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The Secret of His Success : Lee Rich Gives the Public What It Wants

November 10, 1992|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He brought TV audiences such long-running hits as "Dallas," "Knots Landing" and "The Waltons," but mention television today to producer Lee Rich and you're likely to get an earful. Listen in:

"Television stinks. There is no way you can make money in television today."

Or:

"I'd get rid of everybody who runs (the networks) . . . You can't have General Electric running a network. They make refrigerators. . . . Larry Tisch running a network? Come on. You got to be kidding."

Or:

"(The networks) are still doing what they used to do. They still schedule the same way. They still think the same way. And they don't understand that the public is saying, 'Screw you, Charlie. I can go across the street or down the block.' "

With candor that is refreshing in Hollywood, Rich does not mince words. But it isn't only television that elicits his tough opinions. He thinks Hollywood pays too much attention to box-office grosses rather than a film's profitability.

"It's fine to do movies and say, 'We made big grosses,' but you've got to go back and ask, 'How much did it cost?' and 'Where do you make your profit?' "

Why don't the studios learn? "It's very easy to find out. The same people go from chair to chair to chair."

But lest you think that Lee Rich has soured on the town that made him a force to be reckoned with, think again. With scant fanfare, Rich--who co-founded Lorimar and once ran MGM/UA--has become a prolific supplier of films to the major studios.

This past weekend, Rich's latest movie, "Passenger 57" earned $10.6 million in its opening weekend, making it the country's No. 1 box-office attraction. The $15-million film stars Wesley Snipes as an airline security operative who battles terrorists at 30,000 feet.

While the film garnered its share of negative reviews (The Times' Kenneth Turan said the filmmakers all come from TV and it shows), Rich believes that "Passenger 57" not only showcases the talents of a rising star in Snipes, but it gives audiences what they want in a thriller: fast-paced action spiced with humor.

"You sit there for an hour-and-a-half (84 minutes) to be entertained," Rich said. "You walk out and you've had a good time. That's all you can ever ask of a movie."

Rich said the recent box-office success of "Under Siege" starring Steven Seagal is a reminder that the public yearns for this kind of action hero, one who battles the bad guys yet doesn't take himself too seriously.

"I think the violence and everything else (in action films) turns them off," he said. "If you can have a little humor with it, they accept it for what it is."

The problem with Hollywood, Rich believes, is that too often the people who put movies into production think all they need is a high-priced star and high-priced director and they are guaranteed a hit. Rich cites a movie he made as proof that this isn't necessary. The 1990 Seagal film "Hard to Kill" cost $12 million and brought in $50 million. "We sold 350,000 videocassettes," he said.

"I want to do pictures in the area of $12 million to $20 million. After that, I get a little nervous. If I go to $22-23 million, that's fine. But I want to do them in that area. I'm in this business to make money. I'm not in the business to do $100 million on a picture that cost $70 million."

To interview Rich is a chance to view in one individual the dramatic changes that have swept over the entertainment industry over the past three decades. Rich says today he is 59, but his age is in dispute: A 1980 Newsweek story and a 1981 People magazine profile gave his age as 55, and in 1985, a Lorimar spokesman told The Times Rich was 62.

Seated in his office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, dressed comfortably in a blue sweater, he is not what the public usually envisions when it thinks of a Hollywood producer. There are no open collars and dangling chains, no false flattery, no "Let's do lunch sometime." What you get is straight talk from a man whose career spanned the years when advertisers exerted enormous influence on TV programming, through the rise and decline of the networks, to the transfer of power from studios to movie superstars and their agents, to the emergence of Hollywood as the dominant voice in worldwide entertainment.

He came from the world of advertising. "In those days, the advertiser really controlled the shows," Rich recalled. Many people who would assume influence on television worked for him, including former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker. He came in close contact with Danny Thomas, Sheldon Leonard, Carl Reiner and others who would shape an entire TV generation. As a representative of the advertisers, Rich would often be on the set reading scripts before giving the approval of his clients.

"I got to know everybody," he said. When the networks usurped the authority of the advertisers, he decided to get out. "I just wanted to be in business for myself, rather than for somebody else."

He set up shop with a secretary and began doing movies of the week for TV.

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