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Another stone unturned

With the Hard Rock behind him, is Peter Morton ready to heed L.A.'s siren song?

November 12, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

HE has a brand new Richard Meier house, his son is/was dating Lindsay Lohan, "The Art of Happiness" by the Dalai Lama is on his desk, and the dean of the UCLA medical school is on the phone.

For years, it has been difficult to categorize Peter Morton -- "restaurateur" never quite covered a man who co-founded the ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe and the elite Morton's on Melrose (not to be confused with the Morton's steakhouse chain, of which he is no part) any more than calling him a hotelier does justice to creating the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

A Chicago boy, and son of the late legendary steakhouse mogul Arnie Morton, he has become almost quintessentially L.A. -- famous enough and rich in a big way, he collects modern art and recently joined the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

He has an eponymous building at UCLA (where he sits on the executive board for the Medical Sciences with friend and Paramount Chief Executive Brad Grey), and his name is scattered on donor walls around town. But he's not terribly flashy -- at 7,000 square feet, his Malibu home may be a Meier, but compared with its neighbors, it is a model of self-restraint.

Now, having sold the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and with it all vestiges of the empire he built with Isaac Tigrett, he is, at 60 and for the first time in his life, between jobs. Which provides a good excuse to check in with Morton if only to figure out why he has decided to prove one of the few truisms about Los Angeles: If you stay in this town long enough, you will become a producer.

Oh, he's considering another hotel venture, somewhere, sometime, as well as several ventures with his eldest son, Harry. He has given Morton's to his sister Pam, who has run the restaurant for many years, though his office is just behind the eatery. But lately what's kept him the busiest, besides his three children, is "Stardust," a film directed by his godson Matthew Vaughn, which Paramount plans to release next year.

"I don't know if it's permanent," he says, refusing to commit to his new job description. "I did meet with [Chairman and Chief Executive] Jeff Berg at ICM to talk about creating a role in which I'd be ... a dealer, to use a gambling analogy. Because about film, I profess complete ignorance. We'll see where it goes."

That he's talking about talking about it is development enough. For years, Morton has played laid-back host to Hollywood's elite, so purposefully unfazed by fame and glitz that he regularly took a pass on Vanity Fair's E-ticket Oscar party, which has been held at Morton's for the last 12 years. Sure, he mingled with the stars (and took on a few, including Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone, when they invested in the entertainment-themed chain, Planet Hollywood), but he very publicly preferred the rock scene to the red carpet. He enjoyed presiding over the town's deal-making hub, he just didn't want to get involved in any of the deals.

Not that he hasn't had ample opportunity. Like most local rich guys -- he sold his shares of the Hard Rock Cafe in 1996 for $410 million -- he has been approached over the years about financing various film projects, but he always said no. Until nine years ago, when Vaughn asked him if he wanted to put up money for a film he was producing. As Morton tells it, he didn't even bother to read the script, though he did show it to "my good friend [producer] Steve Tisch." He simply wrote a check and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," made for about $1 million, went on to become something of a sleeper hit, launching the career of first-time feature writer-director Guy Ritchie. The two repeated the process with the bigger-budget "Snatch," which turned its $10-million budget into a $30-million gross.

So when Vaughn approached Morton with a film he had co-written and wanted to direct, Morton was immediately in.

"I've made two films with this guy, and he's always made me money," Morton says with a shrug. "I'm not going to say no. Besides, it's a great story."

It's also a film that makes Morton officially a big-time producer as opposed to a multimillionaire helping his godson out. There's nothing "sleeper" about "Stardust." Set to be released next year by Paramount, the story of a young man who visits a magical land to return a fallen star has a budget of $100 million and a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sienna Miller. Again, Morton neglected to read the script before ponying up -- "I have ADD," he says. "Seriously. I can't read scripts. I said, 'Just tell me the story, I'll know if I like the story' " -- but this time, he spent a fair amount of time on the set in England, keeping things moving, doing what producers do.

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