Friends, colleagues recall Ed Limato

Friends and colleagues fondly recalled longtime agent Ed Limato during the weekend as a master negotiator with a keen eye for young talent who became the personification of an increasingly rare breed — the star-maker agent who manages to maintain loyal and long associations with an impressive roster of clients.

In a profession where burnout and push-outs reign, Limato, who died Saturday at his Beverly Hills home at the age of 73, thrived over a 40-plus year career while his brethren rarely lasted past their 40s. The Mount Vernon, N.Y., native, also known for his sartorial style and his lavish parties, repped an A-list of clients — including Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson and Steve Martin, outlasted such one-time competitors as Mike Ovitz and watched others like Ron Meyer segue to the executive suites.

“He was going full tilt until the end and was as active and effective and productive as anyone,” said WME co-CEO Patrick Whitesell, who worked with Limato for little more than a year, but knew him for the better part of two decades. He described the agent as having “pushed the limits of age” like a professional athlete.

“There was no sense of let-up,” he said. “Even though he was in his 70s, he still relished the job. That is truly unique in Hollywood.”

With an agenting style that ran the gamut from roaring lion to reserved lamb — depending on the situation — Limato earned the nickname the “Velvet Hammer.” He was beloved by his clients as well as former assistants, who were all given Rolexes when they graduated to agents.

Despite falling ill several months ago, he worked in the office and attended staff meetings until eight weeks ago before succumbing to lung disease. Limato, who made his last public appearance in March at the American Cinematheque Annual Gala honoring Matt Damon, was in line for a lung transplant at the time of his death. Funeral services will be private, although a public memorial in Los Angeles is being planned.

“I knew and worked with Ed for nearly 30 years, both on his side of the table and across it,” said 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. “He was a giant. Mercurial and occasionally obstinate, but always passionate, honest, encouraging, loyal and brilliant. I learned a tremendous amount from him. He was both an original and a class act. I will miss him greatly, and the movie business will not see the likes of him again soon.”

Former studio chief Sherry Lansing described Limato as “not just a brilliant agent, he had such compassion.” Noting his list of top thesps, she added, “When I think about his client list, and that no one ever left him, it’s mind-blowing.”

Richard Gere is a living example of that loyalty. Gere, who was spotted by Limato 40 years ago and turned into a bigscreen star, called his agent “the best of the best.”

“There will never be anyone like him,” Gere said. “The mold has been broken. He was probably the most respected agent of our time who loved his clients dearly and would do anything for them.”

Martin also praised his rep, noting that he “not only represented important actors in Hollywood, but also represented class and kindness.”

Washington invoked a familiar theme with clients of Limato: that of family. “Ed was more than an agent,” he said. He was like a father to me and a dear friend to me and my entire family.”

For a 1998 Variety profile, Limato told Variety’s Peter Bart that even though the game was changing, he was more than game. “Look, I know the business has gotten mean,” he said at the time. “There’s no limit to what a rival will do to steal your clients. But I still love what I do. It’s all I know how to do. It’s me.”

Bart described Limato as “a throwback to the agent-as-friend, who becomes part of his clients’ lives as well as their careers.” Even then, the hard-charging agent was battling rumors placed by competitors that he was ill or on the verge of retiring.

In a town of strong personalities, Limato was unforgettable thanks to his attention to detail, both professionally and personally. A former assistant recalled serving the agent daily in his office with china, silverware and proper salt and pepper shakers.

Limato’s breadth of cinematic knowledge was professorial. He demanded that his underlings share his love for Hollywood classics, hosting weekly screenings at his home, where he lived with his 99-year-old mother, Angelina.

Limato started in the biz in 1967 at the Ashley Famous Agency, one of ICM’s predecessor agencies. He stayed with ICM until 1978 when he moved to WMA for his first stint with the agency.

He returned to ICM in 1986 and rose to become operating head of the agency. His acrimonious departure in 2007 back to WMA was spurred by ICM’s merger with Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann, which resulted in a new management regime taking much of the reins. Though Limato’s defection caused irreparable damage to his relationship with ICM’s Jeff Berg, the agency topper was one of the first to weigh in on the passing of his former colleague, whom he hailed for leaving a “remarkable impact on the entertainment business. He dedicated his life to his clients and guided the careers of many important artists in our industry.”

Over the years, Limato was known for his skill in spotting promising young talent and grooming them for stardom, and for being a staunch advocate for talent he believed in. Through his long run in the biz, he helped train scores of young agents and assistants who went on to become prominent industry execs.

But it was Limato’s parties that elevated the agent’s public profile beyond Hollywood — particularly his lavish $1 million party on the Friday before the Oscars where he lorded over a starry assembly barefoot in an effort to put his guests at ease. He kept traffic and conversation flowing at his elegant gatherings by shepherding guests from one room to the next: cocktails in the billiards room, dinner on the patio, dessert in the parlor, after-dinner drinks in the screening room.

Limato’s estate, known as “Heather House,” was rich with Old Hollywood glamour. Built in 1936 by Hollywood stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, it was later owned by George Raft. His living room featured exquisitely framed headshots of every actor he ever represented — a gallery that included Marlon Brando, Richard Gere, Billy Crystal, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Pfeiffer, Liam Neeson and Matthew McConaughey.

Though Limato had few interests outside Hollywood — he was known to read 12-15 scripts over the weekend — he enjoyed a career before landing in L.A.

He worked as a disc jockey in Panama City, Fla., and Alexandria, La., before landing a gig as Franco Zeffirelli’s assistant on the set of “The Taming of the Shrew” in Rome. That job paved the way for a mailroom job at the Ashley Famous Agency. He modeled his career after agent-producer Leland Hayward, who died in 1971.

During his four decades as a talent rep, his client list read like a “Who’s Who” of modern Hollywood: Antonio Banderas, Frank Langella, David Selby, Matthew Fox, Derek Luke, Michael Biehn, Tom Schanley, Sam Neill, Valeria Golino, Doris Roberts and Nate Parker. He also guided the careers of Ava Gardner, Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Goldie Hawn, Dennis Quaid, Madonna, Nicolas Cage, Robert Downey Jr., Diana Ross, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Lopez, Russell Crowe, Thomas Jane, Bette Midler and Harvey Keitel.

Even while facing debilitating illness, he was instrumental in helping WME land Claire Danes as a client just six months ago.

Limato is survived by his mother, a brother and a sister. Donations may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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