I first found out about “Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid” in 1990. I was in the fourth grade and my older brother had just bought me a Leonard Maltin book of movie reviews. As my brother leafed through it, he cracked up uncontrollably at two particular titles. One of them was the Melvin Van Peebles blaxploitation pic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” The other was “Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid.” Somehow I kept forgetting to check the film out. You can imagine my joy when, 20 years later, I discovered the film wasn’t on Netflix and was therefore worthy of Hidden Films coverage.
Initially titled “Zeisters,” “Fat Guy” was shot in and around New York City in 1981, after director and co-screenwriter John Golden independently raised a million dollars. Golden and his brother Roger based the principal characters–a trio of whacky, rootless, schlubby brothers–on themselves and their other brother. The main plot–two of the brothers accidentally kidnap an obese half-wit, the “fat guy” of the title, from a summer camp for the retarded–was based on John Golden’s personal experiences volunteering at such a camp. Countless distributors–even those known for favoring bizarre B-movies–refused to handle the project. Finally, in 1983, Troma Entertainment–the schlocky trash cinema company that later made its claim to fame with the “Toxic Avenger” series–snatched “Zeisters” up and gave it its new title, which initially made the Goldens cringe. For reasons lost to the sands of time, the film took about four years to receive a brief theatrical run. The only review from that period I could find was by the cutup critic Joe Bob Briggs, designating himself as the Drive-In Movie Critic of Grapevine, Texas, who wrote, “As you can see, it’s the story we’ve seen a thousand times: Retarded Fat Guy Meets Drug Dealer.”
In the ensuing years, however, “Fat Guy,” through its title alone, became something of a cult home video favorite (the movie is still not on DVD, as Golden has refrained from signing that contract with Troma). Not to everyone, of course; some have devoted copious amounts of blog space to ripping the movie apart, as if it aspired to be the next “On the Waterfront.” More sensible souls that disliked “Fat Guy” were perhaps disappointed that the movie, despite the so-bad-it’s-good promise of its title and its Troma affiliation, isn’t all that nutzoid. Sure, there’s a few jokes at the expense of the retarded, but not of the mean-spirited variety that the Farrelly Brothers championed a decade later. Sure, there’s an extended vomit joke and some flatulence, but the gross-out humor pretty much ends there.
Actually, the most shocking component of the movie is its sweetness. The fat guy–whom the brothers nickname “The Mouka”–is for the most part a mute innocent, an overgrown child. He’s a music lover–at an impromptu rock show he stumbles into, he pantomimes the sax player, delighting the band so much that he’s invited backstage. He’s open-minded–he gets an innocuous schoolboy crush on a punk rock chick with a mohawk. He’s sort of a cross between Curious George–the first time we meet the Mouka, he rummages through one of the brothers’ briefcases and spills all his quaaludes, which the other summer camp denizens tear into–and Brendan Fraser’s grunting caveman character in “Encino Man.” And, most touching of all, through suddenly having to protect and monitor the Mouka, these aimless, ne’er-do-well brothers–one is a loafer/drug dealer, the other two barely employed and neurotic as all hell–learn about responsibility and maturity. All of this is punctuated by acclaimed jazz guitarist Leo Kottke’s lilting, playful score, which almost turns a film with all the substance and textural subtlety of Mott’s grape juice into champagne. No wonder Troma head Lloyd Kaufman compared “Fat Guy” to “‘Being There,’ only without Peter Sellers.”
When I saw John Golden’s comment on a YouTube video review of the film, I had to get a hold of him to request an interview, and happily, he accepted. During our phone conversation, Golden talked about his initiation into the industry after he begged his way into the American Film Institute, his work on a few godawful George Burns projects that never saw the light of day, his more successful stint as a producer and fundraiser for foreign television programs, and his love of aikido.
Sam Weisberg: How did you come up with the word “nutzoid”?
