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It's Magic Time - Hawk Koch Conjures Up Some Captivating Memories

Posted By Rona Edwards, Friday, October 11, 2019

We know him as a former president of the Producers Guild of America. A past president and governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That’s the public Hawk Koch. But this accomplished industry veteran has a much bigger story. He grew up in Hollywood, the son and namesake of famous producer and beloved studio head Howard W. Koch. He immersed himself in the make-believe and magic of the movies even before he knew what his father did for a living or what would ultimately become his career. However, it wasn’t always easy living in the shadow of such a larger-than-life man, as he reveals in his new memoir, Magic Time: My Life in Hollywood, cowritten with his wife, Molly Jordan. “Magic time” is an expression Hawk overheard Jack Lemmon say before he’d shoot a scene—a mantra he himself adopted. The book was born out of his years of experience and the movies he helped make.

Hawk working with Roman Polanski and
Jack Nicholson on

Stories? He’s got a million of them. But this memoir is more than tales of show business and the enormously talented actors and directors Hawk has worked with. It’s really a coming-of-age story. He admits he “came from privilege but didn’t feel privileged at all.” On one of the first movies he worked on, Hawk overheard someone say the only reason he got the job was because his dad was the head of Paramount. “My heart just sunk, and then another guy said, ‘Yeah, but he’s really good and he’s working really hard, so why don’t you give him a break?’” Hawk recalls. “And I realized at that moment—I was like 19 years old—I had to do everything I could to try and not be just Howard Koch Jr., the son of Howard Koch, but Howard Koch Jr., a man all by himself.”

Hawk went to work achieving that success in his own right. From assistant director on movies such as The Way We Were (1973), Chinatown (1974), Marathon Man (1976), Heaven Can Wait (1978)—which he also produced—to producing The Idolmaker (1980), Wayne’s World (1992) and Primal Fear (1996), he’s been involved with more than 65 feature films. Streisand, Redford, Fonda, Beatty, Coppola, Pollack, Schlesinger, Polanski—Hawk has worked with a who’s who of Hollywood. “I am one of the luckiest guys in the world,” he says. Luck, though, is only part of the equation. His experience and know-how brought him a long way, too.

“The book is about the fun ups and downs of making films as well as the ups and downs of dealing with a father who was the most-loved man in Hollywood,” says Hawk. “When I was introduced to somebody, they didn’t say ‘hi.’ They said, ‘You must be so proud to be the son of the most wonderful man I’ve ever met.’”

Hawk with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau from The Odd Couple

A real turning point came when Hawk had his bar mitzvah … at age 50. The transformation that happens for most boys at age 13 happened to Hawk later in life. It was truly a rite of passage that changed everything for him—including his name. It was while sitting across from the rabbi that he realized he could have his own name, and not carry his father’s as he had for 49 years. It dawned on him that he used to write his initials HWK on his schoolbooks, and the kids nicknamed him “Hawk.”

“Hawks,” the rabbi told him, “can see from horizon to horizon at the same time, and they have the ability to see a mouse from a mile away. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if you could see the panoramic of your life and the detail all at the same time?” After he changed his name, people really saw him for the first time; separate, and not as someone’s son.

When asked what it takes to be a good producer, Hawk has some acute observations. “I think that being an assistant director really taught me how to be a good producer, because an AD has to look at all the options and be ready for anything that’s going to happen. When I used to break down a script, I used to see everything and know if the weather’s bad, we’re going to go here; if the actress is not happy in the morning, maybe we can go this way; if the actor has a fight with someone—well what do we do? It’s all what-ifs, and I think I was taught by some pretty damn good ADs ahead of me how to always look at every single thing that could go wrong and keep on the same track if everything’s going right.” He continues thoughtfully, “As a producer, I read the scene that is going to be shot that day to make sure I know the reason why it’s being shot. If it’s not important, it shouldn’t be shot.” In other words, let everyone else worry and focus on what they need to do. A producer needs look at the big picture, making  sure they get what’s important to the story.

Although the book is very personal, the tales Hawk tells about making movies are sure to attract the most avid cinephile. From escorting Natalie Wood to the set, to planning and shooting a real football game in Heaven Can Wait, this is a treasure trove of iconic moments in modern Hollywood history.

When Francis Ford Coppola was about to direct Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), it was up to Hawk to get the wildly creative director to make decisions in preproduction in order to keep the film on budget. He put together a manual of what had to be done to prepare for the shoot, which basically stated, “that no piece of lumber, no nail, could be hammered on any set until the plans had been drawn, estimated and come in within budget.” All the department heads had to sign those blueprints, and all had to be signed off by Coppola before production began. The bottom of the contract concluded, “The director has the right to change his mind.” Coppola agreed. On set, Coppola was surprised that no one asked him any questions. Hawk reassured him, “That’s the idea, because you’ve prepped everything. The only thing you have to worry about now is the actors and where to put your camera.” Hawk has used that formula on most every movie since. “I’ve always said ‘our vision.’ I’ve always said when movies go over budget or when movies don’t work, the studio, the director, the producer and the actors didn’t have the same vision. When they all have the same vision, that’s when it really works.”

Hawk with Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Peggy Sue Got Married 

A driving force behind the PGA’s Producers Mark with Vance Van Petten and Mark Gordon, Hawk, alongside Kathleen Kennedy, Lawrence Gordon and Mark Johnson, also urged the Academy to use the PGA’s arbitration system for its Oscar eligibility. “The Mark is the thing I’m most proud of, other than my children. We’ve changed the culture. We’re the producers of the 21st century, and the Producers Mark works, and the real producer has respect.” However, he says there is more work to do. “We need to get the Producers Mark for streaming and TV. We need to constantly look forward and not look back. The business is changing faster than ever, and we just need to keep abreast of it.”

Hawk goes on to share his aspirations for the PGA. “Everyone in our Guild needs to be protected by all of us. We are not a collective bargaining group, so the only way we stay together and the only way that we help is to help one another. I hope that everybody knows that the Guild through its volunteers, from the presidents on down, survives because of all of us, not just one person. We are all in it together.”


Magic Time: My Life in Hollywood comes out November 12. 

Magic Time is loaded with Hawk’s own personal pearls of wisdom, including these five tenets:

1)    Have fun!

2)    Work with people you like. Be in a relationship with someone you like.

3)    Do something that matters.

4)    Have courage. Don’t live in fear.

5)    Live your dream. Who am I? What do I truly want to be?  And if you had one minute to live, ask yourself, did I live the life I wanted to or the one I was supposed to?

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