For some observers of Hollywood politics, David Puttnam's abrupt decision to quit the Columbia Pictures chairmanship last month carried an unspoken message:
Ray Stark still counts.
The diminutive, 72-year-old producer scarcely figured in published reports of Puttnam's departure.
Yet much of moviedom's gossipy creative community prefers to believe that Stark--a fabled power broker, who has operated as an independent producer at Columbia for 19 years--played a behind-the-scenes role in toppling the outspoken Englishman who ran the studio for just 15 months.
"It was a matter of respect," offers one major studio executive, who contends that Puttnam made the mistake of dismissing the impish producer as a relic.
"Ray wanted respect for his body of work. And David wasn't willing to give it."
Be that as it may, Ray Stark--past master of the big-star romance, from "Funny Girl" to "The Electric Horseman"--is clearly enjoying a new currency in Hollywood.
On the heels of a four-year slump that began with the disappointing reception of his "Annie" by audiences and critics alike, Stark has scored three hits in the past year, including "Nothing in Common" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" for Tri-Star, and "The Secret of My Success" for Universal.
In declining to be interviewed for this story, Stark told one friend that he didn't want to be perceived "as a power guy." In his 30-year and 250-film career as a producer, however, he has often been neck-deep in the roiling intrigue of studio politics.
Stark currently has ongoing production deals with both Tri-Star and Universal, and top executives of both are courting him for still more attention as the film maker's arrangement with Columbia, dormant during the Puttnam regime, threatens to expire in the next few months.
"I hope we'll continue to make movies with (Stark) . . . . He's a magnificent producer, and he has never been more productive," says Universal Pictures Chairman Thomas Pollock, whose studio is set to release Stark's "Biloxi Blues," based on a Neil Simon play, early next year.
Others privately speculate that Stark will instead choose to become far more deeply involved with Tri-Star and Columbia, which are soon to be merged under a single corporate parent that will be largely owned by Coca-Cola Co. "He's going to be a big supplier (of films) to the new configuration," says one top talent agent, who declined to be identified.
Tightening its bonds with Stark, Tri-Star recently agreed to join with him and NBC in making a sequel to "Annie" for the 1988 Christmas season. Released by Columbia in 1982, Stark's "Annie," based on the Broadway play, cost an enormous $42 million. The film earned only $37 million in U.S. theatrical rentals, but eventually returned more than $80 million to the studio, thanks to videocassette and foreign sales that continued long after it left the theaters.
Victor Kaufman, Tri-Star's 44-year-old chairman and soon-to-be chief executive officer of the combined studios, declines to discuss any role Stark may have played in Puttnam's departure or his own elevation over the restructured studios. But he acknowledges that Stark, one of Coke's bigger shareholders, has been a frequent influence during his own rise to prominence.
"Ray has always been a great adviser to me. I've talked with him as a friend, and he's taught me a lot about dealing with people," says Kaufman, who was general counsel to Columbia for 10 years before joining newly formed Tri-Star in 1983.
One Coca-Cola officer privately called it "absurd" to believe that the Atlanta-based corporation's overall decision to restructure its entertainment holdings was influenced by Puttnam's poor relations with Stark or with discontented Hollywood stars like Bill Cosby, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman and Beatty were displeased with Puttnam's attempts to distance himself from their movie "Ishtar," which was begun under the prior regime but released under Puttnam. Cosby is similarly reported to have had disagreements with Puttnam's management over his upcoming "Leonard Part VI."
A Coke spokesman, moreover, specifically disavowed any notion that Stark--although he has been quietly under contract as a consultant to Coke's Columbia unit for the last five years--had anything to do with the reassignment to the company's soft drink operations of Francis T. (Fay) Vincent. Vincent had been Puttnam's boss and primary booster as president of the Coca-Cola entertainment sector.
"It is really off the wall for anyone to tell you that Ray Stark or anyone else in Hollywood had anything to do with Fay's change of assignment," the spokesman said.
A former literary and talent agent, Stark in 1957 co-founded Seven Arts Productions. That company later merged with Warner Bros. after acquiring Jack Warner's stake.