John Golden: We made the film under the name of “Zeisters,” which was supposed to be a homemade kind of expletive that the brothers said to each other. We cut that out of the film and we didn’t have a title. Our distributor [at Troma] said “We’re gonna call it ‘Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid.’” My knees buckled. I thought it was some crazy mix between a Doris Day movie and a Troma movie, and I thought, “Oh my God, please, anything but that!” But oddly enough, as kitschy and silly a name as that is, it really became the perfect name for the movie.
SW: As kids, did you and your brothers collaborate on projects? Did you have a home video camera?
JG: No, but you couldn’t find three closer brothers, even though we’re very different and spread out over a fairly long time period in terms of age. We’ve collaborated on our senses of humor.
SW: Was the Fat Guy character based on a friend of yours? How did the story come together?
JG: He was semi-autobiographical. The three of us each had been extremely fat, at one point. After thirteen years of being fat, as kids, we got into martial arts. Now the three of us are healthy, lean and rugged. The fat guy is really a conglomerate. The Mouka is an innocent that most people find hard to bear, but he’s actually a very loving and alive character somewhere in my subconscious.
SW: So Mouka is another in-joke name that you made up with your brothers, like “zeisters”?
JG: Yeah. I think it becomes clear by the end of the movie that Mouka is just a name, like saying, “Where’s that blob? Where’s that mouka, that pinhead, that dimwit?”
SW: Were you called that or did you guys make it up?
JG: Actually, my oldest brother Roger, when I was born, he didn’t call me John for three or four years. He called me fathead. That name appears in other movies that I’ve done as well [including “Samantha,” the 1992 Martha Plimpton comedy that Golden wrote the script for–also not available on Netflix].
SW: How did the mental institution plot come up? From the title, you think the main character is a mental patient, but I think he’s supposed to be mentally disabled. Not necessarily crazy, just–
JG: He’s retarded. He’s slow.
SW: How did that whole story come about?
JG: One of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done is I was a counselor at a summer camp for mentally retarded adults. I totally emphasized with some of their frustrations. I learned that a lot of them were sincerely lovely people, blessed with the stigma of being retarded. And when I say blessed, I mean that I have learned that many retarded people are extremely happy. They’re perpetual kindergarteners.
SW: When you’re telling this particular story, it’s pretty clear that you are sensitive and loving towards the Mouka. But did you worry at all that it would come across like you were poking fun at retards?
JG: No, I really didn’t—and we were making fun of them. But I would make fun of everyone. We are, in my opinion, in some light, all bozos on the bus.
SW: How did you find those two actors that played the two main brothers [Tibor Feldman and Douglas Stone]? They really look alike, they kind of reminded me of the Coen Brothers…
JG: In an open call. But Peter Linari, that’s a very interesting story. When my wife and I lived on Park Avenue, there was a garbage detail that came at two-thirty every morning and woke me up, because somehow the garbage man got in the habit of not only picking up the garbage in front of our building, but that’s where he engaged the crusher. So for a good five minutes, I was hearing mechanical clunking. One night, I go down there in my bathrobe, with the intention of asking the driver to run the crusher down the block. And out of the door of this vehicle stepped Peter Linari, who was at that time almost five-hundred pounds. I was looking for the character who played Frankenstein, but the one who was able to meet the three year-old girl at the pondside and for them to have a very gentle moment together. So Peter came out, and he was huge and dirty and naive-looking and silly, and I knew right then, that if that guy could act, he was my Fat Guy. It turns out that oddly enough, he was in his last year of 20 years as a sanitation worker, and he was going to retire and was trying to get into acting. He’d been in a few commercials. I invited him to come to my open casting. It turned out that Peter is a tremendously talented guy, and I’ve used him in everything I could ever since.
SW: He’s been in some action films, right?
