“The definition of a producer is someone who is impervious to rejection,” David Permut says. “If I believe in something I never let it go.”
The gig: Independent Hollywood producer David Permut spent 16 years trying to bring “Hacksaw Ridge,” the story of pacifist Army man Desmond T. Doss, to the big screen. The film, released this month to solid box-office sales, is the latest success for the president of Permut Presentations, whose credits include “Face/Off” and “Give ’em Hell, Harry.”
Star maps: Permut, 61, came to Los Angeles as a teenager when his father moved his family from Manhattan for business. His first job put him in a director’s chair — but not to make movies. Permut started a business when he was 15 publishing and selling neighborhood maps of celebrity homes for tourists. He set up his chair on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Ladera Drive in affluent Holmby Hills.
Stars including Elvis Presley and Fred Astaire had homes nearby, and Katharine Hepburn would autograph his maps, making them big sellers, he said. “Everyone knew me as the kid on the corner,” he said. “I saw these people’s houses and I knew I wanted to get into show business.”
Meeting Bill Sargent: Permut’s dad came home one night with a business card from an entertainment entrepreneur named Bill Sargent, who made an outlandish claim — he was going to reunite the Beatles. Intrigued, Permut went to Sargent’s office, a cramped, windowless room. Sargent told an incredulous Permut about his resume producing “Harlow,” “Hamlet” with Richard Burton and “The T.A.M.I. Show” documentary with the Rolling Stones. “When I first met him, he was working out of a utility room in an office building,” Permut said. “I didn’t necessarily believe any of it.”
Nonetheless, Sargent became Permut’s first Hollywood mentor. Permut spent his days that summer talking to agents and trying to secure casting for a stage play Sargent wanted to film. The project fell apart and after only several months of working together, Permut came to work to find that Sargent, an enigmatic figure prone to financial risks, had disappeared, and that his apartment was padlocked. Permut didn’t see him again for several years.
“Give ’em Hell, Harry”: Permut landed a job as a gofer for Roger Corman while he was taking classes at UCLA, and later wound up working at an independent talent agency in Beverly Hills. Then he got a call from a familiar voice: Sargent.
The executive sent a white Rolls Royce Phantom limo to pick him up and take him to a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and Permut and Sargent were back in business.
In 1975 they went to the Moore Theatre in Seattle and filmed a live performance of the one-man play “Give ’em Hell Harry,” about President Truman. They made the movie with six cameras and one take. When no studio in town wanted to distribute the movie, Permut called theater owners to book it himself. The project cost $60,000 to make, but the movie grossed $11.5 million in ticket sales and earned an Oscar nomination for actor James Whitmore.
“At age 21, I’m at the Oscars with James Whitmore and Bill Sargent with a movie we shot in one night,” Permut said, still amazed.
Richard Pryor to Ray Stark: Permut and Sargent followed up on their “Harry” success with a concert movie by a hot comedian, 1979’s “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.” After that box-office win, “Funny Girl” producer Ray Stark invited Permut to dinner and suggested he work for a studio. Stark’s connections led to Permut’s first major studio production deal on the Columbia Pictures lot.
Secret sauce: His career since then has included commercial hits (“Dragnet” and “Face/Off”) and indie fare (“Youth in Revolt,” “Charlie Bartlett”). “Dragnet,” for example, starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks in 1987, was an early example of re-imagining an old TV show for the movies. It was, Permut recalls, “the shortest pitch in movie history.”
“We went into Universal’s offices and said in unison, ‘Dum duh-dum dum,’” mimicking the famous theme song. It worked.
“The films of mine that have been hits, they have something in common,” Permut says. “They all have a unique hook.”
“Marrying Man”: Permut had one of his most harrowing Hollywood experiences with “Marrying Man,” a movie he signed on to make with Disney and Neil Simon. The production was notoriously fraught. Stars Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger reportedly banned two Disney executives from the set, leaving Permut to deal with Baldwin’s temper.
“There were so many things that did not go right on that film,” he said. “It was a real learning experience for me.”
“Hacksaw Ridge”: His latest major release tells the story of Desmond Doss, who won the Medal of Honor for his service at the Battle of Okinawa, despite his refusal to fight.
“When I first heard the story of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ 16 years ago, I didn’t believe it,” Permut said. “What a unique angle — someone who wouldn’t touch a gun, but served his country.”
Permut learned that other Hollywood big shots, like Darryl Zanuck and Hal Wallis, had wanted to film Doss’ story, but Doss — a Seventh-day Adventist — was reluctant. Permut connected with Terry Benedict, also a Seventh-day Adventist, who was working on a documentary about Doss. That relationship paved the way for the making of the new film.
“The definition of a producer is someone who is impervious to rejection,” he says. “If I believe in something I never let it go.”
Personal: Permut lives in Los Angeles and has a second home in Palm Springs where he likes to spend weekends. His partner of 17 years, John Seiber, works at Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles as vice president of development. He starts his day on a StairMaster, watching the news, reading the newspaper, and sometimes reading screenplays.
What’s next? Permut’s upcoming projects include “The Polka King,” starring Jack Black as a musician who ends up behind bars, planned for release next year. He also has “Punching Henry,” a sequel to his indie hit comedy “Punching the Clown.”