Pioneering manager had an eye for talent

He was schooled in the Old World of show business, but his keen eye for talent and love of the game made him one of the most innovative and successful manager-producers.

Bernie Brillstein, who died Thursday night at 77 of chronic pulmonary disease, wrote in his 1999 memoir “Where Did I Go Right?” that “You’re nobody in Hollywood unless someone wants you dead.”

But in reflecting on his influence and his legacy, it’s hard to find anyone who felt that way about Brillstein, the one-time WMA agent who built his Brillstein Co. and, in partnership with Brad Grey, the Brillstein-Grey Entertainment banner into Hollywood’s powerhouse management-production shingle.

Brillstein famously feuded with Michael Ovitz, and his public candor about his ire toward the former CAA chief endeared him to many in a biz where fear of retribution keeps most sniping off the record and behind one another’s back.

“He loved talent, and he loved the action,” said Lorne Michaels, a longtime client and creator/exec producer of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” “He never wavered in that.”

Brillstein was a major force in the creation of “Saturday Night Live,” through his skill at spotting raw talent such as Michaels, whom he signed as a young writer in the early 1970s, and comics including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. He was a prime mover behind the success of the Muppets, having been impressed by the talent and vision of a young puppeteer he met in the mid-1960s. Brillstein represented Jim Henson until the latter’s death in 1990.

“He was talented, brilliant and hilarious,” said Grey, who is now chairman and CEO of Paramount Motion Picture Group. “I have a debt to Bernie for so many reasons that I can never possibly repay. He was my mentor, my partner and my friend. He was like a father to me, and he treated me like a son.”

Michaels and Grey spent the weekend organizing a memorial tribute to Brillstein skedded for tonight at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Brillstein had been in failing health since February when he underwent double-bypass heart surgery.

The list of clients whose careers were nurtured at Brillstein-headed shingles is eye-popping: Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler, Geena Davis, Martin Short, Jim Belushi, Dabney Coleman, John Larroquette, Dana Carvey, Garry Shandling, Dennis Miller, Nicolas Cage, Rob Lowe and Jay Tarses, to name a few.

“With his boundless passion, energy and wisdom, Bernie inspired the culture and success that we’re blessed with today,” said Jon Liebman, who took the reins as CEO of the company that was renamed Brillstein Entertainment Partners after Grey moved on to Paramount in early 2005.

In the 1980s, the Brillstein Co. was among the first contempo talent rep shingles to branch out into TV production in a significant way with shows packaged around clients, among them “ALF,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and “The Slap Maxwell Story.”

In late 1991, Brillstein partnered with Grey, who had joined the Brillstein Co. in the mid-1980s as a manager, and the company further expanded the scope of its film and TV operations.

Brillstein-Grey Television fielded such noteworthy skeins as “The Sopranos” (Brillstein even made a cameo appearance in 2004, playing in a poker game with Tony Soprano), “Just Shoot Me,” “NewsRadio,” “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”

Brillstein was famously loyal to his co-workers and clients, no matter what stage they were in, careerwise. Industry vets recalled the personal attention that Brillstein paid to clients who were long past their earning prime.

“He was completely honorable and generous,” Michaels recalled. “And he was a sport and in the sense that when things got tough he didn’t run away. He’d been tapped out in his career often enough that he understood how precious (success) is.”

An avuncular presence who sported shoulder-length white hair and a linebacker’s build, Brillstein credited much of his success to betting on the potential of clients who impressed him with their innate talents: “Good things begin with talent,” Brillstein told Daily Variety in 1987.

In a column he penned for Daily Variety in 2002, Brillstein lamented how the networks and studios no longer put much emphasis on scouting for and developing talent.

“Where has all the talent gone? Or, more to the point, where have all the people who love and respect talent gone?” Brillstein wrote. “There’s nothing like the thrill you get in discovering a real talent; it’s a great feeling to share that discovery with the world. And to know you were there for the beginning.”

Even after Grey bought out Brillstein’s share in the Brillstein-Grey banner in 1996, Brillstein continued to serve as founding partner, repping a select group of clients. He maintained a regular presence in the offices of what is now Brillstein Entertainment Partners up until his recent surgery.

Brillstein’s dual role as a talent rep and producer with financial interest in shows sometimes raised eyebrows to outsiders, but his clients rarely batted an eye.

Thesp Lowe recalled Brillstein being “absolutely fearless” when it came to protecting his clients.

“When the chips were down, it was all about you,” Lowe recalled. He cited an instance when Brillstein went to bat for him after a major studio dragged its feet on paying a bonus that Lowe was owed on a feature.

