By Dan Jewel
November 25, 1996 12:00 PM

JON FAVREAU SITS IN L.A.’S HOLLYWOOD Hills Cafe contemplating two unbuttered pancakes and insisting that he is not a celebrity. Meanwhile the restaurant manager rushes up to rave, “I’m just sooo proud of you.” A diner walks over to say he loved him on Letter-man. And a third man comes by and asks if he is “that actor from Swingers.” All this makes the alleged nonceleb chuckle. “I can’t really explain what my life is like now,” says Favreau, 30. “It’s like a weird dream.”

Or a sped-up movie. A year ago he was unemployed, living in a $470-a-month apartment in a low-rent section of Hollywood. He was also carrying too much weight on his 6’2″ frame. Now 75 pounds leaner than when he arrived in L.A. three years ago, Favreau is picking and choosing his projects, thanks to his screenplay for—and lead role in—Swingers, the story of a New York City comic trying to survive the L.A. social scene and make it as an actor. Even the film’s hybrid of real and made-up hipster jargon—”You’re money, baby” being the ultimate compliment—is, says Swingers executive producer Cary Woods, “the language of the moment.”

Money, baby, was what Favreau desperately lacked as coproducer of the film. Las Vegas police interrupted one roadside scene that was shot without a $35 permit. (“We stalled them,” Favreau says. “You can actually hear the police radio on the soundtrack.”) The $250,000 budget, scraped together from investors, meant that nightclub scenes had to be shot around real patrons—some of whom, Favreau says, were women he might have once unsuccessfully hit on at those same clubs. “It was awkward,” he allows.

Favreau has never led a charmed existence. An only child, he was raised by his father, Charles, a special education teacher in Queens, N.Y., after his mother, Madeleine, an elementary school teacher, died of leukemia when he was 12. He attended the academically elite Bronx High School of Science—”barely getting by,” he says—and, in 1986, dropped out of Queens College and took a job in maintenance. About a year later “a little voice” told him to quit his job and head cross-country on his Harley-Davidson. In Chicago, Favreau heard a big voice—that of comic Chris Farley, performing at the Second City improv club—inspiring him to try acting. He worked dinner theaters, got an agent and was cast in the semi-successful 1993 football flick Rudy. “I thought,” he says, “I was a big movie star.”

Not exactly. In L.A. “the phone didn’t ring,” so Favreau worked out and club-hopped with Rudy actor Vince Vaughn. He noticed that “dating in Hollywood has more of a professional feel than in Chicago or New York City because everybody’s so good-looking and aware of what they have to offer.” Soon he began using such observations to concoct Swingers, which, he says, he wrote in two weeks using a software program for aspiring screenwriters that his father had given him.

The script, when shopped around Hollywood by Favreau’s agent, got an enthusiastic response. Yet Favreau says he turned down “six-figure” offers from producers who saw the film as a vehicle for stars like Jason Priestley. Instead he sold the rights to pal Doug Liman, who directed the film. Liman paid only $1,000 but promised to cast Favreau and Vaughn as the leads.

The gamble has paid off. Swingers has gotten strong reviews and so far has pulled in $1.1 million on the art-house circuit. Steven Spielberg, a friend of Liman’s family, screened the film and cast Vaughn in a lead role in The Lost World, next summer’s Jurassic Park sequel. Favreau is now writing screenplays for several big studios and playing “a really racist, mean villain” opposite Mary Stuart Masterson in the upcoming Dogtown. But despite his new one-bedroom West Hollywood apartment and a girlfriend he’ll only identify as someone “in the entertainment industry,” he’s keeping his head. At the L.A. premiere of Swingers, Favreau walked down the red carpet with his eightysomething grandmother Joan, who beamed at him as if to say…You’re money, baby.


ANNA DAVID in Los Angeles