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The Studio Shuffle : FRANK MANCUSO

December 18, 1994|CLAUDIA ELLER | Claudia Eller is The Times' movie editor and Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer.

Then: Chairman of Paramount Pictures, 1984-1991.

Now: Chairman of MGM/UA, July 1993.

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One morning in the spring of 1991, before he left for work, Frank Mancuso received a shocking phone call at home from his New York-based boss Martin Davis.

As a result, he found himself being forced out as chairman of Paramount Pictures, the studio where he had cut his industry teeth and worked for some 30 years.

For the two previous weeks, he now says, there had been "a lot of tension between me and Davis." While he had been aware that Davis was looking to bring in a president and chief operating officer at the studio's parent company, Paramount Communications, Mancuso says, "I wasn't aware that I would have to report to him."

During the fateful phone conversation, in which Davis told Mancuso that producer Stanley Jaffe, who had a deal at Paramount with Sherry Lansing, had been hired for the job, Davis tried to persuade Mancuso that the management restructuring would be "terrific." Davis even went so far as to get on a plane that afternoon and fly to Los Angeles "to tell me how good it was going to be."

But Mancuso saw the handwriting on the wall.

"I chose to believe that (Jaffe's hiring) would change my role and I didn't want to participate," he says.

In fact, Mancuso's contract precluded his reporting to anyone but Davis. Soon after, Mancuso resigned and filed a $40-million breach of contract suit against Paramount, and won a settlement.

The most painful part of the experience, he says, was "being denied something you love to do--it hurts." Yet he says he knew that he worked in "a revolving-door industry."

Mancuso, now 61, says, "I realized I had lived the American dream," having gone from being an usher in a movie theater to being the head of one of Hollywood's major studios. "I decided to take that experience away rather than those last two weeks."

In a recent interview at his spacious executive suite at MGM/UA headquarters in Santa Monica, Mancuso says, "The greatest benefit of leaving Paramount was the opportunity to fulfill on a personal basis all of the things I never had the time to do while I was chairman, because the job is completely consuming."

He suggested to his wife of 37 years, Faye, that finally they could travel and spend time with their family. And they did--but nine months later, he started feeling antsy.

"The pace of my life changed so dramatically, from having no time to do anything to having all the time to do anything. I got totally bored."

In 1993, after an aborted effort to produce a film for his friend Jack Nicholson, he was approached by Mike Ovitz on behalf of Credit Lyonnais, which owned the beleaguered MGM, about coming in to resuscitate the studio and restart its dormant UA arm, which hadn't released a film since 1990's "Rocky V."

Describing what running a studio is like the second time around, Mancuso says he encounters "a lot fewer surprises today" and finds the time pressures "are less of a burden . . . you have a better sense of how to divide your time."

Perhaps the biggest revelation for him in returning to the studio ranks is that "traveling, playing golf and playing tennis, was not relaxation to me. This, work, is relaxation."

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