Not long ago, a rabbi’s son from New Jersey named David Rosenthal was one of the hottest writers in television. He made millions of dollars and played a key role in the success of sitcoms like Ellen and Spin City . He was young, funny and smart, and important people like Jeffrey Katzenberg loved his work. People wanted to be in the David Rosenthal business.
Today, some people think David Rosenthal is crazy. It has been nearly a year since Mr. Rosenthal, 33, left his marriage and abandoned Hollywood, leaving barely a trace. He estranged himself from close friends and colleagues, moved into posh hotels and gave away a million dollars to young women, some of whom he barely knew. He wrote an angry play called Love, which contains an extraordinary amount of cursing. Love also details Mr. Rosenthal’s feelings about faith, monogamy and his desire to have intercourse with the supermodel Heidi Klum. Mr. Rosenthal said that after he sent a copy of the play to his father, his father took him to a mental hospital, where Mr. Rosenthal was kept for 48 hours.
Now Mr. Rosenthal lives in New York City. He just moved into an apartment downtown, but until recently he was living at the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street. He walks around the city and thinks about his life, listens to music, writes and prepares for his debut as a playwright. Love opens for previews off-Broadway at the East 13th Street Theater on Wednesday, Sept. 4, and premieres on Sept. 13.
Mr. Rosenthal believes his story is relatively easy to explain.
“One day I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’” he said. It was late on the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 15, and Mr. Rosenthal was sitting in an easy chair in the lobby of the Four Seasons. “‘I don’t care about money. I don’t care about power. I don’t care about success. What do I care about?’ You know what I realized?
“I wanted to have sex with Heidi Klum,” he said. “I was sitting there in my five-bedroom house, with my pool and my brand-new Porsche convertible in the driveway and my two-and-a-half-million-dollar-a-year job at Twentieth Century Fox studios, and I realized that I would rather be having sex with Heidi Klum. I would give all of this up right now to go have sex with Heidi Klum … and so I sat down and wrote this play.”
Mr. Rosenthal is compact and wiry, with graying black curly hair. He has blue eyes, and on this day he had a slight, scruffy beard; he looks a little like a smaller version of the actor Daniel Stern. In conversation, he is engaging and friendly, sometimes a bit energetic, bouncing nervously and tugging at his earlobe.
“I really believe I have a unique and very original voice for the American theater,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “I believe people will respond to it–if they are willing to be open-minded, because people can be very, very offended by what I write and say. But I think it’s important that people understand that I mean well and it’s my truth.”
Over the next two hours, Mr. Rosenthal talked candidly about a number of things: about his disillusionment with Hollywood; about his failure as a husband; about how he wants to reinvent himself as a playwright. He talked about giving away that million dollars, and he said unflattering things about celebrities he’s worked with. He called Michael J. Fox “Michael Jerk Fox.” He also offered to run for President of the United States–and all the while, he insisted he is perfectly happy and sound of mind.
David Rosenthal was raised in Lawrenceville, N.J. By his own account, his was a relatively average suburban childhood. He was prom king, and performed in high-school productions of Grease and The Fantasticks . He attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1989, and shortly thereafter he moved to Hollywood. A former student of his father’s, Janis Hirsch, was the co-creator of a sitcom named Anything but Love , which starred Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis. Mr. Rosenthal got a job as a writer’s assistant.
“I immediately knew this was home,” he said. “They were nice, kind, gentle people who spent the day laughing together, telling stories. I was completely dazzled.”
Mr. Rosenthal began to write on his own and wound up getting a job on a show called Nurses . Nurses flopped, but he was hired as a staff writer on Anything but Love . When that ended, he wrote for Laurie Hill , a show created by Neil Marlens and Carol Black, the people behind The Wonder Years . That didn’t last long either, but later, with Mr. Marlens and Ms. Black, Mr. Rosenthal helped develop a sitcom for Laurie Hill co-star Ellen DeGeneres. The show, entitled These Friends of Mine , became Ellen . Pretty soon, Mr. Rosenthal was running it. He was just 24.
“David was hot,” said Mr. Rosenthal’s friend, Teddy Tenenbaum, a screenwriter who worked as a script coordinator on Ellen . “Neil and Carol were hot shit–hugely successful television creators–and David was their protégé.”
It was during Ellen, however, that Mr. Rosenthal also began to experience television’s ugly side. He was let go from the show after two years, and felt devastated. But he remained a wanted man, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, now at DreamWorks, asked Mr. Rosenthal to write a pilot for Michael J. Fox. When Mr. Fox passed on the pilot (called Max, it was about a man who ditches his wife at the altar), Mr. Rosenthal was asked to develop a show for Arsenio Hall. But that unraveled, too. Shortly after tapings began, there was an infamous blow-up that made the newspapers. According to Mr. Rosenthal, Mr. Hall yelled at him: “Why don’t you get your dick out of your ass and write me some fucking jokes?” Mr. Rosenthal said he burst into tears on the spot. (A representative for DreamWorks Television and Mr. Katzenberg declined to comment, and a representative for Mr. Hall at his agency, 3 Arts Entertainment, didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Mr. Rosenthal left Mr. Hall’s show. By then, Michael J. Fox was in New York starring in Spin City , and Mr. Rosenthal went to work there. He was dating another television writer and they moved into a place at 89th and Amsterdam. In 1999, they were married at the boathouse in Central Park.