JG: Yes, and also a Woody Allen film [“The Curse of the Jade Scorpion”]. I used to direct “Saturday Night with Connie Chung,” for CBS News. We were doing a re-enactment of the Lockerbie jet that was blown out of the sky [Pan Am Flight 103, from London to New York, December 1988], and Peter [whose mother is German] played a German worker for the airline and needed to act in both languages.
SW: According to imdb.com, Joan Allen and Amy Madigan are in the movie. I recognized Amy Madigan in the opening funeral scene, but where is Joan Allen?
JG: They’ve got the wrong Joan Allen. Joan Allen plays the woman at the funeral who’s yelling at the boys for bending the [corpse’s] finger back. But not the very talented, lovely Joan Allen from the “Bourne” trilogy. Amy wasn’t famous [at the time] and I don’t remember working with her.
SW: What was the budget when you were shooting “Fat Guy”?
JG: It started off at $325,000. I had very generous investors. We ended up spending almost a million. That was my first movie, and I think it suffered from having too much money. I probably should have shot it at around $450,000, and not been as generous as I tend to be when it comes to paying people.
SW: Why did it suffer?
JG: I should have been more lean and mean. Even in the writing, there was a little bit of a problem for my brother Roger and I, as to what this movie was about. There was actually 45 minutes of the story that got completely cut out. It turned out to be as much the Mouka’s movie as it was about the character modeled after Roger. We reshaped it that way. If anything it’s a buddy film. In a sense, it’s like John Waters doing “Midnight Cowboy.”
SW: Was there a lot cut out of what you actually shot?
JG: Oh, yeah. There was a solid half-hour that didn’t work at all. There were two major characters that are not in the movie. It’s too bad, because the scene where Roger is brought in to the probation officer and the judge was no doubt the best scene in the movie. It was hysterical. However, there was a character in it who we had to cut out. You have to learn how to kill your darlings, as they say. And now that scene is OK, it’s kind of funny. But I thought that was the best work I’d ever done. The character Oscar Henderson, Roger’s probation officer, never appears in the movie [he was played by John McKay, who was later in “Regarding Henry” and two Hal Hartley films]. I might add, he was a terrible actor, just impossible to work with. We didn’t cut him out because he was a horrible actor, it was because we cut out 45 minutes of the movie.
SW: Your movie generally reminded me a lot of “Encino Man,” where Pauly Shore and Sean Astin find Brendan Fraser as the grunting caveman. Do you think it ripped “Fat Guy” off?
JG:I never saw that film. I don’t know that anyone ripped me off. There are a lot of people, and basically only seven things you can write about. So there’s a lot of overlap.
SW: You mentioned John Waters. Was “Fat Guy” initially meant to be edgier? There is an extended vomit scene and some flatulence jokes, but it’s not all that gross of a movie.
JG: I never built a scene just to be shocking. I’ve been trained better than that. It’s not a “Porky’s” movie. I really wanted it to have a dramatic arc and to work as a low-budget independent movie. There were a couple of things in it that were a little shocking. There’s the scene where Tibor is up in the summer camp, and Doug Stone sees what’s going on and says “This is the worst fucking mess I’ve ever seen,” to which Tibor says, “It’s not such a mess. It’s not Auschwitz!” And then the next thing you see is a guy with a crew cut, naked, in the shower. I definitely wanted the reverberation that the mention of the Holocaust brought. Our line producer, Emily Dillon, begged me to cut that out. She was our employee so the answer was no. I’m not sorry it’s in there.
SW: How many years did you try to distribute the movie independently before Troma bought it?
JG: A long time. Tim Deegan, from 20th Century Fox, he was one of the guys who worked on “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Fox didn’t know what to do with that movie, so Tim and the people he was working with said, “Give us a million dollars, and one year, and we will make this movie famous.” And they did. They invented the whole notion of showing it at midnight, and let’s do everything we can to insure that mothers don’t want their children to see it, and it will be a hit. So I hired Tim to get us distributed and to work in that capacity. He tried hard. Nobody wanted it. We took it to all the classics divisions and the little distributors. My movie came along just after “Pink Flamingos,” and that was a big hit. And I thought quite frankly that my movie was better than that. It was further out and better done. I was surprised at how many people didn’t want anything to do with it. Like, “Get it away from me.” And then I showed it to Lloyd [Kaufman] and Michael [Herz] at Troma, and they knew what to do with it, so I gave it to them. I think that was 1983.
