The Sly Dog At Fox

Joe Roth heard all the rumors. They began circulating days after the dreadful opening of Fox's " For the Boys," scorned by Daily Variety as "the [Christmas] holiday's only turkey." Those rumors gained momentum after "Shining Through," another lavish World War II film that sank faster than a U-boat in the Battle of the Atlantic. By February, they were the topic at power lunches from Le Dome to Spago: Roth was on his way out as the chairman of the Twentieth Century Fox studio. "I said, 'If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen'," he recalls. "'It's the first real job I ever had. It'll be OK with me if it's the last job I ever had'."

Nothing that a couple of box-office bonanzas couldn't cure. Four months later, the studio is basking in the back-to-back successes of " White Men Can't Jump" and "My Cousin Vinny," low-budget sleepers that have already pulled in $107 million between them. To add to Roth's good fortune, the abrupt departure of Roth's boss, Barry Diller, has thrust Roth, a onetime comedy-show and B-movie producer, into the epicenter of Hollywood power. Diller's resignation, and Fox Inc. chairman Rupert Murdoch's pledge to keep his hands off the film division, should give Roth new latitude to shape the studio to his vision. Insiders say it will become even more reflective of Roth's laid-back, artist-friendly personality and even less like the coolly efficient machine of rival Walt Disney studio. Already Roth has scored his first post-Diller coup by signing the talented filmmaker James Cameron ("Terminator 2") to an exclusive 12-picture producer-director deal.

And Roth's grace under pressure during the dismal winter has enhanced his reputation as the gutsiest, most unflappable executive in Hollywood. "He's got sachel, " says producer Howard Rosenman, using a popular Yiddish phrase'. "It's a combination of intelligence, street savvy, instinct. Barry Diller has it; David Geffen has it; Roth has it. It's the name of the game out here."

Roth has struck gold despite (or maybe partly because of) his resolutely anti-Hollywood persona. For one thing, he attracts talent because he remains refreshingly free-at least on the surface-of the neuroses and paranoia that characterize many studio bosses. A former director ("Coupe de Ville"), Roth has assembled a loyal stable of filmmakers at Fox, ranging from Lawrence Kasdan ("Grand Canyon") to John Hughes ("Home Alone"). All say they were drawn to the studio by Roth's empathy and willingness to give them creative freedom. " He knows what it's like to be there at 5 in the morning, with an actor who won't come out of his trailer," says "White Men" writer-director Ron Shelton. Shelton says he was surprised by Roth's compliance when he asked for an expensive reshoot late in the editing process. "At Disney, you would have had committees, rewrites, budget fights," says Shelton. "This guy said, 'Go! Tell me [what it costs] later'."

Yet Roth has often found himself squeezed between the conflicting demands of art and commerce. Last year Roth hired a 27-year-old first-time feature director, David Fincher, to make "Alien 3," then watched as production problems and constant warfare on the set reportedly pushed the budget over $50 million (Roth says it was much less) and delayed the film many months. The most embarrassing moment came last October when, insiders say, Kit Culkin threatened to pull his son Macaulay from the "Home Alone" sequel unless Mack was also given a part in the film "The Good Son." Roth caved in, causing director Michael Lehmann to withdraw from the project. (Roth denies he was pressured and says he always wanted Culkin.) Insiders say Roth shows a reluctance to be confrontational, which can be costly in the film business. Still, Roth can be brutal when pushed to the breaking point. After weeks of sparring with " Shining Through" director David Seltzer over the movie's length, says one observer, "Joe stood up, paced and said, 'Let me disabuse you of the notion that you have any power in this situation. You're going to self-destruct'."

Roth learned early on how to rein in his emotions. He grew up on Long Island (N.Y.) in the '50s, the son of Lawrence Roth, a plastics-plant foreman with a passion for left-wing causes. In 1959 Roth's childhood was suddenly transformed when his father made him part of a test case in an ACLU suit to abolish prayer in public schools. Local ministers branded Joe the Devil; enemies burned a 25-foot cross on his lawn and planted a bomb in his basement; FBI agents shadowed him. " What saved me was that I played three sports, and the kids couldn't come to terms with a lefty-commie bad kid who was playing ball with everybody," says Roth. The lawsuit ended with a 1962 Supreme Court decision declaring public-school prayer unconstitutional. "Joe had to stand up at a very tender age," a friend says. "It made him dogged... very tough."

Roth lit out for San Francisco in 1970 and landed a gofer job on the set of "Freebie and the Bean." Later he produced shows for a comedy troupe called The Pischel Players, setting up shop in an L.A. club that later became The Improvisation. In 1975 Roth and director Neal Israel videotaped bits onstage with struggling comedians such as Chevy Chase and transferred the material to film. Distributed by a Dallas adult-movie house, "Tunnelvision" pulled in $17 million and launched Roth as a producer. He spent a decade reading 300 scripts a year and producing such forgettable B movies as "Americathon." It was a frustrating existence: in 1983 Roth peddled the " Back to the Future" screenplay, which every major studio rejected. Steven Spielberg eventually acquired the script and sold it to Universal-and the movie became a smash. Roth remembers: " I said, 'From now on, I'm getting the production money myself.' When you get burned like that, you don't forget it."

