Anita Busch Remembers Tom Pollock: Smartest Guy In The Movie Business

Anita Busch
·12 min read

Editor’s note: When he ran Universal Pictures and after he left to partner with Ivan Reitman in Montecito, Tom Pollock was a favorite call for journalists. He was not only a humorous truth teller with a spine, but one of those rare people who left us walking away from a call always feeling smarter for it. Deadline’s former film editor Anita Busch remembers those experiences and what Pollock, who died Saturday, meant to her and those who worked for him.

It’s an odd feeling when you read obituaries printed about a man, and none of them actually captures the true nature of who that dynamic person was. So was the case with former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock, who I came to know as a journalist covering the business for 30 years.

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I honestly don’t remember what story we first met over, but I knew pretty quickly that this guy was one of the most learned men I had ever met. I would later come to realize that he was the smartest guy in the movie business that I had ever come across. And that is true three decades later. Tom was a highly intelligent man, a former lawyer, and he would let me know if my story was not up to his expectations and how it could have been better. He pushed me – and really everyone around him – towards excellence. I learned that with every phone call he made analyzing my work.

He was kind to me but could be fierce, but all in the pursuit of excellence. The phone would ring and I would hear, “I have Tom Pollock for you.” Oh, great. What is it this time? Then would come Tom in his matter-of-fact, straight-forward: “Well, as you already know, Anita, (I usually didn’t), the international box office of this picture will brunt the domestic losses by (insert whatever percentage here) and then you must take into account the ancillaries, and the international markets are becoming more and more important than domestic so you need to think about …” and my lesson would go on from there. The fact was, I knew I needed to learn more and also realized that it would be futile to object because … well, because he was an adept lawyer and knew his way around every word.

Tom was also head of Universal when Kevin Costner’s Waterworld spiraled out of control. I and another reporter were yelled at a number of times over that story which was entirely accurate. He was fuming, and then he wasn’t, and then he was as it became the turning point for ending the studio’s big-budget gamble plays.

He loved every single, little bit of information that he could get, too. Sorry, but he loved to gossip. And that usually was his ammunition for a sly joke, his dry wit … but wit, nevertheless. I also noticed the dynamic between him and his underlings. To many in town, he was their mentor.

This is a man who was finely suited for a studio chairman’s job. He loved pretty much everything about the industry, and he loved the movies. I mean, with a passion, loved film, and every aspect from creation to the deals, to production to marketing to distribution … and he stood behind some of the most controversial with relish, whether it be Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Last Temptation of Christ hit a nerve across America with Christians (even before they saw the movie) as they tried to shut down about 250 movie theaters and protesters took to the street in every city, calling for a boycott of the film. The calls into the Universal Pictures’ switchboard were fast and furious, clogging up the lines. Zealots planted crosses on the Lankershim lawn prior to the film’s release. There were even death threats.

“Every one of us were assigned around-the-clock security,” said producer Sean Daniel who was Pollock’s president of production at the time. “Tom and I took a lot of heat inside the studio for putting Universal’s money into Last Temptation. There was the morning that I was watching the local 7:25 a.m. news and I saw the broadcast from Lew Wasserman’s driveway of the guy dressed as Jesus pouring blood over himself. I called Tom and said, ‘I think we’re in for rough day at the office.’ Tom said, ‘I’ll see you there.’ And it didn’t get any better that day, when 10,000 Christian protesters circled the studio and shut down access to the entire place. To say Lew Wasserman was furious at us was an understatement, most of all because the tour was shut down that day.”

The day before the movie was released, Pollock and Scorsese went on ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel which was a top ratings getter at the time. The next day, Pollock decided to defy the odds and parade into a theater.

“It was the opening day of The Last Temptation of Christ, and we had all been under a great deal of stress from weeks of protests and death threats,” remembers Perry Katz, who was Pollocks’ head of research at Universal at the time. “The picture was platforming at the Cineplex theater in Century City, where CAA now stands. I got a call from Tom who suggested that after all the hoopla, we should go to this first public screening. Now, understand people were threatening to bomb the theater and my mother didn’t raise no hero, just a studio executive. So, my response to Tom was for us to stay safely in our office and see what happened. Tom, however, had other ideas. He insisted I meet him downstairs where we would take the car to the theater.”

So they traveled from Universal to Century City and arrived at the theater. “When we got to the theater we saw two distinct lines of people. One line (the ticket line) was filled with supporters of free speech. The second line (the picket line) was filled with religious zealots and people who wanted to burn the movie, the theater and us in it! Unfortunately, the driver let us off in the wrong line (the pickets, not the tickets),” said Katz. They made it through the crowd and into the theater. And when the Universal logo came up, the theater erupted into a standing ovation. It was a proud moment for Tom.

A year after Temptation was released, Daniel remembers, they were in trouble again with Do the Right Thing. Daniel had a relationship with Spike Lee after he reached out to him after seeing the filmmaker’s She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. So when he received the script for Do the Right Thing and gave it to Pollock, “Tom didn’t blink,” said Daniel. “He said, ‘Let’s do this.’ Just as he did in match-step with Larry and Chuck Gordon’s Field of Dreams which became a critical and box office hit. Both movies became generational movies.

