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One On 1 Profile: Longtime Film Producer David Picker Tells Stories Of A Life Behind The Scenes

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The James Bond series, "Ordinary People" and "Midnight Cowboy are all major Hollywood films, and they are all connected to New Yorker David Picker, one of the most influential movie producers and executives of his time. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following report.

For all of his 82 years, David Picker has been surrounded by the movies. Around his Upper West Side apartment, almost all of the memories are connected to movies, including family members.

"That's me, that's my mom, Walter Pidgeon, that's my dad, and we were visiting MGM," he says, displaying one photo.

There are also personal notes from stars like Woody Allen and Steve Martin.

Mishkin: He [Steve Martin] says, 'David, you've made me what I am today.'
Picker: Yeah, something like that.

There are even memories of movies that didn't make it.

"I made this picture, 'Won Ton Ton: The Dog That Saved Hollywood,' that was going to, I thought, be a tribute to the old comics," he says. "Unfortunately, it was a tribute to a not a very good movie. (laughs)"

For many of his 60 years in the movie business, David Picker has been a behind the scenes power broker, serving as president and CEO of United Artists, Paramount and Columbia.

NY1 met him at a Paramount screening room.

When you've gone to hundreds of screenings, you pay attention to every detail.

"Nature of the lighting, nature of the color, the nature of the curtain on the screen, the kind of seats," he says.

As a producer and movie executive, Picker has been connected to major stars and prominent films.

There are plenty of stories, many contained in a new book called "Musts, Maybes and Nevers."

Picker laid the groundwork for The Beatles' first film, "A Hard Day's Night." He says that when the film was screened in Hollywood in 1964, one of his United Artists bosses didn't understand it, but didn't seem to mind.

"This movie was as alien to him as a movie in Swedish," he says. "He leaned over and said, 'We're going to make a lot of money with this, aren't we?' And I said, 'Yes, Bob, we're going to make a lot of money with this movie.' (laughs)"

Picker signed Woody Allen to a multi-picture deal at United Artists and was there when he pitched his first idea.

"It's about a clarinet player who's got a cocaine problem. And I look at him and I said, 'Stop. Right there.' I said, 'It's approved. For the fifth picture in the deal, I want something funny.' We made a deal for you to make something funny," he says. "Three days later, Sam calls. He says, 'David, Woody's got an idea for his movie.' I said, 'Great, what is it?' He said, 'Well, it's called "Bananas."' I said, 'It's approved.'"

Picker was an early supporter of Steve Martin and helped make The Jerk.

"I'd seen 'em all. I'd never seen anyone like Steve Martin," he says.

Picker also has stories about the ones that got away. He was a big fan of a screenplay entitled "American Graffiti," written by a young and talented filmmaker, but Picker couldn't convince his boss to finance the film, so they passed. The filmmaker, George Lucas, enjoyed a little bit of success.

"Every time I see him, he looks at me and he says, 'You could have had "Star Wars."' Because if we had made "American Graffiti," I would have had a shot at 'Star Wars,'" he says.

David Picker was born and raised in New York City and has managed to spend most of his career in the movie industry living here.

Mishkin: Was there ever a tug to move to California?
Picker: I served two sentences. I served a three-year sentence and an eight-year sentence.
Miskhin: Eight-year sentence is a pretty long sentence.
Picker: You're telling me.

He grew up in the business. His grandfather built a theater chain in the Bronx that eventually merged in Loews Theaters. His father worked for Loews. His uncle was in the business.

"This is all I ever wanted to do," he says. "I grew up hanging out in my father's office. I couldn't wait to start. I read every trade paper when I was a kid."

Picker attended Dartmouth College, but would come home each summer to work in film.
His family connection obviously gave him a leg up, but he still had to show that he would do anything to make it. One job involved transporting 3-D glasses all over the city.

"We had thousands of glasses that had to go to Lowes and RKO chains from Long Island City, brought back after use to be put through this sterilizing machine and returned to the theaters," he says. "And I worked out routes because I knew where the theaters were."

Picker may have been one of the few who fulfilled his military service while sleeping at home. He tells the story that he was assigned to teach photography and photo lab tech work at Fort Slocum on an island off of Westchester. When it was announced that the base lacked enough beds for personnel, Picker came up with an idea.

"I said, 'Why don't you find out how many live around here?'" he says. "'Oh,' he said, 'What a good idea. How many men live around here?' (raises his hand) I never slept a night on an Army barrack in my life, and they solved the problem."

Picker has seen many sides to the movie industry, including a unique set up at United Artists.

"If you have a studio and nobody's shooting movies in it, you're going to lose money," he says. "We had a great advantage because we didn't own a studio."

United Artists was then bought by an insurance company, and Picker's boss wanted a five-year ROI.

"I didn't know what the hell an ROI was, so he said, 'Return on investment,'" he says. "'Oh, OK, great.' (Raises hand) 'Jack?' 'Yes David?' 'I don't know what pictures I'm releasing in two years.'"

Of the many lessons Picker has learned, one is that they're not all going to be box office hits.

"If you don't have a sense of humor, you're going to be in a lot of trouble," he says. "We know they're not all going to work, and if you think they are, you're delusional."

Some colleagues haven't handled it so well.

"I've had friends, and I can't be specific, because that's a very deep question you've asked, who haven't been able to deal with it," he says. "It's very, very sad when that happens because lives get destroyed."

This line of work has taken its toll on Picker, too.

"Sometimes I excused my lack of family commitment to a rationalization that I was really doing this business for my family, and therefore justifying what I was doing in that sense, which was basically telling myself a lie just to avoid the reality of the mistake I might have made," he says.

Picker's last movie was "The Crucible" in 1996. He says that he's fine with the reality that he will not produce another movie.

"I know people. People call me. Friends of mine are doing things all the time," he says. "I don't feel a sense of loss. A sense of reality, sure, 'cause I'm a grownup."

At the Columbia University school of the arts, Picker offered these final words to the graduating class of 2012, quoting someone he met long ago, Truman Capote.
He might just as well have been describing his own life in the movies.

"He said, 'I want to get to the top of the mountain because although the air is thin, the view is exhilarating,'" he says.

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