IT'S PROBABLY TRIE, AS THE PHILOSOPHER SAID, THAT THE road of excess can lead to the temple of wisdom. And then there's Hollywood, where the road is a multilane freeway that stretches directly to the mansion of success, the studio doghouse—or, frequently, both.

Just ask Jon Peters, the seventh-grade dropout, ex-hairdresser and party-hound extraordinaire who abruptly announced his departure as cochairman of Columbia Pictures amid reports of extravagance and erratic behavior that startled even the denizens of Movieland. "His kind of style just didn't coincide with any corporate world," says one producer on the Columbia lot.

Two years ago the suits at Japan's Sony Corp. presumably thought otherwise when they lured Peters, 46, and his partner Peter Guber, 49, away from Warner Bros, to run Columbia, which they had purchased for $3.4 billion. So badly did the new Japanese bosses want the dynamic duo, whose string of hits included Flashdance and Batman, that they eventually agreed to buy off Warner Bros, with a reported $500 million for the privilege of paying Guber and Peters $2.75 million each per year, plus generous bonuses and a percentage of profits.

While Guber tried to project a responsible image (one of his first executive decisions was to cut off his trademark pony tail), coworkers say Peters at times bullied subordinates and ignored administrative duties. "Guber is an actual executive," says one production designer who has worked at Columbia. "He's not exactly low profile, but the other guy's an embarrassment." Off the studio lot, things were not much better. According to one widely circulated story, Peters pulled an unloaded gun on a workman at his Aspen, Colo., ranch. The final straw may have come in March, when press reports began circulating that Peters, bypassing FTD, had flown flowers to a girlfriend in London on a Columbia corporate jet. Peters vehemently denied the story, but the damage was done. Sources at Columbia say they believe Peters was quietly encouraged by Sony to step aside and go back to independent producing.

Peters, whose father was a cook of Cherokee descent, has been living by his wits most of his life. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley and at 14 went to work in a hair-styling shop. His good looks and charm helped him establish a string of beauty parlors and a reputation as a ladies' man. (Hollywood lore has it that Peters was the model for the randy hairdresser played by Warren Beatty in Shampoo.) He got his big break in 1974 when, while married to actress Lesley Ann Warren, he was called in to design a wig for Barbra Streisand and went on to help design her career and become her lover and personal manager. His other stroke of good fortune was joining with Guber in 1980. Partners and soulmates, the two even visited the same therapist each week—together.

By all accounts, producer Peters had as many bad ideas as good ones—nothing unusual in the city by the fault line. Still, he played a key role in the development and production of Batman, which grossed $250 million. More recently, he was credited with persuading his good friend Michael Jackson not to defect from Sony. Such talents are appreciated in Hollywood, and the man needn't worry where his next lunch is coming from.

BILL HEWITT
TOM CUNNEFF in Hollywood

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff.