It was a memorable encounter, for peculiar reasons. But no, James Toback didn’t harass me–at least, not sexually.
In 1974, I was working at Paramount Pictures. Paramount had just released The Gambler, a movie I’d found disturbing for a number of reasons. Starring Jimmy Caan in a terrific and nerve-wracking performance, it was about an Ivy League student, Jewish, who became a gambling addict.
These were still the days when Jewish hubris–and almost everyone’s Jewish mother proudly clutched such implausible pride to her bosom–claimed that no Jewish boy could conceivably be (a) an alcoholic; (b) a junkie; (c) gay; and maybe (d) a gambler. (You notice that adultery was left off the list.)
My mother, though, was not of this flawed conviction. Indeed, she’d told me about friends of my parents who had a son, a Harvard boy, who’d become hooked on gambling. The parents had to make the choice between paying their sons huge debts or watching him get his legs broken, or worse.
I’d seen The Gambler in a screening and knew Toback had written the screenplay. The inside scoop was that this story was autobiographical. I did wonder whether Toback was the son of my parents’ friends, but I didn’t pursue it with my father (my mom was dead by that time), or if I did I don’t remember Dad’s answer.
So that was a problem, right there. You mean Jewish boys could be bad boys? (Sure, why not?) And watching a film which feels true, a story in which the protagonist is threatened with bodily harm because of his self-destructive behavior, is not an entertaining experience, not for me anyway.
I was in my office–now in the Trump International Hotel, oh bitter reality–on the 33rd floor of what was then the Gulf + Western Building on one autumn day when the receptionist at our front desk called me in some anxiety.
There was a guy standing in front of her, a James Toback, who was demanding money he said Paramount owed him. Could I come out and deal with him?
I came out to the desk and was confronted by James Toback who was in a state of unattractive agitation, aggressive and unpleasant. Back then, he was in my opinion a good-looking guy–not as good-looking as Jimmy Caan, but not bad.
But his personality was a turn-off, and his story and the pressure he was putting on was ugly.
“Paramount owes me money and I need my check now!!!” That was his demand. He was not claiming that Paramount had stiffed him, no. His claim was that on this very day he was due to receive his final payment for his Gambler screenplay.
I was startled. He was the only above-the-line talent I’d encountered who apparently wasn’t content to get his check through his agent, or in the mailbox. (I did ask him.) And his desperation was seeping out of his skin and surrounding him with a dark, menacing aura.
“I need that money right now! I’m not leaving without it–I’m getting out of the city in a couple of hours and I can’t leave without that check!”
He was with a beautiful woman, a model-type beauty. You know, gorgeous but sort of featureless. Expressionless.
It was a little scary. I wasn’t scared for me but, even as naive as I was in those days, I still had the strong sense he hadn’t stopped gambling and maybe whoever he owed money to was waiting downstairs, in the lobby. With a truncheon, or.
I went to see Norman Flicker, Paramount’s staff attorney, and told him what was going on. Norman came out to talk to Toback and tried to explain things but Toback continued to be fearful and fearsome. Norman said he’d see what he could do.
Blessed Norman did it, somehow. He managed to get the accounting department to cut a check and gave it to Toback. Who did not thank him. Just grabbed the check and left. Not forgetting the model.