When presented with Fields of Dreams, however, the then-MCA studio patriarch Wasserman was more than a little bit concerned. Early in Pollock’s tenure as Universal chairman, Wasserman gathered Pollock, president/COO Sid Sheinberg and Daniel into a production review meeting in his private dining room at the Universal commissary.

Wasserman pointedly screamed across the table at them: “You’re telling me you’re going to rebuild my studio’s film rentals with a movie about baseball-playing ghosts coming out of a cornfield?!”

“Pollock and I were walking back from that meeting, and he turned to me and said, ‘Well … this might have some bumpy moments,’ Daniel said. We laughed. “I mean, how could you not laugh? There were a lot of laughs with Tom.” (Another one: In the iconic Twelve Monkeys, Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis had been cast. In a booming voice, Pollock said to his production exec: “Get Brad Pitt’s shirt off for the movie! Talk to him. He’s People magazine’s Sexiest Man in the World, you know!”)

After Pollock saw Robert Downey, Jr.’s screen test as Charlie Chaplin in hat and cane for Richard Attenborough’s movie of the same name, he sighed heavily and said: “Now we’ll have to let Attenborough cast him. He’s brilliant. We’ll be pay-or-play by the end of the week … and he doesn’t sell a single f*cking ticket!”

Oh, how times have changed.

Daniel and he also hit heads at times because, as everyone knows, Pollock had a characteristic stubborn streak. “We argued fiercely over Dazed and Confused. It was probably our biggest disagreement over the course of many years.” But, the movie was made (produced by Daniel, Jim Jacks and a young Richard Linklater). It was only given a regional release because Pollock would not spend the money on a national rollout, which turned out to be short-sighted as Dazed and Confused went on to become a classic.

Many in the studio during his regime remember how Pollock hired and promoted women. He was a big champion for women, and became true mentor and friend of Nikki Rocco, the first female head of distribution at a studio. Like he did with me, he also was the force pushing her to succeed, to jump higher. He challenged her to excellence.

“He had everything to do with me climbing that corporate ladder and breaking that glass ceiling,” said Rocco, who started only a few months before the turmoil hit the studio with a change of ownership with Seagram’s Bronfman family. “He not only mentored me, but became a friend and confidante. Everything about my executive experience was so much more meaningful because of my relationship with this unique, brilliant and passionate man. He gave me the strength to find my place as a woman. Ron Meyer (who then was installed as chairman under Edgar Bronfman, Jr.) then continued that for me.” She added after a thought, “You know Tom had such a heart of gold. He would always be there for you. Always.” He also would, at times, marvel at Rocco’s street smarts, saying, “How did that happen?”

Barry Isaacson, who worked for Pollock for 12 years and became a studio production exec at Universal, said it best on his Facebook post: “You don’t get to be a mogul like Tom became without a mind like a steel trap, a hide like a rhinoceros and a ruthless streak a mile wide but it was the combination of those things with dazzling wit uncommon to the breed and insatiable appetite for stimulating company that made him so charismatic … Tom as Chairman of Universal Pictures was the monarch of all he surveyed (which included production, marketing, distribution, the whole enchilada).”

When I told him the impact he had on me, he paused and said, ‘I just had no idea.’ I added, ‘I wasn’t the only one, Tom. For many, many people.’

Even studio executives at other studios knew what a fighter for talent he in his time as one of the town’s top lawyers. “He was a warrior when it came to supporting his creative talent clients,” said Rob Friedman, who was at Warner Bros at the time. “Structuring cutting-edge deals to allow them to create and complete their artistic visions. But he was also a big supporter of the executive ranks. People that work behind the scenes to be able to bring these creative works to the public.” And Friedman even sought out his advice on career. A rabbi to many.

I know not everyone was a fan, but I can tell you that everyone wanted the respect of Tom Pollock, the smartest guy in the room.

I remember when he called me after the series of stories I did on Sony Pictures with the changing of the guard that involved a possible William Morris agent/exec, Arnold Rifkin, taking the helm, only to then end up with John Calley as chairman. The phone rang. “I have Tom Pollock for you.” I expected the usual critique of my work. “Anita.” “Hi, Tom.” “That was the best reporting I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. I was dumbstruck. “You are now better than Claudia.” He held film reporter Claudia Eller in the highest regard, as did I.

I thanked him and got off the phone and smiled. Honestly, I felt a kind of relief come over me for the first time since I became a reporter in Hollywood. Finally. I had reached my potential. I didn’t know it until I got that validation from Tom Pollock. I was able to tell him this at our last lunch together. When I told him the impact he had on me, he paused and said, “I just had no idea.” I added, “I wasn’t the only one, Tom. For many, many people.” And we held that nostalgic moment together in silence, neither of us looking up from our plates.

When I read the sad news about Pollock’s passing at the age of 77 and I read the obits which did not capture the personality or depth of the man, I half expected that phone call. I could hear him in my mind’s eye say, “So, Anita. What are you going to do about it?” So, this is for you, Tom.

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