When famed Hollywood producer Jon Peters allegedly exposed himself to his former personal assistant Shelly Morita and her two-year-old daughter, it was the final straw.
“I was a single parent, I was nervous to quit,” Morita told Jezebel by phone Monday about her tenure as the assistant of the movie man with the Midas touch, who produced such blockbusters as 1989's Batman, Rain Man, Flashdance, and Caddyshack. Peters hasn’t had producer credit on a film since 2013's Man of Steel, whose set he claims to have been banned from. But that will change when the hotly anticipated latest remake of A Star Is Born, featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, lands in theaters in October.
According to reporting on the lawsuit Morita filed, in which the exposure incident is alleged, she let a lot of untoward behavior roll off her back during her time with Peters, which began in February 2005 and lasted about a year.
“I think I would have gone away and never done anything, but he crossed the line with my daughter,” she explained. “That’s what set me off. I was like, ‘I’m not going to put up with this.’”
Morita declined to discuss on record the details of her lawsuit, which she filed December 5, 2006. “What’s out there is out there; it’s all true,” she said tersely. According to a story from the AP published at the time, “Peters frequently grabbed Morita’s breasts, buttocks or legs, hugged and kissed her and made ‘rude, sexual and disparaging comments.’” When he and Morita were in Australia for the July 2005 filming of Superman Returns, her suit alleged according to the AP, he got into bed with her and refused to leave. In August 2005, Peters is said to have chased Morita and gave her a bear hug after she walked in on him naked and waiting for a massage. And then that December, he allegedly exposed himself to Morita and her two-year-old daughter at his ranch in Santa Barbara. The AP also reported that he commented, “Look what boys have,” and then joked about the incident with other employees.
When the case finally went to trial in 2011, Morita testified that in Australia, she refused a joint rolled with marijuana that Peters offered her. “He leaned over and pushed his face against my mouth and blew smoke,” she said during the trial, according to CBS Los Angeles. “I pushed him off. He laughed and thought it was funny.” She also said that she was monetarily pressured to signed a release of claims against Peters by his business manager, Lester Knispel. Knispel reportedly denied he’d withheld her $25,000 bonus in order to get her to sign the confidentiality agreement.
Reuters reported that Peters denied all the claims, but lost his case—in August 2011, a jury found Peters liable. He was ordered to pay Morita over $3 million in damages.
“It was not about money,” Morita told Jezebel. “It was about standing up and saying, ‘What you did was wrong.’… It was about saying, ‘Hey, I’m not afraid of you, and I’m not going to take what you did to me.’”
Morita is one of at least five people who worked with Peters to have sued him for sexual harassment, though hers is the only case to have gone to trial—many, if not all, were settled out of court (all but Morita’s were dismissed before they could go to trial).
Peters is a Hollywood legend, who once upon a time ran Sony Pictures Entertainment (almost into the ground) alongside Peter Guber. He is a seventh-grade dropout who became a hairdresser-cum-“muff dyer” (that’s exactly what it sounds like). The womanizing character Warren Beatty played in Shampoo is said to be based on Peters. He met Barbra Streisand in 1973 (he was married to actor Lesley Ann Warren at the time) and went on to have a tumultuous relationship with Streisand, including an eight-year period in which they lived together. In a 1983 profile, PEOPLE magazine noted, “The Streisand/Peters affair was passionate, sometimes violent. Jon says Barbra once hit him with a chair, and sometimes when he was furious, he grabbed her and shook her hard.”
Peters also produced the Streisand-starring 1976 version of A Star Is Born. His production of the 2018 remake, which has earned early festival raves, particularly for its stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also directed it), is why this story is relevant. As Next Big Picture indicated in its August refresher on Peters’s past with Morita, the film is billed as a Jon Peters/Bill Gerber/Joint Effort production in its trailer.
In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, a reckoning with Peters’s past alleged behavior and his financial future are in order. At the very least, viewers who see A Star Is Born should understand to whom they are giving their money. Peters may stand make a pretty penny should A Star Is Born shape up to be the hit that all indications suggest it will be. Previously, because of rights ownership, he made somewhere in the ballpark of $50 million from 2013's Man of Steel, a movie on which he did absolutely nothing—he was banned from the set by producer Christopher Nolan. (It probably wasn’t the first time—Steven Spielberg reportedly banned Peters from the set of The Color Purple, yet another smash he produced.)
