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Forgotten Hollywood: The Back Story of the Making of “The Cotton Club”

It was 1979 and the once-wunderkind of Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans, was trying to recapture his former glory days by moving into independent producing. He had bought the rights to a 1977 book by Jim Haskins called “The Cotton Club: A Pictorial and Social History of the Most Famous Symbol of the Jazz Era” for $350,000 from a guy called Charles Child who was a Union Carbide executive. Evans was convinced he had a Godfather-like hit on his hands with the jazz-age tale of white gangsters and Black artists. “Gangsters, music, and p***y,” he told New York Magazine in 1984. “How could I lose?” He also said he thought a $20 million budget was a “sure thing.”
Six years and $58 million later, The Cotton Club opened in 1984 to mixed reviews and dismal box office. The back story of the making of the film is possibly more interesting than the film itself.
Along the six-year way, Evans chased numerous investors and got in bed with two Las Vegas casino operators and a Saudi arms dealer. He had to fight a cocaine conviction and was entangled in a murder investigation of yet another financial backer. He had to convince a wavering Richard Gere to stay with the project as its lead while Gere contended with endless production delays, hundreds of script changes, and a fear of being overshadowed by his Black colleagues. His fights with director Francis Ford Coppola were endless, a carryover from their Godfather days. Add in a gangster who was brought in to babysit the production; a gusher of spending with no firm budget ever specified and where actors had no idea if their weekly checks would clear; and the endless compromises with shady characters to bring in more money, and it was a wonder that the film ever got made. “The movie was like a vampire,” production designer Dick Sylbert told New York Magazine. “You’d think, ‘This is it, it’s finally got a stake through its heart.’ But every day it would come out of its coffin. It didn’t die. Somehow, it didn’t die.”
Initially, Robert Altman was to direct the film, Mario Puzo was hired to write the script, and Paramount Pictures was to co-produce with Evans. In 1981, Evans was introduced to a Saudi arms deal called Adnan Khashoggi who promised to put up $2.5 million, with a further commitment to up the amount to $12 million. When the Altman-Evans collaboration Popeye flopped, Paramount got cold feet and pulled out. Khashoggi then withdrew his offer after saying he didn’t like Puzo’s script, although his also demanding 55% of the picture from Evans – which Evans refused – was probably the real reason the deal fell through.
Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford all variously briefly held the leading role. Evans also pursued Richard Pryor for the Black lead. Then Evans had to fight a cocaine rap, delaying his financing efforts for a year until he plea bargained and then had to make an anti-drug PSA. At this point, Evans wanted to direct the film himself and also wanted to own the negative, sending investors fleeing as that would mean they would not share in ancillary profits.
After unsuccessfully wooing some Texas oilmen, per New York Magazine – one of whom died the day after agreeing to finance the movie, others committing the day before the bottom fell out of the oil market – Las Vegas casino operators Ed and Fred Doumani agreed to finance the film along with a partner, Victor L. Sayyah, for $30 million, even though they were under investigation by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. According to the AFI Catalog website, the partners would get 50% ownership of the film, and Evans mortgaged his Beverly Hills mansion, liquidated his savings and sold his (Paramount parent) Gulf + Western stock to provide collateral.
Also according to AFI, another investor was brought in by Evans’ drug dealer, Karen Greenberger. This was entertainment promoter Roy Radin. Radin was a vaudeville producer and cocaine dealer with ties to South American drug lords. An arrangement was underway for him to finance the film when he was killed execution-style, his remains dumped 65 miles outside of Los Angeles. Three men and Greenberger were charged with his killing; Evans was a suspect and took the Fifth Amendment when called to testify at what became known as the “Cotton Club Trial.” He was subsequently exonerated.