SW: How quickly did they get the distribution worked out?
JG: Fast. They acted completely well, except—and this is just my suspicion—but I think they made a lot more money than they told me about. I also think they deducted a lot more expenses from their overhead than they should have. A lot of people get hurt on their first movie.
SW: Lloyd Kaufman has been quoted as loving the movie. In fact, I think he compared it to “Being There.” What was the first meeting like with him?
JG: They got the movie. They liked it a lot. There was no hard times about that. I just think we didn’t quite get what we were owed.
SW: When Troma bought it, did you make a slight profit?
JG: I don’t really want to talk about the money so much. I’ll put it you this way: the way I paid my crew is not the way my distributor paid me. I was a snot-nosed kid directing my first movie, and they saw that. When I made “Fat Guy” I think I was 27.
SW: I know that Troma got the film into a showcase at Cannes. Were you at that?
JG: I did not. I could have.
SW: Are you happy with its cult film status?
JG: Yes. Troma came back to me after 20 years and they wanted to come out with a director’s cut. They re-released the same movie and called it a “director’s cut” because they interviewed me on camera prior to the movie. I knew they had to be making some money or they wouldn’t do that. After that release, they came back to me and were dying to release a DVD. I told them, “I’m not giving you the DVD. You’re not paying me enough for it.” I get people every year who inquire about the movie and if we’re gonna do a sequel, and I’m surprised how much torque the history of that film has had.
SW: What was the theatrical run like?
JG: It played in California and a few theaters in New York. I think it played in six or seven cities, usually on one to three screens in that area. It was a very limited release, but the fact that it went theatrical tickled my fancy to no end. The movie tends to hang on. Last year, I was driving in New York City. Sometimes advertisers will paint the sides of apartment buildings with their ads, to sell radios or whatever. So I’m driving up Sixth Avenue and I see this gigantic painting on the side of a building, and it says, “At Amazon.com, we have more than 90,000 movies, including ‘Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid.’” I took a picture of that. It warmed my heart.
SW: I found your resume online and I’m wondering why “Fat Guy” isn’t mentioned on it.
JG: It’s the title. A lot of what I do has involved a serious amount of money, and I think that title could scare someone off. I would never deny it, but I don’t want to rub it in their face.
SW: What was your film industry experience prior to “Fat Guy”?
JG: When I got out of college, most of my friends were going to places to become a doctor or lawyer. I drove a cab and worked in a liquor store and I wrote a screenplay. I sent it out to the American Film Institute, I applied as a directing fellow, I think there were 10 or 12 slots for directors from all over the world. And I got wait-listed. I had never been wait-listed in my life. I got into everything I applied to, including Horace Mann, Harvard, wherever I wanted to go. I was astonished. So I called the AFI up and I spoke to Tony Vellani [associate producer for “The Greatest Story Ever Told”]. I said, “I’m gonna be out in Los Angeles next week, can I come and take a look at the AFI, in case you decide that I should go there?” He said absolutely. He was an Italian man with an enormous amount of class and dignity. He understood drama like no one else. I started following him, but I followed him like a rat follows a piece of cheese . He’d walk into a room and I’d walk into the room with him. After about 20 minutes, he turned around and said, “You can’t follow me!” And that’s when I knew I had his ear. I said, “Mr. Vellani, I’m sure there are other people you’ve wait-listed who are lot more talented than I am. But I promise you, there’s no one who wants to come here as much as I do.” And he said, “Go home and pack your bags. Come back in a week, you’re in.” It was a gift from God if I ever had one. I was taught by Steven Spielberg. Sydney Pollack was a bit of a mentor of mine. I worked with Cicely Tyson, Claude Lelouch.
