SCOTT SIMON, Host:
Joe Eszterhas was considered - even boasted to being - just about the baddest of the Hollywood bad boys. He drank from breakfast, did drugs during day and night, chased other men's wives with abandon. Along the way, he earned an estimated $30 million writing screenplays. Some, like the "Music Box," are considered classics. Some, like let's say "Show Girls," "Basic Instinct," "Jagged Edge," are considered classic examples of Hollywood's sleaze - violent, graphic, often nasty.
SIMON: A Memoir of Faith." Joe Eszterhas joins us from our studios in New York. Joe, thanks so much for being with us.
SIMON: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: Should we explain your voice, by the way?
SIMON: Yes. In 2001, I had surgery for throat cancer. Eighty percent of my larynx was removed. The only reason I can speak is because the Cleveland Clinic did a radical experimental surgery where they took the muscles from the left side of my neck and attached them to what was left of my larynx. I couldn't speak for about two years, and I sounded very much like Brando in "The Godfather." I had a trache(ph) for a very long time. But my voice has improved, and incidentally, I want to tell you, Scott, that I'm often complimented, especially by women, on the sexiness of my voice today. And my response is, you have no idea what I had to do to get here. Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: Well, I was intrigued in reading your book that at one point you thought that maybe throat cancer was some kind of divine punishment for some of the things you'd said over the years.
SIMON: Well, I always had such a big nasty and usually obscene mouth that I would scatter with various "F" bombs and other forms of really tough expressions. And when this happened, I thought, well, you really are paying the price, you know, for all of those years of firing that kind of stuff at people. I don't think that now. I think God is forgiving and God is loving and good, but I certainly thought about it for a while.
SIMON: How did God enter your life? Could you recreate that for us?
SIMON: In the most desolate moment in my life, which was shortly after my surgery, my doctors told me that I had to stop drinking and smoking or else I die. I started smoking when I was 12 years old and drinking when I was 14. I was - at that particular point in 2001 I had been the classic functional alcoholic. Both smoking and drinking were tied into my writing, whether it was sipping white wine or coffee laced with cognac. I didn't think I could do this.
A month out after my surgery I hadn't had a cigarette or a drink in that time, but all of my nerve endings were a jangle. I had no patience with either my wife or my children. All I thought about - I was obsessed by the notion of having a drink or a cigarette. I walked each day to try to ease my cravings a bit, but on this particular day, a warm day in Cleveland, I went out walking and it was 90 some degrees. I still had my trache in my throat. I was sweating and shaking. I couldn't breath.
In the worst and most desolate moment in my life, I sat down on a curb and I started to cry. I cried like I cried when I was a little boy, actually watching my tears fall to the pavement. And I suddenly heard a voice inside me that said, please, God. Help me. I knew I couldn't have said it because I couldn't speak at all. But I kept hearing this voice, please, God. Help me. Please, God. Help me.
I stopped crying. I stopped shaking. I felt a sense of peace and solace. I opened my eyes and for the first time, I thought, yes, I can do this with God's help. I can essentially win over my own self with God's help. I'm seven years down the line and I think my faith has deepened, and prayer and my faith, except for my wife and for my children, is at the very core of who I am. It really was a transformational experience.
The reason I wrote the book is that I made a promise to God that if he would help me through this period, I would tell the world about it.
SIMON: You note in the book at one point that looking back on it, God saved your life many times over the years. You just didn't see it that way at the time.
SIMON: Well, I came to this country - I grew up and my first six years were spent in Austrian refugee camps, first German, then English and then American camps. We came to the United States - my mom, my dad and I - when I was six, and I grew up on Cleveland's near West Side. We were very poor. We were an immigrant family. You know, you either had to fight your way through to get to the bus stop or negotiate, and sometimes I've said that I learned my greatest lessons about Hollywood right in front of Nick's Diner, you know, as I got to the school bus each day.
SIMON: So what happened when Joe Eszterhas went back to Hollywood on business and you were wearing a cross, right?
SIMON: Yes, I was wearing a small silver cross. And you know, a lot of people who had known me before had looked at me agape. Some people thought that I completely lost my mind. Some of them said, look, you're going through a stage, and then they brought Bob Dylan up to me with his conversion. And you know, in those years when he did Christian music and they said, well, you know, Dylan went through his period so you'll go through your period, too, and then we can go back to making money again.
You know, I said, I don't think so, guys. You know, this is the most important thing that's happened in my life, and of course, I want to keep doing screenplays and I want to keep writing books, but I really don't want to write the kind of screenplay that I wrote before. So we'll see what happens.
You know, I tried a script about St. Paul and there was no interest in that. In terms of getting the kind of script made that I'm talking about now, and so a script that reflects my faith, I think that's going to be very difficult because I do think that there is a kind of anti-Christian prejudice in Hollywood that is very tough to crack through. I used to say that Hollywood runs on greed, and that if the phone book gets, quote, "hot," then they would film the phone book and put it up on screen.
But you know, even after the success of "The Passion of the Christ" and of "Narnia," which indicates a gigantic, quote, "market" for Christian films, to put it in Hollywood terms, you know, whenever there's another kind of hit movie - and it's happened to me three times. They do 20 imitations of that movie until they totally burn it out. And after I did "Flashdance," they did all dance pictures for a while - "Jagged Edge," courtroom thrillers, basically brought in that kind of a sultry thriller. You don't see that money train running on the salvation track even though it's been proven that there is a gigantic faith-based market.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: Joe, what do you say to people - and maybe they don't say it to you directly - that what you're going through is just grief reaction?
SIMON: Well, I'm seven years down the line since I found God, and I think my faith has deepened. I've done a terrific amount of reading in terms of trying to understand concepts of God, and I spend a good part of each day in prayer. And the only thing I can really say is I know what it is that I feel. I know what's in my heart, and I know how I feel now as opposed to how I felt before. I think that everyone who has gone through a kind of transformational experience like I have will understand immediately what I'm talking about, but it's very difficult to explain that to those who haven't.
SIMON: And why? I ask you as a novelist and screenwriter.
SIMON: Because ultimately, Scott, we're talking about faith. We're talking about what's in the deepest part of our hearts and souls - and it really comes down to faith and belief. And if you dissect that purely with logic, you are led back to the wall that is what we call the mystery of faith. And that, of course, will always remain a great mystery. Some people find a faith and others don't.
SIMON: What makes you sure God exists?
SIMON: The best evidence to me is really what happened to me. Because without God's help, I knew I couldn't have done what I ultimately did.
SIMON: Joe, thanks so much for all of your time.
SIMON: Oh, Scott. Thank you, it was terrific.
SIMON: Joe Eszterhas. His new book is "Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith."
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