In a previous life, he stormed into Hollywood meetings, bearing a six-inch hunting knife, ready to shred producers and directors, or anyone else who dared to change his scripts.
Today, Joe Eszterhas hugs his kids as they climb aboard the school bus, then greets them with more hugs and high fives when they return home.
Eszterhas became Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter with the sex thriller “Basic Instinct,” the Sharon Stone-Michael Douglas movie that offered audacious photography and explicit scenes of sex and sexuality. Critics hated him for his guilty pleasure and often vapid story lines and enjoyed tearing him apart when the X-rated “Showgirls” bombed.
None of that matters when he prays with his children at church each Sunday. They almost never miss, he says.
Meet the new Joe Eszterhas, a bear of a guy who has traded the cliffs of Malibu and his bad-boy ways for five snow-covered acres and Little League games.
A new leafThe move back to his hometown three years ago provided a more wholesome place to raise his four sons: Joe, 9; Nick, 8; John Law, 6; and Luke, 3. It also ended up saving his life by giving him the freedom to overcome his excessive smoking and drinking after he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
The blond mane that exploded on his head to add to his fierce image as Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter has been shorn to a tidy gray cut. His shaggy beard is now a neat goatee. But his narrow eyes can still penetrate.
Life in the suburban slow lane is remarkably different from the high-speed celebrity roads he once traveled.
“On show and tell day in Malibu, one of Joe’s classmates took in his father’s Oscar, showed it to all the kids,” he recalls, relating the experiences of his 9-year-old son. “On show and tell day here, somebody took in an owl’s nest and all of the kids went crazy over the nest, including my own.”
No longer an ‘animal’Eszterhas, who has recently released his memoir, spends a lot of time with his wife, Naomi, and their sons, attending Little League games, playing pingpong in the basement of their home in Bainbridge Township and going out for meals at Denny’s or Bob Evans.
His $1 million white colonial is only 40 minutes from Cleveland in an area of farm land that is quickly being snatched up by affluent commuters who build large, imposing houses that sit far back from the road.
It’s a place that beckons to the little ones — his boys are ages 3 to 9 — with a quiet cul-de-sac for bike riding and a private lake for splashing and swimming.
It’s a place where no one really cares who you are. Quite unlike Malibu, where Eszterhas’ gated estate overlooked the Pacific Ocean, where Bob Dylan’s house was across the street and where Eszterhas had to buy a $1,000 steel mailbox with a lock on it because people were stealing his mail. (Some of it wound up on eBay.)
The change has been drastic, not only in where he lived but how he lived. And Eszterhas says he could not have changed so dramatically if he had remained a self-described “Hollywood Animal,” which is the title of his new memoir.
“I had a lot of fights, and the more of them I had the more tired I felt, and the more tired I felt the more I drank, and the more I drank the more combative I became,” he says. “It was a vicious circle and I’m very happy to be free of it.”
Journalist turned screenwriterThe 59-year-old writer started his career as a journalist and was a political writer for Rolling Stone magazine for five years before turning to books. He wrote “Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State” in 1970 and caught the movie industry’s attention with “Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse,” published in 1973. Nominated for a National Book Award, it chronicles a young rebel’s triple murder-suicide in a racially divided Missouri town. He came out with “Nark” in 1974.
And he gave his take on the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal in his 2000 best seller, “American Rhapsody,” a titillating and sometimes amusing glance at the escapades of President Clinton and the White House intern.
He found huge commercial success in Hollywood with “Flashdance” in 1983 and “Jagged Edge” two years later. By 1992, he was hot enough to receive $3 million for “Basic Instinct.” He became a celebrity — even though screenwriters rarely get attention — for his often tawdry story lines and his reputation for bullying actors, producers and directors.
Fighting cancer, finding God
Eszterhas greets visitors to his home with a simple, “Hi, I’m Joe.” Photographs of his boys line a curved stairway. Posters from Eszterhas’ movies — even the flops — fill the den, which also has a 3-foot statue of Cavaliers rookie LeBron James standing next to a chair from Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
His voice sounds like it’s being dragged down a gravel road, a constant reminder that he lost 80 percent of his larynx to cancer nearly three years ago; the disease is in remission.
