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When Tootsie opened in December, 1982, the ad copy read: “In the next 72 hours this desperate, unemployed actor will secretly audition for the female lead of a soap opera.” That was the plot line to the movie even when it was just a 30-page treatment, “Calling Diana Darling,” by veteran screenwriter Don McGuire (who had worked on three early Jerry Lewis movies and cowrote Bad Day at Black Rock). From 1975, when McGuire handed his treatment to agent-producer Martin Baum, until shooting started in 1982, the movie went through five production executives and an allstar team of screenwriters—while retaining the same story. In a sense, it’s a triumph of Hollywood collaboration.
Back in 1975, Baum, hoping to co-produce the comedy with McGuire, commissioned him to write a 138-page first draft called “Would I Lie to You?” The team offered it to Peter Sellers and Michael Caine, “and a lot of guys,” says McGuire, but they “couldn’t quite get it together.” Then Cine-Artists International took over the project while McGuire and Baum moved on (McGuire retained part-ownership). Cine-Artists hoped to star George Hamilton and Buddy Hackett, but, says McGuire, “Everything went kaplooey.”
Over the next two years, McGuire would get calls from “a half-dozen hustlers” and refer them to Cine-Artists. Then, in 1978, a lawyer for Charles Evans, brother of producer Robert Evans, called McGuire to set up a deal. Evans hired Robert Kaufman (Getting Straight, Love at First Bite) to do a rewrite, with George Hamilton (once again) as the prospective star. Next, Evans signed Dick Richards, who directed the cult comedy Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins.
Soon after, McGuire would read in the trade paper Variety that Dustin Hoffman was set to star in McGuire’s project, now called Tootsie. It was Richards who brought Hoffman into the production after Kaufman and Hamilton bowed out (according to Kaufman, the reason was “creative differences” with the producer). Hoffman brought in his best friend, Murray Schisgal, to do another rewrite. The setting changed from the West Coast to the New York theater scene, and the lead character grew extraordinarily close to Hoffman’s own persona as the driven, perfectionist actor perpetually clashing with his co-workers. “I’ve known Dustin for twenty years,” says Schisgal, “since he was an actor Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway. That scene (in Tootsie) where the actor won’t move to the center of the stage because the character, Tolstoy, is dying? That’s the way Dusty was.”
Despite Schisgal’s contributions, the project remained at an impasse. Dick Richards left to do Erich Segal’s Man, Woman, and Child. Hal Ashby nearly took his place. Then agent Michael Ovitz and Columbia Pictures, for whom Hoffman had done Kramer vs. Kramer, put him together with director Sydney Pollack, one of the studio’s most consistent moneymakers (The Way We Were, The Electric Horseman). Pollack wanted to work with Hoffman, but only if they could straighten out the script to everyone’s satisfaction.
Pollack says the structure of Tootsie was hammered out over a two-week trial period by himself, Hoffman, and the new screenwriter, Larry Gelbart, one of the industry’s most reliable comedy writers (Movie Movie, Broadway’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, TV’s M*A*S*H). Other unbilled writers who contributed to the final script included Elaine May, Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson; even Bill Murray rewrote most of his own lines.
Says Pollack, “Then Levinson and Curtin came on one week into shooting to help smooth it out. They didn’t do much writing. By that time the film was already on a railroad track. They did help remove a stumbling block in the plot: how Dustin would get in bed with Teri Garr. Levinson and Curtin had Teri emerge from her shower while Hoffman’s undressing because he wants ‘Dorothy’ to try on Teri’s clothes.”
If he had been handed a perfect script, Pollack’s major contributions to Tootsie would have been mood, tone, embellishment. Instead, he also had to assume the demanding task of managing editor. Most of all, Pollack gave the film a unifying sensibility.
“People were always telling me, ‘You don’t want to make an outrageous comedy, you want to make a gentle love story,” says Pollack. “And they were right. I wish I could say that was coming out of some great artistic instinct. But in fact it was coming from self-defense. I am not a farceur. I know better than to go into an area where I don’t know the rules. Some self-protective instinct told me, ‘Stay rooted in a literal reality.’ So when it got too extreme, I would say, ‘I don’t believe that.’ What I meant was, ‘I don’t have the equipment to direct that.’ Blake Edwards could do that, Billy Wilder could do that. But I’ve got to go another way. And I did.”