At first, Mr. Rosenthal was happy. Spin City was a proven hit before he got there, and he liked working for it. But by his second season–he was now the show runner–he had grown unhappy with his job and his home life. He said he had an affair and he also developed his huge crush on Spin City guest star Heidi Klum–though he never told her of it. (Through her publicist, Ms. Klum declined comment.)
Mr. Rosenthal also felt his work was underappreciated by Mr. Fox, adding that he was hurt that Mr. Fox didn’t mention him during his Golden Globes acceptance speech in 2000. “I’m not saying he was a jerk to anybody else, but you know what? He was a jerk to me,” Mr. Rosenthal said. (Mr. Fox was away and unavailable for comment, said his spokesperson.)
Mr. Fox, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, left Spin City in the spring of 2000, after a memorable finale. Mr. Rosenthal moved back to Los Angeles and took a lucrative job developing shows for Fox Television Studios. He wrote a pilot he was proud of called My Embarrassing Life , but it wasn’t picked up. His relationship with Fox Studios grew strained, and eventually both sides parted ways.
By the fall, Mr. Rosenthal’s life was in disarray. He had moved out of his house. He kicked around for awhile before moving into the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard because he wanted to “live like a rock star.” By then he had also begun a foundation, called The Creators, and he gave $50,000 grants to young female artists, whom he felt were largely ignored in Hollywood. Some of the recipients he knew well; some of them he didn’t. A few women were weirded out by the offer, he said, but more than 20 took it. “Some people are really blown away by it,” said Caroline Surace, an actress and grant recipient who met Mr. Rosenthal last winter while working at the Mondrian’s famous Sky Bar.
Around that time, Mr. Rosenthal said he had a kind of revelation.
“My way to liberate myself was just to be truthful,” he said. “Completely truthful. And once I decided that, I went hog wild.”
This was around the time he wrote Love . “I gave it to my wife, and people thought I was crazy … my parents thought I was crazy. I gave it to my friends at Spin City, and they thought it was crazy.”
In December, Mr. Rosenthal said he flew back to L.A. from Miami, where he had visited a model he was seeing named Misty.
“I get off the plane, it’s like 10 at night or something, and there’s my father,” he said. “I’m actually happy to see him. It’s a little weird. I’m like, ‘Dad, what are you doing here?’
“And it’s not just him, he’s standing there with two burly security guards, a cot with restraints and a psychologist with a beard. And I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ And [my father] is like, ‘David, you have lost your mind. I read your play. Everybody’s worried about you. Your wife says you are crazy, you quit your job. How can you survive? Why would you give up on millions of dollars?’ And I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m happy, I’m rich and I’m dating a model. Leave me alone.’ And he says, ‘No. We’ve got to take you to the UCLA Medical Center.’” (Reached by The Observer on Aug. 16, Rabbi Morton Rosenthal said he had “no comment” for this story.)
David Rosenthal said he eventually agreed to go to UCLA, where he says he spent 48 hours until his sister, Sandra, a lawyer, helped get him released.
Now it is many months later, and Mr. Rosenthal is on his own in New York, focusing on his play. Love is costing $400,000 to produce, he said, most of which he’s providing himself, with some contributions from friends. He declined to say who. In hours of conversation, it’s the only thing he’s reluctant to talk about. (Despite his recent spending, Mr. Rosenthal said he remains a multimillionaire.)
Love is a confrontational, personal work, more performance art than play, and is unlike anything Mr. Rosenthal wrote for TV. The show’s cast and crew expect a few people might get freaked and walk out during periods like midway through the staccato-like third act, when the word “cunt” is uttered more than 30 times in the space of several minutes.
Still, Mr. Rosenthal intends to jump onstage and talk with the audience after the show.
“There very well could be attacks from the audience, and he’s fine with that,” said Love ‘s director, Dan Fields. “He’s ready for it because he believes so strongly in the need to express himself.”
Mr. Rosenthal said he considers Love to be a kind of “job interview,” and hopes that through the show he can find people who share his opinions. He even thinks it could be the beginnings of a grassroots campaign for public office, even for the U.S. Presidency.
“I should be President,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “I should be. I don’t need to be. I don’t even want to be. But you know, I am willing to be. If enough people decide that they agree with me and they think I’m smart and right and they believe in me, I am willing to be President. I’m willing to be the Democratic nominee for President in 2004.
“And I know, it’s like, ‘Is he crazy ? Is this guy crazy ?’ But I’m telling you, I have no doubt in my mind that I would be a great President. No doubt.”
