October 3, 1915 – Ray Stark:
“A weak film producer was like the president of Poland. The studio, the director, the actors, and the crew are all waiting to march over you. You’ll live a lot longer as a son-of-a-bitch dictator.”
Stark was one of the most powerful producers of the 1970s and 1980s, known for his Machiavellian touch while working for Columbia Pictures. He produced some of the era’s best Hollywood films, both critically and commercially. He was a very hands-on producer, nursing projects through every step of the way: the script process, raising money and hiring and firing personnel.
Anne Bancroft was the first choice to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, a musical based on the early life of Stark’s wife Frances Arnstein‘s famous mother. Yet, somehow, Stark felt drawn to a new performer on the rise in New York City, Barbra Streisand. After a long pre-production, Stark and Jerome Robbins, who was slated to direct, decided that Streisand would be their Fanny Brice.
Stark had commissioned an authorized biography of Brice, based on taped recollections she had dictated, but was unhappy with the result. It eventually cost him $50,000 to stop publication of the book The Fabulous Fanny. Stark asked screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Scarface, Notorious) to write the screenplay for a biopic, but neither Hecht nor any of the ten writers who succeeded him, could come up with a version that satisfied Stark. Isobel Lennart (The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, Please Don’t Eat The Daisies, The Sundowners) submitted My Man, and both Stark and studio brass liked it a lot. They offered her $400,000 plus a percentage of the gross for the property.
After reading the screenplay, Mary Martin contacted Stark and proposed it be adapted for a stage musical. Stark discussed the possibility with producer David Merrick, who thought of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim for the score. Sondheim:
“I don’t want to do the life of Fanny Brice with Mary Martin. She’s not Jewish. You need someone ethnic for the part.”
Martin soon lost interest in the project. Merrick discussed the project with Robbins, who gave the screenplay to Bancroft. She agreed to play Brice if she could handle the score. Merrick suggested Styne collaborate with the great Dorothy Fields, who knew Brice, as lyricist, but she turned Merrick down. Styne composed some songs he thought Bancroft would be able to sing. He met with gay songwriter Bob Merrill, and Merrill agreed to write lyrics. The two talented men completed the score, flew to Los Angeles to play it for Stark, Robbins, and Bancroft, who did not like Merrill because of some earlier slight. She listened to the score and stated:
“I want no part of this. It’s not for me.”
Eydie Gormé was considered but would only play Brice if her husband Steve Lawrence was cast as Nicky Arnstein. Stark and Robbins approached Carol Burnett, who said:
“I’d love to do it but what you need is a Jewish girl.”
Merrick signed Bob Fosse to direct Funny Girl, and work began on it again, until Fosse quit, and the show went into limbo. Then Merrick suggested Stark hire Garson Kanin. It was Merrick’s last contribution to the production; shortly afterward he bowed out, and Stark became sole producer.
Styne remembered Streisand from I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962). She was performing at the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village and Styne urged Robbins to see her. He was impressed and asked her to audition (her last audition ever?). Styne:
“She looked awful. All her clothes were out of thrift shops. I saw Fran Stark staring at her, obvious distaste on her face.”
Despite his wife’s objections, Stark hired Streisand.
Streisand was not enthusiastic about Kanin and insisted she wanted Robbins back, especially after Kanin suggested that People be cut from the score. Streisand already had recorded the song as a single, and Merrill insisted: “It has to be in the show because it’s the greatest thing she’s ever done.” By the time the show opened in Boston, people were so familiar with People they applauded it during the overture.
In those days, a Broadway show would play out of town, usually Boston, Philadelphia and Washington DC, while it was still being fine-tuned and tinkered with. The Broadway opening of Funny Girl was postponed five times while it played extra weeks out of town. Five songs were cut, and You Are Woman, a solo for Sydney Chaplin who played Arnstein was rewritten as a duet. Streisand remained unhappy with Kanin and was pleased when Robbins returned to oversee the choreography by Carol Haney.
