My Toronto — and Yours, Nick Lowe’s, Cindy Chvatal’s, Billy Petersen’s, Etc.

Stange bedfellows, pop songs, studio shenanigans and CBS’ $500,000-an-episode man

I’ve never written or even spoken about this before, but some people know the whole story, some know parts and, well, some know pieces and think they know it. But with all the news out of Toronto over the last weeks—as well as other news that dovetailed into it all — well, I figured this was my one and only chance to do it with any relevance.

To begin: 20 years ago this week, I had a picture picked not just for the Toronto Film Festival (the largest and, internationally, at least, the most important in terms of the industry) but selected as the Closing Night Gala Premiere. Sort of like saying you won Sundance or Cannes — in those days Toronto (then called the “Festival of Festivals” because, as the largest festival in the world, it brought together at the start of the Award season, the best of the world’s fests) wasn’t yet the showcase it has become.

That alone would be nice, but interestingly, I read Monday in the New York Times how Columbia Pictures had turned Toronto into its personal “bitch” (sorry for the language) to promote its upcoming line of dramas. Similarly, later in the week, I had to read a Times story about Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello’s old producer, and his new album. I don’t know what it’s called. It was his first album, “Pure Pop for Now People” that changed my life, literally.

Here’s the story: When I got out of school in the ’70s, I had a high-school girlfriend who I had, with some breaks, been going out with throughout college. Unfortunately, she thought that when we graduated we’d get married and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, without getting into details, I had other plans — and they didn’t include (as Sinatra sang) “first comes, love, then marriage, then a baby carriage…”

No, having come from a small orchard community in upstate New York, thanks to college I’d been exposed to a bigger world … and never would I look back. That didn’t mean I didn’t love my high-school girlfriend; it just meant that I wasn’t ready for kids. Whoever really is?

Anyway, we break up, I get a job at Newsweek in New York and, three years later, get a wedding invitation from my old girlfriend to one of my high school friends. Now, since college, I’d moved so many times that, who knows with all the crossed out forwarding addresses, it probably took that invite six weeks to get to me through the mail. Anyway, turns out they were getting married that Saturday — so I told my bosses at Newsweek, ran down to rent a car from Avis in the Newsweek Building at 49th and Madison in Manhattan and start driving upstate.

As in the movie, I didn’t get there in time to stop it, but I did get there in time for a dance. And as I left ti druve back to the city, the last song I heard the band play was that song from Lowe’s “Pure Pop” album, “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll).”

Now, I told that story a lot and one day I told it to the legendary William Morris agent Joan Hyler. She told me it would make a great movie, and knew just who would love it. Her name, Joan told me, was Cindy Chvatal, a young producer from Chicago who was partnered with William L. Petersen (the then-young star of “To Live and Die in L.A.”).  Joan arranged a meeting, I pitched it to Cindy and, well, one thing led to another and not only did we decide to hook up on the project but, well, we hooked up.

(Actually, it wasn’t that simple — my first marriage had just broken up and I wasn’t ready for a new one so I spent a lot of time sleeping on Cindy’s couch … to the point where another actor friend from Chicago, Gary Sinise, now of “CSI: New York,” used to tease her about “that guy sleeping on your couch?”)

Cindy, to her credit, managed to survive with me for three years, through my waning days as an exec at Disney and then as a producer for Michael Douglas’ Stonebridge Entertainment. For whom we finally made the movie.

I was reminded of all this recently not just because it’s the 20th anniversary of producing the closing night gala of the festival, but for some personal reasons. Cindy and I broke up during the production of “Hard Promises,” as the film starring Petersen came to be known. We broke up because, even at that point, I wasn’t yet ready to have children, which she, a former Playboy Bunny, desperately wanted.

Ironically, as we finished the film, I met another woman, a young Canadian ex-model/commercial producer. Making movies together is tough, and I ended up moving on to a relationship with the Canadian girl. Then Columbia told us we’d been picked as the closing night gala at Toronto.

In those days, of course, film festivals played less of a role in marketing a movie, so we didn’t have much backing from Columbia. They wouldn’t fly Cindy or Billy up, so I was the sole Columbia rep there. I had to do all the press; as well as introduce the film on the final nite before the big gala dinner.

That wasn’t so bad, but it turns out that was also the month that I found out that my ex-Canadian girlfriend back in L.A. was pregnant. Unlike Cindy, she didn’t ask — it just happened. (Ironically, her brother also turned out to be the art director of the Festival, so I’ve got a lot of posters reminding me of all this.) Suffice it to say that, after three years and two movies (we had another project together), Cindy was pissed—and actually hasn’t talked civilly to me since.

Still, she stuck by her older boyfriend, Petersen, until she got him the lead in Jerry Bruckheimer’s first big TV franchise, “CSI.” The rest, as they say, is history — the last time I saw her, Cindy still wasn’t talking to me, but had a couple of munchkins in tow (she’d apparently married a film editor), Billy, who I’d believed in enough to give him the best story of my life, went on to become the highest-paid actor in television, earning a reported $500,000 per week for his final seasons on “CSI.”

Of which Cindy gets her substantial cut, along with a producer fee — as my wife likes to remind me, if I’d wanted to be rich, I’d just have stuck with her. But that’s not me — and I didn’t work out with the Canadian, either, though I did get two beautiful young boys out of the marriage before it cratered, one of whom went back last year to play football for the University of Toronto … exactly two decades after he was conceived.

The month of the Toronto Film Festival.

Twenty years ago.