- but for these insiders, at least, it was worth every pitfall and lesson learned. Often hilarious, always instructive, How I Broke into Hollywood is an irresistible read for anyone fascinated by those who've made it big . . . and for people everywhere hoping to make it big themselves.
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About the Author
Pablo F. Fenjves has been writing movies for twenty years and has had deals with everyone from Universal to Warner Bros., from ABC to HBO. His latest feature, Man on a Ledge, is expected to go before cameras this year. A collaborator on three New York Times bestsellers -- including two number ones -- Fenjves lives in Los Angeles with his son.
Rocky Lang produced Ridley Scott's film White Squall, the Emmy Award-winning CBS mini-series Titanic, and a host of other features, television series, and documentaries. Also a film and television writer who has worked with nearly every major studio and network in Hollywood, Lang lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children.
Read an Excerpt
How I Broke into Hollywood
"Even when you're at your lowest, you keep fighting. Even when you think you have nothing left, you keep swinging."
Ashok Amritraj, a native of India, began his career as a tennis pro, playing in every major tournament from Wimbledon to the U.S. Open. He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where in 1978, after winning the World Team Tennis Championship, he decided to try his luck in Hollywood.
The business was a lot tougher than he imagined. After a number of lean years, convinced that the studio system was virtually impenetrable, he chose the independent route, an environment he felt better able to control.
The gamble paid off, eventually bringing him full circle. Today, as chairman and CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, a company he founded, Mr. Amritraj is among the most successful producers in Hollywood. Some of his credits include Bandits, Moonlight Mile, Bringing Down the House, Walking Tall, and Raising Helen.
Mr. Amritraj was interviewed on June 3, 2005, at his Santa Monica office.
I was born and raised in Madras, India, which is now called Chennai, and attended Loyola College, a classic Jesuit school. When I was very young, I started playing tennis, and I represented India in the Junior Davis Cup. Before long, I was on the international tennis circuit. At age fifteen, I was in the Juniors at Wimbledon, and by age seventeen I had made it to the finals. Two years later, I was invited to play tennis in Los Angeles, with World Team Tennis.
I became part of the Los Angeles Strings,along with my brother, Vijay, and we played with some of the greats: Chris Evert, Ilie Nastase, Björn Borg, Martina Navratilova. This was at a time when tennis was becoming a hugely popular sport. I remember seeing many of the big studio heads in the stands, watching us play, and after the games I'd find myself socializing with all manner of celebrities, people like Sydney Poitier, Charlton Heston, and Sean Connery.
These were people I had seen in the big American movies, growing up in India, and while I'd seen plenty of Indian movies, too, I was partial to Hollywood films. I still remember sitting through the credits and seeing the tag-line at the very end of the some of the films: When You're in Southern California, Visit Universal Studios.
Well, here I was in Southern California, and from the very first day, I fell in love with the motion picture industry. I decided I was going to get into the movie business; it was only a question of when and how. I thought tennis was my way in, and I imagined that my friendships with these powerful people in the industry would give me a leg up. I was hanging out with these guys. How difficult could it be to break in?
In 1978, the Los Angeles Strings won the World Team Tennis Championship. It was a big year, with lots of television coverage, and I was voted Most Valuable Player. I was handed the keys to a brand-new Jaguar, and in some ways that helped make up my mind. I was definitely going to get into the movie business.
Unfortunately, I had seriously underestimated what it was going to take. For the next five years, I optioned the rights to various plays and screenplays, but very little happened. I would send a script to the studio, and I would wait two weeks before calling the executive. They generally took my calls right away, and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes, they would ask me for pointers on their backhand, or on ways to get more spin into their serve. Then I would get around to the business at hand.
"I sent you a script two weeks ago," I'd say.
"Oh, yeah," they'd reply. "We already passed on that."
After five years of developing screenplays, I decided I should try my luck with independent movies. I wanted to be on a set, making movies, and controlling which movies got made. If nothing else, I had taste, and I had opinions, and I could make my own decisions about what I wanted to see on the screen. This was in the mid-1980s, and it was a real boom-time for the video market. HBO and USA were making first-run movies, and they were hungry for material, and I thought I could capitalize on that.
I ended up raising a little money, and risking some of my own, and I made a few small movies in the $1 million- to $3 million range. Some of the money had come from foreign distributors, and many of the films were profitable, so they continued to invest. I loved every minute of it. Before long, I was making eight or nine of these small movies a year. I remember standing in the Arizona desert in the 120-degree heat and absolutely loving it. It was fabulous. I was running from pillar to post, feeling young and energetic and ready to do it all. This was genuine moviemaking. I had wasted five years trying to develop scripts and sitting in on endless studio meetings, and nothing had come of it, but now I was making movies and becoming an actual producer.
There's a real art to low-budget movies, by the way, and it's worth learning. In the Hollywood studio business, when people get into trouble, they just throw more money at the picture and the problem goes away. Or not. But in the low-budget world, you are forced to make do with what you have. It's a great training ground.
In 1990, during my annual pilgrimage to Cannes, where I was busy raising money for my next batch of movies, a good-looking young man spotted me and hurried over.
"Ashok!" he exclaimed. "Do you remember me?"How I Broke into Hollywood. Copyright © by Pablo Fenjves. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.