Above The Line: Playing the percentages

Who: Boyish chief of percentery ICM (U.K.)

What: Completing buyback of agency from ICM parent and firming ties with Hollywood.

What they’re saying: Can the charismatic maven remain his focus on leading London’s leading agency through its latest incarnation?

LONDON — The phone rings. “I hear you’re writing a profile of Duncan Heath,” says a voice in a bad cockney accent. “He’s an arrogant wanker. A total arsehole. You can quote me, my name is Michael Foster.”

It’s not, of course, the former co-chairman of ICM (U.K.), who quit four years ago and recently launched a rival agency. It’s Heath himself, up to his usual pranks.

“Be nice about me, darling,” adds Heath, reverting to his normal upper-class drawl. “I’m still trying to close this deal.”

Heath and his fellow agents are in the midst of buying back the firm he sold to ICM in the mid-1980s (“because I was absolutely flat broke”).

It’s hard to imagine anyone more different from the slick, disciplined creatures who stalk Hollywood’s agency jungle than Heath. At 55, he still comes across as an overgrown boy, with his ruddy face full of mischief and enthusiasm.

One arrives at a meeting with Heath more in hope than expectation that he will remember to turn up. His four dogs (“Holly the collie, Flora, Dave the dog and George”) cavort around his disorderly office, which he describes as “a shithole.”

His walls are covered with pictures of his greyhounds, his racehorses, his yachts, his friends and family, as well as amusing snippets from newspapers (a small ad — “Have Viagra, need woman, any woman, 18-80”), with just a couple of movie posters chucked in for form’s sake.

He dresses in the kind of battered, mismatched ensembles that suggest he has just tumbled off a country estate. He has been known to send clients the wrong scripts.

“He’s charismatic and quixotic, but he’s also completely unfocused, with a very short attention span,” says a fellow agent fondly. “If he took you on as a client and decided after a week you were boring, you wouldn’t hear much from him again.”

But underestimate him at your peril. For all his clowning around, this is the man who built London’s leading talent agency with his bare hands.

He’s the feckless second son of industrialist and WWII fighting ace Sir Barrie Heath. At the height of the Vietnam War, he skipped off to Saigon on a drunken whim to impress a girlfriend who’d dumped him; he spent three months loafing around local brothels. Heath drove most of the way there from England in a friend’s Porsche.

That story is all part of Heath’s legend but, unlike most legends, his is all true.

Heath certainly inspires great loyalty in his clients. Some, like Mike Newell, Rupert Everett and Sam Mendes, have been with him seemingly forever. But he’s also at the cutting edge when it comes to signing the hottest new names — such as directors Jonathan Glazer, Chris Cunningham, Vaughan Arnell and Scott Canning — before anyone else has heard of them.

He’s also someone Hollywood can do business with.

“He is the only real agent in all of Europe who can get the heads of studios on the phone, because he’s the only one who understands where they are coming from,” says an American producer. “He’s got that accent the Americans like, but he’s not a Brit with a pole up his ass; he’s got a personality the Americans are comfortable with. To them he’s Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery.”

Despite his moneyed background and expensive hobbies, Heath still pleads poverty. In fact, it’s his new pitch, particularly after putting himself further into hock to fund the buyout.

“If anyone wants a broke agent, I’m that man,” he says. “I’m beyond hungry. I work like a fucking dog. I’m a hustler.”

“Duncan is the best crisis manager of anyone I have ever met,” says a producer. “He’s one of those people who operates best on the edge. If a movie is going down, if an actor or a studio is pulling out, there is no one better at making that film happen.”

“When Michael (Foster) left the agency, everyone but everyone was writing Duncan’s obituary,” says a friend. “But within days he not only hired Greg Hunt from Casarotto, he took Alan Radcliffe and Mike McCoy away from William Morris, hired Lyndsey Posner, then promoted Sally Long-Innes (to co-managing director alongside Paul Lyonmaris), and ICM was stronger than it was before.”

The new ICM U.K. will also push into continental Europe, something ICM tried before with ventures in Dublin and Paris — without great success.

And while ICM will retain a minority stake, Heath will gain greater freedom to expand into financing and development on behalf of his clients. “It’s difficult to raise development money if you’re not the boss,” he says.

ICM U.K. is already partnered in a film development venture with Catch 23, which last week announced its first project — a remake of the Brit TV thriller “Edge of Darkness,” to be directed by Heath’s client Martin Campbell. A private investor has also provided a TV development fund.

Heath says categorically that he doesn’t want to produce, even though as a British firm no longer owned by an American company, ICM U.K. will be free to do so.

A few years back he invested his own money in “Onegin” and “Ripley’s Game,” and though both films did get made, the experience convinced him that producing was too tough. “It was fucking exhausting. But that baptism of fire did make me more appreciative of how dangerous producing is.”

Heath’s latest extracurricular passion is motorbikes. As well as riding a 1950 Indian, he recently acquired the trademark to build Indians in Europe, and the first half-dozen bikes have just rolled off the production line.

By coincidence, Harley-Davidson in the U.S. has also just started making bikes with the Indian brand, but theirs is regarded by bike aficionados as a Harley with a label on it, whereas Heath’s bespoke hogs are regarded as the real deal.

Just like the man himself.

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