By Margot Dougherty
November 16, 1987 12:00 PM

In August 1979 David Puttnam, an independent British movie producer, received a letter from Columbia Pictures. “I’m sorry to tell you this has no validity at all in the American marketplace,” it read, “because of the style and tone as well as the subject matter.” The note was affixed to an unwanted script titled Chariots of Fire. The movie, ultimately released by Warner Bros., was 1981’s runaway hit. It ushered in a fashion spell of sweater vests and white bucks and ended up with four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In August 1986, Puttnam hung the letter, framed, above his new desk. He’d just been named chairman of Columbia Pictures.

Last month, after only 13 months of a three-year contract worth an estimated $10 million—one of the shortest tenures of a studio chairman in recent Hollywood memory—Puttnam, 46, took the letter down. His parting from Columbia and its parent company, Coca-Cola, followed on the heels of the greatest feud-filled power struggle Hollywood has seen since the David Begelman-Indecent Exposure scandal (also at Columbia), a decade ago.

In this case, according to his critics, the indecent exposure came from Puttnam’s mouth. A maverick producer with a string of impressive films—including Midnight Express, Local Hero and The Killing Fields—Puttnam rode into town loudly railing against inflated star salaries, runaway budgets, expensive package deals and the old-boy network that thrives on such institutions. “David is a bright guy, but he was seeking to change the Hollywood power base,” says one of the many studio executives who, not wanting to be burned by the industry’s hottest potato, insists on anonymity. “He wanted to unseat the players at the big table.” Among those involved in clashes with Puttnam were Bill Cosby, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and two men who figured prominently in Indecent Exposure, producer Ray Stark and financier Herbert Allen. “This industry is notoriously paranoid because it’s subject to microscopic attention,” says MGM’s worldwide marketing president Gregory Morrison, explaining why big mouths and small towns don’t mix. “The press would like to believe Hollywood is made up of individualists. But this town runs on friendships.”

Not that Puttnam didn’t win friends and admirers. “His departure was a serious blow for producers who make quality films,” says Dale Pollock, production veep of A&M Films. “Puttnam put his money where his mouth was.” Another studio executive says that others are trying to do what Puttnam attempted, “but David was rubbing Hollywood’s nose in it.”

Puttnam is used to playing noisily and by his own rules. His style is smooth and low key, but his purring is fueled by a giant ego. When he announced his departure to his staff, he had a film crew record the event—no doubt savoring the shots of their tear-stained faces.

Puttnam comes from a self-described “middle, middle class” background in North London. He left school at 16, rose from mail boy to account executive at an ad agency by 20, went on to become a photographers’ agent—handling such star lensmen as Richard Avedon and David Bailey—and broke into film production in 1969. He and his wife of 25 years, Patsy, 42, have two children, Debbie, 24, and Sacha, 21.

Hired by Columbia to revive the studio’s flagging film division, Puttnam quickly marked himself as an extraterrestrial. In the land of the Mercedes, Rolls and Jaguar, he chose instead an Audi 5000 CS and looked for a house without a pool (none was to be found; he suffered with). More significantly, in the land of slippery deals and collapsible ethics he oozed integrity. “I wouldn’t have made Rambo and wouldn’t make it today—even if someone wrote out a check for the total gross,” Puttnam once said. These are not words usually heard at major studio meetings. “David is an anachronism,” says one film exec. “He’s a propeller-driven aircraft in a jet age.”

Early in the game, Puttnam ruffled the feathers of Bill Murray and his agent, Michael Ovitz. Result: Ovitz reportedly refused to negotiate a Ghostbusters sequel starring Murray. Today, although Puttnam denies any rift, he says he’s still “opposed to this ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ attitude where stars walk about with $5 to $8 million on a movie even if it isn’t any good.”

