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Steve Lee Jones knows 'Jack'

Barry Levinson was at his brilliant best directing "You Don't Know Jack," the multifaceted biopic that's up for 15 Emmys on Sunday. But another Baltimore-bred filmmaker catalyzed this portrait of Dr. Jack Kevorkian as a self-destructive idealist and Renaissance man.

Steve Lee Jones, the executive producer, grew up in Pikesville and went through several careers in the corporate world before producing movies in Los Angeles. Six years ago, when he read a manuscript depicting Kevorkian as a selfless crusader and visionary, he exclaimed, "You don't know Jack."

The title stuck.

"You Don't Know Jack" follows Kevorkian ( Al Pacino), the notorious, misunderstood "Dr. Death," from the development of his "suicide machine" to his imprisonment for murder. It elucidates but never simplifies his campaign for the right of terminally ill and suffering patients to end their lives.

Jones has also produced the documentary "Kevorkian," which he calls "Part II." It picks up the doctor's story after he gets out of prison and runs as an independent for Congress in 2008.

2010 has become the breakthrough year for Jones, 48, who previously felt "like an artist trapped in a business suit."

Last Sunday, Brenda Vaccaro, Emmy-nominated for her role as Kevorkian's sister, presented Jones with his Emmy-nominee certificate at the TV Academy's "Producers Peer Group Emmy pre-party."

On Monday, Jones filled out the forms for "Kevorkian" to be considered for the best documentary Oscar.

Jones has several projects in development, including one that he vows to film in Baltimore if the state can ever set up a competitive film-production incentive program.

His hunger to be part of the art and entertainment world goes deep. He was a 3-year-old in Silver Spring when his father died at age 40. Struggling with expenses and faced with the care of three young children, his mother rented a rowhouse in Philadelphia, where her parents lived. Jones' grandfather was a producer for the Westinghouse TV station in Philadelphia, an NBC affiliate and the base for "The Mike Douglas Show.'"

Jones recalled Monday that after his mother remarried and moved the family into a comfortable Pikesville home, he would still, from age 6 on, "take the Metroliner from Baltimore to see my grandfather. He was vain about his age, so he used to say I was his son. The TV studio was exciting. The Westinghouse-NBC offices were at Independence Mall, where the Liberty Bell was. I could watch 'The Mike Douglas Show' being taped and meet a lot of the stars. I remember Bea Arthur — I was taken with how outspoken she was — and Joanne Woodward, who had an air of integrity and forthrightness."

Jones' grandfather introduced him to all culture, high and low.

"He had numerous degrees, spoke six languages, was fluent in Italian and even narrated Italian opera. He fascinated me. He would introduce me to Sicilian men with bodyguards who brought him gifts of figs and wine. He was very much the man-about-town in Philadelphia. You could even hear his voice when you put on the headphones and took the tour of the Franklin Institute."

But Jones learned more about the business side of show biz back in Baltimore. Jones' stepdad, Jay, and a partner named Len had pioneered record retailing with the Jalen Amusement Co.

"We were always told he opened the first record store in America. When he was 18 — I have a picture of him smoking a cigar at 18! — he and his partner made a deal with the guy who owned the Woolworth's store in Baltimore."

Records had always been sold at radio stores; Jones' stepfather aimed to sell 78s at a freestanding concession within Woolworth's. He ended up opening about 100 locations at five-and-dimes from Canada to Florida, supplying them out of a warehouse in Baltimore. (He ultimately sold his concessions to ABC Records and started a chain of "Seasons Four" record, card and novelty shops at shopping centers and strip malls.) Shortly after his family moved to Pikesville, Apple Records gave his parents a trip around the world for selling the most copies of the Beatles album "Let It Be."

"I loved working ever since I was a kid," Jones said. "I worked for my stepfather, and he was a workaholic. He was very honorable. He taught me that a lot of people will show you shortcuts, but if you take advantage of someone or do something only for short-term financial gain, you can lose it all in the end. That resonated with me; he taught me a lot. I worked from age 12. I would take off school to go on trips with him around the country."

