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Power Smokers of Hollywood

David Shaw
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

It happened more than 25 years ago, but Jerry Weintraub--like many men--still vividly recalls his first cigar.

Weintraub is an entertainment mogul: a movie producer (The Karate Kid), a personal manager (Dorothy Hamill), a political fund-raiser (for former president George Bush), even an occasional actor (The Firm), but he started as an agent and then a concert promoter. In the late 1960s, he was negotiating to promote the Biggest Star of Them All: Elvis Presley.

"I went to Vegas to meet with Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker. We talked at what was then called the Hilton International [Hotel] . . . at the roulette wheel," Weintraub recalls with a chuckle. "When we finally made our deal--a very big deal--Colonel Parker reached in his pocket, pulled out a cigar and stuck it in my mouth."

Parker was almost 60 then, Weintraub not yet 30, and as Weintraub waited for a light, Parker said, 'Son, if you're going to be a big promoter and a big producer, you have to learn to smoke cigars.' "

What kind of cigar did Colonel Parker give him?

Weintraub laughs.

"It wasn't a good one."

No surprise. The colonel was notoriously tightfisted legendary for such pre-Presley ploys as painting sparrows yellow and selling them as canaries (or selling footlong hot dogs that stuck out at each end of the bun, but had no meat in the middle). But Weintraub took Parker's advice and became a cigar smoker anyway.

Now Weintraub can afford good cigars on his own, and he smokes eight or 10 a day--Cohiba, Punch, Montecristo ("the No. 1 or 2 unless I'm playing golf, then it's the No. 3 'cause it's shorter. After lunch or dinner, I like a robusto or a Churchill.")

Weintraub has four homes--in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Palm Springs, all in California, and Kennebunkport, Maine (not coincidentally, George Bush's vacation home), and he keeps a humidor in every one.

"I think cigars are wonderful," he says. "I think they're a way of life. I love the taste and the feel of a good Cuban cigar; I love having one in my hand."

The image of the movie mogul with a cigar in hand has long been a staple--indeed a stereotype--in Hollywood. Jack Warner. Darryl Zanuck. Harry Cohn. Sam Arkoff. Carl Laemmle. Ernst Lubitsch. They all smoked cigars, brandishing them as symbols of success and power. In the motion-picture business, as elsewhere, smoking a good cigar was often an unmistakable way to say to the world, "I've made it."

In the 1990s in Hollywood, a time and place when cities like Los Angeles are passing laws that ban smoking (and making cigar smokers in particular feel as if they're just a half step above child molesters on the social ladder), cigars are making a comeback in the corridors of power. When Weintraub passes the humidor--in his office or after a dinner party at home--there are lots of takers. And he and his guests are far from alone.

In fact, 20 or 30 movie folk are generally among the more than 150 cigar smokers who crowd Arnold Schwarzenegger's Schatzi restaurant in Venice the first Monday night of every month for dinner, cigars and Cognac. Schwarzenegger himself is a cigar smoker, as are many other big-name Hollywood actors--Sylvester Stallone, Don Johnson, Bruce Willis, Bill Cosby, Dan Aykroyd, James Coburn, James Belushi --not to mention the panatella princes of the geriatric set, Milton Berle, 85, and George Burns, 98. (Hillcrest Country Club, where Burns is a longtime member, posted a sign prohibiting cigar smoking last November, then changed it a day later, after Burns protested. The new sign reads: Cigar Smoking Prohibited for Anyone Under 95.) "Entertainment Tonight" even did a segment on "Stars and Their Cigars" last year.

But it's with the directors, producers, agents, lawyers and studio executives--the behind-the-scenes, behind-the-camera movers and shakers of Hollywood--that cigars are making their biggest comeback.

Some of these men are reluctant to talk about cigar smoking at all, apparently figuring that the very sight of a cigar engenders such animosity that they don't want to call attention to themselves as members of what one director calls the brotherhood of the stogie. Sid Sheinberg, president of MCA Universal, referred calls about his cigar smoking to the MCA public-relations office, where a spokeswoman said he wouldn't be available to speak to Cigar Aficionado. A spokesman for director Martin Brest (Scent of a Woman, Midnight Run, Beverly Hills Cop) said flatly, "He wouldn't be comfortable talking about this."

Others in Hollywood, equally image-conscious, insist that cigars aren't really elite symbols of success and power after all; cigars are actually "more democratic than plutocratic," one agent insists. But such plutocrats as Sheinberg and Mike Medavoy, former chairman of TriStar Pictures, are cigar smokers, as are superstar directors Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation), Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, Valmont, Hair) and Sydney Pollack (The Way We Were, Tootsie, Out of Africa) and a number of agents at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and International Creative Management (ICM), the twin goliaths of the movie business.

