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The Buddy System

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Odd Couple: Penotti, left, and Stevens in Steven's cluttered GreenStreet office.  

For mini moguls running a multimillion-dollar business (they are each paid a little over $100,000 in salary plus bonuses when their films succeed), there’s a playful Peter Pan quality to these two five-foot-eight, never-married single guys. They often toss a basketball back and forth as they talk, and it’s impossible to avoid tripping over Oscar, or Penotti’s wandering yellow Lab, Titus, as the dogs bound around the high-ceilinged space decorated with movie posters.

The partners share similar taste, and when they disagree it can get awkward, since they have veto power over each other when it comes to green-lighting projects. Although they usually work out disputes in private, some spill over in public. Stevens, who wants to jump-start a directing career (his first effort for GreeneStreet, Just a Kiss, got mixed reviews), has recently fallen for a World War II love story that he’s eager to direct. Penotti, skeptical about bankrolling the project, has stalled on making a decision, so Stevens confronts him at the staff meeting. “Dude, you’ve got to deal with it,” he says. “I don’t know what to do,” Penotti responds, “because I know you want it. I’d go see this movie, but I don’t want to put $3 million into it.” You can see disappointment shadow Stevens’s face. “We go through this all the time,” he tells me later. “John doesn’t see the commercial potential—I do. Our contract is that it has to be unanimous.”

They met cute in 1992 at—where else?—a movie set in North Carolina. The film was Love Field, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, who was then in the midst of a four-year, much-chronicled romance with Stevens. (“We’re still friends,” he insists, albeit somewhat ruefully.) But Stevens’s visit did produce at least one long-term relationship: He got to know Penotti, a production assistant on the film who was dating Pfeiffer’s close friend, a makeup artist. “We all started hanging out,” says Stevens, and the two men stayed in touch upon returning to New York, sharing their dreams of having careers in the business. “We finally reached the point,” Penotti recalls, “where we said, ‘Enough talking about this. Let’s make it real.’

“Our relationship,” he adds, “has lasted longer than any of our romances.”

“We finally said, ‘Enough talking about this, let’s make it real,’ ” says Penotti, adding, ‘Our relationship has lasted longer than any of our romances.”

Stevens, whose acting career had begun to stall, was motivated by the desire to reinvent himself as a director and producer. Born Stephen Fisher (he flipped his name in deference to another, same-named guild actor), he had a bohemian childhood: When he was 12, his parents divorced and Fisher moved from Chicago to New York’s meatpacking district with his mother, Sally, a struggling painter who worked as a coat-check girl and gallery assistant to make ends meet. (His two younger sisters took one look at Manhattan and fled back to their father’s Chicago home.)

His mother, now an AIDS activist, describes their free-spirited downtown life by confessing, “Fisher and I went through our adolescence at the same time.” Strapped for cash, she rented out part of her loft to an acting teacher. “Fisher was 13, and he’d come home from school and jump into my classes,” says Dan Fauci, now a Hollywood producer whose students have included Ted Danson and Marisa Tomei. “He had his own stage; he’d do monologues.”

At 15, Stevens was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and underwent radiation and surgery to remove his spleen. “It gave me this incredible lust for life,” he says. “I have this incredible curiosity about everything—that’s why my desk is like this.” He gestures toward the piles of stuff spilling onto the floor in his small office, which is decorated with prints from his collection of vintage black-and-white photographs.

Before he’d turned 30, Stevens had won scene-stealing parts in dozens of movies, from The Flamingo Kid to Short Circuit, and starred in such TV series as Early Edition—he had a lock on the nerdy-genius-wild-man roles. Then the offers started slowing down. Stevens has never commanded a million-dollar movie paycheck. “Supporting-guy roles get boring,” he says. “You don’t get to use your mind. I wanted to be involved in the whole picture.”

Adds Fauci, his former acting teacher, “Fisher has an amazing range, but there’s lots of things he can do that I don’t think he gets the chance to do. He’s had a movie career as a good, steady, offbeat character actor.”

That’s a euphemism for the fact that Stevens, who has a mesmerizing baritone, lacks leading-man looks. His friends tease him mercilessly about the unconventional appeal that makes him catnip to the opposite sex; in addition to Pfeiffer, he’s been linked in the past with Marisa Tomei and Gina Gershon, among others. “Your whole story should be about Fisher’s sex life,” jokes Turturro. “Everyone wants to know about Fisher’s unbelievable success with beautiful women.”

It’s got to be tough being a B-list actor surrounded by A-list friends, though Stevens maintains a sense of humor about it. He shows me a glossy proposal that GreeneStreet is shopping to cable networks for a faux reality-based TV travel show called Go Fish, which he hopes to star in and produce. The conceit: Unemployed actor “Jack Fisher” has “hit rock bottom. Although he hasn’t worked in six years, Fish still considers himself a serious actor whose talent is unappreciated by a celebrity-obsessed profession. Fish sees loneliness, poverty, and, worst of all, anonymity staring him blankly in the face.” And then he finds success as the host of a goofy travel show. The pitch doesn’t stint on the names of several of Stevens’s glam gal pals—Uma? Marisa?—as likely cameos. It’s a dark, funny, close-to-home version of the anonymous life Stevens feared he’d lead.

John Penotti is one of those rare souls who actually likes to drive everywhere in Manhattan. He’ll get behind the wheel of his dark-blue BMW, with its immaculate, cushy leather interior, even if he’s only going a few blocks. He takes long Sunday-night drives to nowhere every week just to clear his head. Heading up the West Side Highway to give me a lift home one night, he reminisces about his childhood in Paterson, New Jersey, one of six children of a schoolteacher and homemaker. “My father once pointed out to me that I used to hum all the time—I was trying to create my own white noise,” he says. It was a boisterous household with a cheaper-by-the-half-dozen work ethic, where the enterprising and highly competitive siblings took on paper routes and other jobs from a young age.

“We are this big, Catholic, animated, intense Sicilian family—except for John, who was always the quiet one, the sweetheart,” says his older sister, Bernadette, the lone girl in the brood and a movie executive (she used to date Bruce Willis and now runs his New York production company).

He’d originally planned to become a doctor—he’d been premed at Tufts—but after graduation, he says, “I got cold feet.” He kicked around Boston for a year as a schoolteacher and squash pro, until 1989, when Bernadette got him a career-changing job with Sidney Lumet and his producer Burtt Harris, then making the movie Q&A.

“The way John listened, you knew he was studying everything,” recalls Lumet, who has remained close, recently showing a rough cut of his new movie to Penotti for advice. “John was circumspect; he knew his place, but if you asked him a question, he had a well-thought-out answer.” Eager to build his own business before he and Stevens joined forces, Penotti had already established his own company, Concrete Productions, to prepare budgets and schedules for studios.


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