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LEAVING JASON BEHIND, THE STUDIO HEAD'S SON COMES OF AGE WITH 'INTERNAL AFFAIRS'

AN AMAZINGLY little-known fact in Buffalo is this: One of the most powerful men in contemporary Hollywood -- Paramount studio head Frank Mancuso -- came up through the film exhibition ranks here. In his youth, he started as an usher at the downtown Lafayette Theater, worked for the Basil Brothers for many years, and finally made his first connection with Paramount Pictures in Buffalo.

Film types know all this. So do Mancuso's relatives and old friends. But if you drove up to the man on Main Street in a Trail Blazer and asked, he would have little idea that the man who now says yes and no to Eddie Murphy and Steven Spielberg booked and managed local Buffalo theaters as recently as 20 years ago.

His son Frank Mancuso Jr. -- who was 13 when his family moved away in 1970 -- has just celebrated the Hollywood producer's equivalent of graduation day.

Forget the financial killing Frank Jr. made in the "Friday the 13th" business. Forget the middling receptions to his teen suicide film "Permanent Record" and his Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello reunion movie "Back to the Beach," too.

At age 31, the Buffalo-born film producer has vaulted at least two rungs up the prestige ladder with his first across-the-board critical success, "Internal Affairs," one of the most unnerving and brilliant thrillers of recent years.

Whatever conventional cop movie people expected with "Internal Affairs," they discovered something totally different -- a dark, fiercely erotic film noir stylishly directed by Mike Figgis and magnificently acted by Richard Gere, in his best part in a decade.

Frank Mancuso Jr. says that being the son of one of Hollywood's most powerful men has neither helped nor hindered his professional life.

"In its most complicated form, it probably does a little of both. In its simplest, it probably doesn't have a lot to do with anything.

"It hinders to the extent that people always ask me about it and try to make more out of it than what it is. On the other hand, I think my own influence wouldn't be what it is at this time of my life were it not for my father.

"You want to be given credit for your own abilities, your own intellect, your own talent. When people try to suggest the reason why you have whatever success you have is because of your parents, it's reasonably clear that's not the case. . . . If your father was a plumber, you'd probably know more about plumbing than anything else. And if you decided you wanted to be a plumber, you'd have a leg up."

When Frank Jr. was growing up, "Robert Redford wasn't calling on the weekend to see how my father was. It was a very different thing. He was selling films. It was a different world. Even then, though, I soaked up a lot. You can't help but learn. We had an especially close family. All our experiences were shared ones."

They still are, according to Frank Jr. He tries to get to Buffalo as often as possible to see his grandmother Ann Mauro and the rest of his relatives here. And he and his father "are actually getting pretty good" at the undeniably tricky business of being studio head and producer as well as father and son.

"We deal with each other every day on a whole bunch of different levels. . . . Whether I'm not happy or whether he's got his own difficulties, we're really open and share everything that's going on. No matter where he is or no matter where I am, we always talk every day. Because of that, obviously, everything comes out. But if I'm angry at somebody at Paramount I don't go to him, I go right to them and deal with it straight up."

Nor does he ever deal directly with his father on the projects he wants to do. "I would go to the head of production, Sid Ganis. He's the person that basically green-lights movies. It goes with Frank Sr.'s say-so, obviously. But in my movies, he has to be somewhat more removed."

Frank Jr. has even toyed with the idea of taking a project to another studio.

"There's a part of me that would like to do things elsewhere -- just to have a different experience. It doesn't necessarily mean it would be better or worse. It would just be different. The opportunity presents itself all the time. I wouldn't go to Warner Brothers, though, just to make a movie there. It would have to be something I really wanted to do and that was the way to get it done. If Warner Brothers had a book I was desperate to do, then I'd tell the people at Paramount: 'I really want to make this. Let me do it and I'll come back.' "

He effectively removed himself from day-to-day supervision of all the "Friday the 13th" sequels after "a chilling moment" during the cast and crew screening of "Friday the 13th Part Four: The Final Chapter."

It was "going horribly. They weren't screaming, they weren't scared, they weren't doing anything. I walked out and I said to myself, 'If this movie doesn't make a lot of money, there's absolutely no reason to make it.' I didn't realize at the time what I was saying. It had nothing to do with the work. It was just an exercise in a formula. There was nothing else to be explored, there was nothing else to learn, there was nothing else to gain by those films. The only reason for its existence was commerce.

"In this business, the vicissitudes of what you go through to get a movie going, you don't know if a movie is going to be successful or not. What I took away from that experience is that the only thing you can reasonably count on is the product itself. That's all you can do. If it's successful or not is somebody else's responsibility. All I can do is make the best movie I'm capable of making."

Why did it take so long to realize that?

"I was only 24 or 25 at the time and making a lot of money."

After that, he took a "godfatherly" role on all subsequent "Friday the 13th" projects -- and plunged in all the way, in movies like the exceptional "Internal Affairs." He describes the interplay among the principals in "Internal Affairs" as so close sometimes as to be interchangeable.

It was, for instance, his inspiration to select young British director Mike Figgis over Americans "who had a lot more credentials and a lot more successful movies. I had seen (Figgis' first film) 'Stormy Monday' and liked it. I thought he and I would make the best movie together." It was also Mancuso's inspiration to stick to his first choice.

And it was partly his doing to get Richard Gere into the role that may resurrect his career.

"Richard was one of the people who responded to the screenplay. Our initial concern was, will he be able to go as far as this movie needs to go? He assured us that he could. Once he did that, we were happy to have him.

"The drive of the piece is really the evil of (his) character. If he started to play it safe -- if he'd said, 'I can't do this, I can't do that, I'm concerned about what the public will think about me,' the whole movie would de-intensify. If you didn't have this very charismatic, animal-like character out there prowling around the jungle, the movie wouldn't work. We really needed him to go after the movie -- and he did, with reckless abandon."

As a result, the son of one of Hollywood's most powerful figures has earned himself a mammoth chunk of respect -- on his own.

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