Jones studied business at Emory University in Atlanta, then jumped from one work address to the next, from a private nursing company that went public to Giorgio Armani's Luxottica, the world's largest optical manufacturer. He reignited a childhood dream when he moved to Florida and became involved in syndicating educational TV shows. He was nearing 40. He thought it was time to focus on his essential dreams, including his desire to produce "real entertainment."

He married and moved to Los Angeles. He and his wife, Michelle, went California in a big way. They started a natural foods company, Michelle's Outrageous; they joined PETA and became pesco-vegetarians. They also made some money in real estate. But Jones' goal was to get into the film and TV business.

He founded Bee Holder productions, with the tagline "Beauty is in the eye of the Bee Holder." He knew that too many fledgling filmmakers hung on to one project and ended up waiting tables. So he tried to pursue all possibilities, and when good luck struck, he was ready for it. Six years ago, a neighbor of Kevorkian's, Harry Wylie, finished co-writing a book about the doctor with Neal Nicol, Kevorkian's assistant. They didn't know how to find a publisher. A friend of Jones', a plastic surgeon, was engaged to Wylie's niece. Jones already had the reputation of "a man who knew people." The plastic surgeon put the manuscript in his hands.

"My first thought was, 'Everybody knows this story. The media beat it to death.' But after I read the manuscript, the first thing out of my mouth was, 'You don't know Jack.' I found Wylie and Nicol a publisher, and it came out in numerous countries." Jones got the film and TV rights.

He had a hard time convincing screenwriters that he didn't want it to be a courtroom drama — "That was the part everyone knew about." He hoped to encompass other aspects of Kevorkian's life, including his often macabre painting. He respected the way the doctor "gave decades of his life to ensure the natural-born right of every human being to decide when enough is enough. I don't believe our forefathers meant to take that right away from us. From the beginning of time, kings and men like Socrates have decided for themselves when enough is enough. Why not the common man?"

Ultimately, Adam Mazer came through for Jones on the script, and HBO, unlike the major movie studios, gave it the green light and welcomed its controversy. When HBO Films' Len Amato mentioned Levinson as a possible director, Jones thought he must be dreaming.

"When you think of the big directors who came out of Baltimore — John Waters, Barry Levinson. … Waters has done wonderful, creative things. But when I was a kid, he was doing all that stuff with Divine, and Barry was making movies like 'Sleepers!'"

Meanwhile, with Kevorkian out of prison, news media clamored for the doctor's attention. Jones had earned such trust from Kevorkian's confidantes that the doctor's lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, approached him. The result of his unprecedented access was "Kevorkian," a documentary that salutes the doctor's efforts to educate the public about the Ninth Amendment — the one that says, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people" — including, in Kevorkian's view, the right to die.

Waters' outlaw sensibility didn't click with Jones as a kid, but as a full-grown film producer he's got his own cutting-edge sensibility. He's tightlipped and coolly confident about a futuristic sci-fi tale called "52" (after the 52nd president). He's open and ebullient about screenwriter Mazer's work on two more offbeat Jones-produced biopics: "Rube," the story of America's longtime porn-distribution giant, Reuben Storman, who hated porn but liked making money from it; and "DeLorean," the story of auto visionary John Z. DeLorean, who continues to inspire motor dreams every time someone sees his flip-lid car in "Back to the Future."

"We own the rights to the story from the DeLorean estate," Jones said, "His brother Chuck is a consultant. He's 84; we're in touch all the time. He's an amazing guy who was in the auto business as well and was very close to his brother. It's an epic tale."

Mazer and Jones have finished the first draft of "Contingency," a Baltimore story from Jones' childhood. It's about the moment in legal history when lawyers won the right to advertise. Jones sees it as a legal "Boogie Nights."

"Because of that change into 1-800-SUE-ME, we have the only system in the world in which an illegal immigrant can walk into a grocery store, where a sign clearly says, 'Wet Floor! Be Careful,' slip, fall and break his tailbone, sue the store, settle with the store and then be deported."

Jones hopes to pull together "some of the same team we had on 'You Don't Know Jack' on 'Contingency.' Use your imagination." He wants to shoot it in Baltimore. He acknowledges that economic realities might get in the way. "But I would be proud to go back and shoot this film in the city where I grew up. I will do everything in my power to produce 'Contingency' in Baltimore."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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