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Who Really Is Jon Peters?

In ‘Licorice Pizza,’ Bradley Cooper plays the Hollywood producer as a repellent, manic chaos agent. The truth behind the portrayal is even more grotesque.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Licorice Pizza, is a mostly wistful coming-of-age story set in early-’70s California that, for one memorable mid-film stretch, threatens to turn into a monster movie. Like much of the movie, the sequence has roots in real life, specifically the teen years of Gary Goetzman, a child actor turned producer whose notable collaborators include Jonathan Demme and Tom Hanks. (“I can’t remember at this point if I’m trying to pretend that it’s not Gary’s story,” Anderson told Variety in a recent interview, “but fuck it, it’s him.”) But while Anderson has taken some mild pains to obscure the identities of real-life characters who breeze in and out of the film, like Lucille Ball and William Holden, the film leaves the name of its least-flattering depiction unchanged: Jon Peters, a larger-than-life figure who’s found his way into one chapter of Hollywood history after another, from his involvement in the excesses of the 1970s to the #MeToo reckoning of the 2010s.

As usual with depictions of Peters, it’s not a flattering portrait. He shows up as a customer for a budding waterbed business run by the teenaged Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman). With the help of a crew that includes Alana Kane (Alana Haim), Gary delivers a waterbed to the San Fernando Valley home that Peters shares with his girlfriend, a never-seen Barbra Streisand. Gary and Alana then spend the rest of the night trying, and sometimes failing, to avoid Peters as he tears his way through a nearby neighborhood, alternately threatening and flirting with everyone in his path. Anderson packs the film with characters who make adulthood look unappealing, from temperamental comedy stars to racist restaurant owners. But none is ultimately as repellent as Peters’s grotesque discourtesy: threats of violence against Gary and his family and an instant, distasteful interest with Alana that hints at the accounts of Peters’s harassment in recent years. Unlike others they encounter, he isn’t trying to hide who he is at heart.

Bradley Cooper plays Peters in a funny, manic performance that always seems to be on the verge of explosive violence. (Think Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights, but with a better wardrobe.) It’s a fine bit of casting with a meta touch. Watch Cooper’s 2018 film A Star Is Born and you’ll see Peters’s name in the credits as one of the producers. This was, by all accounts, a contractural obligation born out of Peters’s involvement with the 1976 version of A Star Is Born starring Streisand, an obligation that brought some bad press to the new film when extensive accounts of sexual harassment by the producer resurfaced in the run-up to the movie’s release.

In a narratively tidy version of the Jon Peters story, the two versions of A Star Is Born would serve as bookends. But there’s nothing tidy about Peters’s story. He first became nationally famous as half of a 1970s Hollywood power couple opposite Streisand. But by then he’d already established a local reputation as a colorful and ambitious hairdresser to the stars. And while being a part of a public reckoning with sexual impropriety might have been enough to make a recluse of some figures, Peters made the news again last year via a 12-day quasi marriage to Pamela Anderson, whom he’d previously dated in the late 1980s. It wasn’t the first time Peters bounced back into view after a public shaming, albeit one of a different kind.

Peters’s time running Columbia with producing partner Peter Guber in the years after Sony acquired the studio in 1989 served as the basis of Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters’s gripping 1996 bestseller Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood. If nothing else, Peters emerges from the unsparing book as a model of resilience. Born in Van Nuys, California, in 1945, by age 14 he had lost his father, spent a year in reform school (where he was chained to his bed at night), and been forced out of his home by his stepfather. From there he spent time in New York—working at a salon at which his duties included dyeing sex workers’ pubic hair—and Philadelphia. Married at the age of 16, he returned to Los Angeles and began to work his way up in the hairstyling world. Over the course of his career as a hairdresser, Peters worked his way into increasingly more exclusive circles, modeling himself after Gene Shacove, the celebrity stylist who served as one of the models for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo (though Peters would later claim to have provided inspiration). Peters bought fancy cars, opened his own salon with a partner, and divorced his first wife and married Lesley Ann Warren, then an up-and-coming star, after scaring off a boyfriend who treated her poorly. He first ventured into producing after investing in a play starring Warren when financing fell through. It wouldn’t be the last time he mingled his personal and professional lives.

