How the New York Film Academy discovered gold in the developing world
In the past, Sherlock has claimed he quit school to work as carnival barker, and spent his adolescence traveling as truck-show roustabout. He lived in Paris for a time, where, he has said, he developed his taste for art, and did business in the Far East in the 1960s. When he returned to New York, with his Japanese wife Kumiko and a baby son, Sherlock went to work for Hartman, who had a firm that dealt in surplus goods. Hartman recalled that the younger man impressed him by securing a shipment of Asian furniture and sundries.
“He had this truck come in, full of Chinese stuff, doubled-parked on Fifth Avenue, at rush hour, and we unloaded all the stuff,” Hartman said. “The next thing I know, I asked him, ‘Why don’t you come to work with me?’”
Sherlock remained with Hartman’s company for more than a decade, and made a lot of money buying and selling fabric. He lived in an apartment in the San Remo on Central Park West. He owned a Picasso print, and his living room was decorated with erotic Egon Schiele drawings. (By then, he was divorced.) But Sherlock grew bored with the garment trade. In the mid-1970s, he decided to get into show business.
Sherlock’s upstairs neighbor was Zero Mostel. Sherlock met the famous actor—Max Bialystock from The Producers, and of course Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof—in the elevator, and they became friendly. By 1977, Sherlock was in business with Alvin Cooperman, a legendarily colorful Broadway executive, who had, among other things, first booked Fiddler. Sherlock invested $200,000 in a partnership to produce television and stage projects. In turn, he later alleged, Cooperman promised to introduce him “to influential members of the entertainment business community.”
Together, the partners made a special for NBC, a production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, but they soon quarreled over money. Sherlock sued Cooperman, claiming that he had been “suckered into a disastrous business relationship.” According to a handwritten internal document, Sherlock was left with the rights to three projects, entitled Shark Lady, Father Divine and Lolita.
Only one of them, Lolita, made it to the stage. Sherlock and Cooperman had obtained the rights to the novel from Vladimir Nabokov’s estate for $59,000, and playwright Edward Albee signed on to do an adaptation. But Sherlock’s effort to produce the play on his own turned into a farce: “a story as comic and troubling as the one onstage,” said a 1981 feature in New York magazine. The article portrayed the production as plagued by inexperience, dissention and financial troubles. Sherlock took out an ad in the Times seeking additional investors, star Donald Sutherland criticized Albee’s script on the “Today” show, and Albee was furious about mysterious leaks to gossip columns that played up the show’s salacious content.
“You’re dealing with what takes place in the play: cunnilingus, fellatio and masturbation,” Sherlock told New York, before conceding, “Well, if there’s a hook, there’s a hook.” In the end, though, all the tabloid attention did not turn “Lolita” into a sensation.
“This show,” Times critic Frank Rich wrote when it finally opened, “is the kind of embarrassment that audiences do not quickly forget or forgive.”
Amid the protracted struggles of “Lolita,” Sherlock was also trying to make his first movie, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. An old photograph in the New York Film Academy’s catalogue shows Sherlock grinning on the set, beneath an umbrella held by director Clive Donner, wearing a beard, a panama hat, short white shorts, and a striped shirt unbuttoned to his breastbone. Sherlock co-wrote the script, trying to update the stereotypical Chinese detective’s character, giving him a klutzy part-Jewish grandson who ate lox with chopsticks. He tried to cast an Asian actor in the role, but the studio insisted on British actor Peter Ustinov, infuriating Asian-American activists, who threatened to picket the production when it shot in San Francisco.
Sherlock snapped back, saying the protests just gave him “a whole lot of free publicity,” a defended himself against charges of racism, pointing out that his ex-wife was Japanese and his son half-Asian. “You have people who are so hypersensitive,” he told the Washington Post. “There are a lot of Jewish people who are sensitive to the word ‘Jew.’”
Though Vincent Canby pronounced the movie a “haphazard delight,” it bombed. Several other ideas—a Tarzan spoof entitled “Me Irving, You Gladys,” remakes of the Alec Guinness classics Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers—never amounted to anything. Finally, Sherlock got his hands on a Cold War submarine thriller written by a Maryland insurance agent, and published in 1984 by the obscure U.S. Naval Institute Press.
“We didn’t have any reputation,” Hartman said. “He just saw the possibilities of Tom Clancy before anyone else saw them.”
Sherlock optioned The Hunt for Red October, and after Ronald Reagan publicly praised the book, sales exploded. It was made into a blockbuster starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, with Sherlock was attached as executive producer, a title that can mean a great deal or very little in Hollywood.
Mace Neufeld, the movie’s producer, declined to comment on the specific nature of Sherlock’s involvement.
I asked Hartman, also an investor in the New York Film Academy—its library is named for him—whether the success of The Hunt for Red October helped to finance the school. He paused for a moment, and then said, “No, but I won’t tell you why. You’ll have to ask Jerry that one. … If he wants to talk about it, he’ll tell you about it.”
“Are you aware of the studio accounting system?” Sherlock wrote me in an email, in response to a list of questions that I submitted after he ignored several weeks of messages left by phone, emailed and relayed via Young. “Officially [The Hunt for Red October] is still in the red, and not one penny of profit has been paid to any of the profit participants. If you know of anything different, please tell me!”
THE NEW YORK FILM ACADEMY PRIDES ITSELF on its “intensive, hands-on, total immersion approach to learning,” which it contends is universally accessible. When the academy’s instructors arrived in Lagos, however, it didn’t take long for them to discover some holes in the curriculum. The program’s open enrollment policy and financing arrangements had created a vast gulf among the students. Some, like Ishaq Sidi Ishaq, were experienced professionals, but many scholarship students were from the underprivileged Niger Delta.
“I’ve had two students who haven’t even used computers before,” Derek Griesbach, a teaching assistant in the editing course told me. “The scroll button is freaking them out.”
The culture shock went both ways. Ryan Gibson, a screenwriting teacher from Bed-Stuy, kept an online journal recording his reactions to the strange food, snarled traffic and everyday chaos of Lagos. A year before, Gibson had taught at the academy’s first Nigeria program, held in the sleepy capital of Abuja, but sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city was daunting. The school building was guarded by many mountainous bodyguards wearing tight t-shirts that said “Become the Dream,” who insisted on accompanying any teacher who set foot off the grounds. Leaving his hotel in the morning, Gibson wrote, reminded him of the movie scene where the gates open to Jurassic Park.