“I just love walking into a theater; the lights dim, the studio logo appears on the screen, and it is magic for me.”
Steve Tisch, partner at Escape Artists Productions, chairman and co-owner of the New York Football Giants; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, December 5, 2018. Edited for clarity by the National Museum of American History, March 2019.
On making up stories in hotel lobbies in New Jersey
I grew up in the hotel and nightclub business in the ’50s and ’60s. My father had his first hotels in New Jersey and New York. I used to sit in hotel lobbies as a 10-year-old, by myself, watching the different hotel guests and using my imagination to make up stories about their relationships. I also watched the nightclub performers rehearse, then [perform] onstage for the hotel guests. No matter if it was a musician or a standup comic, the applause would validate their talent. My understanding of the relationship between entertainment and audiences was first molded in these experiences.
As a kid, I had a number of favorite TV shows: I Love Lucy, Sgt. Bilko, I Married Joan. For some reason, I was also fascinated by watching game shows: What's My Line, The Price is Right. And music was very much a part of my life. I remember listening to rock ’n’ roll on the radio as a six-year-old, and I had a record player that played 45-rpm records. Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt, Bobby Darin, Chubby Checker. I loved watching emerging rock groups as they were introduced on American Bandstand.
On going to Tufts and the beginnings of a career in film
The late ’60s were an amazing time to be in college at Tufts, to be 18 years old and in a city like Boston. There was so much evolution going on in the country politically, socially, racially, sexually. I ended up getting a degree in sociology, but I think the bigger education was those four years of experiencing change in the world and being very involved. I believe my generation changed the world a little during those years.
My family was also in the business of owning movie theaters. During the summers, I worked at Loews theaters as the assistant to the head film booker, which was a great opportunity to start to familiarize myself with the relationship between movie studios and exhibitors. I got to meet many distribution and marketing executives from the different movie studios. Then, the summer of 1971, after I graduated from Tufts, I was the assistant to Otto Preminger on a movie called Such Good Friends, shot in New York City.
Very frequently over the course of a weekend in New York, I would see three or four movies. I just love walking into a theater; the lights dim, the studio logo appears on the screen, and it is magic for me.
“I was never the guy to make a movie about an asteroid heading toward earth.”
After college, I took a position for the assistant to the head of production at the studio [Columbia Pictures] in Hollywood. To this day I consider Peter Guber my mentor. His enthusiasm, his passion, his love of the movie business, his imagination, his ability to see so far beyond the borders of what is possible … For me those five years working for Peter was both graduate school and getting my PhD.
Within eight months of leaving Columbia in 1976, I was producing my first film called Outlaw Blues for Warner Bros. on location in Austin, Texas. I was 27 years old, and I realized this is clearly what I loved doing.
As a producer and a filmmaker, I am very interested in telling stories about relationships, stories about how people live with the challenges in their lives, confront the issues in their lives, overcome certain challenges in their lives. I was never the guy to make a movie about an asteroid heading toward earth. I want to make a movie that hits all three E's that are important to me: entertain, educate, and empower. Now that’s an incredible experience.
On Forrest Gump: “This movie had to be a love story.”
By 1985, I had my own production company called The Steve Tisch Company. Wendy Finerman was my head of development, and she was very good at soliciting original scripts. She came in one morning and said, “I read this amazing 100-page novella last night. You have to read it. It’s called Forrest Gump.” I saw what she saw in the character Forrest Gump, but to develop that into a movie was easier said than done.
Forrest Gump had a gestation period of nine years. First Warner Bros. made a deal with us over the course of six years. Six different screenwriters tried and ultimately failed at turning this 100-page novel into a movie script. They gave the book back and said, “Good luck.” Then Paramount gave us an opportunity to develop it one more time. It took him a long time, but a great writer named Eric Roth turned the novel into Forrest Gump, the 140-page script. Eric figured out what none of the other writers could: This movie had to be a love story. More than one love story. It is Forrest’s relationship with his mother, with Jenny, with Lieutenant Dan, and with Bubba. Forrest’s character sees the world through the eyes of an innocent without an agenda, without opinions, without cynicism, without selfishness.
On American History X
I’m extremely proud to have been one of the producers of Forrest Gump, but in some ways I am even more proud to have been one of the producers of a movie called American History X. It is extremely graphic and disturbing, but when I hear people say, “That's one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen,” it validates why I got involved. It was written 20 years ago, but the script, the subject matter, the performances seem to be ripped from today’s headlines.
On a special relationship with father and football
My father, Preston Robert Tisch, was an amazing role model. He was just one of those people who had the charisma and the personality to make everybody feel comfortable, whether you were staying in the penthouse or working in housekeeping. He knew your name. He would ask how your children are doing. I hope those qualities he possessed are in my DNA as well as my kids’.
He would take me to New York Giants games in the early ’60s. Born in Brooklyn, my father’s love of New York sports teams was very much a part of his growing up. In late 1990s, he was offered an opportunity to buy half of the New York Giants and to partner with Wellington Mara. I think you could measure his excitement on the Richter scale.
My father was diagnosed in August of 2004 with brain cancer. I moved from Los Angeles to New York and made a commitment to spend the rest of his life with him. Fortunately, it became a 16-month experience that was absolutely unforgettable, emotional, exciting. At a certain point he said to me, “When I'm no longer able to represent our family’s interest in the Giants, will you take over?” I am now my family's representative in half ownership of the Giants, and my partner is John Mara who lost his father three weeks earlier than I did.
Over the past 13 years, we have experienced two Super Bowls, and nothing can be better than that feeling. But the team has also had losing records and changes in coaches and general managers that are challenging. The NFL has had its own challenges with issues ranging from the national anthem kneeling to concussions and domestic violence. Many of those issues we know within the NFL community are also issues within the bigger experience of the country. There is a lot of responsibility that owners have to make the game a better experience and to make the world a better place. I think professional sports is a great opportunity to do that.
I love football because it’s emotional. It’s physical. The fans. Football brings people together. Attending football games is a multi-generational experience. There's so much tradition.
On Farrah Fawcett's swimsuit and Denzel Washington’s photograph
My own experience working with Farrah Fawcett on The Burning Bed really gave the television audience a chance to experience a very gifted, committed, passionate, and talented actor. It was an opportunity to find out that she is not just a sex symbol with a lot of blonde hair. The Burning Bed was a true story about a victim of domestic violence who decided to act in her own defense, and she murdered her husband. That movie brought a tremendous amount of attention, very early on, to the issue of domestic violence. Farrah Fawcett’s performance was unbelievable. That movie was made 35 years ago on a subject matter that is even more topical and pervasive today, and that is pretty sobering.
My partners and I have produced seven or eight movies with Denzel Washington. I find this picture very striking because he is one of the most genuinely talented, passionate, sincere performers I have ever worked with. I really think he accepts the responsibility of an actor to find the truth.