According to Hit & Run, Peters used to claim to have styled Streisand’s hair before meeting her. Whether Streisand was aware of Peters’s claims or not, she did ask to meet him after she got his name from a woman whose haircut she admired. Wanting just the right look for a wig she’d be wearing in the film For Pete’s Sake, she invited Peters to her Beverly Hills home in August 1973, where he told her, “You’ve got a great ass,” a blunt come-on that not only worked, but would be immortalized by Kris Kristofferson in A Star Is Born a few years later.

Though Peters earned snickers as Streisand’s hairdresser turned boyfriend turned de facto manager—a response intensified by the persistent rumor that he couldn’t read—he remained undeterred. Peters began to exert increasing influence on Streisand’s career, serving, despite no experience, as producer for her 1974 album ButterFly and creating the visual pun of its cover image. (The album also includes a cover of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”; the original figures prominently in Licorice Pizza.) The pair soon moved into a Malibu home they’d come to call the Ranch, turning it into an enclosed compound filled with five homes, each built in a distinct style, and patrolled by guard dogs. Friends, including their Malibu neighbor Geraldo Rivera, with whom Peters enjoyed riding motorcycles, witnessed a sometimes worryingly volatile relationship. “He’s a predator,” an anonymous associate told People in 1983. “They fought like tigers. Most of the time they lived on an adrenaline high.”

It’s in this phase that Licorice Pizza finds Peters, who disappears from the film, and from Gary Valentine’s life, almost as abruptly as he arrives. But the meta element doesn’t end with Cooper’s casting. Like Valentine and his inspiration, Gary Goetzman, Peters is someone who entered the world of adulthood at an age when most kids still had strictly enforced bedtimes. But where Goetzman would go on to build a career by forming lasting relationships with two of the most-liked men in the business, Peters’s next steps would involve endless maneuvering in the pursuit of wealth and power. In Peters, and his ability to get what he wants through a combination of charm and intimidation, Valentine sees one possible future for himself, whether he recognizes it or not.

Peters’s own future would involve dizzying swings between highs and lows, often in rapid succession. A Star Is Born earned horrible reviews but became a hit, and confirmed the wisdom of Peters’s strategy of multiplying a film’s impact by pushing its soundtrack. That synergistic approach would pay off again for many of the films Peters made with partner Peter Guber, whose formal education and cultured appearance balanced out Peters’s street smarts, at least for a while. Their partnership spanned the ’80s, during which Peters would split with Streisand, and included everything from Flashdance to The Color Purple to Rain Man, though the degree to which either were directly involved could vary greatly from film to film. (The two posed for a photo with Rain Man’s Best Picture Oscar after borrowing the trophy from Best Screenplay–winner Barry Morrow.)

The success of Batman—with which Peters was closely involved, spending months on the film’s London set and helping reshape its final act—cemented the pair’s reputation as hitmakers and paved the way for the deal that put them in charge of Columbia in 1989, an announcement that immediately prompted a lawsuit from Warner Bros., with whom they already had a commitment. Sony would find itself unexpectedly having to pay a hefty fee to buy out their contract. The expenses would only mount from there. During their tenure, they spent a lot of money on movies, redecorating, travel, and, allegedly, other expenses. Peters lasted until 1991; Guber held on until 1994.

Peters has remained in the picture, however. Though he left his days as a high-powered executive behind him at Columbia, he remained an active producer and has become an increasingly wealthy man, thanks in large part to contractual obligations stemming from his work on Superman film projects. Whether or not he understands the character has remained an open question. In the 2015 documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, filmmaker Kevin Smith recounts his time working on the screenplay for a Peters-produced Superman film in which Peters demanded that Superman not fly or wear his famous costume, but must fight a giant spider in the third act. The film was never made—a battle with a giant spider would instead provide the climax for another Peters production, Wild Wild West—but Peters did serve as an active producer on Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns, during which he engaged in behavior that eventually led to his former personal assistant being awarded $3 million in 2011, a case that followed several other cases that resulted in out-of-court settlements.

Every indication suggests Peters had the resources to pay for his many indiscretions, and then some. In 2017, he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel in his home, surrounded by fine art and seated in front of an antique pistol he made a point of noting was loaded. Proudly calling himself “the Trump of Hollywood” and expressing admiration for the then-president, he talked about collecting big Superman checks and possibly making more movies. And why wouldn’t he consider that a possibility? In Licorice Pizza, Cooper plays Peters as a man who can’t be stopped by manners, morals, good sense, or shame. In Hollywood and elsewhere, such men have a way of sticking around.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.