Lou Pitt, Schwarzenegger's agent at ICM, has been smoking cigars for 15 years, but he concedes that "the quality of my tobacco has improved dramatically" since he hooked up with Schwarzenegger. He used to smoke Dunhills, Royal Jamaicans and Pleiades; now it's Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo.

Fred Specktor, a CAA agent whose clients include Robert De Niro, Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci, says Medavoy got him started as a serious cigar smoker about five years ago when they traveled to London with their wives, and a maître d' came around with a humidor after dinner in a restaurant. Medavoy encouraged him to try one, and "I liked it; I started bumming cigars from Mike, then I started buying them myself."

Specktor's CAA colleague, Robert Bookman--"Bookie" to his intimates--was also turned on to cigars by a professional acquaintance, an attorney named Arnold Burke.

"We had lunch one day in 1976 at Musso & Frank (a Hollywood landmark), and when Arnold lit up a cigar afterward, I made a pejorative comment about his nasty habits," Bookman recalls. "He asked if I'd ever smoked a cigar. I said no. He suggested I reserve my judgment until I tried one, and he insisted we make another lunch date right then. He said he wanted to go to a restaurant near the old Dunhill store in Beverly Hills, where he kept his cigars in a locker. He said he'd take me there after lunch and introduce me to my first cigar.

"He did--and I've been hooked ever since."

Like all the other movie machers interviewed for this story, Bookman smokes Cuban cigars--Punch, Montecristo No. 3, occasionally a Cohiba Exquisito on the way back to his office from lunch. ("It's the perfect size for a short walk.") On his birthday every year, Bookman enjoys a Romeo y Julieta Fabuloso.

Like virtually all cigar smokers everywhere, Bookman has problems finding a place to smoke in peace. He often goes to Le Dome restaurant in West Hollywood, where, if anyone complains, the owner, Eddie Kerkhofs, asks the complainer--not the smoker--to move. Or leave.

Bookman also smokes at home. "My wife has been remarkably understanding," he says. Andrew Bergman, the director of Honeymoon in Vegas, The Freshman and the forthcoming Cop Tips Waitress $2 Million, is similarly blessed. "My wife likes cigars," he says. "Her father was a cigar smoker."

Bergman, who began smoking Robert Burns Tiparillos as a 20-year-old college student in the early 1960s because "I saw my history teacher do it, and President Kennedy did it," had his favorite cigar-smoking experience in an airplane, of all places.

He and his producer/partner Mike Lobell were on an Alitalia flight to Venice about a dozen years ago, and they'd just had a "wonderful dinner and great espresso. It was like no airline meal I've ever had, before or since. It was so perfect, it just cried out for a cigar, so we asked the stewardess if there was any possible chance we could light one up. She said, "But of course." It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A real epiphany. And no one complained."

Now, Bergman says, not only can't he smoke on airplanes, he doesn't even try to smoke in restaurants anymore. "I can't deal with the hatred," he says. "I don't think the response would be as negative if you started vomiting in the restaurant."

When he was shooting The Freshman, Bergman says, he, Lobell and Ken Adam, the production designer, smoked so many cigars that they had to have a separate trailer. "No one else would stay in the same van with us. We had to communicate with everyone else by phone, van to van."

But when he's actually on the set, he has no such problems.

"I'm the boss," he says. "Nobody bitches."

John Milius and Ron Shelton take a similarly imperious view of their directorial imperatives.

"I started smoking cigars when I was 13," says Shelton (director of Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump and Blaze). "Other kids snuck behind the woodshed to smoke cigarettes; for some reason, I smoked cigars. In retrospect, they were pretty awful. But I've come to appreciate and smoke good cigars--my favorite is the Montecristo No. 2--and any time a day goes by that I haven't smoked a cigar, I feel like something's missing."

Shelton usually smokes one a day, after lunch or dinner, unless he's writing or directing; then it's more. And if someone on the set complains?

"I've learned not to work with them. There are few ground rules for working with me; one of them is that I'm going to smoke cigars."

What are the others?

"That's about it." He pauses. "No, there are two rules. If you complain about my cigars, I'll never work with you again; if you lie to me about anything, I'll kill you."

Once, Shelton says, he lit up on the set, and an actor with a small part complained. Shelton returned to his trailer and wrote the actor out of the scene. End of complaint. End of job.

"I'm respectful of others in situations where I feel it's not my privilege to dictate the environment," Shelton says. "I'll only smoke in a restaurant where I know it's accepted and enjoyed. But on the set, well--it's my set."

Milius, the director of Conan the Barbarian and The Wind and the Lion and the author of screenplays for Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and the recently released Geronimo, says anyone who complains about his cigars on the set can "get another job."

"On my movies, everyone is told beforehand, 'this will be a smoking set,' " Milius says.

Milius smokes about six cigars a day and says he rarely hears complaints--except from "the bunch of Disney pukes" who rent some of the space at the Sony Studios where he has his office.

"I don't have any real serious problems, though," he says. "Everyone accepts that I'm a barbarian and a slob."

