Tinseltown Tennis!

Dick Zanuck was on the phone from London, where he’s in pre-production on a Tim Burton–directed film version of the musical Sweeney Todd, discussing the regular tennis games he hosts at his house in the tony, gated community of Beverly Park. “It’s very competitive,” said Mr. Zanuck, part of the producing dynasty that includes father Darryl and son Dean. “I hate to lose. It’s a trait that I’m not tremendously proud of, because what could be a friendly Saturday-morning activity turns into a take-no-prisoners kind of rivalry. During those couple of hours, it’s life or death.”

There are those who see tennis as a quaint vestige of the late 1970’s, all calf-high tube socks and tight little shorts, but in Hollywood the pastime is still thriving—not just as an activity that goes well with Los Angeles’ relentlessly sunny weather, but as a critical social barometer. In this status-obsessed city, how you swat a fuzzy yellow ball around is as important as what kind of car you drive and where you get seated at the Grill for lunch.

Within the tennis caste system, there is the gold standard, a private game at a private home like Mr. Zanuck’s; the next-best option, membership at a private club; and finally ( eww!) playing on public courts with the rest of civilization.

Every Friday afternoon, phones jangle around the city as assistants place calls to round up sufficiently qualified players for Saturday a.m. matches at the homes of hosts like actor Dustin Hoffman (owner of one of the city’s few clay courts), producers Mike Medavoy and Irwin Winkler, former Columbia Pictures president Peter Guber and Las Vegas entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian. “If you’re doing business with someone else in the group, they tend to invite you more,” said one producer. “I think they use it because it’s not an explicit thing. Like everything in Hollywood, which is such a people-driven industry, the subconscious thought is: The more interaction I have with X, the better.”

And the level of play? “It is competitive, but most people know that they’re O.K. players, they’re not incredible players—so they do it for the social aspect of it,” said Benedict Carver, president of Crystal Sky Pictures. “I’ve never really met anyone who took it ridiculously seriously, because the fact is that none of us are really that good. We can all hit the ball over the net and we can all serve.”

Of course, it’s also nice to have someone who can actually stay within the lines—hence the popularity of frequent invitees Matthew Perry, late of Friends, former 007 Pierce Brosnan, Rocky and 1980’s sitcom dad Alan Thicke. (Just as in the industry, the circuit tends to be dominated by men.)

The games are almost always doubles and tend to include one or two pros brought in to keep the ball in play, often claimed by the host for his team. One well-known enthusiast had his court customized with a rubbery surface to slow the ball down and take off its spin. This is Hollywood, after all, where everyone needs to feel like a winner.

Lobbing With Robert Redford

Nowadays, Mr. Zanuck doesn’t play much with people in the business—with the exception of Sharon Stone’s former manager, Chuck Binder—but he waxed nostalgic about past games with Robert Redford. “Somehow, in his white outfit, he looked like the perfect member of a college tennis team,” Mr. Zanuck said. “He’s a leftie, and he had a good kind of twisting leftie serve that would come in close to your body.” There was also bonding over backhands with Charlton Heston at the latter’s manse atop Coldwater Canyon, during the filming of Planet of the Apes. “It was a wonderful house,” Mr. Zanuck said. “Referred to as the ‘House That Ben Hur Built,’ because it had been such a hit.”

The current apex of private aces is the court of legendary producer turned raconteur Robert Evans, next to the blue-tiled, egg-shaped pool at his 1940 French Regency mansion, which was once owned by Greta Garbo. Over the years, Mr. Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Ted Kennedy have all scuffed its surface. (The umpire chair is a gag gift from Mr. Hoffman; apparently, Mr. Evans has been known to take liberty with his line calls.) “I’d be playing there on Friday evenings and see Nicholson or Sumner Redstone come through the gate to go to a screening that Bob was having of the latest studio releases,” said one longtime visitor, a producer. Alas, Mr. Evans’ screening room burned down in 2003, and since his 1998 stroke he no longer personally hosts his own games. But the court is still open to others seven days a week, and no one seems to mind that it isn’t in the spiffiest shape. “It’s not very well maintained; it’s very uneven,” one regular player said. “It’s a bit like playing on broken glass.”

At the city’s top private clubs, however, the clay is dewy and the lines are sparkling white. Some Hollywood machers shell out a total of $30,000 in entrance fees to join both the Beverly Hills Tennis Club (formed in 1929 by Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin as an alternative to the Los Angeles Tennis Club in Hancock Park, which didn’t admit Jews at the time) and the Riviera Tennis Club, located across town in the Pacific Palisades and nicknamed “the Riv.”

The BHTC is a stubbornly nostalgic ode to old Hollywood. The walls of the clubhouse, which hasn’t been renovated since the 1960s, are lined with photos of Barbara Stanwyck and Chaplin, rallying in tennis sweaters and long trousers. The nametag of the late Walter Matthau, who once quipped that he’d only joined to have lunch with baseball player Hank Greenberg, is still attached to his locker. The club’s lunch menu includes grilled-cheese sandwiches, B.L.T.’s and the $7.25 Beverly Hills Tennis Club Hot Dog (fries included). Three years ago, a Chinese chicken salad was added to the menu. There are only five tennis courts and one pool.