At this point, Coppola, who had been brought in to rewrite Puzo’s script, was begged by Evans to direct. Evans gave up his directorial ambitions to create a selling pitch – the director and writer and producer of The Godfather were now making their next epic. Coppola reluctantly agreed to direct because the failure of One From the Heart had bankrupted his company, Zoetrope Studios, and he was in the hole for millions.
William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Ironweed,” was hired by Coppola to be his co-scriptwriter. Kennedy wrote of their travails in Vanity Fair of November 1984: “Fourteen, sixteen-hour workdays were not unusual, and once we worked thirty-four hours without sleep. Coppola called this sort of stint ‘the death trip.’ From July 15 to August 22, when shooting began, we produced twelve scripts, including five during one forty-eight-hour, nonstop weekend. We lost track of the number of scripts we turned out, but it was somewhere between thirty and forty.
“One of Coppola’s methods of rewriting was to lift the climax of reel six, say, and put it in reel two. This does things to reel three that you probably hadn’t counted on, and also leaves you with a problematical hole between reels five and seven. At times he would ravage the entire script, insert long-dead sections of old scripts, and offer up an unrecognizable new document. Work would then begin anew to make it make sense … The continuously unfinished, unfathomable script vexed the production department and created an army of critics and second-guessers who read each new version as if it were the last word. Coppola viewed each version as raw material. Like the actors, he and I were in rehearsal for the final product.”
Shooting began on August 22, 1983, at the Kaufman Astoria Studios, and Coppola abruptly fired 18 crew members, including the cinematographer, John Alonzo; the unit production manager; an executive producer; music producer Jerry Wexler, and the music arranger. Then, upset because Evans threatened to deduct his pay if the production went over budget, he ran away to London, only returning when Evans caved.
Money was flying out the window, according to the New York Magazine article. All travel for even the lowliest associate of the movie was first class, with limos and five-star hotels for everyone. Wardrobe had spent $1.6 million so far, half a million was spent on hair and makeup, and a quarter million was allocated to catering. The production was costing $1.2 million each week. The cast would hang around in full makeup and costume for hours, not knowing when they’d be called in to work or what scene they’d be shooting.
Then Evans was forced out as producer when the Doumani brothers asked Orion, the distributor, to pony up $15 million in advance, and they made Evans’ departure a condition. Again according to AFI, the Doumani brothers brought in a gangster, Joey Cusumano, to get Evans out and monitor the shooting. Cusumano, who actually got on well with Coppola, is credited as line producer on the film.
Lawsuits flew back and forth. Evans filed against Ed Doumani to prevent him from taking over the production, and Sayyah filed against the Doumanis, Evans and Orion alleging fraud, conspiracy and breach of contract. Evans managed to get himself reinstated as producer but lost control over postproduction. 
In the film, Gere plays a trumpet player, Dixie Dwyer, who saves the life of a Jewish gangster, Dutch Schultz (James Remar), and is put on his payroll. Schultz also employs Dixie’s younger brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s nephew). Dixie then falls in love with Schultz’s moll, Vera (Diane Lane). He becomes a Hollywood star but still continues to see Vera, infuriating Schultz. His brother becomes Schultz’s enforcer; the two are now on opposite sides. In a parallel storyline, two tap dancer friends of Dixie’s, Sandman Williams and his brother Clay (real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines), are hired to play the Cotton Club by its owner, gangster Owen Madden (Bob Hoskins). Sandman falls for a Cotton Club girl, Lila (Lonette McKee) who passes for white. The Williams brothers fall out as well when Sandman’s star rises and he takes on a solo role. Despite becoming a star, he is still subject to the brutality of his white bosses.

When the film finally released on December 14, 1984, it made $2.9 million on its opening weekend, in fifth place. It ended up grossing $26 million in its initial run. Coppola said to Vanity Fair that he was told by the powers that be: “Film’s too long. Too many black stories. Too much tap dancing. Too many musical numbers.” He had had to cut the film accordingly, trying to focus on the white storylines, and the result was a mess of a movie with flashes of brilliance.
Critic Roger Ebert, however, was one of its champions. He wrote in his review: “After all the rumors, all the negative publicity, all the stories of fights on the set and backstage intrigue and imminent bankruptcy, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club is, quite simply, a wonderful movie. It has the confidence and momentum of a movie where every shot was premeditated — and even if we know that wasn’t the case, and this was one of the most troubled productions in recent movie history, what difference does that make when the result is so entertaining?”
The film was nominated for Best Picture – Drama and Best Director at the 1985 Golden Globes and got Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing. The album of the score won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band.
Diane Lane was nominated for a Razzie as Worst Supporting Actress.
In 2015, using $500,000 of his own money, Coppola recut the movie based on an old Betamax of his original cut, adding 24 minutes of unseen footage and weaving the Black and white narratives into a coherent whole, bringing a new focus to the Black performers at the legendary speakeasy, restoring McKee’s ballad “Stormy Weather” which had been cut out, and even enhancing the Black gangster storyline. In a way, he was righting a wrong by reversing the initial marginalization of the movie’s Black talent. The Cotton Club: Encore premiered at the Telluride film festival in 2017 and then it went into wide release.

In the recut version, Coppola restored his full name; he had listed himself as simply “Francis Coppola” in the original.