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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Oscar producer Larry Mark's deep, dark secret

February 12, 2009 | 10:55 am

Larry Mark couldn't believe his bad luck when I showed up for lunch on Wednesday. The veteran producer, who's in the midst of producing the Oscars with his pal, writer-director Bill Condon, thought I was just going to pepper him with obnoxious questions about what possible ingenious ideas he and Condon had cooked up to get anyone under 40 to watch the increasingly dowdy, out-of-touch Academy Awards. (We did gab about the Oscars--so expect to see a post about our chat soon.) Little did he know that he was being ambushed. I know that Mark has a deep, dark secret buried in the past--a secret that can now finally be revealed: He tried to hustle J.D. Salinger to give him the movie rights to "The Catcher in the Rye."

Back in the early 1980s, Mark was a baby-faced young studio production exec at Paramount Pictures, working for production chief Don Simpson, who was soon to fly the coop and team up with Jerry Bruckheimer to become one of Hollywood's uber-action producers. For some reason, the studio had decided it needed to make a teen film set at a prep school. (Mark's letter to Salinger was written right around the release of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," which might have something to do with the studio's interest in a teen storyline.) Since Mark had actually attended a tony Eastern prep school--he's a Hotchkiss grad--he got the job of supervising the project.

Salinger"We were buying books with prep school settings and having all sorts of writers come in with prep school pitches when finally we thought--'Come on, if we're going to do prep school, why don't we do "Catcher in the Rye"?' " he recalls. "Salinger was already a total recluse, but someone had recently snapped a photo of him getting his mail at the local post office. So I figured out the name of the local town and sent him a letter. I figured--what's the downside?"

The letter, which I've had on my wall for years (don't ask how I got it) as a classic Hollywood artifact, is addressed to Salinger, c/o Postmaster, Windsor, Vermont. In it, Mark explains to Salinger that the studio has been trying to develop, without success, a prep school project. He adds: "We have managed to come up with several scripts--all of them awful. You see, there's no way to do such a project--unless it happens to be 'Catcher in the Rye.' Isn't there some way in the world we might convince you to reconsider permitting and becoming involved in a film version of this novel?"

Already a shrewd salesman at a young age, Mark anticipates Salinger's biggest fear, saying, "I realize your concerns about Hollywood and its inhabitants--and I share many of those feelings. But there must be some way to have J.D. Salinger oversee each step of the way from novel to film." Then, in what Mark now laughingly describes as the letter's "42nd Street" moment, he concludes the letter by writing: "Please give a kid a break--and advise me how to go about changing your mind in this regard," signing the note, "very sincerely, Laurence Mark."

Needless to say, Salinger--who still lives in seclusion, having just celebrated his 90th birthday, which sparked a nice tribute from the N.Y. Times' Chip McGrath--never replied to Mark's heartfelt missive. Paramount had to make do without him. "I don't remember exactly what happened to the whole idea--I'm pretty sure it ended being some 'Prep School Murder' project that never went anywhere," Mark says. "But that was definitely me as a young studio guy, willing to try anything to get a picture going."

Some things never change. Now Mark, who is about to start work producing a new Jim Brooks film, is willing to do anything to get the Oscars out of their rut. We'll have more on the plans he and Condon have for the show coming soon.

Photo of J.D. Salinger from the Associated Press

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