Despite a growing number of younger members in their 30’s and 40’s, such as ABC president Steve McPherson, ICM co-president Chris Silbermann and agent Nicole Clemens, Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence and screenwriter Adam Leff, the club’s average age hovers around 65. “It’s getting to be a bit of an old-age home,” as one member put it.

Over at the Riv, meanwhile, a relatively spryer group—including William Morris president Dave Wirtschafter, Happy Gilmore director Dennis Dugan and The Young and the Restless hunk d’un certain age Eric Braeden—enjoys a sprawling and sparklingly modern facility that includes 24 tennis courts (22 lighted hard-court, two clay), two ball-machine courts and an adult Jacuzzi. There’s also the option to join the club’s golf course, a lush emerald pasture the size of a small principality.

If the BHTC is where you go for a lazy-afternoon iced tea, the Riv is where you go for a hard-core workout. “At the Riv, they take themselves a lot more seriously,” says one BHTC member. “They’re more uptight and into their own excellence.”

Kevin Lake, an independent producer (he was also president of disgraced star Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions until February), devotedly plays at the Riviera Club four mornings a week, 7:30 sharp. “I’m there for the workout,” Mr. Lake said. “It’s economical. You can kind of just get in, do your thing and get to work early.”

And the ladies? “The women’s leagues are very competitive,” said Wendy Levy, a music supervisor who plays at the Riviera. “They have some controversies. It’s very serious tennis—they show up to win. It’s not hit and giggle.”

Several miles east of these highfalutin establishments lies the public courts of Griffith Park, where a slightly scruffier group convenes every Friday evening during the summer for a game of “loosey-goosey round robins,” according to Everybody Hates Chris writer Chuck Sklar. “Just a bunch of aspiring people and independent filmmakers who’ve made a couple movies,” said Mr. Sklar, an Emmy winner. “Probably nobody you’ve ever heard of.” Annual membership is $50, but court time is free on weekdays until 4 p.m.

After playing until around 10 p.m., the posse heads to the Edendale Grill in Silver Lake for beers and dinner. “Because we’re sweaty and you can sit outside,” explained Mr. Sklar, who just finished filming an independently produced TV pilot called Come to the Net, inspired by his games with John Ennis, an alumnus of the HBO comedy series Mr. Show. “We had this ongoing thing where we would start hitting and talking about what was going on, and we’d eventually get to a point where we couldn’t be yelling—because it would get too involved; we’d be talking about taxes or personal stuff—so we’d go, ‘Come to the net,’” Mr. Sklar said. “We’d talk for 10 minutes and start playing again. We would sometimes talk for about 40 minutes and play 20.” The pilot re-enacts this ritual. “It’s a traditional sitcom,” he said, “but instead of a living room, we have a tennis court.”

Mr. Sklar has his work cut out for him: On the big screen, at least, despite Hollywood’s enthusiasm for the sport, tennis has never been a box-office winner in the way that baseball and football have. George Cukor tried in 1952 with Pat and Mike, a romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn as a gifted tennis and golf player whom Spencer Tracy, a sports promoter, takes on as a client. In 1978, when Mr. Evans proposed making a love story set at Wimbledon with former wife Ali MacGraw, Michael Eisner, then head of Paramount, told him flatly, “You can’t sell a tennis picture” (a tale that Mr. Evans recounted to The Guardian in 2002). Mr. Eisner was right—Mr. Evans’ Players was a dud. More recently, there was the dismal Wimbledon, with Kirsten Dunst. Only Woody Allen’s Match Point has managed to score any, well, points, and it’s debatable whether that had to do with the film’s vague tennis theme or with the scenes of Scarlett Johansson in a rain-drenched white shirt.

Still, work and pleasure will find a way to mix in this town.

Rick Sands, chief operating officer of MGM, plays in many weekend tennis games here, including one at the Brentwood home of Ashok Amritraj, the founder of Hyde Park Entertainment and a former tennis pro unanimously considered as the best player in this set. In between points of late, Mr. Sands has been discussing a few picture deals with Mr. Amritraj. “We’ve had one lunch, but the rest of the negotiations have been during tennis,” Mr. Sands said. “Ashok’s banker is often there, so it just makes it easier.”

It was not always ‘easy’ for Mr. Amritraj. When he first moved to Los Angeles from his native India in 1975, it was to play for the city’s World Team Tennis team, which won the world championships in 1978. He was subsequently invited to many upscale private homes, where he got to know several studio heads, agents and actors.

When he eventually decided to trade in his tennis whites to be a producer, Mr. Amritraj figured: How tough can this be? “I know a lot of people, and I have reasonably good taste,” he said. “But I quickly found out that while everybody was very keen on playing tennis with me, nobody quite wanted to make a film with me. I’d send scripts around to studio execs who were friends, and they would call and spend 20 minutes on the phone. But it was about the person’s forehand or his backhand or his serve. The last 10 seconds, as the conversation was winding down, I’d say: ‘What about my script?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, we passed on that last week.’” Tinseltown Tennis!