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The end of a fade for Black

He took Hollywood by storm, then bang, quit the scene. So where, exactly, did this 'Lethal' writer go?

May 01, 2005|Strawberry Saroyan | Special to The Times

The parties never went away. They are, to many in Hollywood, legendary. They take place in screenwriter Shane Black's Hancock Park home, a mansion set on a well-kept lawn and in a gated community.

On this night, it is Black's 43rd birthday party and the cars -- expensive and shiny, like giant jewelry -- come gliding in. Black sips a Grey Goose and soda as he moves from room to room, stopping to flirt with a local weather girl -- "Isn't she beautiful?" -- and pose for the photographer he has hired to be on hand. In a snapshot that later shows his eyebrows amusedly raised and his hands on the shoulders of two women, he plays the part of a Casanova perfectly. He seems relaxed, happy. One would never guess that in the annals of recent Hollywood history, Black has had one of the most complicated and speculated-upon journeys through town -- and that in the minds of many, he essentially disappeared close to a decade ago.

Arriving fresh-faced and gifted in Hollywood in 1985, Black sold his first script, "Lethal Weapon," for $250,000. He was 23. Four years later, he followed that up with "The Last Boy Scout" -- which sold for $1.75 million, at the time the most ever paid for an original script. Black beat his own record in 1994 with "The Long Kiss Goodnight": It garnered $4 million.

But Black wasn't just rich. He was credited with inventing a new version of the action genre. That cool, jive-talkin' guy nonchalantly backed up by epic explosions? Pure Black. It may be hard to believe, but the combination of wit and wild action in film was new in the late '80s, and the likes of Tarantino might not exist without him.

Yet at the height of his creative powers, if not his commercial success ("The Long Kiss Goodnight" bombed), Black walked away. No one knew why. Was it the shock of failure? Personal problems? Self-loathing at his own extremely commercial sensibilities? Or was it just the dropping out of a well-compensated success who'd come to Hollywood to make his pot of gold and, that accomplished, had decided to travel down Easy Street?

All anyone really knew was that Black stayed in Hollywood -- often giving those well-known bashes -- and yet, as the years ticked by, his work wasn't seen on screen again.

When asked about the "lost" years, Black initially demurs.

"I guess the easiest answer is just oblivion. I think anyone who's past 40 will understand that a phenomenon happens in [one's mid-30s], which is that time passes in a way it's never done before. It accelerates." He also says he spent a lot of time hanging with the guys: "I'd call my friends on a Saturday and we'd drive around like in 'Swingers.' That was me for, like, two years." He mentions bouts with guilt, false starts on scripts, teaching the occasional film seminar, and his father's death as well. But through it all, Black seems to be grasping at straws, throwing out pieces of the puzzle but unsure how they fit together.

So he goes back to the beginning. The answer he finally formulates could be encapsulated by several lines in the script of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," a new film he wrote and directed. Starring two of Hollywood's bad boys, Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, it is screening out of competition later this month at the Cannes Film Festival and in many ways signals a break with Black's old style.

"I guess you'd call this a detective story," the film's narrator says. "There are dull parts, but there's a murder in it. Also a broken heart, so I guess it's a love story. Oh, and everything's connected, it all loops back around, it's cool.... My hobbies include [messing] things up, and reading. Welcome to L.A. Welcome to the party."

An unusual kid

Meeting Black, one encounters a man who on different days looks alternately pasty or radiant. Sometimes, his confident aura seems exponentially increased by being in the context of his home, which has been decorated to resemble the '60s gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows." Black has four dogs -- Ava, Teddy, Roscoe and Honeybear -- and can himself appear to be the fifth one. A bruiser of a guy, he seems to be seeking love (although with a lot of pride thrown in) as he clomps around his house slightly haphazardly. One can picture him intently taking in a movie and then falling asleep -- as Roscoe did one early evening, to his owner's delight -- on one of the manse's opulent maroon couches.

Black was, by his own account, an unusual kid. He was born in Pittsburgh to a coal miner's daughter and a former University of Pittsburgh football star who, like many men of his generation, had trouble expressing emotion. The young Black liked books and found solace in them, but he also felt the pressure, and sting, of trying to live up to his father's expectations.

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