After the AFI, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences had a program where they selected two or three people a year and assigned them to another director, and the director taught them how to direct as they were doing a movie. I ended up working with Jeannot Szwarc on “Somewhere in Time,” for three and a half months. I ended up being Christopher Plummer’s stand-in. He was extremely dignified, with a real warmth. Richard Matheson…I was so amazed that the guy who wrote this film would take an interest in having a relationship with me. I knocked myself in the head, because years later I found out that Matheson had written and produced about 50 or 60% of “The Twilight Zone.” Had I known that, I would have been all over him, about how he crafted the show, and what was involved. Those are the mistakes of a young person who doesn’t realize, “Research the people that are here, because they weren’t born yesterday.”
SW: Did you work with Christopher Reeve?
JG: Absolutely. I teased him often. [pause] I’m just remembering what happened to Chris and pausing for a moment. It’s really too bad. I will say this, it opened him up tremendously. He became much more aware of other people’s suffering. I think God always has a plan.
SW: What did you do after “Somewhere in Time”?
JG: I’d written a first draft of a screenplay. I knew that it had problems. I ran into Stephen La Rocque at the AFI. He showed me a film he’d directed called “One Way.” It was a spoof about the est movement, and it was hysterical. I said to him, “I’d like you to direct my movie.” The notion was that we would rewrite it together and he’d direct it. I told him I’d support him no matter what and never ask him to give up the desire to be a director. It would have been his first feature. It took us 12 years to get that movie made. [“Samantha”] We had three or four serious offers, for what at the time was major dollars, but they only gave Steve a Best Efforts Clause, and we were both smart enough to realize, that lasts one day before they pick the director they want. The Ladd Company—Alan Ladd Jr.—offered us sizable money, and I was tempted to say to Steve, “Please, let it go.” But I didn’t. That kind of thing is very important in my family. My oldest brother Roger ended up doing 20 years in a federal penitentiary all because he wouldn’t talk about other people he worked with, selling grass. My family is a lot like the mafia, in that sense. Much more lovable, I hope, and never violent. But those things about honor and truth and not ratting, they mean something to us. He said to the judge, I couldn’t live with myself, I have to live with the being that I am. Today he’s a free man, and he’s proud to be him, but in a very humble way.
SW: But I read a New York Post article that he was busted in 1995 and sentenced two years later for 13 years, but wound up getting released in 2006. And then I read that in 2007 he accidentally stashed his marijuana in a storage locker that was next to the DEA’s office…
JG: I guess I’m so used to saying 20 years because being of his family I count the almost five years he was on the lam from the FBI, and his second prison term as well. Collectively, all of that makes 20 years.
SW: So what was the outcome of the storage locker situation?
JG: He had to go back to jail for another few years. He is now out again and no longer in business of any kind with grass.
SW: So what happened with the “Samantha” script?
JG: Steve and I showed it to Leonard Stern [who died in June at age 87], the first producer we took it to. He had a tremendous amount of experience. He had done “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” and “McMillan & Wife.” We wanted Leonard to read “Samantha” and tell us whether or not we could get an agent. At the same time, there was a very powerful writing/directing agent named John Gaines, he was at the Agency for Performing Artists. John read it, and here was his exact words: “John, I don’t understand it, and I can’t stand it.” I felt a little deflated. Meanwhile, Leonard not only falls in love with it, he wants to buy it. And he wanted to hire us to write a screenplay for George Burns. That’s when the dice really started to roll. He offered us plenty of money for “Samantha,” but we didn’t let him have it, because again, he was only willing to commit to Steve on a Best Efforts basis, and that didn’t work. He admired that we didn’t cave. That’s when I became a real professional in the writing world. We did many scripts for Columbia, and then Universal and Warner.
