For many years, life has talked to Paul Lichtman.
Life told him to put the law book down. It told him to get fired. It mistakenly made him an actor, even without any prior experience.
And it led this self-proclaimed “free-spirit” with a unique belief in destiny to a successful 35-year career in show business as an actor, writer and producer.
Lichtman is the type of guy that might strike up a “show biz” conversation with a six-year-old, a dog or even a tree. It consumes him.
His eyes light up, his arms begin to flail with a Broadway flair and he starts to explain everything from acting techniques and proper movie script structures to his real expertise, financing films.
He wears the suit of an investment banker, but has the kind look of a neighbor. He listens with a calculated demeanor, but talks with the flamboyancy of an actor – his stories are packed with famous personalities, from the time he gave actor Dustin Hoffman one of his first jobs to the time David Geffen showed him the ropes.
During a conversation, he turns a frappuccino into a prop, transforms Splash Cafe into a movie set and makes both himself and his interviewer actors. Lichtman wants to show others his achievements are attainable and that working in the movie business is “truly a dream.”
His story is inspiring, with enough twists and turns to convince others, as he believes, that it was the only way it could have happened.
Law and disorder
Lichtman wasn’t born in Hollywood. His dad wasn’t a famous actor. In fact, up until age 27, he had never read, written or produced a line on a script.
Instead, he was unhappily trudging through law school at Columbia.
“Law school graduates you as an expert of nothing,” Lichtman explained. “I really didn’t plan anything. I knew what I didn’t want to do, I didn’t want to practice law.”
After a fellowship with the International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation and stint with Mobil Oil Co., Lichtman was “lured away” by the Singer Co.
But it was another dead end. He described his ex-boss in predictable movie fashion.
“He became Mr. Hyde from ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ Lichtman said in reference to the 1931 film about a doctor that turns into the evil Mr. Hyde after drinking a potion.
Throughout his life, Lichtman has let his free spirit and “the universe” lead him.
When his boss at Singer told him he had to be at work at 9 a.m. everyday – often impossible due to the train schedule – he continued to show up late until his boss “went postal” and fired him.
Lichtman walked straight out of the building and never returned to his office.
It was at that stage in life that this jobless, 27-year-old disgruntled soul would find his purpose.
“The universe reached down,” he says with a happy kick in his voice, “and got me into show business.”
In Lichtman’s apartment, there was a woman he’d often befriend after a hard day at work. Her father knew the head of the actor’s union, who created a position for the down-and-out, yet talented young lawyer.
“You never know who you’re going to meet and why you’re going to meet them,” Lichtman said. “You meet the same people going up as you meet going down.”
At Ashley Famous Agency, Lichtman met plenty of people on their way up. He’d learn to read agreements from a younger David Geffen – the now self-made billionaire and founder of Geffen Records – negotiated contracts for actors Burt Lancaster, Kurt Douglas and Flip Wilson and optioned off a number of Broadway shows.
He married in July of 1970, but returned from the honeymoon only to be immediately transferred to California.
Life had another twist for Lichtman, who by January of 1971 would again be without a job.
Into the pictures
It’s a strange paradox, Lichtman’s life philosophy. Taxes are anal he says, dentistry is boring and planning his life has been, for the most part, unnecessary – yet, he has made a career of pinpoint accuracy as a producer of financial planning for the movie business.
“I believe that life talks to you, I’ve always lived my life that way. Things open up and close,” Lichtman said. “I’ve never been able to plan what’s going on in five years or 10 years. Basically, things came up by accident.”
Due to an economical downturn in California, 50 percent of the employees at Ashley Famous Agency were let go, including Lichtman.
His wife, Terry Lichtman – an agent as fanatical about the movie business as him – encouraged him to write.
His spec comedy script landed in filmmaker Garry Marshall’s lap (“Pretty Woman,” “Murphy Brown,” “A League of Their Own”). Marshall was currently producing The Odd Couple television series.
“Gary calls me up and says to me ‘You’re a funny writer. Come in, I want to talk to you about punching up jokes on The Odd Couple,’” Lichtman said.
Marshall referred Lichtman to manager Pat McQueeney, who at the time and until she died was Harrison Ford’s manager.
He entered McQueeney’s office a writer and left an actor, one of the most fortunate accidents of his life.
“She said, ‘I’m going to need pictures,’” Lichtman said. “I knew that as a writer you don’t need pictures, so she must have thought Gary Marshall sent me there as an actor.”
Lichtman’s a preacher of predestination.