“My reputation scares these guys,” is how he explained Nolan’s banning in a 2017 profile in The Hollywood Reporter. That piece also indicated that he was more hands-on with this new Star Is Born than he was with Man of Steel. He supposedly removed himself from “self-imposed exile” to take part. “There were a lot of complicated deals on Star Is Born, a lot of heavy-hitters,” fellow Star producer Bill Gerber told THR about the project that had been brewing for about 10 years before this current incarnation. “And Jon could not have been more helpful in getting it all in line.”
After the publication of this article, Variety reported that the “Producers Guild of America has already determined that Jon Peters is not part of the producing team for A Star Is Born.” Later, Variety amended its story (and headline) to indicate that he is not part of the certified producing team: “The Producers Guild of America has determined that Jon Peters is not part of the certified producing team for A Star Is Born.” In its explanation of its certification (via the so-called Producers Mark) on its website, the PGA explains, “Studios and distributors remain free to assign the credit to whomever they wish...requesting the Mark is purely voluntary. In the event that none of a film’s producers requests the Mark, one should not conclude that no one did the work of producing the motion picture.”
Additionally, Warner Bros. gave this statement to Variety (but did not provide to Jezebel before the publication of this article): “Jon Peters’ attachment to this property goes as far back as 1976. Legally, we had to honor the contractual obligation in order to make this film.” Later, Variety amended its piece to add that Peters will continue to be credited as a producer on the 2018 A Star Is Born (“Warner Bros. released a brief statement Tuesday saying it will have to continue calling Peters a producer”).
The two statements combined seem to minimize Peters’s involvement and contradict THR’s previous reporting that he was heavily involved. He has always been listed as a producer on the film by Warner Bros., and given high billing in the trailer. That said, if he doesn’t stand to make money from box office residuals, he almost certainly does from his overall involvement. Jezebel has reached out to the PGA for clarification on how and when it arrived at its determination.
Peters reportedly took that THR interview with a loaded gun nearby (“Yeah, there’s two bullets in it,” he told writer Tatiana Siegel in a manner described as “casually”). He referred to himself as “the Trump of Hollywood” during the interview. The finished piece, incidentally, makes no mention of the harassment allegations or the $3 million he was ordered to shell out to Morita.
Before Morita, there was September Bradford, a former assistant of Traci Barone (president of Peters’s Peters Entertainment at the time), who filed a sexual harassment/wrongful termination lawsuit January 29, 1996. According to the New York Daily News, the complaint mostly focused on Barone’s conduct, but named Peters, as well as his companies Peters Entertainment and J.P. Organization Inc., as defendants. Variety reported that Bradford’s suit alleged that Barone hit on her repeatedly, creating an “uncomfortable, unpleasant and disrespectful work situation” where “sexually explicit comments, language, innuendoes and jokes were tolerated and encouraged.” A Los Angeles magazine piece on the lawsuit by Rachel Abramowitz states that, “Peters is named in the suit because it claims that his company is responsible for a ‘hostile work environment.’”
Barone, according to the Los Angeles piece, would discuss the size of men’s genitalia and anal sex in the Peters Entertainment office. “Don’t you look cute today. You look like you should have a giant cock shoved up you,” she is alleged to having told Bradford. “One former colleague recalls her entering her office and ‘pulling out her tits,’” wrote Abramowitz. Abramowitz also relayed an alleged anecdote that after at least two executives complained to Peters: “Peters yelled at Barone, reportedly saying, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re me? You can’t treat people like this.’”
Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters’ book about Peters and Gruber’s rise and fall, Hit and Run, claims that initially Peters “vowed to fight [Bradford’s] allegations in court,” but on November 21, 1996, Variety reported that Bradford and company had reached an out of court settlement that was, according to sources, in the six figures.
(Abramowitz also felt strongly enough to include a rumor in her Los Angeles piece that was refuted by one of the implicated parties. “...Another assistant—who was related to a powerful Warners executive—threatened to file a sexual harassment suit against Peters and allegedly walked way with a $200,000 settlement,” she wrote. She added: “The assistant, however, denies the rumor. Peters, through his current assistant declined to comment.”)
