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Robert Radnitz, a ‘Total Producer’ in the Tradition of David O. Selznick

No matter what the occasion, in pitch meetings, dinners or funerals, the white-haired, dashing producer wore only Fila white tennis clothes

I never saw Robert Radnitz in slacks or a suit. 

No matter what the occasion, in pitch meetings at studios and networks, at dinners or funerals, the white-haired, dashing producer ("A Dog of Flanders," "Misty," "My Side of the Mountain," "Sounder") wore only Fila white tennis clothes, a white polo, white shorts and white sneakers.  

If it was chilly in his always dangerous Malibu Pacific Coast Highway cabana, he covered his tennis attire with a white cable sweater. 

Moving seemlessly through features and television, Radnitz, high-strung and always on the edge, enjoyed Southern California and dressed for comfort regardless of where he was headed and what he was doing. 

His license plate for his cigarette cream Mercedes SL roadster was "CALM," a state he rarely enjoyed.

The morning I met him he handed me a screenplay.  Written by a gifted writer I knew well, Dalene Young, "Cross Creek" was an adaptation of the autobiography of Marjorie Kinan Rawlings, the amazing author of the classic novel "The Yearling."

Giving a screenplay he had financed as a theatrical feature to a television agent was a difficult admission that it wasn't happening, and he needed to get it made at a network.  

His sense of urgency (his option was running out) was explosive. 

I couldn't go through the ordinary channels. It felt like CBS. 

I called Bill Self who ran the show. 

I explained to Self that Radnitz had developed this classy biography  that would attract major star and directing power (a plea he had often heard) and that I needed him to personally read it. 

In a decade of pitching to the networks, I never asked a movie boss to personally read anything. It wasn't how the system worked. A fan of Radnitz's features, he agreed.

A few days went by and Radnitz began calling and pushing. 

"What's taking so long? Get him to finish it, call him. Call him every hour." 

I called and Bill said he was "into it."  Each morning Radnitz began the day admonishing me for not getting CBS to order his film. Self amazingly would report back to me "I'm on page 35 …"

It was while awaiting a meeting at ABC that my assistant transferred Bill Self's call to me. 

Can you sit at one network and take a call from another? He had completed reading on his own and said, "It's a nice little movie. I guess I should greenlight it. Why not?" 

I was astonished. I had never pushed Self or any other network chief to a greenlight. I didn't even know it was possible. 

Usually we let the property and its attachments speak for itself. There was also always someone at the network who was pushing upward. We had to believe, when selling, in the merits of the property. I had always believed you couldn't make them order a movie they didn't want.

Returning to Radnitz, I happily made the call. He didn't answer. For two days I called and when he finally returned I blurted excitedly, "Self has agreed to order production!" 

Silence. When he finally spoke, he was underwhelmed, quiet, almost calm.  "Hold off acknowledging. It appears I have renewed interest at Universal. And Marty Ritt wants to direct. You can hold off CBS, can't you?" 

I had no choice. 

For once in my career I would have to avoid the network's calls. A call had already come in from Sid Lyons, CBS business affairs. 

The pressure now was reversed. It was impossible to continue and, after three days, I called Radnitz to tell him we either had to move forward with CBS and stucture a deal or withdraw it.  

"Oh, didn't I tell you?  'Cross Creek' got a greenlight from Universal. 

You can withdraw it from CBS. You did a good job, but this should be a feature, don't you think?" 

Like he really wanted to hear my opinion.

I had never said goodbye to a pickup. I anxiously called Bill Self, not knowing what to expect. "Sounds just like Bob. Working both sides of the street. No problem. Not to worry.  You just spared me 500 Radnitz phone calls." 

The Universal feature, directed by Martin Ritt, starred Mary Steenburgen, Rip Torn and Peter Coyote. It received four Academy Award nominations. 

Radnitz, a "total producer" in the tradition of David O. Selznick, left us this past June at 85 leaving a remarkable body of work.

 

A former senior vice president at William Morris for two decades, Axelman founded the movie for television packaging division, responsible for putting together the elements for more than 150 TV movies, features and series while representing winners of the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize.

Since 2004, he has taught Entertainment Business and Law at UCLA.

He currently has written two half-hour pilots and co-created three reality shows with Diane Raymond.

He is at work on an agency-inspired tell-all novel.