The years had not been kind to Jim Stahl. It felt like a lifetime since I had first met him. There was something different, something lacking. The luster was gone, washed away by years of binge drinking and drug abuse. There was still something monolithic about him; he hadn’t lost that larger-than-life quality that had made him a star. He was tarnished bronze. Weathered marble. Chipped granite. A giant lumbering icon in a state of rapid deterioration.
His career had peaked just after our meeting four years earlier. Soon after, a series of embarrassing public events had stifled his ascension and sent him into a tailspin; his career trajectory had taken an earthbound turn. Now, he was entering the final stages as he began to burn out brightly during re-entry.
The producers were able to land him for the lead role in the movie (at my request) for a fraction of his usual fee, which at this point was barely enough to cover his drug habit. He was once a legitimate actor with unlimited potential; now, he was tabloid fodder. His name was only fit for print in the gossip section and the police blotter. In this digital age, one was far more likely to see his mug shot than his head shot.
It wasn’t just that he had made mistakes; plenty of famous people have dealt with scandals and recovered without a blemish. It was the frequency of his episodes and the embarrassing depths to which he sank. The routine DUI is a recoverable offense. Two or three become harder to reconcile. Stints in rehab are fine—off the grid for a few weeks, file a press release about dealing with exhaustion and grant an exclusive interview once released just to let an adoring public know you’re back on track. The public is forgiving—almost to a fault. There are celebrities who have literally killed people and somehow managed to maintain a rather healthy public profile. But Jim Stahl had engaged in a three-year bender that had made career rehabilitation a Herculean task for even the most gifted publicist.
There were several arrests for drunken fights at the most random locations: convenience store parking lots, the luggage section of a department store, a Burger King bathroom. Even these events were based in the sad rationale of addiction; these things could be explained away. There were plausible excuses that could be fabricated. Then, he began to indulge in the kind of behavior that the public won’t tolerate: sex acts in public restrooms, financial disputes with prostitutes, very public feuds with studio executives, paranoid claims of a shadowy organization orchestrating a massive conspiracy to end his career. Jim Stahl wasn’t just becoming another cautionary tale; he was rewriting the book on it.
The addiction and the stress had put 50 pounds on him. At some point he abandoned the idea of fashion and started wearing a track suit everywhere he went. His eyes had become sunken with dark circles under each socket, which he combatted by perpetually wearing dark sunglasses, even indoors. And he covered his thinning hair with a variety of vintage hats. He was a shell. An echo. A star in shambles. Yet, I was still thrilled to have him on board—a real actor in a movie I had written. An actor whose work I respected. His previous misdeeds didn’t matter to me. I was convinced that this was the first step in turning his career around. He would have a comeback, and I’d be responsible. Reality was something I still hadn’t reconciled.
The L.A.-based producers were nervous—and rightfully so. No insurance company would bond him. Without a bond the film had no net. If he decided to walk away mid-production or suffered some kind of breakdown, the entire movie would be awash. Because I was the one to introduce the concept of making this movie Jim Stahl’s comeback vehicle, I was put in charge of his care. I was to be given a producer credit for the simple solitary task of babysitting Jim Stahl. My enthusiasm would be equally matched by his disdain.
He missed his first flight, then his second. I wasn’t sure if he was just exhibiting typical movie-star behavior or was too stoned to figure out just where he was going. When he finally arrived at the airport, he appeared with a briefcase and two duct-taped garbage bags.
“What time is it?” he asked as he slumped into the passenger seat.
“8:30,” I replied.
“Great,” he said while lighting a cigarette “So I’m guessing the liquor stores aren’t going to be open at 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday in this town.”
“You guess right,” I replied.
“Glad I stocked up then.”
He opened his briefcase. There were a dozen miniature airplane-sized liquor bottles inside. He twisted the top off one and poured it down his open mouth.
“So are you my driver or my assistant?”
“Neither,” I replied.
“Wait … then who are you?” he asked as his eyes became glassy. “Are you one of them?”
“One of who?”
“Is this about the money? You think you guys can just intimidate me and I’ll fold? Let me tell you something, friend, that ain’t gonna happen.”
“No, Jim, I’m one of the producers,” I said, trying to derail wherever this conversation was heading.
“I don’t remember talking to you in L.A.,” he said while looking at me incredulously. “And why would a producer be picking me up at the airport?”
“We just wanted to make sure you knew how much we appreciated you being here.”
He just kept staring. Either he wasn’t used to this kind of quality treatment, or he thought I was lying and might try to stab me in the throat. The look on his face had me thinking it was more likely the latter.
“I also wrote the script.”
“Oh,” he said, taking a breath. “You’re the writer. OK. That makes sense. You got a producer credit for the screenplay—you’re not a real producer. Got it.”
He opened another mini bottle and started to drink.
“So, I got a list of things I need. When we get to the hotel, give this to my assistant.”
He handed me a crumpled piece of paper with at least 50 items on it. His handwriting was atrocious. I could make out several items. Beer. Wheat Thins. Ready Whip.
“I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just say it: You don’t have an assistant on this production.”
I thought he’d be angrier. His reaction was far more muted than I would have expected.
“So who’s going to take care of my business while I’m shooting your goddamned movie?”
It was a legitimate question, I suppose. I had always been told that a producer’s job was to fix problems, so I decided the best thing to do here was to appease.
“I guess that would be me.”
In hindsight it may have been the wrong call.