Jack Valenti, the colorful, charismatic head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America for almost four decades and the prime mover behind the movie ratings system, died Thursday. He was 85.
Valenti had checked out of Johns Hopkins U. Medical Center on Wednesday. He had been hospitalized after suffering a stroke.
A private mass celebrating Valenti’s life will be held in Washington. The family will announce details in the coming days.
The highly articulate and pugnacious Valenti, a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson who served as the industry’s Washington, D.C., liaison from 1966-2004, was among the most visible lobbyists in the country, as comfortable testifying at a government hearing as he was appearing on the Academy Awards.
Industry executives who knew Valenti well remembered him Thursday as a warm, intellectually curious, loyal man who was a born diplomat — skills he put to good use during his tenure at the MPAA.
“He had a tremendous grasp of the entertainment business,” said Bob Daly, former Warner Bros. co-chairman and a longtime friend of Valenti’s. “He had to work for some pretty strong, opinionated people who were sometimes on different sides of an issue. I don’t ever remember him being defeated. He’d lobby every single person to come up with a compromise we found acceptable.”
And he most certainly lived up to his professional obligation to be the industry’s most ardent cheerleader.
Dan Glickman, the former Kansas congressman and Clinton administration cabinet member who had the formidable task of following the legend at the MPAA, called his predecessor “the ultimate leading man.”
“Jack was a showman, a gentleman, an orator and a passionate champion of this country, its movies and the enduring freedoms that made both so important to this world,” Glickman said. “He also embodied the theatricality of our industry with his conviction, quick wit and boundless energy.”
Even after he handed over the MPAA reins to Glickman three years ago, Valenti maintained a public profile. He spoke before congressional committees to publicly defend the ratings system, created just two years into his MPAA tenure as a viable and successful alternative to government enforcement of content.
Valenti was also a staunch defender of the industry’s importance to America’s balance of trade. He frequently found himself embroiled in skirmishes over Internet piracy, TV ratings and the V-chip, the fin-syn rules, cable deregulation or the constant rise in the cost of movies — about which he constantly carped, though he was rarely able to suggest a remedy.
His detractors complained that he protected the status quo of the major studios, even to the detriment of other parts of the industry. He championed the industry’s 2003 ban on awards screeners as a way to guard against Internet piracy despite protests from specialty arms and independent filmmakers. After some distributors sued, a court issued an injunction lifting the ban.
Born Sept. 5, 1921, in a poor neighborhood in Houston, Valenti aspired to public life from an early age. He graduated from high school at 15 and earned his B.A. from the U. of Houston, worked for a time in advertising at Humble Oil, then added a Harvard MBA. He flew 51 combat missions as an Army Air Corps pilot in WWII. After the war, he continued in advertising and branched out into political consulting.
In the early ‘60s, Valenti’s agency Weekly & Valenti did leg work for Johnson. On Nov. 22, 1963, he was part of the presidential motorcade in Dallas when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he is visible in the famous photo of Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One. After taking office, Johnson took Valenti to Washington as his special assistant, and Valenti gained a reputation as one of the president’s most loyal staffers.
At the time Johnson was also developing a strong friendship with one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, MCA chieftain Lew Wasserman. Hollywood was enduring a tumultuous period in the mid-1960s, with the studios facing hard financial times, changes in ownership and even bigger problems with local censorship boards popping up in various cities to weigh in — rarely with positive reviews — on the merits of movies, moral and otherwise. Wasserman and Johnson realized the situation was untenable, and they decided it was time to revive the fortunes of Hollywood’s lobbying org with a strong, dynamic leader. They didn’t have to think long before settling on Valenti for the job.
Valenti was hired at the then-princely salary of $200,000 per year. By the time he retired, he had a salary well over $1 million and was one of the country’s highest-paid lobbyists.
In sharp contrast to the majority of his tenure, Valenti’s first few years at the MPAA were anything but easy for the determined Texan. The strong backing from Wasserman raised red flags among other MPAA members. It was during this trial by fire that Valenti honed his skills in dealing with highly competitive moguls.
Banding together with the National Assn. of Theater Owners, Valenti created the industry’s standard voluntary ratings system in 1968. It overrode decades of local ratings systems, which often contradicted one another.
As old Hollywood was giving way to a new permissiveness, reflected in movies like “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Midnight Cowboy,” the ratings system kept censorship wolves at bay but caused controversy within the industry. The X and then NC-17 ratings were seen as punitive to filmmakers’ self-expression. But many agreed the ratings system was the only way to prevent possible government intervention.