“We’re all aware of the fact that this particular kind of cancer is the kind of cancer where you can have a lump on your neck next month and it could be all over in six months,” he says. “We live that way in the sense of genuinely celebrating moments and holidays and time together.”
He’s also found God.
“It doesn’t mean that I’ve been lobotomized or castrated or any of those things,” he says. “I just have a new and terrific relationship with God that I find provides me with great peace and strength that wasn’t there before.”
The Rev. Bob Stec says Eszterhas was welcomed at Holy Angels Church. “If actions speak louder than words, there he is every week with his children at his side,” Stec said. “I think you see a real genuine commitment to his path.”
Former smoker has regretsEszterhas walks five miles a day through his neighborhood, even in freezing temperatures. The cold air reminds him of the menthol cigarettes he used to enjoy.
“I dream about smoking a cigarette sometimes,” he says. “I think one of the reasons I walk five miles a day is to keep me straight. The obsessive walking both physically and mentally replaces the cigarettes.”
Eszterhas, who made cigarette smoking an integral part of his screenplays, would like to ban smoking from movies but says he regrets none of the sex and violence in his stories.
“Sex and violence are in the Bible and in Shakespeare and in Faulkner and they are part of human nature and part of the human condition,” he says. “Smoking isn’t.” Eszterhas leads an anti-smoking campaign for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation called “Join Joe.”
Smokers are responding to his message because of what he’s been through, said Angela Calman, who coordinates the campaign.
“When he went public, people weren’t coming up to him and saying, ‘You’re the guy who wrote “Basic Instinct.”’ They were saying, ‘You’re the guy who saved my dad’s life,”’ Calman said. “All of a sudden he had a whole new set of groupies.”
Calman said that being stricken with cancer changed Eszterhas’ values. “He said to me once, ’It’s not about the fame. It’s not about the money. It’s about the people who love you, who are with you at the end of your life.”’
Eszterhas has made a plea to Hollywood asking filmmakers and actors to eliminate smoking from the big screen. He hasn’t had much success. But then, he wouldn’t have listened to his own message 10 years ago.
“I resented any kind of what I considered political correctness in terms of smoking,” he says.
Prefers writing books to screenplaysHis memoir does nothing to downplay the reputation he earned.
Although he says the behind-the-scenes industry talk that consumes everyone from Hollywood to Malibu is of no interest to him, his book is full of exactly that. There are gossipy tidbits on his wild evening with actress Sharon Stone, his battle with agent Michael Ovitz and his fight with action star Sylvester Stallone over writing credits on his first script, “F.I.S.T.”
Now he’s writing a novel. He won’t reveal the subject but said it’s something different for him. He also won’t rule out writing another screenplay someday but prefers books because he likes having total control of his material.
“You have no idea what a liberating feeling it is not to have to fight over something that you write,” he says.
A long journey
Eszterhas’ family immigrated from Hungary to a Hungarian neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side when he was 6. They were poor. But it was a better life than the World War II refugee camps where he nearly starved in his early years.
The family lived in a small apartment that shared its address with the Hungarian language newspaper where his father, Istvan, found work as an editor.
Eszterhas was educated by Hungarian nuns, who threatened to send him back to Europe if he didn’t learn. In 1966, he graduated from Ohio University where he was an editor of the campus newspaper. He returned to Cleveland a year after graduation as a general assignment reporter at The Plain Dealer, which fired him in 1971 for publishing a story in another publication that criticized the newspaper’s management.
Wanderlust struck him sometime later, as he yearned to leave his hometown and explore the world.
Eszterhas said returning to Cleveland in 2001 after three decades was much easier than making the transition to the West Coast. In the Midwest, he says, he feels like a real American.
“The Fourth of July here is a really big deal. I love that. We have four flags that we put up,” he says. “I love the whole thing of seeing flags everywhere.”