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Aubrey : A Lion in Winter

April 27, 1986|PAUL ROSENFIELD

Once upon a time, in what would seem like another galaxy, James Thomas Aubrey ran CBS and then MGM. He was one of those people who people in show business talked about, incessantly. In the press--and in best-selling novels--he was the prototype star executive, larger than life. Now he's returned to continue the legend.

"I thought my days on the Red Eye were over," said Jim Aubrey, dryly. His flight from Houston had been delayed three hours, and only days earlier he'd returned from Sri Lanka, of all places. But jet lag doesn't show on Jim Aubrey's face. Perhaps the most mysterious man in show business--and once the most fearsome figure in broadcasting--Aubrey has been out of executive suites for a dozen years now, but at 67 he's still nimble. There's no visible fatigue. Likewise, there should be no real surprise that Jim Aubrey is back on the Red Eye.

"No man in history ever had such a lock on such enormous audiences" is how Life magazine put it 20 years ago, after Aubrey took his fall from power at CBS. The man Lucille Ball called "the smartest one up there" and others called (at least privately) Jungle Jim was no mere workaholic. "He was the fourth president of CBS as Caligula was the fourth of the 12 Caesars" is how writer Murray Kempton put it. "Each carried the logic of his imperial authority as far as it could go."

If larger than life is one of those outdated terms, like showman , it's also too simple a description for Jim Aubrey. So is the nickname John Houseman gave him in 1959, the Smiling Cobra. But the mere mention of Aubrey's name to anyone in Hollywood over 40 elicits the same response, after the eyelids raise: "Is he really cooperating with an article?"

"I've never done this before," said the man of mystery, who after leaving CBS became president of MGM--the first man to head both a TV network and a movie studio. He was the most press-shy (if not the most written-about) of modern show-business executives. Aubrey is the omnipotent anti-hero of at least four pop novels. For "The Love Machine," he quietly cooperated with author Jacqueline Susann by giving her background on TV. But interviews with the press? Almost never. So when Aubrey says, "I'm doing something I don't do," you have to wonder why. The fact that he's back as an independent movie producer doesn't begin to answer the question.

The answer didn't become immediately apparent, but revealed itself over several meetings. At first, he would only stretch his very long legs in his very Spartan office (no art, no Aubusson rugs, a Doberman his only companion) and say softly: "I'm not doing this (interview) for the sizzle." The later--and lasting--impression is of the classic loner. Yet Aubrey in conversation is seductive in a way one expects a politician to be. He talks directly into your eyes, and brain, and your response is to be stumped. Why would this man shun the limelight when he takes so naturally to it? "Because Jim keeps his own counsel," is the answer given by his longtime attorney Greg Bautzer. The room where Aubrey works now is on the second floor of a Hollywood house very near to where Scott Fitzgerald wrote "The Last Tycoon." And Aubrey could be cast as Fitzgerald's Monroe Stahr, 40 years after the fact. By now, one would have expected at least a volume of Aubrey memoirs--sizzling or not.

The suggestion of sizzle (or exposure) brought a glint to his polar-blue eyes, and then the kind of slow smile that promised an anecdote.

"A few years ago, when (CBS founder) Bill Paley published his autobiography, I happened to be in New York," Aubrey began. "I had lunch with Bill and he asked me if I'd read the book."

Aubrey's pause was purposeful. It takes a moment to realize that Aubrey might still lunch with the man who fired him unceremoniously 20 years ago.

"I said to Bill, 'Of course I didn't read your book. You know I don't read fiction.' "

The smile is pure Aubrey, more direct than a cobra, more like a lion. It's not the smile of a man whose validation ever came from the so-called Boys Club, the executive clan that runs Hollywood. With the backing of 10 Texas investors, Aubrey is now chairman of Entermark, a company that finances low-budget films with a difference. (Among Entermark's principal shareholders are oilmen, ranchers and former Texas Gov. John Connally.) There are no up-front salaries; percentages are committed to participants, from secretaries to set decorators. The operation is one-on-one, with Aubrey and a few aides working with writers and directors on proposed projects.

The company's first projects are in the $2-million range--and already in production. If the titles sound like exploitation movies, they are. "Hostage" is a skyjacking saga shooting in Africa with Karen Black, and "Deathstone," is a thriller filming in Sri Lanka with Heather Thomas ("Fall Guy's" blonde diversion). In varying stages of development are "Savage Heat" and "Escape From Darkness."

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