He found his godfather in James Robinson, a multimillionaire Subaru distributor from Baltimore. Robinson joined Roth in founding the mini-studio Morgan Creek, which produced such surprise hits as "Major League." A distribution deal with Fox led to Diller's offering Roth the studio chairmanship in 1989. Roth doubled the studio's releases to two dozen a year and made such mainstream hits as "Home Alone." The studio's box-office share jumped from 6 percent in 1989 to 14 percent in 1990. Roth, say experts, was one of the few Hollywood executives Diller respected. "Barry couldn't do what he always does, which is to grab your weak point and lord it over you," says a close observer of both. "Joe could always say, 'You don't like me? Pay me off. I'll go, live my life, make movies'."

Roth's psychic low point on the job was the failure of "For the Boys," starring Bette Midler, which cost around $45 million and produced sales of only $22.8 million. Concerned about Roth's performance, Diller suddenly began interfering in the day-today running of the studio. Roth admits he clashed with Diller over everything from TV ads to the title of "My Cousin Vinny" (Diller hated it) to the $40 million budget of the Christmas 1992 release "Hoffa," starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Danny DeVito. " It was annoying, but we always worked it out," says Roth. Diller's meddling ended abruptly one Monday last February, when Roth was summoned to Rupert Murdoch's office at 8:45 a.m. "Rupert said, 'Barry's leaving.' I said, 'Really? For how long?' He said 'No-no-no, he's leaving.' I was shocked." Neither Diller nor Murdoch could be reached for comment.

Roth was also, no doubt, relieved. Diller's departure means that Murdoch has virtually no choice but to renew Roth's contract, which expires in July. It has also given him more freedom to shape the studio to his vision. Last month Roth signed the hugely commercial filmmaker James Cameron ("Aliens") to a cofinancing arrangement that guarantees Fox a five-year flow of big-budget action movies. Roth moved after reading in Variety that Cameron, 37, planned to turn his firm, Lightstorm, into a mini-studio and was seeking a domestic distributor. "I called up [Cameron's agent] Jeff Bergand said, 'I guess I'm really late to this party.' Berg said, 'No, we haven't done a thing'." Cameron will raise 70 percent of his budgets overseas, and Fox will provide 30 percent of financing (up to $15 million a movie) in return for domestic rights. The deal isn't likely to enrich the studio, but it should keep Fox's pipeline filled with hits and boost its clout with exhibitors. "Joe started like me, scrabbling around, trying to get a picture together," says Cameron. "If Joe wasn't at Fox, I would never have done the deal."

Now the Hollywood spotlight is on Roth as he gears up for his most ambitious year. Roth continues to show his usual passion for projects both commercial and quirky: he recently green-lighted the Japan-bashing "Rising Sun," starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. ("I'm worried about [how it will affect] Japanese-Americans," he admits.) Rapidly approaching are two risky, expensive releases that could bring Roth his best Christmas season ever or plunge him back to last winter's nadir: "Hoffa" and "Toys," a comedy written and directed by Barry Levinson. Wandering through the elaborate "Toys" sets on the Fox lot--a fanciful toy factory and an elaborately rendered scale model of a wintry midtown Manhattan-Roth admits that the roughly $30 million-plus project fills him with both excitement and trepidation. "It'll be a big mystery to all of us until it comes out," he says, walking by a six-foot-high Chrysler building. Still, Roth is already an expert in Hollywood's survival game and could well survive his next run of bad luck. What's the secret? Just call it sachel.

Photo: An expert in Hollywood's survival game: Roth on a Fox lot in Culver City, Calif. (MICHAEL SALAS)

Roth scored big at Fox early in his reign, with John Hughes's 1990 comedy, "Home Alone," an $18.2 million film that has grossed $470 million in worldwide box-office receipts. It is the third highest-grossing film in history. Fox has also enjoyed lucrative returns with "Die Hard 2" ($237 million), "Hot Shots" ($175 million), "Sleeping With the Enemy" ($173 million), "Edward Scissorhands" ($84 million) and "Marked for Death" ($64 million). Two current releases, "White Men Can't Jump" and "My Cousin Vinny," were low-budget sleepers. The two movies cost just $28 million to make and have so far grossed $107 million.

"For the Boys" was the most resounding flop among a disappointing batch of films in late summer and fall 1991 that also included "Dutch" and "Only the Lonely," starring comedian John Candy. "Shining Through" started 1992 with a thud-and intensified rumors of Roth's ouster. Roth also hasn't made much distributing "art" films, including the Coon brothers' award-winning Hollywood melodrama, "Barton Fink." and David Cronenberg's junkie nightmare, "Naked Lunch."

This year's Fox lineup promises an eclectic mix of the commercial and the quirky. Bigger-budget extravaganzas include this week's "Alien 3," starring Sigourney Weaver; September's "The Last of the Mohicans," starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and "Hoffa," featuring a David Mamet screenplay. Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan star in the film version of the Broadway hit "Prelude to a Kiss" in July. Hot comedy writer Dale Launer ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "My Cousin Vinny") offers "Love Potion #9" in August, and Thanksgiving brings a likely winner: "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York."