David Permut is a staple on the Sundance scene with a film-watching regime that’s hard to imagine. The award-wining film and TV producer has never lost his love of sitting in the theater and watching a story unfold on the big screen. His career spans four decades with more than 40 movies and TV series. Permut’s projects include the blockbuster-action film “Face/Off” and “Dragnet” starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks (if you’re enjoying all your favorite old shows rebooted for the big screen, thank David!). He’s also responsible for indie films like the hit comedy “Punching Henry” and the classic film “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.” And many of us know him from the acclaimed, Emmy-nominated made-for-TV movie “Prayers For Bobby.” Oh, and his film “Hacksaw Ridge” was nominated for six Oscars, three Golden Globes and numerous other awards.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending Sundance and the good fortune to meet and greet a number of up-and-coming creators as well as the movers and shakers in the film industry, including the friendly, fun and fascinating Mr. P.
PGN: You’re a veteran here. Tell me about your Sundance experience.
DP: My first film at Sundance was about a gay woman, a bisexual woman and a male escort. It was 1991 and the film was called “Three of Hearts.” I’ve come every year since then unless I’m shooting a movie. I love movies. If I don’t have a film screening here, I see everything I can. In fact, that’s why we have a time limit today- because I have a four- or five-movie-a-day habit that I have to feed! When I can, I stay here from the first to last day and see about 50 movies, which I know is a little insane. It’s hard to absorb everything when you’re seeing that many movies in a day so I even see some a second time to make sure they were as great as I thought they were. Sundance is amazing for that.
PGN: Where did you grow up?
DP: I’m from New York. I moved to Los Angeles when I was a kid but I still have a New York spirit.
PGN: Were your parents in show business?
DP: No, they were both outside of the movie business. I always had tunnel vision. I’d get lost in the movies, lost in television. Like most of my generation, I’m a product of television. When we moved to California, my first job was selling maps to the stars’ homes on Sunset Boulevard. I was 16 and I published the maps myself. I had a director’s chair and a big sign. Stars like Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire and Elvis lived nearby. It was a more innocent time. There was no TMZ around and Ms. Hepburn would autograph the maps to help me sell them.
PGN: That’s really cool.
DP: Yeah, so I guess you could say that it was my first job in the entertainment business. I was always making movies as a kid. I later discovered when I applied to art school that perhaps it wasn’t my forte. The professor looked at my little 8-millimeter movies and put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Son, did you ever think of being a producer?” after I had directed all these movies! But I took his advice and realized my own limitations. I’m not a writer. I’m not a director. Though I revere their talents, but I produce and I’ve loved doing it for as many years as I have.
PGN: How did you get started?
DP: I got very lucky early on in my career. I made my first feature film in 1976. There was a play called “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” and I decided it would be a good idea to videotape it. No one had done that before — taping a live show — but it took me to the Oscars that year with a Best Actor nomination for James Whitmore who played the lead role. I went to the Oscars again last year with “Hacksaw Ridge,” kind of a full-circle moment. That was pretty incredible. I’d heard about Desmond Doss and how he was the only person ever to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for being on the front lines of Okinawa without ever touching a weapon and I knew I had to tell the story. It took me 16 years to get it produced!
PGN: I heard you had a much easier time getting “Dragnet” green-lit.
DP: Yes, “the shortest pitch in movie history.” We went into Universal’s offices and sang the theme song: Dum duh-dum dum. It worked.
PGN: Tell me about Bill Sergeant?
DP: He was my mentor. He was a real character. He was a showman, a promoter, a real larger-than-life character. We did “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” and “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.” Bill was a visionary — PT Barnum and Mike Todd rolled into one. In Hollywood, we’re all dreamers; all hoping to make the next great film and wind up on the Oscar stage. You always want to achieve greatness, you don’t have to make a film that is Oscar-worthy but you always want to make something that you think is worthy, whether it’s something that’s for pure entertainment like “The Polka King” or something more serious like “Hacksaw Ridge.” As the older Warner brother, Harry, used to say, we should strive to educate, enlighten and entertain — the three “Es” in the medium of film. I’m very proud as a result of that. My tastes tend to be very eclectic, so I’ve made a lot of different kinds of movies.
PGN: When did you come out?
DP: I don’t know, I’m bad with years and times. I came out to my family when I was a teenager, but I didn’t come out early on in my career. I really separated my personal life from my business very definitively so I don’t really know, but it was before “Three of Hearts” and that was in 1991. [Laughing] That’s the way I keep track of time! I remember movie years. Let’s see. “Dragnet” was in ’87, so probably around then.
PGN: How did “Prayers for Bobby” affect you?
DP: I tried to get that story told for 13 years. It was originally going to be a feature film, but we spent a long time down those long, windy roads we spend in development. But in the end, it could not have come together in a better way for us and was probably enjoyed by many more people landing on the small screen as a cable movie. Sigourney [Weaver] was unbelievable. She had never done television before. It has a big impact on me and I was very proud of it. I still am. Dan Sladek and Chris Taft brought me the project and we produced it together and there’s not a week that goes by that all three of us don’t get letters from someone around the world that the film touched. At some point, we’ll try to do a book with the letters we’ve received with the proceeds going to the foundation for Bobby. The letters are from parents, from suicidal kids. The film really made a difference to a lot of people and you’ll be able to feel that impact from the letters.