Everyone but his wife.

"My wife forbids smoking at home," he says. "She's too mean to take on, so I do it on the porch, with my dog."

Milius, who says he introduced Schwarzenegger to cigars on the set of Conan the Barbarian, was introduced ("actually reintroduced") to cigars himself by John Huston on the set of The Wind and the Lion.

"I started smoking the first time back around 1960 or '61, when I was a 17-year-old lifeguard," he says. "It just seemed like a neat thing to do after surfing. We all sat around in filthy beach robes and drank apple juice out of cheap glasses and smoked cigars."

But Milius developed asthma in his early 20s and quit smoking. Until he met Huston.

"My asthma was better so I thought I'd like to try again. I asked him what cigar would be good for me, and he looked me up and down and thought a few minutes and said, 'I think the kid should start with a Montecristo No. 4.' "

Milius now prefers the No. 1, and he keeps 15 or 20 boxes of them at home. "If I get below 10 boxes, I get nervous."

Sitting on a camel-colored sofa in his office late on a winter afternoon, running one hand through his dark beard, Milius gestures with his other hand toward the 16 boxes of Cuban cigars piled high on a table in front of him. "You picked the right day to talk to me," he says, puffing on one of the Montecristos. "My stash just arrived. I have a lot of cigars at home, but this makes me feel more secure."

Milius likes having a lot of cigars around because, like many cigar aficionados, he enjoys giving them to friends. "I'm a cigar lord," he says proudly. On the second Wednesday of every month, he is host to a cigar-smokers' dinner at the Pacific Dining Car, a steakhouse in Santa Monica. "It's the brotherhood of the stogie," he says, "and I'm the grand poo-bah. Sometimes I wear a Viking helmet to the dinner."

In Los Angeles, as elsewhere, a number of restaurants have recently started special cigar dinners, but many of the movie folk have their own--either regularly scheduled events, like Schwarzenegger's at Schatzi and Milius' at Pacific Dining Car, or impromptu gatherings, like the one Hutch Parker, vice president of HBO, periodically attends at Le Dome.

Parker also takes considerable pleasure in giving cigars to friends--and, again, like most cigar smokers, he seems to like talking about his first cigar almost as much as some men like to talk about their first sexual experience.

For many young men--especially in Southern California--that first sexual experience often takes place in a car. In Parker's case, the "first time" with cigars also involved a car. Two cars, actually.

Parker and his brother Parker Stevenson, the actor, took a class in race-car driving. It was exciting and exhilarating and liberating and "we were feeling very macho and studly afterward," Parker says. "Out came these cigars, as a natural extension of that feeling."

But Parker is as sentimental as he is studly. David Ladd, senior vice president at MGM and brother of Alan Ladd Jr., former president of MGM, introduced Parker to his wife three years ago, and since then, every time they see each other--no matter where or under what circumstances--Parker gives him a Cuban cigar.

"It seems only fair," Parker says, "and if I forget, David reminds me."

Fred Westheimer, an agent at William Morris, often joins Parker and Ladd for the Le Dome dinners. Westheimer, who represents Candice Bergen, John Hurt, Jacqueline Bisset and Paula Abdul, remembers falling in love with the smell of cigars when he was seven or eight years old, watching his dad smoke.

Once he got to college, Westheimer began smoking cigars. Still close to his father, he recently borrowed a book from his library and read it before going to sleep one night. "That night I dreamed of walking through tobacco fields," he says. "I didn't know until I told him about the dream later that he'd often read that book while smoking a cigar."

Westheimer isn't sure whether the aroma of all those cigars had subtly permeated the pages or if the influence--the connection--was purely subliminal, almost mystical.

But Westheimer, like Milius, can't smoke at home.

"My wife does not like cigars at all. I'm banned from smoking them in the house."

Fortunately for Westheimer, Raul Julia is a client; the two often smoke together at Julia's house. "His wife not only lets him smoke in the house," Westheimer says, in tones of awe, "she lets him smoke in bed.

"I always say I should have married his wife."

But as producer Larry Thompson says, "if you smoke cigars, you have to make certain difficult decisions in life."

Thompson, who produced Broken Promises, The Woman He Loved and the television movie "Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter," was in Europe last fall on a fund-raising expedition for The Prophet, a movie about Kahlil Gibran. One night, in the main casino in Monaco, Thompson spotted an attractive woman--a tall, slender brunette, just his type. He introduced himself and in the course of several, very pleasant hours together, he lit a cigar--whereupon she said, "You know, some people don't like the smell of a cigar."

"I know," Thompson replied.

"I guess you don't care," the woman said.

"It's not that I don't care," Thompson said, "but people either like you for who you are or they don't."

What did she say to that?

He laughs triumphantly.

"I guess she didn't mind. We both had cigars, together . . . after breakfast the next morning."

David Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic for the Los Angeles Times.

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