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One for the Ages

In an industry where youth reigns, 65-year-old Saul Turteltaub is suddenly hot.

June 29, 1997|Steve Schmidt | Steve Schmidt is a writer based in Westwood

Ageism strikes fear into everyone who knows they'll soon be getting up there, if they haven't already arrived--particularly in the entertainment business, where dynamism and young ideas often appeal over hard-won sagacity. A 17-year-old was recently plucked out of a Santa Monica high school for a development deal with New Line Cinema, sending chills up the spines of writers who remember going to movies when they were rated M.

For baby boomers and beyond, there's a recent tide of good news. Most of this year's Academy Award nominees for best original screenplay were over 40, and two were over 50. And now along comes Saul Turteltaub.

"For Roseanna," a film starring Jean Reno and Mercedes Ruehl, being released Wednesday by Fine Line Features, is the first solo screenplay from the 65-year-old Turteltaub, a veteran of TV comedy from Jackie Gleason to the current "Cosby" (much of it with 30-year writing/producing partner Bernie Orenstein). He has since completed an assignment for Mel Gibson and negotiated a feature deal with Miramax, and all without the help of his hot-as-a-pistol director son, Jon.

Maybe as intriguing as Turteltaub's sudden career flare-up is the choice of material for the former Borscht Belt gag writer. A tragicomic--often knockabout--romance set in a small Italian village, "For Roseanna" follows a humble trattoria owner as he desperately tries to keep the locals alive to save cherished cemetery space for his ill wife.

The idea struck Turteltaub during recent travels, spying an old man in a Swiss town forlornly surveying the graveyard.

"To me, it's only happened twice--an idea that I'm grateful for, that struck me as great," he says. The other smiting was an inspiration for a skit in the Catskills 40 years ago.

Producer Norman Lear is excited about his former colleague being thrust into flavor-of-the-month status: "I know a lot of guys who are 35 who are far older than Saul. He's a life force. If this doesn't send a loud message to an industry that needs a loud message, I don't know what would."

Mel Gibson's assistant, Dean Lopata, flipped open an errant copy of "Roseanna" while waiting in a talent agency office, prompting Gibson to seek out Turteltaub with an idea he'd been nurturing for 10 years. The as-yet-untitled romantic comedy-adventure plays against the background of the biannual Italian horse race called the Palio--a free-for-all where riders are not only allowed to whip competing horses but also competing riders, with nefarious deal-making behind it all.

But if the recent sizzle has turned the budding screenwriter's head, he doesn't show it: "Mel's about as nice a guy as you want to meet in this business. We went to Italy; every time [my wife] Shirley came in and out of the room, he'd stand up."

Still, the gentlemanly Gibson made concessions to age. "With all the stars I've seen, I've never seen people chase after anybody like him. We're running to a restaurant and the two old Jews are in the back of the pack coming up the hill--he kept coming back to make sure we were all right. I didn't have the heart to tell him I run three miles a day."

If there's an aspect to film work that troubles Turteltaub, it's the diminished status of the writer. Is he pleased with the way "For Roseanna" turned out? "No, I'm not happy. I'm sure this goes on with every writer. The picture gets done and it's got a different spin to it. Something you've conceived totally, then see it get pulled apart, that hurts a lot. I've produced 23 series, more than 1,000 shows. I've never seen it this way. The writer [in film], as I've learned, is very unimportant. The director becomes the god. Fortunately, we have a god in the family."

This force to be reckoned with is son Jon Turteltaub, 33, and if he were to claim deity status, Disney executives wouldn't likely disagree, given the three straight hits--"Cool Runnings," "While You Were Sleeping" and "Phenomenon"--he has directed for the studio. Turteltaub fils is now on location in Florida shooting an episode of an HBO series chronicling the Apollo missions, "From the Earth to the Moon," for executive producer Tom Hanks.

Father and son are finalizing a deal to write and direct, respectively, a Yankee version of the upcoming Japanese release "Shall We Dance" for Miramax. At this juncture, the contentiousness over who has the final word disappears in Saul Turteltaub's eyes: "Between you and me, if Jon said, 'This guy should jump off a building,' I'd smile and say, 'Yeah, you're right.' "

Jon Turteltaub is happy but not cavalier about the anticipated cooperation. "It took me 33 years to earn it--I had to make my bed a lot and wash a lot of dishes." He reconsiders. "But maybe I'll use this experience to get even for the trouble I got into with my fifth-grade report card."

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