SW: Which scripts did you do?
JG: We worked on a movie called “F as in Philadelphia,” with George Burns. It never got made. Then we worked on several scripts, but here’s the rub: I was getting fat as a writer, making way more money than I knew what to do with, at that age, but I wasn’t getting my movies made at all. On my fourth assignment from Columbia Pictures, we were writing a real piece of garbage called “What a Weekend.” I hated the assignment and I had a major disagreement with Leonard. He told a joke one day, very broad and vaudevillian, and I thought it was sophomoric and unoriginal. And he said, “Write it down.” I said, “I didn’t think it was funny.” He said, “Take my word for it, it’s funny.” I said, “No, it’s not funny at all.” He said, “Write it down!” And I said, “Leonard, that’s unacceptable.” He looks at me and goes, “Try accepting it this way, kid. I’m paying your salary. Now write it down.” So I wrote it down, and I thought, “Not only will I write it down, but I promise you, I will never care about this project ever again. Dictate all you want. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just your typewriter.”
[Eventually], I went to the studio and said “I want to be released from this project. I will give you all your money back, but please let Leonard and Steve finish it.” And —I don’t want to say who it was, but he was way up there—but he said “Don’t worry, kid. We weren’t gonna make the movie anyhow.” I found out that they didn’t want Leonard to direct the movie, even though he was tremendously experienced. He had directed one other feature called “Just You and Me, Kid,” with George Burns and Brooke Shields, and it was maybe the worst movie ever made. So they had a deal with Leonard that they knew they weren’t gonna keep, but they let him keep doing screenplays, in case one was really good, [in which case] they’d try to talk him out of it. What I realized is, not only do I not want to be hired to write things I don’t believe in, I’m not a blueprint guy. I want to raise the money myself to make the damn movie happen. So I left California, came back to New York, and it took me one month to raise a million bucks for “Fat Guy.” I never found raising money that easy again, but I still do it to this day.
SW: How did “Samantha” finally come out?
JG: Don Borchers, a very prolific young producer, met Steve La Rocque, and they hit it off. He was willing to make a film trusting Steve as a first-time director.
SW: How did you get that cast together?
JG: I didn’t have anything to do with the movie except rewriting the script for Don. I was producing a film in Eastern Europe while that was going on, called “The Diary of the Hurdy Gurdy Man.” [not released until 1999]
SW: By that point, was the script for “Samantha” similar to what you’d written 12 years earlier?
JG: It really was, with a couple of changes. The script wasn’t what was lacking. What held the project back was that people don’t like risking money on an unknown quantity. Steve was a terrific guy and a terrific director.
SW: Were you happy with the final product?
JG: There are little things—for instance, the sound mix is very simplistic. When Samantha’s mother goes upstairs to talk to her, the house supposedly is filled with guests downstairs. It’s a party but you can’t hear anything! I thought the sound should have been designed differently, it would have made the fairy tale more real, for not much more money.
SW: Were you ever on set?
JG: No, I was never invited. Steve said, “Gee, you could have come.” But I don’t think I could have come.
SW: Were you happy with “Samantha’s” reception? I read a negative Roger Ebert review.
JG: I thought Roger was being a little cruel. We have a bunch of good reviews, I have a book full of them. But he said that the dialogue was so bad, you could tell that even the writers didn’t care about the movie. And that was so far away from the truth. There were times where Steve and I would argue for 15 minutes–lovingly, but we’d argue about the use of one word in a sentence. That’s how much we cared about the dialogue. I had a review from “Fat Guy,” this guy wrote “Let’s hope that John Golden gets his eyes put out with a hot poker, but before he gets behind another camera.”
SW: But it’s not like you weren’t at least a little in on the joke, for “Fat Guy…”
JG: We never tried to make it seem like it was a Robert DeNiro movie with Marlon Brando in it. We knew what we had.
