William Katz: The noble entertainer

Occasional contributor William Katz is the proprietor of Urgent Agenda. He sends us the following note on David Brown:

David Brown died last week. Most Americans probably never heard of him, but they’re certainly familiar with his impact on movies. With his partner, Richard D. Zanuck, he launched the feature-film career of Steven Spielberg with Sugarland Express, and, far more significantly, Jaws. The team produced The Sting, The Verdict, and Driving Miss Daisy. As a studio executive, David Brown had a hand in Patton. And on Broadway he produced A Few Good Men.
David was one of my mentors. Whatever map I’ve been on as a writer, he put me there. When he and Dick Zanuck acquired my novel, Surprise Party, for film, my writing career leapt from the Rodney Dangerfield level of respect to real respect. Sadly, the movie was never made, but working with David was one of those rare experiences that a writer can truly call a pleasure.
David was a noble entertainer. He believed that giving an audience two hours of enjoyment in a theater was a noble enterprise. And that enjoyment, he knew, began with a great story. In that sense he differed from some producers of today, who think that a stream of four-letter words or a few well-placed explosions make the film. David was very much a man of the Alfred Hitchcock school – style and story, with a well-written script that an audience would love. After all the conversations I had with him, I could not tell you his political views. He never expressed them, and never seemed to think they belonged in his movies. I wish a few others would learn that lesson today. The title of David’s autobiography — Let Me Entertain You — described the man.
He wasn’t always treated well. “This is a business of rejection,” he told me, and said that, despite his status in Hollywood, he was rejected all the time. Hollywood, after all, is not a place where a true gentleman is always appreciated. I saw David on a TV panel once, and another producer disparaged him. David didn’t get angry. He simply replied, “Aw..,” as if to say, “You don’t really want to sound that foolish, do you?” He taught us how to handle an insult, and make the other guy look silly.
Writers loved him because he loved them. There are plenty of producers who will work with a writer, then never take his phone calls again. David would not only take your calls, he’d often pick up the phone himself. He’d also call writers regularly to let them know the progress of their projects. Once you’d worked with David Brown, you didn’t want to work with anyone else. I think he knew that, and rather enjoyed it.
He was an educated man – a graduate of Stanford and Columbia. But he was never his university degrees. He never mentioned them. There is a whole army in Hollywood today that believes that talent comes from taking English 101 at Princeton. David knew where it came from, and knew it had to appear on the written page. And he didn’t care to know what degrees appeared after the writer’s name, or if any appeared at all.
Some people were quoted in the obits as saying that David Brown was the last gentleman producer. That’s ridiculous. There’s no “last.” There will be others. The question is whether Hollywood will know what to do with them. The signs today are not encouraging, but Hollywood hobbles from era to era, crisis to crisis, and there will someday be another David Brown to remind youngsters that three things make a great movie – story, story, and story – and that three things make a great producer – taste, taste, and taste.
I thought last week that, following his name and the dates of his life, the only words that should appear on David Brown’s headstone are “Once upon a time.”
Farewell to a storyteller.

The AP obituary goes into some detail on Brown’s marriage to Helen Gurley Brown, which is also of interest.


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