The most famous producer you've never heard of

Michael White

Michael White

Actor Greta Scacchi at Sydney Theatre Company. Picture: Steven Siewert

Actor Greta Scacchi at Sydney Theatre Company. Picture: Steven Siewert

Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance in Michael White's White Mischief.

Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance in Michael White's White Mischief.

GRETA Scacchi was born in Milan and at 15 her family moved to Australia where she started acting, a career that's taken her around the world. She now lives in England but often returns to make movies. Her Aussie credits include The Coca-Cola Kid, Burke & Wills, Turtle Beach, Cosi, Looking for Alibrandi and The Book of Revelation. Easy to see why we claim her as our own, though she's not.

She's worked with big names: Robert Altman, Sydney Pollack and Ismail Merchant (three times), of famed Merchant Ivory. And she's worked with someone most of us were never likely to hear of, until The Last Impresario, a doco now in cinemas, put together by the Scacchi family friend Gracie Otto, daughter of actor Barry, younger sister of model Miranda and actor Socratis.

Scacchi worked with Michael White on the 1987 film White Mischief.

The doco began in an odd fashion. Gracie was in Cannes and bumped into a charismatic but frail man to whom everybody was gravitating. Short end of the story: it was Michael White. Otto found this unassuming guy with so many stories to tell about stars and producers and agents was telling the truth. He was one of the most influential producers for decades on the London stage, in the arts and, finally, in film.

Stars were more than willing to record their debt to him for Gracie's cameras, including John Cleese, Anna Wintour, Yoko Ono, Kate Moss and an Australian contingent, Naomi Watts, Barry Humphries, Rachel Ward, Jim Sharman . . . and Greta Scacchi. Scacchi was on the phone from her home in Sussex.

You've worked with celebrated producers and directors - where does Michael White fit on the spectrum? Ah, what a character. He was always very much the observer, rather than pushing his own personality. He knew everybody and was always at the cutting edge, from the late '60s right through, even until recently. He has that gambling spirit every producer must have. He'd put his nose to the ground and he had this conviction about talent.

Gracie is using your phrase "The most famous person you've never heard of" on the poster. Despite his achievements and circle of friends he has a low profile, unlike some superstar producers. The only producers who are superstars are those who want to be. Producers don't need be photographed, we don't need to know what they look like. It's only if they're fastidious about their own self-promotion. But Michael White was very much present in the social pages. He was always in front of a camera with a blonde on each arm.

Why did stars trust him and want to work with him? He had an antenna for talent and didn't impose his personality. He was comfortable with royals and aristocrats but he was not at all snobbish or judgmental. He was genuinely passionate about the arts, theatre, film, music, dance, and the film stuff which came later. He liked expensive restaurants — usually someone else was paying. But he was very generous. One night he had eight of us around and he'd baked a fish pie sometime between a busy day at the office and setting off to a show.

He put together a great cast for your film White Mischief: Charles Dance, John Hurt, Geraldine Chaplin, a young Hugh Grant (27), Sarah Miles, Trevor Howard. [Even Scacchi's then-boyfriend Tim Finn as the bandleader.] And you were billed at the top. How did White treat you? How did you find him? I was 27 when we did that but wind back a few years to when I came out of drama school. He offered me my first job, a short film with Rowan Atkinson directed by Michael's girlfriend Lyndall Hobbs, a famous Australian "It" girl in London. He gave me my first break with this and then introduced me to Ismail Merchant who put me in Heat and Dust, my really big break and still, 30 years later, my reputation is based on it. He gave me a copy of the book White Mischief, a journalistic account of the famous Happy Valley murder case in Africa. He asked me what I thought. He had a great respect for creative people and would suck from their instincts. He always mixed with young people to keep tabs on what was happening. It was one of the reasons he liked the company of young women, apart from the other obvious reasons. He never let age alienate him from what the young audience wanted. It took him a couple of years to rustle together the finance. Later it was David Puttnam who actually became the producer. He was head of Columbia at the time and had a name. He bailed us out because we'd got to Africa and in our first week some of Michael's angels pulled out! There wasn't the money to continue until David Puttnam threw us a lifejacket.

So it hasn't always been easy for Michael White but he always managed to bounce back. He has a huge audacity and it's that audacity and appetite for adventure which makes a producer exciting because he'll take risks and make history. But it's not safe and you're gonna get your fingers burned, which he did many a time. When I was young I was very judgmental, very dismissive of people who were showy. I was trendy left-wing and he was in and out of very expensive restaurants and luxurious houses and he kept company with people who had fortunes. I thought they were all air-heads. But I couldn't dismiss him. You couldn't pigeonhole him and his interest, his understanding and his flair for the common man. Extraordinary.

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