Then there was Colleen Bennet, Peters’ finance vice president from September 1996 until August 1998. In a lawsuit filed July 14, 1999, Bennett accused Peters of “trying to kiss [her], grabbing her body against her will, conducting meetings in his underwear and exposing his genitals to plaintiff” during the time she worked for him, according to a report in Variety. Bennett’s suit also claimed, per Variety, that Peters attempted to dissuade her from marrying her fiancé Eric Appelbaum, and then fired her three days after her honeymoon. She sued for $50 million. The Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and the City News Service were all unsuccessful in their attempts to reach Peters for comment on the allegations. The case was sent to binding arbitration and dismissed October 6, 1999, according to the Los Angeles Court System’s online database.
Then on December 24, 2007, three more former employees sued Peters, though only one alleged sexual harassment, per se. According to TMZ, that suit, from Peters’s former housekeeper Blanca Hernandez, alleged he had “systematically sexually harassed [Hernandez] on nearly a daily basis” during her year of employment, which started in July 2005. TMZ reported that Hernandez alleged Peters had touched her on her “breasts and buttocks and waist,” attempted to push her into a bed while he was naked, referred to her breasts as “pillows,” and offered to pay her for sex. Additionally, per TMZ’s report on Hernandez’s complaint, she said when she complained to Peters’s business associate Ronald Grigg, he fired her and warned that if she complained, “her and her daughter would be murdered.”
But then, according to a June 26, 2008, report by City News Service, Hernandez walked back the claims, alleging her lawyer had subverted her attempt to drop the case. City News Service reported that according to documents filed by Peters’s attorney, Joseph A. Yanny, Hernandez wrote to her counsel, Lisa A. Maki, “You have caused me harm and I cannot get a job because of you, and I do not want you to represent me. I do not want to hurt Mr. Peters, he is a very good man and he was very good to me.”
Yanny asked the judge for the case to be dismissed, according to the City News Service, which also reported:
Yanny said Peters has become a target for a slew of unfounded sexual misconduct complaints by people to whom he has been kind and fair.
“If you are successful and creative and decent to people, you’re going to be victimized,” Yanny said.
On September 22, 2008, the case was dismissed with prejudice at Maki’s request, according to the Los Angeles Court System’s online database. Maki has not responded to Jezebel’s request for interview.
Former maintenance employees of Peters, married couple Adriana and Andrew Silveira, were the other two who filed a lawsuit against Peters on Christmas Eve 2007. Like Hernandez, they were represented by Maki. The Silveiras’ complaint, which was obtained by Jezebel, alleged that after discovering Adriana had gotten pregnant, Peters advised Andrew that if he wanted to keep his job, Adriana should have an abortion. When she refused, the suit alleged, Andrew was fired. According to City News Service, they also alleged they were denied overtime payments and meal/rest breaks, and that Peters’s reps had harassed and threatened them. Peters issued a sworn statement that, according to City News Service’s report, “denied the couple were prevented from taking meal and rest breaks and said he collectively paid both about $100,000 a year after Adriana Silveira became pregnant in June 2006.”
On July 13, 2010, City News Service reported that the Silveiras had settled with Peters just as jury selection was to begin.
Then in November 2008, Peters was sued again for sexual harassment, this time by a man, Brian Quintana, who said he was subjected to “continuous and pervasive sexual harassment” while working as a co-producer on Man of Steel and as senior vice present of Peters Entertainment, according to the New York Post’s Page Six. (The current IMDb page for the movie, which eventually was released in 2013, does not list Quintana as having worked on the film in any capacity.) According to the New York Post’s report:
The suit states there were “multiple instances where he was physically, sexually harassed by Peters, including being groped by male individuals at Peters’ behest.” Peters would “wrestle and rough up [Quintana] in a sexual manner . . . fondle himself in front of [Quintana] . . . often place his hand on [Quintana’s] leg in a sexual manner,” as well as “touch” his buttocks, the suit alleges.
