Columbia Pictures
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How a warrant for my arrest lead me to Columbia Pictures

by Rosilyn Heller

While my first Hollywood job was not my first industry job, my decision to migrate from the East Coast to the West was a journey that could easily have ended not only my career in the movie business, but my total self-esteem as a woman.

Born in Brooklyn, it was not too surprising that my trajectory out of college had taken me from an MA at UC Berkeley back to NY and a solid position in NY publishing (Senior Editor at NAL in both hard and soft cover). And then on to my first real and highly coveted job in the movie business, as a creative executive at Palomar (ABC) Pictures in the late sixties. Life was looking mighty rosey.

Then a fateful phone call. An executive at Columbia Pictures suddenly reached out to me with a job opportunity. However, once I realized he was not calling from Columbia’s famous building on Fifth Avene but from the studio in Los Angeles, my excitement dissipated very quickly.

Yes, Peter Guber, the new head of the studio in L.A. wanted to meet me, but I totally blew him off, saying politely I hope, that I had no interest in moving to L.A.

Within four months of that phone call, ABC Pictures (with Marty Baum at the helm) closed its doors, the lease on my Upper Westside apartment was up and my live-in boyfriend of many years dumped me.

Did I need any more signs?

Within days — and just before the start of the new decade (the seventies) — I found myself in L.A. with a meeting having already been arranged with Mr. Guber. A meeting I will never forget.

As I had become accustomed to in NY, I was decked out in full Woodstock regalia: a pale lavender waffle-cotton t-shirt with three open buttons, over purple suede bell bottom jeans, and a thick dark brown leather belt over the T, fastened with a brass buckle from a bridle saddle. And of course, the other accessories: the handmade dark leather choker peeking through my T, matched by a large dark brown suede hat, complete with a woven leather braid and two enormous wild feathers.

Quite a sight, I must admit now.

I entered a gigantic office and immediately a loud click signaled the door closing behind me.

I was staring at a large, completely empty glass-topped desk. Not even a single piece of paper on it. Can you imagine a NY publisher’s desk looking like that? There was also little furniture except for a sofa, and in a far corner, a barber’s chair, which I assumed was more decorative than useful.

No books, no scripts, no newspapers, no magazines, no nothing.

Peter was shockingly young. About my age, actually, but he was already the head of the studio and I was here expecting a job that would probably put me on the bottom rung of a ladder I had already climbed in NY. Twice.

Coming from the East Coast where there were lots of very bright young women executives, in all kinds of businesses, who were already climbing the so-called “ladder,” I was shocked to find myself in a town where ladders, if there were any for women, were deeply buried in closets somewhere. There were virtually no women executives in the movie business — not even at talent and literary agencies, which were heavily represented by women in NY.

Still, I was hopeful. Peter had called me, after all.

The hemming and hawing, however, didn’t seem promising. Though he confirmed that he had very much wanted me at Columbia, and still did, he was unable to persuade his bosses (The Schneiders in NY) that it was necessary for him to have his own creative department at the studio.

Obviously both coasts knew that whoever controlled material controlled development, and whoever controlled development controlled what movies got made and the East Coast was not going to give that up to the West Coast.

Peter, however, was easily as smart as they were and he wanted his very own access to material (predominantly through publishing, NY lit agents, theatre, magazines, etc.) and he knew that if nothing else, I could be that access.

So it all came down to timing. Peter wanted me — but I would have to be patient, which was never my strong suit.

So I left his office, cheerily promising to stay in touch, but actually feeling totally unmoored and miserable.

Guber was my only lead. Now I was in a strange city, staying in someone’s garage, starting to collect unemployment (the first time in my life) and with very few friends or prospects. Why oh why did I ever leave NY?

I started calling what few people I knew in the business but found myself “overqualified” for entry or any-level jobs for that matter. The men were just not used to or comfortable with the idea of women in the executive suites.

So, being the activist I always was, my natural antennae lead me to an organization called EIPJ (Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice), which was the only anti-Vietnam War group around — headed by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.

Finally I felt like I had come home.

I showed up at their office at 933 La Brea and they immediately put me to work. Within days I realized I was actually in the same building as the BBS Production Company, the very people who had produced Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

Now I really felt at home. Maybe L.A. wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

Suddenly activists were popping up everywhere, great people, who helped me get settled into a teeny apartment in Hollywood and to even forget about the movie business for a while. There was still that terrible war going on and I was thrilled to be working against it –- that is, until I got arrested.

I had gotten lost on my way to a rally in the Valley and had stopped to ask a policeman for directions.

“That’s where that guy Bill Kunstler is speaking, right?” he asked.

I proudly told him he was indeed… right upon which he whipped out his pad and gave me a ticket for stopping in the road.

I was totally shocked, knew it was unjust and simply decided to ignore it.

Big mistake.

When warrants started turning up for my arrest, I decided to pay the fine at the Van Nuys Court House. They demanded $84, which I did not have on me and they immediately arrested me.

The next day, after I was released, I called Guber and told him I was out of patience and out of L.A. altogether.

“No, no. You can’t go back,” he said. “Come in tomorrow. I’ll make this work. Even if I have to hide you in the basement.”

And he did…

… but not for long.

Because if there was one piece of baggage I brought with me from the East, it was my “uppityness.” And I came to realize how well this would serve me in Hollywood. Never a “fits-iner,” I realized that the boys club that was the industry needed to be shaken, not stirred. And if there’s one thing I loved doing — especially when it came to women — it was shaking up the status quo. And I certainly managed to do that.

Rosilyn Heller

About Rosilyn Heller

Rosilyn Heller served as an executive at Columbia Pictures for 9 years. She was the first female studio executive promoted to Vice President in Hollywood. She also was the first pregnant VP, as well as the first nursing-in-the office VP. She also oversaw the development and production of TAXI DRIVER, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and CHINA SYNDROME, among many other illustrious films.

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