In the mid-’70s, with videocassettes becoming a major revenue growth source for the industry, Valenti became a staunch supporter of antipiracy programs to protect the studios’ interests in 68 countries abroad. His nonstop crusading helped the at-first meagerly funded effort ($76,000) grow in budget to $40 million over the years.
Valenti also helped set a standard for television ratings in the mid-’90s when conservatives complained that the entertainment industry was hostile to “family values.” President Clinton also heeded prevailing opinion and backed a V-chip to block certain programming. Valenti had been opposed to such a measure, but when it became inevitable, he stepped in to steer the implementation of the device in a way that the industry could accept. However, the ultimate effect of the chip was minimal, as most viewers never took advantage of it.
Valenti was ever vigilant to abuses from emerging countries, particularly China — a market that, like South Korea, he had helped open to film trade. The Korean agreement helped boost revenues from that market from $8 million in 1987 to $135 million a few years later.
One battle he fought successfully for more than two decades but eventually lost was that over the networks’ participation in the ownership and syndication rights to TV shows. Valenti was the major studios’ and producers’ staunchest champion. But by the ‘90s, fears about the monopolistic tendencies of the Big Three had dwindled thanks to the proliferation of rival weblets and cable channels.
But perhaps more than anything, Valenti acted as a conscience for Hollywood, reminding industryites about their responsibilities and excesses. However, he constantly defended show business from attackers and rarely criticized the business himself.
One rare example was his attack on Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK.” Valenti defended the Warren Commission (established by his mentor Johnson), casting aspersions on Stone’s controversial film. However, his timing was, as always, discreet: He waited until four months after the film had opened, after the Academy Awards, before speaking out against the pic.
The silver-haired Valenti was a natty dresser and courtly gentleman who enjoyed using five-dollar words and arcane historical and literary allusions as he spoke out on numerous issues, all of which seemed to get him into a high lather.
For example, in 1985 at ShoWest, he described new technologies
as “metal skeletons whirling about in the heavens, hurling down beams of delivery systems.”
The resurgence of JFK conspiracy theories in 1992 caused him to lament, “The Lord only knows how many more conspiratorial badgers are out there burrowing into the entrails of Alice’s Nonsense Wonderland, ready to barter their gauzy and grotesque notions for gold in the publishing and movie marketplace.”
After retirement, Valenti wrote a column for the Politico, including one in which he expressed his opposition to the war in Iraq and made comparisons to Johnson’s ill-fated efforts in Vietnam.
“Having served one president in wartime, I’m reluctant to criticize another chief executive because I’m aware of the personal agony they feel in ordering troops into harm’s way,” he wrote. “Yet in launching the war in Iraq, our commanders ignored the errors of other drawn-out conflicts, including Vietnam. The mistakes made then were repeated in Iraq. How sad.”
Valenti also wrote several books: “The Bitter Taste of Glory,” “Speak Up With Confidence,” “A Very Human President” and the political novel “Protect and Defend in 1992.”
His long-awaited memoir “This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood” was scheduled for release on June 5. Publisher Harmony Books, a division of Random House, has said it was scheduling a sizable 100,000-copy first print run for the tome, which will tell of Valenti’s long career in both Hollywood and Washington.
A rep from the company couldn’t be reached to say whether publishing plans had changed.
In other instances of an author’s passing, however, publishers have moved up a book’s release date to take advantage of the media surrounding the death (and to compensate, in part, for possible lost media opportunities later on).
“This is not a get-even book,” the former head of the Motion Picture Assn. said at the time of the book’s sale. “There may be three or four people I vent a little spleen on, but it takes too much energy to be vengeful or hateful.”
The French government honored him with its Legion of Honor award for his efforts on behalf of the country’s film industry.
He and wife Mary Margaret divided their time between Washington and Los Angeles.
In addition to this wife, he is survived by their three children, Courtenay, exec VP of production at Warner Bros. Pictures; John, who’s CEO of film industry informational service Icreate.com; and Alexandra, a photographer and video director, as well as two grandchildren.
The family requests that donations be directed to the Jack Valenti Macular Degeneration Research Fund at Johns Hopkins U., c/o Dr. Neil M. Bressler, Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins U. School of Medicine, 550 N. Broadway, Suite 115, Baltimore, MD 21205-2002.
(Timothy M. Gray and William Triplett contributed to this obituary.)