Many of us have read Rob Cohen’s story about how he discovered David Ward‘s script of The Sting while working for Mike Medavoy at International Famous Agency (IFA), which later merged with Creative Management Associates (CMA) in ’75 to become International Creative Management (ICM).
Cohen told the tale to journalist Germain Lussier in late November of 2008. I reposted the story in April 2012, or a couple of months before the release of a new Sting Bluray; I reposted it on 11.14.18.
I’ve known Medavoy since the early ’90s, and have always found him to be a decent hombre. I happened to run into him during the Neon/Parasite Oscar night party at Soho House on 2.9.20. I asked him about Cohen’s recollection and Medavoy said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that story.” He not only has a completely different recall but thinks it was “pretty silly” of Cohen “to have put himself at the center of it.”
I called Mike yesterday for the chapter-and-verse. Here’s how it goes, straight from the horse’s mouth:
“Tony Bill had been my friend and client. Sometime in ’72 he said to me, ‘I want to option a con-man project from a very talented writer named David Ward. Ward was the author of The Sting, except when Tony got it hadn’t been written. It was just on tape. The option would be $5000, he told me, so how about you and I putting up $2500 each and you can leave the agency business and co-produce the film with me? I said ‘I don’t have enough money to leave the agency business but I’ll be your agent on it.’ On top of the fact that I had a lot of clients at the time and was in the midst of putting together Young Frankenstein and later on Jaws.
“Bill then found Michael and Julia Phillips to cofinance the option. Michael had been an investment banker in New York. Anyway the $5K went to David Ward. Then one day I was playing tennis in Malibu with Robert Redford, who had gotten the script. He decided he was interested in it. By this point I had listened to The Sting on tape, and I thought it was terrific. Then a script version came in, and I read it and liked it.
“Around the same time Cohen came to me for a job. I gave him the script and he liked it a lot. So based on our liking the same script I hired him as my assistant — that’s how he got the job.
“While in London Michael and Julia had given it to Dan Melnick while I was gone, and they were interested and got into a negotiation. At that time Ward wanted to direct the movie at MGM. Donald Sutherland and Peter Boyle, who were also my clients, had gotten the script first and wanted to play the leads. At the same time I gave it to Zanuck-Brown, who had just moved from Fox to Universal, and then they got it to George Roy Hill, whom they’d worked with on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
“Then they gave it to Newman, who passed. Paul had an apartment in Manhattan, and George lived there also. So one night George and Redford sat in Newman’s apartment and tried to convince him, and at the end of the meeting Paul said he wasn’t gonna do it. But as he walked them to the elevator he said, ‘I’m just kidding, I’ll do it.’ And that was it. They came into the office and we made the deal. Right after that I was banned from the MGM lot.
“[MGM boss] Jim Aubrey had been hugely impressed that Columbia and BBS had made Easy Rider for a million dollars, and he felt that all movies ought to be done inexpensively and so he wanted The Sting to be made inexpensively too.
“But we decided that Universal would do a better job and who would not want to Bring Butch and Sundance back together again? So we made the deal with Zanuck=Brown Who had just left Warner Bros to join Universal. Who knows what would’ve happened if they’d made the film with Aubrey and Ward?” With my other two clients Sutherland and Boyle.
“Boyle went on to my other package, Young Frankenstein, and was brilliant in tat — that’s another story. That year we also represented a book by Peter Benchley entitled Jaws, which also sold to Zanuck I gave that to Zanuck and Brown, and that too has a story.”
HE interjection: I’m personally sorry that Cohen’s version has been called into question, as it has a certain ring and Cohen tells it very well.
Here’s Cohen (The Fast and The Furious) story, as passed along to Germain Lussier:
“I was a reader for 100 bucks a week for a big agent named Mike Medavoy, who went on to be a studio head and producer. Mike put me in this cubbyhole and they hadn’t had a reader in about a month and the backup was enormous in this agency because I was reading scripts for all the agents. So I was in this little cubbyhole piled floor to ceiling with unread scripts and I began to develop a little code unto myself. Like ‘I will never read two scripts in a row with yellow covers.’ Or ‘On Wednesday, I only read scripts with blue covers.’
“So there are all these piles, and Wednesday came and I pulled this script out of the bottom of heap. I had to read five scripts a day and write the coverage on them, basically reading 600 pages of material and writing 10 pages of material a day, which is a lot. So I started to read this script like you begin to read all scripts, like, dubious, because after you’ve been disappointed so many times reading, ‘When am I going to read a really good script?’
“And so I kept turning the pages on this one and it got better, then it got better and it got better and I realized that finally at the end I had been conned and the audience had been conned just like any other long con or short con in the movie. I flipped out and I wrote this glowing two-page synopsis and opinion, that I still have framed in my office, in which I fully went on record as this is the great American screenplay and this will make an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film.
“And the agent, Medavoy, came into my cubbyhole after he read the coverage and said, ‘How good is this script?’ and I said, ‘It’s as good as I just told you.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to try to sell it this afternoon and if I don’t you are fired, so tell me how good the script is.’ I said, ‘You can fire me if you don’t sell it.’
“And he went out, called a few people at Universal and the script was bought that day. And by the end of the week, it had Newman and Robert Redford and George Roy Hill reprising their relationships from Butch Cassidy.’”