Reading this juicy oral history is a lot like going to work in the mailroom of William Morris, CAA, or any of the other talent agencies whose veterans speak here with exceeding frankness about their experiences in the entertainment industry’s trenches. At first you wonder what the hell is going on and how you’re supposed to make sense of the chaotic mass of information all these people are throwing at you. Then, slowly, the craziness begins to cohere into an impressionistic understanding of what it takes to be a successful agent. And you don’t have to pick up anyone’s dry cleaning or drive their dogs to the summer home.
Yes, the services required of trainees in return for their miserable salaries and 18-hour work days really are that menial. Hilarious examples abound. ICM grunt Jamie Roberts was dispatched to Barbra Streisand’s Central Park West apartment to pick up and return a bra to Bloomingdales. Gary Randall, called to the office of William Morris honcho Sol Leon (himself a mailroom graduate) and handed a brown paper bag to deliver, discovered when he arrived at his destination that he was carrying a stool sample. He denies the widely circulated story that he took the bag back, threw it on Leon’s desk, and declared, “I’ll eat shit but I won’t deliver it.” But Randall concedes that “in terms of a metaphor for mailroom existence, nothing prior or since comes close.” An agency apprenticeship is positively medieval in its emphasis on personal service to the powerful.
A lot of the humiliation and harassment is clearly designed to make sure these fledglings are tough enough for a brutally competitive industry. Practically everyone quoted recalls being warned at their job interview that the mailroom was horrible and they would hate it. It was, and they did, but surviving was a badge of honor.
Those who survived did so more because of their personalities than their skills. (Several claim that too-capable assistants don’t get promoted, because their bosses depend on them.) “The Mailroom” takes an intriguingly Zen position on how to get ahead in Hollywood: It’s not about what you do; it’s who you are. “The joke is that agents have no soul,” remarks Ron Meyer, who made his bones at the Paul Kohner Agency and William Morris before helping found CAA in 1975. “But in truth, to be a good agent you have to have a lot of soul.” David Geffen “quickly figured out that … the one ability I’d better have is to create relationships.”
Fellow Morris trainee Sam Haskell, still with the company 24 years later, gets positively mystical on the secret of success: “If you can maintain who you are, then you become a magnet of consistency to which all the inconsistent elements spinning around in your little hemisphere are drawn. Those elements — the clients, people in the office, your family — want to know who they are. Your consistency can bring the same to their lives, and if it does, they’re going to want to stick with you.”
After digesting these high-flown musings, gossip-hungry readers will feast on plenty of name-dropping (who you are frequently means who your relatives are, at least when getting a foot in the mailroom door) and hair-raising accounts of backstabbing. Rensin, who honed his ability to tell a story in someone else’s voice as co-author of memoirs by Tim Allen, Chris Rock, and a host of other celebrities, skillfully weaves together dozens of first-person narratives in a deceptively casual structure that justifies the book’s subtitle.
This is indeed Hollywood history, more specifically a cogent account of how talent agencies have evolved since Morris was ruled by executives in size 36-short suits. Rensin’s clever use of personal memories as mosaic pieces, arranged in patterns to form an industry-wide portrait, is history for grown-ups: entertaining, instructive, and irresistible.