PGN: Isn’t it amazing how much things have changed from the days when playing a gay character was considered a death knell? Harry Hamlin was told his career would be over for doing the film “Making Love” and now you have straight men flirting with Bruno on “Dancing with the Stars” as he talks about their “bums.”
DP: It’s interesting that you pose that thought because several years ago, David Bender, whose world is politics and entertainment — he produced Rachel Maddow’s show so he’s very politically astute, but he also ran Roseanne Barr’s company and worked with David Crosby-anyway, he came to me about three years ago because he wanted to do a series following in the footsteps of what Vito Russo did so brilliantly with “Celluloid Closet” years ago for HBO. David’s idea was to show the power of television and its impact on LGBTQ equality and social change over the decades. We started to do it as a documentary and we’re planning on taking it to Sundance. Our first interview was with Norman Lear. Norman had the first gay character on “All in the Family” and David played him an audiotape that he had never heard. It was from the White House, in the Oval Office, and it was Richard Nixon talking to Robert Haldeman about the previous night’s episode of the show and he was going on and on about ‘this queer on that Archie show …’ It was at the height of the Vietnam war and he was ranting and railing about this sitcom. Norman had heard about the tape but he was hearing it for the first time as we were filming him. Imagine that, a president ranting about insignificant things instead of concentrating on important issues … Anyway, that’s where our journey started and we’ve done 43 interviews thus far. It’s called “Out of the Box” and it’s now expanded to a docu-series. Six decades of television starting with Milton Berle in drag to Jeffery Tambor in “Transparent” and everything in between. We’ve interviewed all the usual suspects: Michael Douglas talking about Liberace, and it includes animation, news; Rachel Maddow’s interview was amazing; and many more. We’re in the middle of a negotiation right now and everyone seems to want the project! There will be a big announcement very shortly. I’ll keep in touch with you on it.
PGN: That’s fantastic, I’m definitely excited to see that. So last year at Sundance, I had trouble finding LGBT community there. This year, I was able to make it to the Queer Brunch and the Love Lounge and that really helped me connect to other LGBTQ film folks. What was your gayest moment at Sundance?
DP: Well for me it always comes back to films and the many incredible movies shown here over the decades that have affected me. To tell you the truth, I very rarely do interviews like this or have meetings or attend many parties. My mission is those five movies a day.
PGN: Did you get any pushback in the industry when you came out?
DP: No, never in the professional realm. I’ve experienced homophobia outside of L.A., I have a partner of 17 years, John Seiber, and I remember us being in Las Vegas and someone making comments about us — that sort of thing. But it’s a different time now. Remember Raymond Burr from “Perry Mason” and “Ironside”? We interviewed his partner for “Out of the Box.” As far as anyone knew, he was just his producing partner, but they were together for 35 years.
PGN: Is John in the business?
DP: No. He’s always worked in nonprofit with organizations like Caring for Babies with AIDS, Project Angel Food, Heal the Bay, the Alzheimers Association, etc. So he’s in the real world doing great things and I move in the make-believe world like Peter Pan.
PGN: How did you meet?
DP: Through a mutual friend; he’s from Tennessee and I guess you could say opposites attract. He’s been to Sundance once and that was enough for him!
PGN: Any crazy moments with Richard Pryor?
DP: Richard didn’t want to do a film. He turned me down for years and, frankly, the only reason he did it was because he needed money at the time. But it helped him cross over. Before that, most white audiences were not going to see him live. He was playing at mostly black venues that they would never venture to but now they could see his live act from the comfort of their local theater. His mainstream career exploded after that. I love comics and I’ve been very lucky to work some of the greats. Rodney Dangerfield was one of my best friends, which may seem odd, but Rodney was a fascinating, complex individual. Like Richard, his dark past infused a lot of his comedy. Rodney grew up in Kew Gardens, New York, and as a kid was called a “dirty rotten Jew.” He was sexually abused by the man who lived next door. His father left him when he was 2 and his mother was a raging alcoholic. The fact that Jacob Cohen — his real name — made it out and found success in comedy at age 42 is pretty remarkable. I’m intrigued by that darker side that propels them.
PGN: Wow. Are you doing the Dangerfield story?
DP: Well, I’m developing something on Sam Kinison now. Rodney discovered him. He was a Pentecostal preacher before doing comedy. It’s really interesting.
PGN: Do you have a TV or film preference?
DP: I just like a good story. Both mediums have made such an impact on lives and bringing us closer through learning about each other. And this is an important time to remind people that we’re all in this together, especially because of the current political climate. It’s terrifying right now. But I believe there’s a reason for things to happen. Maybe this will lead people who have been apathetic in the past to get engaged and active. Hopefully we can help by producing stories that will evoke change and get people motivated.
PGN: What’s your M.O.?
DP: I always feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. You mentioned early on — my mentor, Bill Sergeant — what he instilled in me was that if you persist, dreams can come true. How amazing it’s been to be at the Oscars with “Hacksaw Ridge” after trying so long to get it made, how amazing to have something like “Prayers for Bobby” still have an impact? And how amazing is it to be sitting here at Sundance with you now? I’m truly a lucky guy.
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