'Superman,' 'Exorcist' released under his tenure

This article was updated on August 29, 2002.

Talent agent-turned-studio exec Ted Ashley, who played a key role in shaping Warner Bros. into a modern movie powerhouse, died Saturday of acute leukemia following a long illness. He was 80.

Founder of the Ashley Famous talent agency, Ashley was a high-ranking executive at Warner Communications for two decades. His tenure was marked by big box office successes with franchise-launching pics like “Dirty Harry” and “Superman” and creative coups including the helming ascendancy of Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood and others.

Sony Pictures chairman John Calley, tapped by Ashley in 1968 to serve as studio chief at Warners, said Ashley wielded both a keen intellect and superior business sense.

“He was one of the smartest men I’ve known,” Calley recalled. “The studio had been losing money year after year, and the first year we got there I think the studio made $35 million — which was a lot of money for back then.”

Ashley entered the film scene amid a shifting Hollywood landscape, noted Warners home-entertainment topper Warren Lieberfarb, who joined the studio in 1975 as marketing VP.

“His impact dates from when the movies barely survived the onslaught of television and goes into the era of studios being acquired by conglomerates,” Lieberfarb said.

Against such a challenging backdrop, Ashley’s exuberance seemed to carry Warners to a new destiny.

Former colleagues recalled that he was so entrepreneurial and optimistic, the studio’s films acquired a similarly upbeat quality. An utterly drab studio suddenly began to generate hits.

Ashley started out as a William Morris agent at the age of 20 and went on to launch his own personal-management firm amid a field of storied contemporaries including Freddie Fields. His Ashley Famous agency packaged landmark television series such as “Mission: Impossible” and repped a wide variety of clients from Tennessee Williams to Janis Joplin and Vanessa Redgrave.

Both hard-working and reclusive, Ashley rarely spent time schmoozing with celebrities, granting interviews or hanging out at industry eateries. He was the original low-profile doer.

Kinney Corp. bought into his talent agency in 1967 and fully acquired the firm in 1969 when Ashley helped Kinney head Steve Ross acquire Warner Bros. Ashley served as Warners CEO until 1981, when he named Robert Daly and Terry Semel as successors.

For the next seven years, he was vice chairman of studio parent Warner Communications, where he was involved in transactions including the merger of The Movie Channel and Showtime.

“He walked softly but carried a big stick,” Lieberfarb recounted. “He had such deep experience that he didn’t need to exaggerate his persona. It spoke for itself.”

Ashley could be deftly diplomatic when needed. Calley remembered an incident at Warners when film great Bette Davis seemed to be going out of her way to be condescending and dismissive toward he and the exec.

Without seeming to take umbrage, Ashley deftly injected into the conversation references to their previous professional accomplishments.

“He didn’t have to be brutal but was still able to make his point,” Calley recalled.

Ashley was born in Brooklyn in 1922 as Theodore Assofsky. Graduating from high school at age 15, he studied business administration at City College at night, also working as an office boy at the William Morris agency where his uncle Nat was general manager.

At age 20 he graduated to full-fledged agent — changing his name in the process — and began repping radio clients and photographers. After nine years at William Morris, he launched Ted Ashley Associates.

It was the dawn of the television age, and Ashley’s clients included Gertrude Berg (“The Goldbergs”), Allen Funt and Henny Youngman.

Within three years he expanded into the heftier Ashley Famous Agency, which became known for packaging and selling network skeins. Such TV series included “The Danny Kaye Show,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Get Smart,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Medic,” “Star Trek,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Defenders,” “Tarzan,” “Name That Tune,” “The Twilight Zone” and “The Doris Day Show.”

Ashley Famous also repped playwrights such as Williams and Arthur Miller, singers Perry Como and Trini Lopez, and rock acts including Joplin, The Doors, and Iron Butterfly.

Motion-picture clients included Redgrave, Burt Lancaster, Rex Harrison, Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

“As an agent, Ashley had great panache and showmanship — he seemed to relish the wheeling and dealing,” remembered Daily Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, a Paramount exec in those days.

“He once came to my office at Paramount to present a package involving two major stars of that era (but) there was also a condition,” Bart recalled. ” ‘If you want this deal, I’m going too stick you with a kid director who you don’t want,’ he said with a smile. ‘You may feel he’ll screw up your movie, but I’ve got to get him a job and this is the only way to do it.’

“When everyone shook hands on the deal, Ashley summoned an aide who was waiting in the reception area. He entered carrying four bottles of champagne and some hors d’oeuvres. It was party time.”

Two years into his association with Kinney and Ross, Ashley was named chairman-CEO of Warner Bros., and Ashley Famous was spun off to avoid conflicts of interest. Ashley reportedly earned $2.7 million in Warners stock from the deal and collected a $200,000 annual salary plus six-figure bonuses through the mid-1970s.

One of Ashley’s first theatrical hits was the “Woodstock” music docu, which grossed $13 million. Other major successes, including horror classic “The Exorcist,” soon followed.

Director John Boorman, who directed the classic rural thriller “Deliverance” for WB in 1972, says Warners under Ashley played a major role in greenlighting controversial and socially relevant projects: “It was a tremendously innovative and exciting period, when the prevailing policy at the studios was to support the film directors’ visions, and Warner Bros. was clearly leading the way.”

Adding a personal note on Ashley’s idiosyncratic executive style, Boorman remembers the studio execs under Ashley “always forming into a small committee to discuss the project under consideration. But Ted would always leave the room and go off by himself for 20 minutes. Then he’d come back in and deliver his view.”

When Frank Wells was named Warners co-chairman in 1974, Ashley briefly stepped into the background before returning full time through 1980. Ashley segued into a consultant’s post for a couple years before moving to New York to serve as vice chairman of Warner Communications until 1988 when he retired.

“He was a beautiful man,” said Calley, who remained friends with Ashley over the many decades. “In 50 years, I never had an argument with him.”

Ashley, who was involved in a number of professional and charitable endeavors, was a board member of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a member of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a founder of the American Film Institute. He was an active supporter of the Democratic Party and its candidates, and was particularly involved in the ’70s California political scene.

Ashley is survived by his wife, Page Cuddy Ashley; four daughters, Fran Curtis Dubin, Diane Ashley, Kim Balin and Ba-Nhi Sinclair; a brother, Alfred Ashley; and two grandchildren.

Services are set for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Frank Campbell Funeral, Madison Avenue and 81st Street, in Manhattan.

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