“He was on the phone with the chairman of the studio, and it was not going well. Bernie finally just told him to ‘fuck off’ and hung up on him. There are a lot of managers and agents today who would tell you that they would do that, but they never would,” Lowe said. “I heard it with my own ears … and I got the check.”

In the past decade, as industry consolidation and the rise of new media have brought dramatic changes to the biz, Liebman recalled that Brillstein often counseled his colleagues not to worry too much so long as they stayed focused on their primary mission of nurturing talent.

“He’d say, ‘Kid, they’re always going to need talent,’ ” Liebman said.

Born in New York, Brillstein got his first exposure to showbiz through his uncle, Ziegfeld Follies comic Jack Pearl. After graduating from New York U., where he studied advertising, Brillstein got his start in the WMA mailroom in New York. After nine years with WMA, Brillstein moved on in 1964 to join talent rep firm Management III.

Three years later, Brillstein relocated to Los Angeles to open up a West Coast office for Management III. As the head of a fledgling operation, Brillstein knew he had no shot at signing big-name movie stars, so he made the fortuitous decision to focus on writers, producers and directors.

As those clients became successful in TV, Brillstein’s fortunes rose. By 1969, he went out on his own with the Brillstein Co. Among the first big successes he packaged was the long-running CBS and syndie hit “Hee Haw.” Brillstein famously came up with the idea for “Hee Haw” after his efforts to sell a primetime show starring the Muppets were thwarted by executives who didn’t believe a variety show starring Henson’s fuzzy creations would click with auds.

Brillstein eventually orchestrated a groundbreaking financing deal with Britain’s ITC for “The Muppet Show,” which aired in the U.S. in firstrun syndication 1976-81. Brillstein also helped Henson move into features and to strike innovative deals with HBO plus a slew of international outlets for the critically praised 1980s kidvid skein “Fraggle Rock.”

By the late 1970s, Brillstein’s personal clout in the biz increased considerably as his clients were suddenly in demand for movie roles. He began serving as an exec producer on many of his clients’ features after John Belushi expressly asked him to take on that role for 1980’s “The Blues Brothers.”

Belushi’s later descent into the drug and alcohol abuse that killed him at a
ge 33 in 1982 was devastating to Brillstein, who had tried to persuade the comic to seek treatment and temper his hard living.

In addition to working as a manager and producer, Brillstein wore a third hat in the late 1980s as an executive, serving as the head of film at the prosperous indie Lorimar. Lorimar bought his Brillstein Co. shingle when he joined the company in 1986, and it continued to operate as an autonomous management-production entity.

The $26 million sale of Brillstein Co. to Lorimar was a source of the hostility between Brillstein and Ovitz, as the former friends disputed whether Ovitz had played a part in arranging the deal and whether Brillstein owed him a fee. Brillstein felt blackballed by Ovitz during his tenure as CEO of Lorimar Film Entertainment. He also believed their enmity had an impact on the fortunes of his daughter, Leigh Brillstein, during her time as a CAA agent.

Brillstein left Lorimar in late 1988 after the parent company was acquired by Warner Bros., and returned to managing and producing full time.

By that time, the star of a manager who’d joined the Brillstein Co. a few years earlier was beginning to rise. Grey was a young man trying to make it on his own when he met Brillstein at a Lorimar corporate retreat in San Francisco, where Grey’s star client, comedian Shandling, was booked to perform. Brillstein recognized Grey’s business acumen and made him a full partner in late 1991, right after the five-year deal he’d struck with Lorimar expired.

Outside of business, friends recalled Brillstein as someone who was never far removed from a telephone, yet was devoted to his family and friends. He was a modern-art aficionado, and befitting his competitive nature, he was a major sports buff, with particular affection for the NHL’s New York Rangers. He was also a fan of UCLA’s athletic program (hence the Royce Hall location of his memorial).

Brillstein wittily recounted his rules of engagement for doing business in showbiz with another book that was part memoir and part Hollywood how-to, 2004’s “The Little Stuff Matters Most.”

Survivors include his wife of 10 years, Carrie Brillstein, five children — daughters Leigh and Kate; sons Michael Brillstein, David Koskoff and Nick Koskoff — and grandson Alden.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Barlow Respiratory Research Center in Los Angeles.

The memorial tribute to Brillstein will be held at 6 p.m. today at UCLA’s Royce Hall, with a reception to follow. Those planning to attend should enter UCLA off of Sunset Boulevard at Westwood Plaza and proceed to Parking Structure 4. Royce Drive will be closed to traffic for the memorial.

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