Maurice Kanbar

Maurice Kanbar: Vodka king, movie buff, hyperactive, and then some

Looking puckish—almost elfin—producer, inventor, philanthropist, author and general man-about-town, Maurice Kanbar lights a cigarette and relaxes into the couch in the spacious, seventh-floor living room of the Renaissance-style Pacific Heights apartment building that he owns. The seventh floor is his guesthouse. His flat is up on eight, overlooking San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz. Born of middle class parents in New York in 1929, Kanbar began his working life as a busboy in the Borscht Belt. Today, he holds some 36 patents, and is credited with a developing a hypodermic needle protector, a patented lint remover, the first multiplex movie theater in New York, the “Tangoes” puzzle game, a cryogenic cataract remover, an LED traffic light and, famously, SKYY Vodka, which he sold to Campari a few years back. He is currently working on a follow-up vodka, Blue Angel.
Kanbar is also a charity maven, having donated some $6 million to Philadelphia University, his alma mater, among other contributions. Today he’s working on a method for developing prescription eyeglasses for as little as $1 a pair, which he plans to give away to needy people with vision problems.

But in recent years Kanbar has also gotten involved in film, having played the role of Solly Davies in the McCarthy-era drama, One of the Hollywood Ten (2000) and producing the 2005 animated film, Hoodwinked, featuring Anne Hathaway. Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil is currently filming. Kanbar’s most recent film project is The Scene, based on Theresa Rebeck’s original play about New York high life, which stars Daphne Zuniga (One Tree Hill, Melrose Place). It’s due out later this year.

What would you tell a young filmmaker trying to make it today?
Young film makers today have more opportunities than they have ever had. And that is because of the invention of the video camera. The quality of digital work today is so high that frankly I can’t tell the difference between a film shot in video from one shot in 35 mm. This gives the young filmmaker the opportunity to make a film for very little money. He should be able to make a good film for $100,000… if he has the talent.

What’s your favorite movie-industry anecdote?

Billy Wilder was once asked, “How do you make these wonderful films?” And he answers, “I just follow my ten commandments.” And the fellow asks, “So what are your ten commendments?” “Well, the first nine commandments are ‘Thou shalt not bore’ and the last commendment is ‘Thou shalt have final cut.’”I first saw The Scene as a play in San Francisco. That’s another avenue that a young filmmaker can take: Find a play you like and you can make a film of it for not too much money.

What is your favorite recent film?
Slumdog Millionaire. It had an “up” ending and I like that kind of a story. I like films where you get involved. I call it the Eliza Doolittle effect. You take a flower girl and you make her into a duchess. The audience is in there pushing and hoping for the heroine.

What’s your favorite film of all time?
Casablanca. I didn’t have to think very long about that one, did I? I just love that film. I’ve seen it 10 times.

Favorite directors?
I don’t think a lot of Spielberg’s stuff is very good but Schindler’s List is to me a masterpiece… and Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors, of course. Also Martin Scorsese.

Who are your favorite actors today?
I don’t know… but I must tell you, I’ve seen Brad Pitt in a number of films and I like him very much. Anthony Hopkins is so natural, as opposed to Sean Penn, who’s acting in my book, OK? I like an actor who walks into a part and just becomes that person, naturally. Bogart was like that. He could become a detective or saloon keeper, but he was just credible, natural.

You’ve been involved in so much—inventions, business, philanthropy, film. Do you ever get bored?
Never! I’m sometimes lonely, but I’m never bored. There’s no reason to be bored, because you have a mind. Think!

What drives you crazy?
People who don’t bother thinking. People who say, “I should have thought of that but I just didn’t think.” I see kids today with these wires in their ears listening to noise all day and I wonder, how can they think?

What’s your greatest regret?
I had an apartment in New York in the 1960s, over an art gallery. The gallery owner once showed me a painting by a young guy named Andy Warhol. It was a Campbell’s soup can. He wanted $2,400 for it, but that was a few months rent back then, so I didn’t buy it. Today it would be worth about $24 million. I could give away a lot of pairs of glasses today with that kind of money!

If you want to run into Kanbar, look for a fit, diminutive chap in loafers tooling around the streets of San Francisco on an Indian-made Argo scooter, or lunching at Perry’s on The Embarcadero. If you happen to be in New York, try the restaurant at the Mark Hotel, near Kanbar’s Manhattan digs.

-Michael Mattis

This reading is by Lena, who has no idea this palm belongs to Maurice Kanbar.

1. This person’s life is all about relationships. Not only relationships with people but relationships with gods, dreams, self.

2. The older he gets, the more eccentric he becomes.

3. Intense and impulsive. Coupled with this is a delicacy of perception of others.

4. A big, very eccentric Care Bear that will keep you awake, talking with you all night long!

5. Quite a temper here, but you have to hurt one of his friends to invoke it. Personal insults or assaults won’t trigger it.

6. A vast amount of life force is shown. Has an ability to keep going when others have to sleep and an ability to keep feeling when others have gone numb.

7. When he does finally sleep, he sleeps long and hard and thoroughly enjoys it. There is a very active dream life here.

8. Tends to be in charge of things, be put in charge of things, and take charge of things.