After an arduous rehearsal period filled with revisions and rewrites, Funny Girl opened on Broadway in 1964 to good reviews, raves for Streisand, and big box-office success. The production was nominated for eight Tony Awards but, up against Hello, Dolly!, it failed to win in any categories. Still, Stark had a smash hit, and Streisand became a full-fledged star. Streisand and Stark had a stormy relationship from the start.
Stark formed Rastar Productions to finance the film version of Funny Girl. He convinced William Wyler, who had never made a musical, to direct. After a year of difficult negotiations to have Streisand do the film, Stark signed Streisand to a lengthy contract that bound Stark and Streisand together to make four more films together: The Owl And The Pussycat (1970), The Way We Were, (1973), For Pete’s Sake (1974), and Funny Lady (1975). After Funny Lady opened in theatres, Streisand gave Stark an antique mirror, in which she had written in lipstick: “Paid In Full”.
When he began his career, Stark worked as a reporter and publicist. After serving in World War II, he formed an agency for writers; his table included Raymond Chandler, John P. Marquand and Hecht. Moving to Los Angeles, he joined Famous Artists and learned the art of making movie deals. His clients included William Holden, John Wayne, Richard Burton, Kirk Douglas and Marilyn Monroe.
In 1957, Stark formed Seven Arts Productions, which produced John Huston‘s film adaptation of Tennessee Williams‘ The Night Of The Iguana (1964) and Huston’s ode to closet cases, Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967). Stark liked working with Huston as long as the films made money and he produced the boxing drama Fat City (1974) and Huston’s only musical, Annie (1982).
Herbert Ross, who staged the musical numbers for Funny Girl and later directed Funny Lady made seven more films for Stark, including The Goodbye Girl (1977) by Neil Simon, with whom he made 10 more films, ending with Biloxi Blues (1988). One of Stark’s final productions was Steel Magnolias (1989), directed by Ross.
Stark was one of Columbia’s biggest stockholders; he got the production head David Puttnam fired because of the way he was running the studio.
In 1977, actor Cliff Robertson started an investigation which revealed that the Columbia president David Begelman had forged checks using Robertson’s name, Stark told him that if he continued Begelman would commit suicide, as, indeed, he did in 1995. Robertson said he did “…what a citizen should do in this situation“, yet he was still blacklisted for years. It all seemed, at first, like a simple case of embezzlement. It wasn’t. The incident was the tip of the iceberg, the first hint of a scandal that shook Hollywood and rattled Wall Street. Check out David McClintick‘s Indecent Exposure: A True Story Of Hollywood And Wall Street (1982).
When Coca-Cola bought Columbia in 1982, Stark took his Columbia holdings in Coke stock, and, by 1987, his shares were worth $44 million. In 1984, he was worth $175 million, but he had lost his influence at Columbia. He was married to Frances Arnstein for 53 years, until she died in 1992.
Stark produced award winners: Streisand won an Academy Award for playing Fanny Brice. Funny Girl and The Goodbye Girl were nominated for Best Picture Oscars. George Burns won an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys (1975); Richard Dreyfuss won for The Goodbye Girl; and Maggie Smith won for California Suite (1978).
My own favorite Stark productions, besides the Streisand projects, would be The Cheap Detective (1978) a satire of film noir written by Simon and directed by gay director Robert Moore. What a cast! It stars Peter Falk, Madeline Kahn, Louise Fletcher, Ann-Margret, Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Marsha Mason, Sid Caesar, John Houseman, Dom DeLuise, Abe Vigoda, James Coco, Phil Silvers, Fernando Lamas, Nicol Williamson, Scatman Crothers, and Paul Williams. And, its sister production Murder By Death (1976), directed by Robert Moore and written Simon, with much of the same cast, plus Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood and Truman Capote!
Stark and his wife raised thoroughbred horses and owned one of the world’s most impressive art collections; you can see it now at the Getty Museum. Stark died at 88 while counting his money.