In addition, according to the suit, Peters demanded that Quintana “drive male individuals onto the set for the purposes of granting sexual favors for members of the cast and crew [and] cover up allegations that . . . Peters engaged in sexually inappropriate acts in front of children.”
Quintana alleged Peters threatened to break his legs after he refused to sign documents claiming that Peters had served community service for his DUI. According to City News Service, “Peters filed a countersuit against Quintana in January 2009, alleging breach of loyalty, defamation, invasion of privacy and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.” On December 6, 2010, City News Service reported that a settlement had been reached and both lawsuits had been dropped. Quintana issued a prepared statement to press:
“It was an honor to work for Jon Peters. I regret filing a lawsuit against him and apologize for any harm or embarrassment this action caused him, his businesses and his family.
There’s also record of an Anita Pleiter filing a civil harassment suit against Peters in August 2004. Further documentation is not available in the Los Angeles Court System’s online database, which lists the case status as “pending.” However, Pleiter was called as a witness in Morita’s case, according to a document filed by Morita’s attorneys and obtained by Jezebel, which states that Pleiter testified in mid-trial deposition that she was “employed by [Peters], worked in his home, and was repeatedly the subject of sexual harassment.” Peters’s counsel then demanded reconsideration.
Peters’s recorded past is full of horror stories that go beyond sexual harassment. Former personal assistant Jeanette Agaronoff alleged he punched a hole in the wall after he thought she made an error (“I may have smacked the wall,” Peters conceded to the Washington Post; in the same piece, referring to another fired assistant, he recalled, “I grabbed the guy and his shirt came off”). “I don’t like him,” an anonymous former collaborator told the New York Times magazine in 1989. “Jon is brilliant but mercurial. He has the facility for identifying a creative component in a film. But he is very, very cutting. He has no feelings about whether he burns a person or not.” In that piece, Peters admitted he “used to have to be fueled with rage and craziness to work.”
“He’s a predator,” a former colleague told PEOPLE. “Sharp, imaginative and vulgar.”
There was a time when this kind of behavior was overlooked in, if not expected from, high-powered men in Hollywood. The current conversation suggests: no more.
“This has gone on in this town for years, but nobody said anything ever,” said Morita, reflecting on the harassment she alleges she put up with from Peters. “I’ve known about that. Things come and go but everybody kept their mouth shut.”
Morita, like all of the plaintiffs mentioned in this article, spoke out before #MeToo and #TimesUp, before sexual harassment in the workplace, particularly Hollywood, was a topic of regular mainstream conversation. She says as a result she was “shunned.”
“I totally believe that people were like, ‘Oh no, watch out, she had lawsuit and you gotta be careful,’” the 51-year-old said. After leaving Peters, she took a job with a law firm that she says she held onto for 10 years; she now works as an estate manager/personal assistant for wealthy clients who only tangentially work in the entertainment industry if at all.
“When I left and worked for that attorney, that was the first office I’d worked in. I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing, you get days off. They follow legal holidays,’” she recalled. “It was an awakening to say, ‘Man, what am I doing working for these people who don’t respect you or your time?’ These corporations and high-net-worth individuals have a little more respect for you as a human being.”
Jezebel has reached out to A Star Is Born’s distributor Warner Bros., Peters Entertainment, and reps for Cooper and Gaga. This post will be updated if and when we hear back.
Anna Merlan contributed reporting to this piece.
If you have any more information on Peters or harassment in Hollywood, please get in contact via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated Anita Pleiter’s first name as “Andrea.” Additionally, the previous version misstated the date and status of Pleiter’s harassment lawsuit against Peters. This post has been updated with the accurate information.
Update (8:15 p.m.): This post has been updated to include details of the July 1996 Los Angeles magazine article about September Bradford’s lawsuit against Peters’s then-employee Traci Barone, Peters, and two of his companies.
Update (10:38 p.m.): This post has been updated to include Variety’s report of statements made by the PGA and Warner Bros regarding the extent of Peters’s involvement in A Star Is Born.
Update (1:49 p.m., September 12, 2018): This post has been updated to reflect changes made to Variety’s report of statements made by the PGA and Warner Bros regarding the extent of Peters’s involvement in A Star Is Born and to contextualize what a PGA “certified” producer refers to.