How Jon Favreau took over Hollywood

Young Jon Favreau

Dan Buffa

Is anyone in Hollywood more versatile and powerful than Jon Favreau at the moment?

An independent actor and filmmaker who started small and took increasingly riskier jobs to affirm his place in the moviemaking game. 12-13 years ago, before “Iron Man” graced screens, Favreau was just another writer-director-actor looking for his second big break. 

Favreau grew up in the Forest Hills section of New York, the son of a Jewish mother and an Italian/French Canadian father. In a 2011 interview with The Forward, Favreau said, “I was definitely brought up around Jewish culture. My grandparents kept kosher and I went to Hebrew school. Then when I was 13, a year or so after my mother passed away, I was bar mitzvahed. I had an aliyah, but I never actually read from the Torah.”

His big break came in 1996 with “Swingers,” a movie that put Favreau, Vince Vaughn, and Doug Liman on the map. A swift 90-minute buddy comedy that talked fast and made you laugh even faster, this was the jumping off point for the 54-year-old Queens, New York native. Working with Vaughn, Favreau quickly asserted himself as a triple threat in the game. To quote his own script, he was the guy in the R-rated movie going for it, the one we weren’t sure about and scared us a little bit, but we followed anyway. 

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

“I was definitely influenced by Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. And I’ve definitely played the shlemazel. I think there is a self-deprecating aspect of my persona that owes a lot to its Jewish roots,” said Favreau.

But the sequel, “Made,” wasn’t received well and didn’t sing as loud as the original Vegas-bound comedy. Favreau then played Rocky Marciano in a TV movie, had a good part in an underrated Keanu Reeves movie called “The Replacements,” a film that saw the actor get very fit to play a linebacker being coached by Gene Hackman. A phase that every actor goes through in his career is where he looks at the audience theoretically and asks, “how do you want me?” Favreau got fit for parts, and then would pack on the pounds for other roles. The scope is always pointed at being a chameleon early on, and Favreau was no different. 

While “Made” didn’t hold a candle to “Swingers,” it was the first movie Favreau directed. The next prominent gig behind the camera was “Elf,” which became one of the most popular and successful Christmas movies of all time. It’s on thousands of family holiday “must watch” lists. Starring Will Ferrell and James Caan, the film explored the journey of a human, adopted by elves as a baby, to New York City in search of his father. It still plays well 18 years later. 

Now, he could have gone on to direct a slew of indie films, continuing his acting career while making a decent living and putting together a fine career. But then “Iron Man” came along and changed the entire spectrum, not only for the comic hero movie game, but for Favreau as well. He wasn’t just a hire; the entire thing gathered steam due to his interest and point of view on Tony Stark’s alter ego.

If it weren’t for Favreau’s hard push, Robert Downey Jr. isn’t Stark. It’s as simple as that. There were other forces at play and things in the air, but the then-troubled actor-who couldn’t stay out of trouble or court for too long-wasn’t someone Marvel was even close to considering for a franchise-launching mega-role. But Favreau helped with that, surprising moviegoers once again with his versatility. 

Along with playing Happy Hogan, Tony’s right-hand man and best friend, Favreau directed the first two “Iron Man” movies. He was the one who taught the world that superheroes could be cocky and funny as well as powerful and winning-this was following Christopher Nolan’s brilliant yet morose Batman movies. While Warner Brothers has been trying to reboot a better “Bat” than Nolan’s caped crusader for nearly a decade, the MCU is indestructible. Credit a guy nicknamed “Favs” for a moderate portion of that. Here’s another thing: Happy was a beloved character and got more stuff to do each movie, especially in last year’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” 

But after “Iron Man 2” in 2010, and the noisy box office bomb in 2011 with “Cowboys and Aliens,” Favreau was getting burned out. The latter Daniel Craig-starring science fiction western (strike one) grossed $174 million worldwide. A total that would be astronomical for a small film like “Swingers” was slammed due to a reported budget of $163 million. More than anything, the process had to be tiring at that point. 

When your film looks different than originally intended, or studio oversight becomes extra parents, the passion of what you are doing won’t be felt. Creators feel fried like that, and turn back to the original masterclass that is still in season: an Final Draft page. He went back to the kitchen, literally with 2014’s “Chef.”

I didn’t see this film coming. The memory of leaving the screening at AMC Creve Coeur 12 cinema was sublime, though. It was everything you wanted from Favreau, who wore all the hats here: writer, director, producer, aspiring culinary artist. He became quick and best friends with Chef Roy Choi, who joined as a consultant. If any movie exists as “his baby” or “one for him,” you can’t look any further than “Chef.”

An anti-studio film to the tilt (what commercially-produced film shows that many food close-ups?), “Chef” was the epitome of a comfort film-and that doesn’t just pertain to all the delicious food that food truck legend and real life chef, Roy Choi, helped Favreau make. This restored comfort to the center of the director’s craft. It wasn’t running on life support after a few high-stress blockbuster tentpole films. Outside of three separate episodes of television shows, Favreau didn’t direct a movie for three years before “Chef,” but it was easily one of his finest achievements-as an actor, director, and writer. 

Big studio projects came to Favreau easier afterwards. “Jungle Book” and “The Lion King” were smash hits, with a follow-up for the former on the way, and “The Mandalorian” Disney series has kept the force with Favreau as he gets to do what he loves: mixing business and pleasure at the movies. If you want to know why he’s successful, it all points back to passion and opportunity. A willingness to do everything yourself, and create entertainment for the masses. 

For example, how many movies on Favreau’s resume make you sad and depressed? Few. He’s an entertainer, and understands that job title to the full extent of the experience. What other person in Hollywood could deliver something as iconic as the dialogue in “Swingers,” a script that read like Aaron Sorkin typing out drunk notes at a bar after a few rounds, and then kick off a legendary franchise with Marvel and blockbuster-caliber reboots with Disney elsewhere. 

He could have retired before even touching “The Mandalorian,” but that has now become his baby-along with Chef Choi cooking adventures. In an effort to keep the good “Chef” times rolling, the two have teamed up for 21 episodes (thus far) of “The Chef Show” on Netflix-and it’s not your normal cooking show. They travel far and wide, cooking with fellow celebs and entertainers, but also the actual cooks themselves. There’s film history, foodie rants, and a general need to understand why a particular cook needed to make food. It’s fun, interactive, and completely in Favreau’s control. 

That’s what every filmmaker, actor, screenwriter, and producer in Hollywood aspires for: comfort and control in what you do. 28 years after playing Rudy’s best friend, Jon Favreau has taken over the land of make believe as we know it, and I am here for his next move. “Chef 2” please?