There has been a lot of chattering about Mr. Rosenthal in Hollywood over the past 10 months or so. Many of his colleagues and friends express support and concern, but are reluctant to talk publicly. “I love him. We have been friends a long time. I wish him the best,” said Jon Pollack, a Spin City writer. “That’s all I want to say. It’s personal.” Kim Kimbro, who was Mr. Fox’s assistant on Spin City and received a copy of Love, said of the play: “I don’t think anyone expected it from him.” (There is also sympathy for his wife. Mr. Rosenthal said they are currently in divorce proceedings. According to her literary agent, she was traveling in Europe and unavailable for comment.)
Mr. Rosenthal has kept in occasional contact with a small group of people, including Teddy Tenenbaum. “I think people who knew him and see these things going on in his life think he must be crazy, but they haven’t spoken to him,” Mr. Tenenbaum said. “David seems to be as together as he always did.”
But the buzz grew louder after comments from Mr. Rosenthal popped up in the New York Post ‘s Page Six on July 29 and Aug. 6, followed by a 20-minute interview on the Howard Stern show on Aug. 13.
“I heard from someone that the day he was on Howard Stern, there was some dinner party and [David] was the main topic of conversation,” said Eric Horsted, a writer for sitcoms such as Futurama and Home Improvement , who has known Mr. Rosenthal since they were assistants on Anything but Love .
“It’s kind of hilarious,” Mr. Horsted said. “As much as he’s trying to divorce himself from this town, the way this town works, he could continue this bridge-burning campaign and it could make him hotter.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Rosenthal also keeps in touch with The Creators. One afternoon, I reached one of the recipients, a 24-year-old woman named Leigh Landau, on her cell phone. She was driving around Memphis in a minivan, shooting a documentary about waiters and waitresses called Serving America.
Ms. Landau said she barely knew Mr. Rosenthal when he offered her the money. Her friend, Marisa Katz, was Mr. Rosenthal’s assistant at Spin City . Ms. Landau said her boyfriend at the time thought that Mr. Rosenthal’s grant was creepy, but she decided to accept it. She quit her job, and every week she gets a check for $1,000, she said.
“I can honestly say he has changed my life,” she said.
Ms. Landau said she didn’t think Mr. Rosenthal was crazy.
“When people do something outrageous, people immediately think you are insane,” Ms. Landau said. “Although it may be unique to do something this extravagant, I don’t think you should be considered crazy .”
A Couple days later, I met Mr. Rosenthal again at the Four Seasons. This time, a photographer was with us. After Mr. Rosenthal posed for a few pictures in the lobby, we walked down to the intersection of Seventh Avenue and West 48th Street in Times Square, where a gigantic billboard for Love has just been erected. Mr. Rosenthal hadn’t seen the billboard yet, and he was enthusiastic.
On the way over, Mr. Rosenthal said he hoped people from L.A. would come see his play. “I want those Hollywood fucks to come and sit,” he said, excitedly. “Come and hear–if they have the balls to come to the theater and see it.”
We arrived at the intersection. There, high above us, was a towering ad for Love, featuring an enormous closed fist. On the side it read: “WARNING: NO ONE UNDER 17 ADMITTED. EXPLICIT LANGUAGE AND SUBJECT MATTER.”
“That is awesome, ” Mr. Rosenthal said, gazing upward. “That makes me very happy.”
He posed for a couple more photos, and then we walked back to the hotel. Seated on a couch in the lobby, Mr. Rosenthal said that the night before, he had met with his parents for the first time in months.
“It went great,” he said. “Really nice. Yeah. It’s been a tough year for them, you know? Look, my dad was acting out of love and concern to me. He really believed that I had gone crazy. Colossal blunder, but he believed it. And so, yeah, it was very tough … but you know, we sat last night and talked and I have totally forgiven them. I’m totally over it. I have no hard feelings. I think they are great parents and amazing people.”
I asked Mr. Rosenthal if he was seeing a therapist in New York. He said no. Had he ever been depressed? “I would say that I have felt depressed, but I wouldn’t say I was ever in a depression,” he said. “I read that book, Darkness Visible . Who is that guy–William Styron? I don’t know that world. I wouldn’t put myself in that category.” He said he wasn’t taking any antidepressants.
Had he ever been suicidal? “No, never, never, never ,” he said. “To me, that’s the most absurd thought in the universe, the notion of suicide.”
No, David Rosenthal said, maybe he was eccentric, even by Hollywood standards, but he hadn’t lost his mind.
“I’m perfectly fine,” he said. “I’m sane, I’m happy. I’m just passionate about issues.” He paused. “Yeah. I’m just a passionate guy. I have strong feelings about things, but no, I’m not crazy.
“I read an interview with Angelina Jolie … where she talks about loving her husband so much she wants to kill him sometime, and it’s like, you read that and because she is an actress and a star, it’s O.K. for her to say that. But if she was just some woman on the street who said that, you’d think she was crazy. So the irony is that the more famous I get, the less crazy I’m going to seem.”