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Going Like 60 at Age 89

Lew Grade has 'Something to Believe In'--a film being shot after five years in rewrites. And there's more in the hopper.

November 10, 1996|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

LONDON — He will be 90 on Christmas Day, but Lew Grade does not encourage people to pigeonhole him as the world's oldest film producer. "So what?" he says with a shrug. "I don't feel more than 40--which is what matters."

He works like a 40-year-old too. Grade, who is a life peer and thus entitled to sit and vote in the House of Lords and use the title Lord Grade, arrives promptly at his Mayfair office at 7 a.m. each weekday and works a minimum 10 hours.

"At 7:10 this morning, I was on the phone to a Japanese distributor, arranging a meeting with him when he comes to London," Grade says. "Early in the day I glance through the papers. . . . I go to business meetings. I'm a consultant at PolyGram. I'm on the supervisory board at Euro Disney. But most days I'm here, on the phone."

Recently, he has had plenty to talk about. After a quiet spell on the feature film front, Grade has resurfaced as producer of "Something to Believe In," a romantic weepy starring William McNamara ("Copycat") and Maria Pitillo ("Chaplin"). Shooting started in Italy in October, and Grade says proudly that his friend, producer David Brown, read the script and described it as "a five-handkerchief picture."

"Something to Believe In" spent five years in development, and Grade, shrugging off his age, has worked furiously to bring it to the stage of principal photography. He will soon visit the set in Italy, just after two days' hectic selling at the Milan film market, and he recently jetted to Munich to clinch a Europe-wide distribution deal for the film.

"I used to say I'd retire in the year 2001," he says with a twinkle, while brandishing an enormous Monte Cristo cigar. "But I already know it won't happen. I have three more projects I know I'm going to do after this."

The flamboyant Grade, with his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, his round, balding head, portly figure, dry humor and trademark cigars, has long been a legend in Britain, where he arrived as a child from his native Ukraine, unable to speak English. He left school at 14, helped his father, Isaac Winogradsky, at work in London's garment district--then, 70 years ago, went into show business.

"I entered the world Charleston championships at the Royal Albert Hall," he says. "I knew I was a great Charleston dancer, but I didn't know I was going to win the world championship. That was on Christmas Day, 1926."

He danced in cabaret at London's Piccadilly Hotel but soon gave it up to form a talent agency with his brother Leslie that over the years became Britain's biggest.

In the 1950s, Grade helped usher in the era of commercial television to Britain. As controller of ATV for 20 years, he was the chief taste-maker for TV audiences. He became as famous as any of the stars on his shows, which he would talk up with a born salesman's enthusiasm; he favored American-flavored light entertainment over the BBC's austere approach to public service broadcasting.

It was Grade who saw the potential in Jim Henson's Muppets and brought them to a world television audience. He also produced the miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth," which he calls his best film.

Many of Grade's feature films ("Capricorn One," "The Boys From Brazil," "The Eagle Has Landed") stress fast-paced adventure over plausibility. He has shrugged off his failures with good grace; of his expensive bomb "Raise the Titanic" he remarked memorably: "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic." But he also produced two films that won Oscars for their lead actors: "On Golden Pond" (Henry Fonda, 1981) and "Sophie's Choice" (Meryl Streep, 1982).

Apart from producing four TV movies for CBS from Barbara Cartland's romantic novels, Grade has kept a low profile recently. "After all those films, I decided not to make another unless it was something I was convinced about," he says.

"That's what I've done for five years. I've put my heart and soul into this film, plus a great deal of my own money that I've saved. I tell producers, don't invest more than a bit of your own money in a production. I broke my own rule. Because it's something to believe in. And that," he adds, ever the salesman, "is the film's title."

Budgeted at between $13.5 million and $15 million, "Something to Believe In" is about two young Americans who meet in Italy. Maggie (Pitillo) is a Vegas blackjack dealer stricken with a terminal illness. She reads about a Madonna statue in Italy that is weeping tears and helping to cure the sick and decides to visit it. En route, she meets Mike (McNamara), a gifted but rebellious young classical pianist on his way to a piano competition in Italy for players under 30; it represents a last chance for him.

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