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Dan Melnick and the Cutthroat Maniacs

I liked them more than the phony-polite, business-school crowd that followed.

Somehow I missed the fact that Dan Melnick passed last month.

Now, I can’t claim to have known him that well — I mean, I was never invited to his poker games with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Johnny Carson. Also, having started his career in TV in the 50s (when I was literally a baby), I can hardly attest to his early work.
However, like kids growing up in the ‘60s I certainly remember some of his shows, notably “Get Smart” (sort of James Bond-meets-Inspector Clouseau), which was recently remade into a feature film. And who could forget his first movie, the extraordinarily violent 1971 “Straw Dogs,” directed by legendary Sam Peckinpah and starring the young Dustin Hoffman? Like “Rosemary’s Baby” before it and “The Shining” after, it may be more famous than seen these days, but it was a landmark.
 
Having made that, he started being noticed by people like me, by then a young film student in New York, when he was recruited, first, to become president of production at MGM and, then head of Columbia Pictures. Later he hit as a producer with such films as “All That Jazz” and “Footloose” (though many credit the inspiration for that film being his producing partners Craig Zadan and Neal Meron, who won an Academy Award for “Dreamgirls.”)
 
Despite his “old school” image — and let’s face it, anyone who started in TV overseeing “77 Sunset Strip” was, by definition, “old school” — it was an image he cultivated. “He was old school,” his son Peter recently said. But he was old-school in more ways than just a producer, as I can attest.
 
I first met Melnick after I was sent here by Newsweek in the early ‘80s.
 
We got to know each other after I did a story on “Footloose.” Now, you have to remember, this was the twilight era for the “old-school producer” and/or studio head like Melnick, Dick Zanuck,David Begelman, Irwin and Frank Yablans, etc. These guys, who came of age after the original moguls like Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers and Dick Zanuck’s father Darryl (who saw themselves as American royalty; at one point in the Great Depression, Louis B. Mayer was the highest-paid exec in the  U.S,. the Bill Gates of his era), were different.
 
Having been born in the Great Depression, Melnick, et al., were raised as scrappers, survivors and were as far from the new, forward-thinking film-school nerds like Lucas, Speilberg, Coppola and Robert Zemekis, who followed them as the WWII generation was from Vietnam.
 
It was, literally, two different worlds — unlike the film school brats, who’d grown up together in the bright, economically vibrant ‘60s and early ‘70s helping each other out, investing in (or starring in!), each other’s films, Melnick came from the generation that, as they like to say, believed in the maxim “It’s not enough that I succeed; you must fail!”
 
These were children of the breadline — and if someone cut into that line ahead of them, they and their family didn’t eat that day. And that meant war.
 
Auteur theory? Zanuck had produced “The Longest Day” for millions (back when they were still “millions”) with four directors — one each for the American, German, British and French sections, which he then cut together to make the final epic. On “Footloose” itself, Melnick replaced legendary director Herb Ross and hired a then-hot music-video guy to reshoot the all-important “tapping feet” title sequence.
Talk about cutthroat: Frank “Mommie Dearest” Yablans himelf once commented, having heard a rival studio head was sick, “Nothing minor, I hope!”
 
These were men had survived not only the Depression but the onslaught of, first, television in the ‘50s, rock ’n ’roll in the ‘60s and the “auteurs” of the ‘70s … and were still standing. They weren’t going to go down without a fight. Ultimately, they would lose,  but that was just time and history — in the ‘80s, for instance, Dick Zanuck still managed to turn out one of the best films about drug addiction, “Rush,” Melnick “Footloose” and David Begelman (who Melnick’d replaced at Columbia) “Mannequin.”
 
That toughness, though, came with a cost — none of them were the nicest people. Zanuck retained his dad’s toughness, Melnick could curse with the worst of them and, of course, Begelman was caught with his fist in the till and committed suicide. But what a crowd they (and many more) were! Call me crazy, but I loved the maniacs like them more than the phony-polite, business-school crowd that followed and gave us such “market-tested” disasters as “Last Acton Hero,” “Waterworld” and “Dick Tracy.”
 
Once I got to know Dan, he proved a true friend — he would always take my call, wherever he was. When he found out that I (like him) suffered a bad back, he messengered me a special, back-massaging office chair. Even when I joined Disney (and was now a competitor), he stayed in touch. I even forgave him “Quicksilver,” the film that nearly sank my friend Kevin Bacon’s career.
 
Later, when I left Disney to join Michael Douglas and Rick Bieber’s Stonebridge Entertainment, I was shocked to discover that Columbia Pictures had assigned us the old Melnick offices (they’d fired him after “Quicksilver.”) When Rick and I were looking over the property one day, he mused whether he should take the corner office or leave it for Michael (who was often away acting in movies.) I urged Rick to take the same seat that Melnick had occupied — heck, it had worked for Dan!
 
Whether it worked for Rick, I can’t say: We made some hits and some misses—but I always knew Rick was sitting in the seat of a two-time studio head, so I felt proud.
 
On the other hand, several years later, as his career wound down, I remember sitting in the steam room of the Sports Club/LA, where old Hollywood met new every morning for a good workout. Through the steam that day, I heard one old producer (I know who it is, by why bother?) discussing the latest adventures of “young Danny Melnick.” Turns out Melnick had been on location in Africa producing “Mountains of the Moon,” when he’d been bitten by a snake. Since no one knew if the snake was poisonous, they helicoptered both the snake and Melnick to Nairobi for tests.
 
In the end, Melnick was fine, but the snake died. “Well, that’s Danny Melnick for you,” opined the producer, probably remembering some long ago slight. “Poor f—ing snake!”
 
Like they said, nice as you may be, it wasn’t enough for you to win, they must die. And that was “young” Danny Melnick—tough enough to kill a snake, yet nice enough to send you a back brace if you were injured.  They just don’t make them like that anymore.