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Lights! Camera! Cigars!

Actor Michael Lerner makes certain that in his many character roles, a cigar is often at hand.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 2)

The rest of Hollywood caught up with Lerner in 1991, when he appeared in Barton Fink. The character he plays--a hot-headed, boisterous, bullying, larger-than-life studio mogul in 1930s Hollywood--was based largely on legendary studio boss Louis B. Mayer. "They said the character was a Michael Lerner type but they didn't have me come in until the last minute," Lerner recounts, pointing out that the Coens originally considered casting an actual studio executive. "I came in and fucking blew them away. I auditioned in character, talking a mile a minute. Joel and Ethan Coen were on the ground, laughing and crying in hysterics, and I just walked out of there. I came in, I did the first big speech, and I walked out."

Fink transformed Lerner into a recognizable actor and led to better roles and perks. "Fuck the flowers and boxes of candy," he has told at least one producer who might be apt to give him a gift after he signs on to or completes a film. "Get me Cuban cigars."

Being a well-known cigar smoker who relaxes with his Cubans during a film shoot can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, directors like to share their Cubans with him; on the other, his Havana habit makes him a target for unscrupulous dealers of contraband cigars. "I once got a box of Montecristo No. 2s where the box was slightly thicker than it should have been. By the second cigar, I knew that these were not the real thing. Then this cocksucker in the San Fernando Valley--he has a cigar shop that I turned James Coburn on to--he told me that he had Cuban cigars and he sold them to me. Then it turned out that his father was rolling imitation Montecristo No. 2s. I was suspicious because the box was never sealed."

Lerner tries to stick to the real thing during his weekly poker game, hosted by an agent named Norby Walters and frequented by such celebrities as Charles Bronson, Richard Dreyfuss, Jason Alexander, Ed Asner, Milton Berle and Richard Lewis. "Norby doesn't let us smoke in the house, so we have to go on the patio," says Lerner. "Milton Berle, who's 90, is sharp as a tack. He's always carrying these huge cigars and offering them to you. He says, 'From Fidel.' You're going, 'Yeah, right, Milton.' Like he's going to be giving those out. He smokes cigars that have no labels on them that he says are from Fidel. Maybe the ones he's smoking are; the ones he gives out aren't. I don't know what they are. They're all right, but they aren't Cuban cigars."

Considering that Lerner is a New Yorker and a book lover at heart--he has a very valuable collection of rare books--you would expect him to loathe L.A. You'd expect him to automatically deride the stereotypically shallow, fake, pop-cultured sensibilities that New Yorkers of an intellectual bent are always bitching about whenever Tinseltown comes up in conversation. You would be wrong.

Sitting in the comfortably cluttered living room of his small Hollywood Hills home, Lerner sounds as if he's cheating on a wife named New York. "I shouldn't like L.A., huh?" he asks. "But I like L.A. a lot. I like the open space. I like driving in my car. I like that I live a block from Sunset Boulevard. There is a city life that is getting better and better. And there is a very important cultural life in L.A. that people don't know about."

He ticks off a number of cultural institutions, including the Huntington Library, home of a Gutenberg Bible, Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," a Shake-speare first folio, the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales and Audubon's Birds of America, among other works.

Sitting in his living room, his shirt open, a view of downtown L.A. unfolding in front of him, Lerner expounds on the glories of his adopted home. "You go down to Orange County with this preconception that it is boring and right-wing. But then you go to book row in Quentin Tarantino territory and there are great used-book stores. You drive east on Olympic Boulevard and all of a sudden you are in Korea. Drive along the freeway and you are in Vietnam. Go to Monterey Park and you can have the best Chinese food." This sinks in for a moment before he booms out what to a New York foody would be the equivalent of cursing Vatican City: "Fuck Chinatown."

Lerner then disappears into a small library that is wall-to-wall books. He returns with an armload of oversized volumes that are centuries old. They are beautifully bound, musty smelling (Lerner inhales a page's scent as if it is the whiff of a Montecristo), loaded with gorgeously rendered illustrations of birds. Lerner's voice softens and the historian in him comes out as he explains the fine points of the binding and the paper that publishing's early craftsmen employed.

He turns the pages slowly and carefully, soaking in their contents as if the images are perishable. "The books relax me," he says, seeming to decompress as he speaks about their histories. "I am a big reader. I always have been. But I must tell you that these books are not easy to read. Much of the text is in old English. I dabble in the books. But the plates are what excite me. They relax me, calm me, cool me out. Also, book collecting gives me an interest and it's a very good investment. Plus it gets me away from the craziness."

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