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The Planting of Dan Melnick and the Death of Hollywood Cool

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I woke up this morning enchanted by the first rain in Los Angeles in more than three months, and lay awake for a while to savor the sound of it.

Then I went to the computer and found out my old friend, the truly larger-than-life producer Danny Melnick, had died suddenly. What a flood of memories swept down with the rain ...

However you pictured Hollywood Cool, from the '60s through the '90s, Dan Melnick embodied the fantasy. Incredibly gifted -- CBS producer at 20, nurturer of Sam Peckinpah and Roman Polanski, head of MGM at 39, producer of All That Jazz, Straw Dogs, Altered States and the creative impetus behind Get Smart, the list goes on an on. He was also stylish, politically bold, dryly (and, on occasion, cruelly) hilarious, a patron of the arts and a provocateur in conversation.

We made a movie together -- Air America, which filmed mostly in Thailand -- and though at the time I considered myself fairly hip; in his company I felt like the Utica, New York yokel I am. Shortly after we started work in Bangkok, we were shocked awake at 3 AM by a powerful rolling earthquake. Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr., Melnick and myself all ran into the the hotel corridor outside our rooms, watching in horror as the whole building tilted and the nearby elevator slammed again and again into the walls of its shaftway. I looked at Melnick and saw he was actually laughing to himself.

"I'm just picturing the headlines," he said. "MEL GIBSON, ROBERT DOWNEY DEAD IN EARTHQUAKE -- and then, in tiny letters -- PRODUCER, WRITER ALSO THOUGHT MISSING."

That's pretty good for an in-the-earthquake riff.

As I said, he was also famously cutting. We'd been assigned, as production liaisons in Malaysia, a desperately ambitious father-son team of expatriate Americans who dreamed of becoming Dan Melnicks themselves. They just did everything wrong, which for Melnick was hard to forgive. After one spectacular mistake they tried to apologize by having iced caviar flown in from Iran and left in front of his suite -- but they neglected to factor in the Malaysian heat, and when Melnick arrived home after a day of scouting locations, the would-be happy surprise had melted into a tarry, icy, black-and-lemon morass inside a silver bowl on his doorstep. Horrified, the elder producer wanna-be said: "I know we've made a lot of mistakes, Mister Melnick; please give us one suggestion so that we can improve." After a half-second beat, Danny said: "I suggest you get out of the business."

I was not spared his barbs. At one point, when I'd signed a directing deal with Tri-Star, I asked Danny to produce for me; he surprised me by hesitating. "Don't you think I can do it?" I asked, hurt. "Oh, I know you can direct the picture," he said; then, referring to my recently-diagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder, "I just don't know if you can actually find the locations."

But he was also a spiritual person, whose devotion to friends, art and social causes often took surprising turns. He'd been in business with the video executive Jose Menendez shortly before Menendez was murdered by his sons Lyle and Eric, and we were working at his office when he got word about the funeral arrangements. "I've got to go to that planting," he said, and though at first I thought it was a strange turn of phrase, later on it struck me as an uplifting -- even lovely -- way to refer to a funeral.

Hollywood is a different place now, run largely by MBAs, and the whims and excesses of the old days are mostly taboo. Maybe it's better; maybe it's worse. But few are the producers or studio executives -- diligent, sober, obsessed solely with the bottom-line -- who will ever leave a creative legacy like Daniel Melnick ... who actually had fun doing it.

So I'm choosing to picture Dan's funeral as a planting. We even have the rain for it, after so many weeks of dry, sterile heat.