SW: I saw on your resume that you had other jobs raising financing for TV programs in Communist countries…
JG: Yes, I did work for George Soros. He’s Hungarian and so am I. I gave seminars because this was an industry that had totally been supported by the state, and now all of a sudden the state wasn’t willing to put up money, so they were privatizing. They had to be taught what it meant to privatize an industry. I had done a season of Connie Chung’s show for CBS News, and then World Bank asked me to build a network for them. They wanted to start teaching countries about how to handle their economic problems, via video. I thought, rather than sending the third world videos about how well things work in the US or Switzerland, which is so far off from where they are, let’s make a network that’s of, for and by the developing world. Let’s show the African nations a success in dealing with, say, waste management, let’s show them an African country that does that well. After that, I was acceptable as a producer for the History Channel, for A&E.
SW: Are you still in touch with all the network people at A&E and CBS?
JG: No. I was not a smart young man when it came to working my contacts. I thought the spigot would never turn off. I thought, gee, if you can raise a million dollars in a month without any experience, things will always come easy to you. And that was another one of my foolish mistakes, is to not keep in touch with connections. It’s not like I’m not doing anything, I always work, but I’d be further along if I hadn’t made that mistake. I never held on to people thinking, “They’ll come in handy one day.” It’s not my nature.
SW: How did the Simon Wiesenthal “Sunflower” project get developed?
JG: That started because a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in 30 or 35 years, a psychiatrist, asked me to read Wiesenthal’s book “The Sunflower.” And I said, they’ve done many Holocaust films and I don’t think there’s room for more. But he made me read it and it was an unbelievable story. So we partnered on trying to put it together, about five years ago. We haven’t gotten it made yet.
SW: Are you working on other foreign productions like “Hurdy Gurdy Man” or “Cuban Fire”?
JG: Not at the moment. The last two and a half years I’ve been writing books. I just finished my first real big work, it’s called “Whatever Happens Next.” [Golden also wrote a children’s book called “I Am Full of Possibilities: Oliver Gets Tested”] I’m trying to get that published. I’m working on a film with the writer/director that did “Kiss Me, Guido,” Tony Vitale. We’re in the midst of putting together “Color Blind,” which is about racism. It takes place in the world of international tour buses in New York City. It’s [similar to] “Rashomon,” the same action seen from three different points of view. I hope we’ll be able to close on financing soon.
SW: You’re juggling a lot of projects in development. What’s a day like in the life of John Golden?
JG: I get up early. I meditate and pray. I also go to AA meetings, and NA meetings. I believe in that wholeheartedly. I went to my first meeting in the early 1980s. I basically have given up my license to do drugs recreationally. I do some investing that I need to look after on a daily basis. I’m trying to get these films made. And I still have room for more. I’ve always wanted to live my life so that if I happened upon something that really took my heart, I could abandon everything and start working on it. I was the kind of guy that you could meet and ask, “Could you meet me in Korea in the next day and a half? and I’d say, “Solid, I’m there.” I never had a job. I’m lucky. At times, it’s lonely, when nothing—really nothing—is happening.
SW: Are there a lot of royalties from these TV programs?
JG: Not really. On occasion, but it certainly hasn’t kept us going. And I live a pretty nice lifestyle. My wife and I live in Westchester, which is an expensive community. We raised two kids eating high on the hog. We’ve had to be conscious of taking advantage of money-making opportunities. When it comes to media and international corresponding and putting large, complicated deals together, that’s where I excel. I used to be the chairman of the board at International Educational and Resource Network. It was an Internet-based learning system. I had to convince Communist China to be involved in our work. They were very hesitant to be on the Internet. I convinced them that it would be a locked system, none of the kids would be able to access pornography. I wanted to do the hard stuff, like raising money in sub-Saharan countries.
SW: Did you major in economics in college?
