A Writer Who Says Getting His Own Way is the Way to Success

From New York Times, April 1, 1991 by Aljean Harmetz

Hollywood can have Warren Adler’s work at a price. His price.

Los Angeles – March 31 – At age 62, many writers, directors and actors are begging for work. But Warren Adler is being courted by Hollywood.

“Actually, I’ve always thought of myself as a hot commodity,” says Mr. Adler, whose word processor sits near a stylized painting of a huge bull in his Beverly Hills apartment. “I think of myself as a bull. I don’t have sweaty palms when I deal with Hollywood. There is nothing they can do to me.”

Nothing except agree to his terms.

After the 1989 movie made from his novel The War of the Roses sold $85 million worth of tickets, Tri-Star bought his unpublished novel Private Lies for $1.2 million, Warner Brothers paid slightly less for his unpublished novel Cries of Laughter, and Tri Star reactivated his novel Random Hearts, which had been bogged down in the studio swamp for years. Three short stories from a collection called The Sunset Gang about lower middle class Jews who retire to Florida have been turned into television plays that will be broadcast by “American Playhouse” on public television on the next three Fridays. And Private Lies is being published this week by William Morrow & Company.

“They wouldn’t invite any of my guests to the premiere of The War of the Roses,” Mr. Adler says. He is a large man, as unwilling to move out of the way as a defensive lineman. “So, in the Private Lies contract, they pay me to come to the premiere. First class travel for me and my guests. I said: ‘If they don’t agree, the hell with them. We’ll sell it to someone else.'”

Mr. Adler, whose first book was not published until he was 43, says he becomes physically uncomfortable if his fingers stay away from the keyboard for too long. Because his novels “take the same time as a baby, nine months, and I am a compulsive writer,” he fills the rest of the year by writing mysteries in which the homicide detective is a Senator’s daughter. Immaculate Deception was published in February and Senator Love is due in August. Since four books in one year would be a surfeit, even for Warren Adler, his 19th book, Cries of Laughter, is scheduled for 1992.

“I’ve become a specialist in wrecked relations,” says Mr. Adler, who has been married for 40 years. “My turf is the never ending battle of the sexes that goes on to the grave.”

In the film The War of the Roses, a bitter divorce causes the death of one dog, one cat, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. In Random Hearts, a pair of adulterers die in a plane crash. In Private Lies, the game that is bagged on an African safari is Genus Rampant Infidelity. In the gentle “Yiddish” on “American Playhouse,” an elderly man and woman fall in love and must wrestle with the possibility of breaking up their four-decade-long marriages.

His Own Experience

Mr. Adler’s own marriage almost ended in the first year. “It was the Korean War,” Mr. Adler says. “I was the Washington correspondent for the Armed Forces Press Service.”

“He had picked me up on the beach,” says his wife Sunny Adler. “We got married and I went back home to Mother to finish college. We almost got divorced over that.”

Three sons and 40 years later, they say they still fight. “Who else am I going to fight with?” Mr. Adler asks.

“We still think we’re young and beautiful,” Mrs. Adler says.

Which leads back to Hollywood and its peculiar standards. “Most people my age out here are finished,” Mr. Adler says. “They treat older people like junk. They do not respect the mature mind. They’d make a lot more money if they did. The development guys are very young. No one’s over 30. They have absolutely no life experience and they talk in clichés. Their reference points are other movies, and they don’t know what good writing is.”

But Hollywood has taught him some lessons. When he moved from Washington to Los Angeles before The War of the Roses, he formed his own production company, rented offices and hired a staff. “When I started in Washington, I just put out a group shingle,” he says of the Adler Group, which publishes real estate trade magazines, has 120 employees and is now run by his 34 year old son, Jonathan. “But here I was calling people who never called me back. It cost me about $150,000 before I realized this wasn’t the way to do it.”

Says the president of one midsize production company, “His hubris was almost endearing. He came in and said, ‘Nobody can adapt my books better than I can, I’ve got to be the real producer of the film and the bidding starts at a million dollars.'”

And what Hollywood takes away with one hand, it is likely to give back with the other. Warner Brothers spent $100,000 for an option to buy Madeline’s Miracles, a novel about a couple whose lives are taken over by a psychic.

“Last night they didn’t exercise the option,” Mr. Adler says jubilantly. “It’s mine, and I won’t sell it again without my script, I insisted on writing the first script for Private Lies and Cries of Laughter. From now on the scripts don’t belong to me. But at least I’ve set the matrix.”

Warner Brothers bought Cries of Laughter for the producer Joel Silver. The novel, about a Jewish comic, a gangster and the gangster’s moll, takes place in the Catskills in 1937, an era when killers took their wives to the hotels each summer.

Warner Brothers also now owns Private Lies. Tri Star traded the book to Warner in return for “Mary Reilly,” a novel by Valerie Martin. Praised or ridiculed, Mr. Adler sees screenwriting only as a way of protecting his novels. “To me the ecstasy is the work, and the movies are an advertising card for the work,” he says.

He has sunk no roots in Hollywood. He lives in a large renter apartment in a shabby building. The money he earns is spent on the house he is building on 14 acres in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “I’m a ghetto boy from Brownsville,” he says. “But in the last quarter of my life I want wide open spaces.”

The Hollywood types whom Mr. Adler has bumped against call him arrogant and describe him as someone who has a gift for self-promotion. With the hide of a rhinoceros – “I’ve been rejected thousands of times and after every rejection I say, ‘What do they know?'” – Mr. Adler is happy to point out the absurdities of the film industry. “Tri-Star has had Random Hearts for seven years,” he says. “Dustin Hoffman insisted the main character be made a Senator because playing a Congressman’s aid wasn’t good enough. Hollywood always kisses up to the big stars. Then Dustin Hoffman walked away.”

The writer and director James L. Brooks, who produced The War of the Roses, has now taken over Random Hearts.

As to what he can expect from Hollywood besides money, Mr. Adler is philosophical. “They shouldn’t change the title or the ending,” he says. “That’s all you can expect.”