Coming out of the dark
Hollywood’s most infamous screenwriter
turns his life--and his work--over to God
By Nancy Erikson, Editor
BAINBRIDGE TOWNSHIP-The Gospel of Luke’s prodigal son has nothing on Joe Eszterhas.
That inspiration didn’t come easy. To say that Eszterhas found God after contracting throat cancer seven years ago doesn’t seem to do justice to his faith journey.
Born in 1944 in Hungary, Eszterhas grew up in a refugee camp after World War II before moving to Cleveland’s near west side with his Catholic parents where he often served as an altar boy at St. Emeric Parish. Although life for his Hungarian immigrant family in what he calls the “Strudel Ghetto” was difficult, he has fond memories of the workers at the nearby potato chip and soda pop factories bringing him snacks as he played ball as a child in the back alley. His father was editor of a Hungarian Catholic newspaper and his mother kept beautiful roses and strong devotion to Mary.
Eszterhas later attended Cathedral Latin High School, although he does not have fond memories there and is honest about his near misses with juvenile delinquency. In the early days of his writing career he worked as a reporter in Cleveland covering the crime beat, witnessing some of the grisliest and most violent stories in the city.
It was those violent stories--as well as the things he had seen growing up in a refugee camp after World War II--that were the fodder for what would become one of the most lucrative screenwriting careers in Hollywood.
Seeing that screenwriters were traditionally the “bottom of the totem pole” and abused by the system, he made a decision he wasn’t going to be pushed around. The result was becoming one of the highest paid screenwriters with the clout to make demands such as that actors weren’t allowed to change his words. Still, he admits that in not wanting to be taken advantage of, he in turn abused a lot of people.
“A lot of it was ego,” he said. “You know screenwriters are supposed to be neither seen nor heard in Hollywood and I made a lot of noise.”
He was also what he calls the classic example of a functional alcoholic. He began smoking at 12 years old, drinking at 14. He used tequila and gin and four packs of cigarettes a day as the “fuel” for his writing. He also was somewhat of a ladies man and regularly cheated on his first wife, from whom he eventually divorced and has two grown children.
Despite the pain he admits to causing others, he also has experienced much pain in his life. His mother suffered from mental illness and later died from cancer, an event that further wedged his distance from God.
And in a horrible irony, his father, with whom he was very close and to whom he credits his dedication to civil rights, was exposed as having been a writer of Nazi propaganda during World War II. Eszterhas was able to enlist the help of his dear friend and attorney, who was Jewish and who had family members who were lost during the Holocaust, to represent his father. Even though his father ended up not being deported, Eszterhas said their relationship was never the same again. As a writer, he knew how powerful words could be. He couldn’t help wondering if his father’s hateful words inspired someone else to commit violent acts against others.
“I really couldn’t forgive him, even as he died,” Eszterhas said. “I think I finally forgave him when God came into my heart.”
A long journey home
Eszterhas jokes that even though he’s lived in some of the most beautiful places on Earth--the California coast and Hawaii, it was a cul-de-sac in the Snow Belt that became the setting for his new relationship with God.
Seven years ago, he and his wife, Naomi, also Catholic with a great devotion to Mary, decided to move to Geauga County to raise their sons with more traditional values and to get away from what he felt were negative influences of Hollywood.
Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. After surgery which left him with a tracheotomy and unable to speak, Eszterhas was warned by his doctor that he could never smoke or drink again. Anyone who has battled addiction understands how difficult a task it was for him.
So he started walking every day. He said he found that if he could physically exhaust himself, it could take the edge off his cravings. But after a month, he knew he needed something more. Then one summer day in 2001, he began to walk and the cravings were terrible and he was sweating and bugs were trying to fly into the whole left by his tracheotomy and he became so filled with frustration and despair that he sat down on the curb and started to sob.
“I heard a voice inside me that said, ‘Please, God help me.’ And even as I heard it, I thought to myself, what is this,” he said. “But then I heard the voice again and I realized it was something inside my own heart that was praying for the first time since I’d been a boy.”
Describing himself as a “baby Catholic,” Eszterhas said after that day even though battling addiction didn’t become easier, he did feel a strength that he could face his addictions and his cancer.
At first, he was cautious about rekindling his relationship with God. He realized that during his life he had marginalized God. He said he didn’t feel he had the right to ask God for a miracle.
“I didn’t even ask God for awhile to save my life and to let me be around my family,” he said. “I asked God to help me with my addictions. And he did.
“But then I thought to myself finally after weeks and maybe some months that God did truly love me and that I felt that I could ask God to save my life.”
And in having his life saved, Eszterhas seems to be using what is left of his time and talents to help others. He credits his wife and sons as well as his friends at Holy Angels and former pastor, Father Bob Stec, for supporting him in his early days of finding his way back to church and to Jesus.
Since then, he has fought against glamorizing smoking in movies. He also has campaigned to bring more family-oriented and faith-oriented entertainment into the movies.
Here at home, he’s devoted himself to being the best father and husband he can. And he strives daily to deepen his relationship with Christ, for whom he said he feels honored to carrying the cross.
Carrying the cross, Eszterhas said, is something he feels he wants to do as part of his newfound relationship with God. He recently carried the cross at this year’s The Fest, which he said was a moving experience, particularly as he walked toward the larger illuminated cross on the altar while bagpipes played “Amazing Grace.”
“I am generally moved when I carry the cross and I carry it at Holy Angels a lot because I feel it’s a real honor to carry it,” he said. “I do feel like I’m carrying Christ on the cross.”
Eszterhas’ faith journey is inspiring to many, said Father Daniel Schlegel, pastor of Holy Angels, who says he likes the way Eszterhas writes about the parish community in his latest memoir--particularly the friendships and camaraderie among parishioners.
“When he’s here, he’s a brother in Christ,” he said. “There is a sense that the church makes everyone feel comfortable.”
Father Schlegel said he also hopes that Eszterhas’ story will be a way for people who feel hopeless or who feel ashamed of their own mistakes to see they are welcome at any time to reestablish their relationship with the church and with God.
“Joe has the opportunity to reach out to people who have left the church,” Father Schlegel said. “He gives hope to people to realize what they’ve left behind and need to take a second look at.
“His story is a classic conversion story. In some ways, it’s no different from St. Paul being knocked off his horse.”