By Mike Straka, ,
Published May 20, 2015
Fade up from black. An extreme close-up of a graying man appears on the screen. He begins to talk in a hoarse, raspy voice.
"Hello, my name is Joe Eszterhas (search). I'm a screenwriter. I always glamorized smoking in my movies. I thought smoking was cool. Then I got throat cancer. Maybe that's my punishment. Please — don't let Hollywood sucker you into smoking. Please — don't let people like me kill you. Don't smoke."
Hardly the message one would expect from one of the most infamous screenwriters in the history of Hollywood. But Eszterhas has only just begun to resume the fight on the Tinseltown battlefield he left nearly a decade ago, when he lost most of his larynx to throat cancer (search).
His just-released memoir, "Hollywood Animal" (search) (Alfred A. Knopf), is a no-holds-barred look at the entertainment industry and the people who helped make him rich and famous.
But Eszterhas is not making any apologies.
"The only thing that matters is the truth," he told me in an interview for this column. "The only thing I felt loyalty to was to tell it the way it was. That's what I think makes the book unique."
And while Eszterhas leaves little to the imagination when writing about people like Sharon Stone, (search) Robert "Kid Notorious" Evans and "Showgirls" starlet Elizabeth Berkley, he's also candid about his own life and the self-destructive behavior that nearly put him on his death bed.
"My point of view is different than it was. My behavior and attitude toward people is different, partly because there's no alcohol in my system, and I think a lot of it was fueled by that."
An immigrant from Hungary, Eszterhas spent time in Austrian refugee camps when he was a child before his mother and father emigrated to the United States. After bouncing around from New York to Connecticut, the Eszterhas family landed in Cleveland, where Joe grew up a "foreigner" on the tough streets.
"We stole cars and took them for joy rides," he writes in his memoir. "It was scary, exhilarating, criminal, and a helluva lot of fun."
He also admits carrying a zip gun in his back pocket and hitting a neighborhood bully in the head with a baseball bat, nearly killing him (he avoided juvenile jail after a priest gave him $5,000 to buy off the boy's parents.)
Making good on a promise he made to the priest to straighten himself out, Eszterhas finished school and got a job as a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but soon found himself on the West Coast, writing features for Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco.
Eventually Hollywood came knocking.
His first real success was the 1985 film "Jagged Edge," which starred Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges. The movie went on to gross more than $40 million (a lot of money back then) and put Eszterhas on the fast track to Hollywood's A-list. He was soon setting screenwriter salary records, earning millions for scripts like "Basic Instinct," (search) "Jade," "Telling Lies in America" and the ill-fated "Showgirls."
He also made headlines after a very public fight with Michael Ovitz (search), the then-powerful agent at the head of the Creative Artist's Agency, which represented stars such as Michael Douglas, Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone.
Ovitz, Eszterhas says, threatened to have his foot soldiers "blow his brains out" if he left the agency. Eszterhas went public with his story, and Hollywood, perhaps in an act of defiance, rallied around the screenwriter, making him an anomaly: the screenwriter as star.
His newfound status came with all the trimmings: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Eventually it would lead to an almost surreal episode, closer to a movie plot than real life:
Sharon Stone falls in love with Bill McDonald, a producer who worked with Eszterhas on "Jade." McDonald leaves his wife Naomi, a friend of Eszterhas' wife Gerri. Naomi reportedly has a miscarriage as a result of the stress. Joe and Naomi end up falling in love, and Joe leaves Gerri and his two kids after 24 years of marriage. He's now married to Naomi and the couple have four sons.
It's a long, tawdry story. And "Hollywood Animal" is over 700 pages long.
But Eszterhas says the journey of writing the book has been worth it, despite the labor of writing it and the likely fallout from his friends in Hollywood.
Indeed, his book has already ruffled feathers among some Hollywood elite such as Robert Evans and Sherry Lansing.
"I'm happy that my grandchildren will read it and have an idea who their grandfather was," he says.
Eszterhas says he hasn't worked on a movie script in over eight years, devoting his time instead to his recovery from cancer.
"One thing I learned over the course of my recovery was to spend as much time as I can with Naomi and my kids," he said. "And the other thing I learned is that all of the successes don't matter at all compared to what will happen in those final hours when you're in a hospital room, in terms of who's there with you and how they feel about you."
The one-time Hollywood bad boy moved his new wife and kids away from the posh Malibu Colony, where people like Bob Dylan and movie producer Jon Peters were his neighbors, and settled them happily on a lake in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.
"My neighbors quietly come up to me and say things like 'I'm praying for you' or 'welcome home,'" he says.
The anti-smoking public service announcements in which he stars, which are being produced in conjunction with The Cleveland Clinic Foundation (search), have been running since November.
But even though he left Hollywood behind, Eszterhas is confident that when he returns he'll still command the big bucks.
"My life seems to have more ironies than a lot of other people's lives," he says. "But you can't defend yourself against ironies. Especially cruel ironies. But I've been aware that there's a certain rhythm to my life, where anything is possible and that's always been the case."
To those wanting a career as a Hollywood screenwriter, he has this to say:
"Don't spend all of your time in a movie theater looking at other movies. Live life to its fullest limit. Don't watch it on the screen because you'll end up writing scripts that imitate what's up there on the screen. Don't be afraid of life — live it fully. Make mistakes. Get hurt. Bad things might happen, but good things might happen too."
Joe Eszterhas, Hollywood survivor, cancer survivor, his wife Naomi sitting by his side — should know.
Mike Straka is the project manager for FOX News' Web operations and contributes as a features reporter and producer on FOX Magazine (Sundays 11 p.m. on FNC), a producer on Sunday Best (Sundays 9 p.m. on FNC), and as a reporter and columnist for Foxnews.com. Straka appeared in the film "Analyze This" and was an actor in the long-running Off-Broadway hit "Tony n' Tina's Wedding."