Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who But David Brown?

My perception of David Brown was his reality—he knew everybody. He knew people no one living is supposed to know.

When I mentioned using Irving Berlin songs for a musical about him, David said, “Ray, I speak to Irving on the phone every day. He won’t go for it.” When I mentioned I was writing a script about ballplayer-genius-spy Moe Berg, David said, “When Ernie Lehman [Oscar-nominated screenwriter] and I were cub reporters, we interviewed Moe at the Red Sox training camp in Sarasota.” And he unearthed a faded newspaper clipping from the ‘30s for me.

I’ve been introduced to some illustrious people by other illustrious people, but who but David Brown would take me by the arm and walk me across a ballroom to introduce me to Steven Spielberg? And introduce me in a way that Spielberg would remember me the next time our paths crossed? And take as much pleasure as I to learn that Spielberg knew and praised my two chief documentaries.

David was, in a word, gracious. When he heard I’d written my first screenplay, he called to ask, “Why haven’t I seen it, Ray?” When I answered, slightly embarrassed and on the defensive, “David, it’s not for you,” he said, “Ray, we’re friends. Let me be the judge of that.” He called within days of receiving it to agree with me—it wasn’t for him—but to say, “I want to see everything you write.” That’s a friend.

The one script of mine he became excited about was the one about Moe Berg. He suggested producing it with me and was briefly my partner, twice. As flickonomics would have it, he begged off—graciously—explaining he was just too overextended to do justice to “this very special” project.

In 1988, I produced an evening honoring David—and pounced on the occasion to lure a hard-to-get Shirley MacLaine onto the program. Capitalizing on her notoriety for her faith in past lives, her opening line was, “I’ve been in love with David Brown for two thousand years.” David called me the next morning to say, “Ray, you’re a great producer,” a great (disproportionate) compliment coming from a great producer when he could have stopped at thank you. Gracious.

And of course David would be one to call to make me feel like I was already a winner when one of those aforementioned documentaries was nominated for an Oscar.

I think of David every time I think of his witty opinion from his book, “Brown’s Guide To Growing Gray,” to wit, no one was ever offended by being over-tipped. And think of him every time I pass what passes today for the Russian Tea Room and wish we’d had a few more lunches together at the old Tea Room. Another former RTR habitué, agent Jeannine Edmunds, likened David to Fred Allen, “wise about the business,” adding choice words for him like “informed” and “attentive.” David was as good a listener as he was a conversationalist. His New York Times obituary referred to him as “courtly” and “urbane,” while London’s Guardian captured his charm in one succinct sentence: “Indeed, Brown was exceptional in his modesty and self-effacing geniality, traits rare in Tinseltown.” All in all, David was as kindly as he was courtly. And always, infallibly, a consummate gentleman.

The last time I saw him, he thanked me when I told him how good it was to see him, and then turned the conversation to me.

When David reached his ultimate destination, I’ll bet he was on a first-name basis with his greeter—and asked what he or she’d been up to lately.

Eminent Producer and social lion David Brown died on February 1st of this year. For his detailed achievements, please see imdb.com.


  1. He sounds like a man whose greatness was matched only by his goodness.

    I never even knew him, and I already miss him.

  2. As I said way too many times last year, it‘s always sad to see someone from the older days of Hollywood leaving us, and David Brown is absolutely no exception to that. We always hear these horror stories about producers these days, how they try to just copy what was successful, how they don‘t read scripts and how they look at movies as products and not as stories. David Brown was never like that; he was one of those kinds of producers that you wanted to work for, because you knew he was just as invested in the story as you were, whether you were the filmmaker or the audience.

    One thing that you kinda have to give Brown credit for as well, although there are very few people out there who would want this kind of credit, was that he and Richard Zanuck honestly thought that Myra Breckinridge would be a hit. The two of them found it hilarious, and it turns out they were the only ones, and they had to deal with watching the film go down in flames as one of the most infamous disasters in Hollywood history. But you have to give these two men credit for taking a chance on a very risky project and doing their best to make it work. Back then, there was a much greater chance that something deemed un-filmable would be put before the cameras and Brown & Zanuck were willing to give something like this a shot. It‘s that kind of producer that we need in the business nowadays.

  3. GHWriter1976,

    You got it! David was a reader. He said that was his advantage over others in Hollywood. (It's appallingly true--they don't read.) I don't believe I ever waited for more than two or three days to hear from David regarding a script. Far from taking it for granted, I always thought it was remarkable.

    Thanks for being so in tune.


  4. wanting to see your documentaries Ray!

  5. This is a wonderful piece about a wonderful man. I met David in New York before I moved to L.A., where Roy Scheider, my then client, was in JAWS. David was always kind to me and always a gentleman. We won't see his like again I'm afraid.

    Thank you for both an amusing and moving work, your great gift.

    Joan Scott

  6. On a particular favorite DVD of mine, in one of the special features, the screenwriter talks about his days writing his original play on cocktail napkins and then going home and typing it up. David Brown read the play and immediately bought the film rights before the play even opened. He knew when this film was made, it would be a big hit. And he knew by READING the material!

    The writer was Aaron Sorkin. The play was A Few Good Men...