How many agents does it take to change a light bulb?

ABE LASTFOGEL, the tiny but truculent chief of the William Morris office during its banner years, used to take pride in what he termed his “invisibility.” As he put it, “I want my clients to get the attention, not me.”

Well, if Abe were around today he would be dismayed by the changing manners and mores of the agency business. The names of agents, lawyers and managers are all over the papers. When a Variety reporter files a story about a deal or a client signing, it’s not uncommon for him to list three or four agents, along with a random attorney or manager.

Indeed, hardly a day goes by without the following debate taking place, with slight variations, between a Variety editor and reporter:

Editor: You wrote about one deal, so why do you have to mention four agents?

Reporter: (rising angst) They want their names in the paper and they’re my news sources. They stop being sources without mentions.

Editor: (curmudgeonly) They’re getting commissions, they don’t need mentions.

THE DISCUSSION USUALLY ENDS with a compromise: The editor permits the mention of one agent and one lawyer. And the following day the reporter will complain: “You can’t believe how pissed off the other guys are for being left out. You just don’t appreciate how tough it is out there.”

Well, things are indeed tough out there, but the runaway egos of many agents, lawyers and managers are making it even tougher. As the head of one of the Big Three agencies puts it, “Some of my agents have bigger egos than their clients — it’s downright frightening.”

Mind you, there are times when the dealmakers deserve to take a bow. If a young agent signs a superstar, why shouldn’t he get his name in the paper? The agent who managed to leapfrog Jim Carrey’s paycheck from $ 450,000 to $ 7 million — someone at United Talent named Nick Stevens — surely earned the right to be immortalized.

Things get out of whack, however, when a talent agency signs an ordinary working director and then insists that an entire team of four agents get their names in the paper. I always thought it looked downright ridiculous for four agents to “service” one client — what kind of “service” does he or she require?

The people who run the major agencies tend to agree. “I don’t ever want to see the name of a CAA agent in the paper,” said a top dog at Creative Artists Agency, who then begged me not to put his name in the paper.

“I think stories should be about our clients, not our agents,” said Jim Wiatt , president of ICM. Agrees Jerry Katzman, president of William Morris, “I’d feel very comfortable if only the agency was named.”

ASK THEM WHY THEIR ORDERS are being ignored and they prefer to talk off the record. Agents spend their lives surrounded by big egos, they explain. Obviously egomania is contagious. Then there’s the subtle war between the generations that is waged at agencies as well as at networks and studios. The young comers want to make their mark, and publicity is a key element in their strategy. Why let the suits and graybeards stand between them and quick advancement?

This is a problem that clearly won’t go away. If anything, the daily debates between reporters and editors will become even more intense.

Speaking for myself, by the way, I happen to have two agents and two lawyers. And for some reason they keep asking me to never publish their names in association with any of my activities. I wonder why.

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