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CRITIC AT LARGE

From Producer to Author in Several Not-So-Easy Steps

November 03, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

"The Hollywood wisdom," Steve Sohmer said recently, "is that God created the studio executive for practice and then did the amoeba."

Sohmer was a studio executive who is also a novelist, and what he was saying was that his image as the former makes it hard for his colleagues to take him seriously as the latter. But there is a good chance that Sohmer will have the last laugh. He usually does.

Sohmer has written an expert thriller, "Favorite Son," which is now in the bookstores and is being launched importantly, as they say in the trade, with a 75,000 first printing in hardcover, which is not bad at all for a first-timer in the field.

He began writing the novel while he was still president and chief executive officer at Columbia Pictures under the then chairman Guy McIlwaine. That was two years ago, in September, 1985. But McIlwaine's tenure ended only a few months later, in July, 1986.

When David Puttnam began putting together a team for his own abbreviated time in charge of Columbia, Sohmer became a producer ("It could not have been more gentlemanly," he says). He is executive producer of the Bill Cosby film "Leonard VI," due in December, and he is also working with Stanley Kramer on "Chernobyl," a Soviet-American co-venture, a project which Sohmer originated and which is apparently still on, despite the departure of Puttnam, who had endorsed it and brought in Kramer.

In an earlier incarnation, Sohmer was often referred to as "the P.T. Barnum of network promotion," a title that causes him to wince these days but that nicely symbolizes his upwardly erratic life.

A doctor's son, he entered Yale with a premed course in mind, but quickly perceived that science wasn't for him. He dropped out and resurfaced at the Columbia School of Journalism, where he studied writing with the poet Stanley Kunitz. He published a book of short stories, "The Way It Was," but found the royalties would not support a wife and child.

He worked for the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, which promotes newspaper advertising, then started his own ad firm, which specialized in promoting media. He was recruited from the company in 1977 to handle network promotion at CBS.

He has said he never even owned a television set until 1976, but he stayed at CBS for five years. There, he says, he learned the four worst words in television: "Steve, got a second?" as spoken by Bob Daly, then the network's executive vice president.

After CBS he rented what he calls "the last cottage on the left in Ireland; the next parish was America." He read philosophy and drank Irish whiskey until he joined NBC, which Brandon Tartikoff and Grant Tinker were trying to turn around.

In March, 1983, he became executive vice president in charge of specials, children's shows and daytime programming. In 1985, when he had been at NBC three years, he says, "I looked around and realized that at 43 I was the oldest person in creative programming. I could see the writing on the wall." That is to say, the pressure from below to move up and out would be considerable.

He joined Columbia on the understanding that when McIlwaine moved on to independent production, as he wanted to do, Sohmer as his understudy would be a prime candidate to take over. Things changed, as they do in Hollywood.

But Sohmer had already seen, he says, "that I had to have a career I couldn't be disenfranchised from." That meant writing. "Writing is a vocation. It's like being a priest. You can write till you croak." Writing, as he thought, then meant television. He wrote two movies for television and outlined a miniseries. (Something may come of them yet.)

Then he had an idea for a film, called "Favorite Son," in which a dark horse vice presidential candidate becomes a national hero when he is wounded during the assassination of a visiting Central American leader (the year is 1988).

He tried the idea on Marty Ransohoff, who had just made the very successful "Jagged Edge." "Terrible," Sohmer says Ransohoff said succinctly. It was then Sohmer realized that studio executives are only taken seriously as studio executives.

"I wrote a very detailed outline, and realized that what I had would make a terrific novel. So I wrote it. Spite is a wonderful motivation. I sent Marty, who's a good friend, an inscribed copy." Now a movie deal will hinge on the fate of the book in the stores. The book has already been sold to a dozen foreign publishers. It is a Literary Guild main selection.

While the book turns on presidential politics, Washington intrigues and Central American entanglements, it also deals, very knowingly indeed, with the fierce competition among network news shows. The book's central figure, a young woman who is the favorite son's press aide, plays the networks against each other with Borgia-like shrewdness to get maximum exposure for her man.

"There are those who should read this as a cautionary tale," Sohmer says. "One character speculates on broadcast journalists who get too close to their subjects. Stand too close, you get used, always."

Sohmer will remain an active producer, but he already has another novel in the works. "I would like to thank the guys who invented the word processor and the automatic coffee maker you set the night before. Couldn't live without them both."

He has thanks for Cosby as well. "Working with Bill has helped me see how to be free.He throws up one outrageous and unheard-of idea after another, and then one of them is so outrageous it's wonderful, and it sticks. And you say, 'Hey, yeah.' And it's helped me make decisions on my own low level."

His father, Sohmer says, asked him how he liked being a writer again. "I told him I wish I'd been fired 10 years ago."

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