JG: No, but I always enjoyed it. I was talking to my professor this morning, Vinod Thomas, he was one of the people who used to run the World Bank. We’re still close. He’s now with the Asian Development Bank. He liked the way I thought about economics. On the first day of class, he asked people “What is economics?” And all the kids gave the typical Keynesian definition, that it’s the study of the allocation of scarce resources. And I said, “If that’s the case, we might as well hang up our hats and forget about it, because we’re dealing with a limited commodity and we’re doomed.” And he liked that and asked, “What is economics to you?” I said, “It’s the study of the allocation of limitless human potential.” And boom, we were friends right off. We’re still buddies, 35 years later.
SW: What was going to Vassar like in the 1970s?
JG: Wonderful. I was president of my senior class at Horace Mann. I was “supposed to go to Harvard,” in everyone’s opinion. But when I went up to look at Harvard and talked to all my friends there, I said “You guys are as fucking uptight as you were last year!” I had just done six years of men, I didn’t want another male experience. When I went to Vassar, my friends said “You’re gonna love it. There’s beautiful, intelligent women everywhere.” I met my lovely wife Lisa there. We went on one date, we spent the night together—which was fast, even back then—and we never stopped holding hands, and that was 36 years ago.
SW: This is a random question, but have your aikido skills ever come in handy for self-defense?
JG: There were three incidents. One was on St. Mark’s Place at two-thirty in the morning. I was walking along and heard someone behind me. I realized, “You’ve gotta own it, this is New York and it’s happening.” I turned around and there was a big, big guy with no shirt on. He said, “You got a fuckin’ problem with me?” and I said, “No, sir, I have no problem with you.” And he said it again and I said the same thing, and then I realized he was gonna dunk me in the face. As he did that, I threw him on the ground and got his arm wedged up. I was mad that he made me do that, I didn’t want to. I said, “If you move, I’ll break your arm.” The way I knew the fight was over was when he got up, he said, “I’m gonna kick your fuckin’ ass,” but he was backing up as he said that. I guess I won.
The other time I was with my sons. I was holding Nicky by the hand, he was about five, and Kyle was about one and a half. I was standing next to a friend of mine and I realized my friend didn’t know anything about fighting. Behind him, there were about five or six guys, about nineteen, twenty years old, and I smelled it. They were gonna mug us. I realized, I can’t let my kids get hurt. I imagined a circle around me and my children and I promised myself that if anyone entered that circle, I’m going to attack them. I can’t wait for them to attack me. The leader entered the circle with his cronies. I looked up and had a magical experience. I saw a pen in the guy’s pocket. Without having to attack him, I said loudly and belligerently, “I’m gonna borrow your pen.” And then I hit him about six times, really fast, but it was like how you tap a guy on the back going “Thanks, buddy.” I showed him, in a strange way, “I’ve touched your gullet, your wrist, your ribs and your nose, all before you even knew what I was doing.” And I did it a little harder than he would like. But I meant it as a friendly pat on the back, letting him know, “This guy could have killed me before I was even conscious of it.” And the entire energy of the fight changed. He sort of wandered off, with his friends following.
If you asked me the best time, and the only time I was proud of using the art…it was on the Upper West Side. There was a ten year-old Guatemalan boy selling flowers. Three guys, about 35 years old apiece, were picking on him and toying with him. One of the guys grabbed a handful of his flowers and walked off. The little boy shot out after him, grabbed his flowers back and ran back to the stand. I saw the expression on the older guy’s face, like, “Now I’m gonna teach you a lesson.” They walked back towards the kid, they were obviously gonna mess him up. And I did the best aikido I’ve ever done. I walked up to the boy, I stood behind him, I put my arms on his shoulders, and I smiled at him and the guys. And what that smile meant was, he’s not alone anymore. Is it still worth it to you? This boy is not unloved, he now has a friend. Usually bullies are chicken-shit when it comes down to it. So no one had to get hit, I didn’t have to say anything. I did it all with a smile.