A conductor doesn’t pick up a stick and create a Ninth Symphony, a painter doesn’t splash together “The Last Supper” – amazingly, Lichtman, without a single acting lesson in his life, became a master of his art.
His acting credits during a 10-year period included stints as the janitor on “Barney Miller,” and parts for the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Baretta,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Chico and the Man” and many others.
“Being an actor is hearing and seeing things for the first time even though it’s the 40th take,” Lichtman said. “- I picked it right up because I always had the ability to make people laugh. I was always a funny man.”
At the same time, he wrote for a number of very popular shows including the “Bob Newhart show,” “All in the Family” and “The Partridge Family.”
Lichtman’s law and financial background seemed lost in his phenomenal Hollywood success. But soon he’d combine his talents, and something as simple as a Christmas gift would guide him to Eastern Europe.
Bringing work and paving paths
The last thing Lichtman will ever do is “fill hours.”
Every day in the movie business is unique. It’s a scene in Mexico, a sword fight in medieval times, or, often for Lichtman, a day convincing a bank to put millions of dollars into a project.
“It’s being able to sit here with you,” Lichtman said, “and still make money. You write a screenplay that gets produced as a movie or TV program and you’re getting money forever.”
After 10 years in the business, he turned to producing.
A Polish book he received for Christmas first gave him the idea of co-producing – the concept of working between two countries to create a movie. But Poland would have nothing to do with a Polish-American project.
“They never understood it,” he said. “- The concept of two countries getting together to do a film, it was unheard of at the time.”
The breakthrough came when a republic of the former Yugoslavia asked him to produce a World War II film. Los Angeles investors and an American cast combined to work with Yugoslavia to create “The Courageous” in 1980 – Lichtman’s first production.
But it’s when talking about his second production, “Transylvania 6-5000,” that Lichtman starts to really reel. He recalls taxes and law like a guy remembers time spent in jail, but movie-talk brings him to life, an instant catalyst to a charming storyteller.
Lichtman’s arms begin to move again – as if he’s already conducting his seminar he hopes to create on the Central Coast – his words speed up and his face enlivens. Even the financial aspect of movies sounds like a car chase down an open road, a Western duel, or a ride with Attila the Hun.
Lichtman begins to describe completion bonds, cash-flow charts, bond companies and all the facets of pre-production like an artist describes a favorite painting.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Lichtman says.
The Big One
“Transylvania 6-5000” originally was set to star Tom Hanks, but New World Production Co. waited until Mace Neufeld – producer of the Tom Clancy series – was on board before shooting. Hanks was already a star and unavailable.
Lichtman, producing the financial aspect, again co-produced the film in Yugoslavia using a $1 million commitment from Dow Chemical. The film went platinum, it jumpstarted the careers of Jeff Goldblum, Michael Richards, and Geena Davis, and it led Lichtman on to a litany of other projects.
As Yugoslavia’s presence in Los Angeles, Lichtman would produce 30 feature films, including “Winds of War,” “War and Remembrance,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Dirty Dozen.”
Lichtman most recently produced “The New Adventures of Robin Hood” in Lithuania and acted as character Barkley in 27 of the 52 episodes.
And all the while, the love of his life, Terry was running her own successful agency in Los Angeles.
Just in the past year, life talked to both Lichtmans – and they moved to Los Osos.
The ultimate movie tag-team
Terry Lichtman lights up just like her husband when recalling her time in Hollywood.
You get the idea that dinner with the Lichtmans is like walking in on a movie convention.
In 27 years as founder of the Terry Lichtman Company, Terry represented actors Sharon Lawrence (“NYPD Blue”), Stephen Furst (“Animal House”), Nicole Sullivan (“MAD TV”), Kathy Griffin (“Suddenly Susan”) and John O’Hurley (“Seinfeld”). Recently, she was added to the three-person jury for the selection of the winners in this years’ Film Festival in March. Paul Lichtman’s only son, Jordan, is, ironically enough, a lawyer. But Lichtman is quick to point out that he recently optioned a movie script.
A Central Coast project
Once again, excitement pulses through Lichtman. The idea of teaching his wealth of knowledge makes him something like a five-year-old finding a candy store.
“What I’d like to do, I would like to put together something up here,” Lichtman says. “An interactive seminar, basically ‘Let’s Make a Movie 101.’”
Lichtman hopes to find a younger student base for his seminar. For now, it’s just a dream in Lichtman’s head – but that’s proved to be quite a powerful thing.
Besides, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.