Then there was the Bill Cosby contretemps. A Coke shareholder and spokesman—and part owner of a Coke bottling plant in Philadelphia—Cosby came to Columbia to make Leonard Part 6, a comedy about a retired secret agent pitted against a mad scientist; it is scheduled for Christmas release. Reportedly, the formidable Cosby clashed with the novice director, Paul Weiland, then became infuriated by Puttnam’s pugnacious attitude and apparent lack of attention to the movie. Puttnam says he has “never had a cross word” with Cosby. “I discovered Bill to be a complete professional,” he says, “and one of the qualities of a professional is that he’s someone who does not need mothering. Bill never gave me the impression he needed stroking. If that wasn’t the case, all I can say is I’m not a good people-stroker. I can admit to that particular kind of insensitivity.” Because of his bad experience at Columbia, Cosby has decided to take his next film to Warner Bros., a major embarassment for Coca-Cola.

Speaking of embarrassment, Ishtar—the $50 million dud starring Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and a fairly expensive blind camel—may also have played a part in Puttnam’s downfall. He inherited the film from the previous Columbia administration, and when Ishtar opened this spring, Puttnam refused to say anything about it—effectively divorcing himself from the fiasco, and seen as an act of corporate disloyalty. Adding to that are Puttnam’s not-so-private feelings about Hoffman and Beatty. He admits there’s no love lost between him and Dustin (with whom he battled on a 1979 movie, Agatha), or Warren (whom he once criticized as “profligate”) or with Ishtar’s genesis. It was a high-priced ($5.5 million per star) package deal—high on the list of Puttnam peeves. “I’ve always had a problem with the concept of packaging,” he says. “What right does an agent have to cast your movie?” That was the kind of question he was asking in heated meetings and in public during his time in office. Consequently, says a rival studio head, Puttnam “alienated some of the meanest, toughest guys in the industry. And to think they wouldn’t take potshots back at him is to deny reality.”

Whatever shots were fired, the echoes resounded loudest in Columbia’s boardrooms. According to several sources, Puttnam’s fights with smaller fry may have been forgiven, but his lack of diplomacy particularly angered two of Columbia’s foremost power brokers—Herbert Allen and Ray Stark, both major Coke shareholders. The timing of their displeasure was crucial. Coca-Cola has announced its plan to merge Columbia and its other film satellite, Tri-Star Pictures, into a separate public company. “Puttnam was miffed to read about it in the papers, along with everybody else.” The move will give Coke 49 percent of the new company and possibly $1.5 billion from the sale of the stock. The presence of David Puttnam may have threatened the deal. “Perception counts for a lot on Wall Street,” says former Columbia marketing president Ashley Boone. “Coke wants someone stable in the position when they take the company to market. They want to present a united front, and Puttnam just didn’t do it their way.”

Puttnam’s replacement is Dawn Steel, whose production past at Paramount Pictures includes movie milestones like Top Gun and Fatal Attraction. Meanwhile, Puttnam has returned to independent producing. Although he’s negotiating the remainder of his contract, he isn’t noticeably circumspect. He still refers to Hollywood as the emperor’s new clothes and says, “The studio system is absolutely terrified of someone who calls the emperor naked.” Was he naive to think he could take on the system? “To me the opposite of naïveté is cynicism,” says Puttnam, “and cynicism is just a glamorized version of despair. If being thought of as naive is the price I have to pay, it’s a fair price to me.”

In the irony of ironies, the Hollywood elite that now vilifies Puttnam, probably the only studio chief who was canned not for the movies he made, but for the movies he kept from being made, may soon be hailing him as a hero. The 25 films that Puttnam started at Columbia are just beginning to hit the theaters, and a few of them—such as Cosby’s Leonard Part 6 and Punchline, with Tom Hanks and Sally Field—have the potential to do big business. In this town money talks loudest of all. If any of Puttnam’s films turn out to be smashes, says one studio head, “He’ll be seen as a martyr and anointed. A billboard will be erected to him on Sunset Boulevard. In all likelihood he’ll be a greater success than if he’d stayed.”