Pages from Michael Butler's Journal
I became very interested in Hair's potential as a film soon after it opened at the Biltmore Theatre in New York City. I asked Jimmy Tsai, Hair's CFO, to check out the possibilities. I wanted Jimmy to take every musical which had been made into a movie and discover both their stage and movie grosses. Jimmy researched VARIETY, comparing the stage and movie figures. He estimated that the average film of a musical grossed four times - four hundred percent of its stage sales. That convinced me I should proceed.
At that time, the film rights of HAIR belonged to its authors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Their then-standard contract had forty percent of the purchase price of Hair's film rights going to Hair's production company, so as producer, I had a great stake in the outcome. The negotiation of the play's film rights was the job of the the Dramatist Guild Negotiator. I became very concerned about how the negotiations were proceeding, and wondered if we would ever make a deal. After some interested bidding parties were turned down, I decided to enter the picture. I personally made a bid of one million dollars and bought the rights. Finally, I was free to act.
I zeroed in on Paramount Pictures, the hottest film company at that time. Paramount was owned by the conglomerate, Gulf and Western. Frank Yablans was Paramount's President. He was famous for being a crack movie promoter and a little Napoleon. As brash as he was, I grew to like and respect him. We put the team together with Peter Bart as Executive Producer. (Peter is now Editor-in-Chief of VARIETY.) Although we had many directors to choose from, including Franco Zefferelli, Milos Foreman, and Luchino Visconti, Hal Ashby, the great director of HAROLD AND MAUDE, was my first choice. Hal spent time with me at Warfield Hall, my home in England, and we were of the same mind about filming HAIR. We particularly wanted to respect the authors' original vision of the piece. Colin Higgins, later famous as a writer/director, was brought in by Peter to write the screenplay. Michael Haller came on board as the Designer. The initial team was complete.
We started pre-production and things went beautifully. We all got along very well. Meanwhile, the play was doing great. HAIR was being considered the seminal theatre piece of the times by more and more of its audience. Then I received a sad call from Peter, telling me that Hal was withdrawing from the film project because of his ill health.
When I got the call, I was at Fairway House, my home in Montecito, CA. I jumped into the car with Averil, my lady of the time, and we rushed for Los Angeles. This is the trip when I was busted for grass. But that is another story for another time!
When I finally got to Los Angeles, everything was in shambles. Hal was suffering from a reaction to the heavy drugs that eventually killed him. I think he was also worried sick about the scope of the film project. Hal's movies had always been small pictures. By that, I mean small situations involving few people. Almost any musical, but particularly HAIR, involves large casts. It's more like directing an army. I wondered if this challenge might have aggravated his already tenuous mental attitude. No matter - Hal was out of the project.
Peter and I wanted Colin Higgins to direct. We were unable to convince Yablans to agree - Colin had never directed before. This was a bad decision on Yablans part, since Colin would be a future great film director. So we started looking around for another director.
Then a second disaster happened. Frank Yablans got into a huge fight with Charles Bludhorn, ruler of Gulf & Western. This was a clash of enormous egos. Yablans lost. The brilliant film head was sacked, and Paramount was taken over by Barry Diller. Diller, like most new studio heads, wanted his own projects, so he dropped the whole Yablans slate. For us, this was a tough break. I realized I could not have the same rapport with Diller as I had with Frank. So HAIR was put in movie purgatory - the dreaded turnaround - and the dream of filming HAIR languished.
Years later, I was invited by Robert Stigwood to attend the premiere of his film, TOMMY. I had wanted to produce TOMMY on the stage as soon as the first album came out, but I could never come to terms with its authors' greedy management. Ironically, TOMMY was never staged until after the film. Stigwood and I had a long-standing and testy relationship as a result. On top of that, Stigwood was the presenter of HAIR in the UK and we had some ongoing problems over the years. However, we had and still continue an amicable relationship. That happens in this business. When I congratulated Robert on the film, he asked to talk about HAIR.
Amazingly, we entered into negotiations and made a deal with Stigwood. He brought Lester Persky into the group (who?). During this period, Stigwood started to vacillate and Persky took over. I was never sure whether Robert faded or was pushed out. Anyway, Persky was the one we had to work with. Stigwood wanted Ken Russell to direct, but both Persky and I preferred Milos Foreman. So did the authors.
George Milman, who was handling the negotiations, made a really good deal with Persky and United Artists. Since the demise of Yablans at Paramount, UA had become the hottest film company around. Brilliant management took that dormant company and made it into the industry leader. Foreman was on board, and Michael Weller was Foramen's choice for screenwriter. Frankly, I was pushed out of the picture. Persky took over and did what he wanted. I did not have the relationship with him that I had enjoyed with Ashby and Bart. I was very unhappy about the change of the ending of the story - I felt one of the play's major points had been lost. Still, Foreman's direction was visually superb. He brought his own point of view to the piece and that made it into a brilliant film. More importantly, it carried Hair's message forward in another medium.
Again, wild corporate activity struck the project! United Artists was owned by another large conglomerate, Transamerica. UA's management made the studio very successful, so they asked their owners for a piece of the pie. Transamerica turned them down. To a man, the management team walked out and formed Orion Pictures.
Transamerica then turned to UA's European branches and picked a financial man to run the film company.
I told them HAIR was not the Second Coming, and the selling of the movie HAIR should be treated with great care. I suggested they take a lesson from our experiences in the stage production. We learned that HAIR should be sold very slowly until the word of mouth got going. After all, we were selling the movie of HAIR ten years after the opening of the Broadway run! With the show, we always kept the houses small and the ticket tight. Everyone at UA seemed to agree.HAIR was opened in the Ziegfield movie house in New York City. It broke the house records. Greed took over. UA was so desperate for a big hit, they went wide. HAIR was the first of the UA films to have an immediate wide distribution. It didn't succeed as UA hoped.
To this day, HAIR, the film, has not grossed as much as the play did during its first ten years. Unfortunately, Jimmy Tsai's prediction of 400% grosses has not been met! But the film has been an excellent introduction to HAIR for many people. It has left them wanting to see the real thing. So I'm happy that the movie has created continued interest by stock and amateur, high school, college, and community theaters to do the stage play. No matter the medium, Hair's message seems to endure through generations of views, which makes me and everyone involved in the HAIR project proud.
However as Jim Rado says, "The film of HAIR is yet to be made."
Entry added October 2, 2000
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