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Mace Neufeld: Constant as the stars

The 85-year-old producer of the 'Jack Ryan' spy franchise, Mace Neufeld, has been a show business force for more than 50 years.

February 14, 2014|By Jeffrey Fleishman
  • Mace Neufeld in his home in Beverly Hills.
Mace Neufeld in his home in Beverly Hills. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

The parrot wasn't talking.

"I'm teaching her to say, 'I miss Mace,''' said Mace Neufeld, who at 85 reckons the bird, whose name is Margie, will outlast him.

With no words of affection forthcoming, Neufeld, a New Yorker who landed in Beverly Hills back when you could grab a sandwich at the Ontra Cafeteria and rent a house with a pool for $300 a month, headed toward the sitting room. He once wrote music for Dorothy Loudon, managed Dusty Springfield, produced "The Omen." But Neufeld moves with the fervor of a man less concerned with his legacy than the spread sheet of his latest film.

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"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" stars Chris Pine, the young star with the earnest air who personifies a new era for the $800-million franchise. Neufeld has seen scrapbooks full of heartthrobs and lived through plenty of eras, from the death of the studio system to the rise of conglomerates and armies of marketers. He reached for a cookie as Margie chirped from the library.

"The big, big stars of the old line are gone," he said. "I remember watching 'Titanic' at a friend's house. Kirk Douglas was there, Greg Peck and Jack Lemmon and … Walter Matthau. I looked around the room and thought to myself, 'You know, when these guys are gone that's the last of the studio-made stars.' But, of course, Kirk is still around, remarkably."

A man's past is often tacked on his walls — paintings, art and unexpected moments that crystallize in memory. Tucked in a corner is the picture Neufeld snapped in 1944 of a soldier on crutches returning from World War II to the embrace of his mother. He was a teenager photographing clothes in a department store when he spotted the veteran and ran across 15th Street in Manhattan. The picture has retained its power, a black-and-white image from a time of presumed innocence, when America had prevailed and Hollywood was capitalizing on romance and postwar redemption.

The days of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "An American in Paris" vanished long ago, sobered by the realism of the 1960s and a new wave of filmmakers who would re-invent how movies were shot and financed. Hollywood is making fewer films, but the unpredictable alchemy of profits and losses hasn't changed even as budgets are scrutinized down to the last credit and producers start from scratch on every script.

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"I thought the old system was great," said Neufeld, who has brought four Tom Clancy novels with Jack Ryan as protagonist to the screen, including "The Hunt for Red October." "I came in when the major studios were falling apart. I would have loved to have been here when everybody was under contract … and you went from one picture to another."

He sipped coffee in his Mediterranean-style home. Trimly dressed in shades of a midnight sky, his loafers buffed, Neufeld has a trainer and swims three days a week. A housekeeper peeked in and vanished; a pool shone beyond patio doors. Silver-black hair so neat that one had the inclination to muss it, he noted that he admired how Clint Eastwood, who directed the Neufeld-produced "Invictus," did only one or two takes of a scene. Saves time and money.

A phone rang.

"Is that me?" He reached into his pocket and clicked the silence button.

"It's not easy to get a major film these days," said Neufeld, who was called in to get the script in shape and oversee set locations on "Sahara," starring Matthew McConaughey, which had been plagued by pre-production cost overruns before its 2005 release. "The marketing cost is so high. ... Marketing is locked in with production right from the get-go." He added that marketers critique scripts, suggest budgets and are "always looking for trailer moments. ... We used to call Ryan movies 'thinking man's thrillers.' Now, it's a thinking man's action thriller."

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Neufeld can sound like a cattle rancher in an old western, his dreams tempered with pragmatism. He has three children. His wife of 41 years died in 1995. He remarried nine years ago. When you lay it all out — life and art and the moments in-between — it comes down to "just survival, I think. You go out and find good material and you stick with it and don't give up on it. ... I'm still looking for an Academy Award. If I stay around long enough it might happen."

"Mace is an old-style gentleman producer," said Kenneth Branagh, who directed and also plays the Russian villain in "Jack Ryan." "I've no doubt Mace has gotten into scraps. You don't get to where Mace has been without being tough. He was on our set every single day. As a producer he's careful with the dough. He has an almost puckish kind of delight, a gleeful pleasure in making movies."

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