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Pia Zadora last June
By Seth Abramovitch
This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Age and experience give you a different sort of understanding," says a philosophical Pia Zadora. "Looking back, I realize what the controversy was about. I get it. I understand. Whether it was fair or not, I understand."
The singer and actress, who turned 60 in May, is curled up on a sofa in a dimly lit corner of her 7,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home in a gated community on the outskirts of Las Vegas, a papillon named Merle nestled by her legs (one of which is confined to a brace thanks to a recent golf cart accident). And the “controversy” she finally “gets” refers, of course, to her 1982 Golden Globe award. Even today, decades later, her win for best new star of the year remains a perennial Hollywood punch line. How could a totally unknown, then-28-year-old actress from Hoboken, N.J. — once described in a New York Times review as “Brigitte Bardot recycled through a kitchen compactor” — possibly have been singled out by the Hollywood Foreign Press for her turn as a teen nymphet in a trashy incest drama called Butterfly? Particularly because hardly anybody at the Jan. 30, 1982, ceremony had seen the film. Butterfly wouldn’t open in theaters until Feb. 5.
"I didn’t want to go because I was convinced that I wasn’t going to win," remembers Zadora of the best (and worst) night of her career. She vividly recounts the "quiet shock" that fell across the room after Timothy Hutton, the previous year’s recipient, announced her name. Then the endless journey from her seat to the stage, passing her seething competition — actresses such as Kathleen Turner from Body Heat and Elizabeth McGovern from Ragtime. As she arrived at the podium to collect her trophy (currently nestled among bobbleheads and family photos), she spotted an actress in the crowd whom she always had admired — Sally Field — and focused on her face to keep calm. Then she saw Field turn to the person next to her and mouth the words, “Pia Zadora?!”
Watch the trailer for Butterfly, Pia Zadora’s 1982 film
The common suspicion was that the award had been bought by Butterfly's sole backer — Zadora's Svengali-like then-husband, Israeli billionaire Meshulam Riklis. (“I know that Rik did not buy it,” Zadora insists.) A self-described “bad boy of Wall Street,” the tycoon had a portfolio that included companies such as Playtex, Dewar's, Samsonite and the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Vegas. The pair met in 1973, when Riklis, then 49, snuck backstage to congratulate a 19-year-old Zadora on her performance in a touring production of the musical Applause. Before the Globes made her a household name — and a Johnny Carson zinger — Zadora had a thriving theater career, starting with a role at age 9 in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Riklis and Zadora in 1981
For Riklis, it was love at first sight, though Zadora took some convincing. “My gut said no,” she says. “He was too old.” But Riklis persisted, and they wed in 1977. Overnight, Zadora found herself living a life of “fairy-tale, over-the-top opulence.” They shared a Beverly Hills mansion and an apartment overlooking Central Park, with a helicopter always on hand for jaunts to a beachfront estate in the Hamptons. A swarm of ex-Mossad bodyguards followed them everywhere.
Riklis began molding his wife’s on-camera career almost immediately with a 1978 TV ad for one of his products, the aperitif Dubonnet. (“Parlez-vous Dubonnet?” she cooed.) But for her first big-screen outing (not counting a turn at age 10 in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), he arranged something far more ambitious: an adaptation of the James M. Cain novel The Butterfly, a shocking tale of father-daughter incest (or so we’re led to think) in which Zadora would act alongside Stacy Keach, Orson Welles and Ed McMahon. The part required much taboo sex and nudity, which Riklis reasoned was the quickest way for Zadora to get Hollywood’s attention. Still, Zadora felt a powerful connection to her character: “She had a lot of me in it.”
Zadora in Butterfly
Of course, awards also get Hollywood’s attention. So, in November 1981, Riklis invited Golden Globes voters — the L.A.-based Hollywood Foreign Press Association — to a private screening in Vegas of his wife’s film. “I asked them if they were jet-lagged,” she recalls. Six weeks later, another HFPA group was brought to the couple’s Beverly Hills home for another screening. Meanwhile, Riklis had launched a media campaign to promote the film, hiring PR firm Rogers & Cowan and landing Zadora on the pages of Playboy just a few months before the Globes.
The HFPA voted Jan. 21, and nine days later Zadora was accepting her Golden Globe before a gobsmacked Hollywood. Butterfly's indie release a week later (Vincent Canby called her “spectacularly inept”) only further raised suspicion that something was fishy despite the HFPA's denials (“I'm really amazed by the furor — there's no way this award can be bought,” insisted Marianne Ruuth, then president of the HFPA). Zadora also claims she won fair and square. “There was just an energy in the room — they liked me! These little Italian guys, they grabbed me [at The Beverly Hilton] and said, 'We're so excited, you're going to win!' “
Zadora with Timothy Hutton after her win
Whether or not her husband bought the trophy for her, it didn’t look good for the Globes, which jettisoned the new star award a few years later. And if being the butt of a national joke didn’t kill Zadora’s acting ambitions, 1983’s The Lonely Lady, in which she played a screenwriter who gets raped with a garden hose by Ray Liotta, nailed the coffin shut. Zadora would mount a minor comeback in 1988, when John Waters cast her as a “beatnik chick” in Hairspray.
"I’ve always been a fan," says Waters. "I met her at the Berlin Film Festival when Riklis presented Butterfly. I wrote a whole thing in the program about how much I loved Butterfly. What other movie had Ed McMahon and Orson Welles together at last?”
Zadora and Riklis divorced in 1993 (she reportedly received an eight-figure settlement). They’ve stayed friends — they have two grown children — though communication has tapered off since Riklis, now 91 and living in Tel Aviv, married his third wife (one of the stars of The Real Housewives of Israel). But in the years since their marriage, Zadora has been through enough crazy drama to fill a library of James M. Cain’s trashy novels. There was her brief second marriage to filmmaker Jonathan Kaufer, which ended with a restraining order when Kaufer grew violent during their 2001 divorce proceedings (Kaufer died in a 2013 car crash; they have a 17-year-old son, Jordan, who has autism). Her third and current marriage, to Michael Jeffries, the detective assigned to enforce the restraining order against Kaufer, has had some rocky moments as well. There was the incident in December 2013, when SWAT officers swarmed her house after a 911 call reporting that Zadora “was going crazy” during an argument with Jeffries’ 33-year-old estranged son, Michael Jr. (who, incidentally, is awaiting trial for the 2011 shooting death of his best friend). By the end of the evening, Zadora was walking out of her front door with her arms up.
And then, three months ago, while Jordan was driving her in a golf cart, he slammed on the brakes, sending Zadora flying onto the pavement. “I had facial fractures, concussions, blood was gushing out of my ear. They thought I wasn’t going to be able to hear again. I still can’t taste or smell right.” She looks down at her leg brace. “Between all the crap that’s happened to me, I’m basically a Lifetime movie waiting to happen.”
Nowadays, she’s performing a cabaret act in a weekly gig at a local Italian restaurant. But a Lifetime movie might not be a bad idea. Even Rachel Ward, the English actress who lost best new star in 1982, is ready to move on. “Her husband financed the film?” Ward says. “Well, that goes on all the time. ‘Whatever it takes,’ is my motto. If you’ve got a husband who wants to put you in a movie, bloody go for it. I wish more husbands would do that.”