RIP Tommy Culla: One Last Time, With Feeling

Nobody will win a Pulitzer for the little investigative project I’ve been working on recently, but I’m still grateful to everyone who participated.

A few weeks ago I posted on this blog about the death of Tommy Culla, a wildly colorful figure who worked in PR in New York and London during the “Mad Men” era, who had been peppering me with calls over the last decade. Although he seemed to know everyone, I was having a hard time getting details about his death, and couldn’t publish a formal obituary — which I felt like I owed him, and was finally able to do — without them.

Fortunately, the post brought out remembrances from all over: Gretchen Wayne, the daughter-in-law of John Wayne, who had been a longtime friend, and who graciously handled the arrangements; actor Barry Newman, who had known Culla since the late ’50s, and described him as “a true original;” “Hunter”-and-former NFL star Fred Dryer, who met Culla during an ill-fated stint Tommy spent as a publicist for then-Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, speaking warmly of his longtime pal (who stood more than a foot shorter) and saying, “The real fun thing was seeing him fight against modernity:” former boss Sheldon Roskin, of Solters/Roskin/Friedman, who was urged to hire Tommy by Tony Curtis in the early 1960s, and told tales of Tommy squiring around the likes of Curtis, Frank Sinatra and Roger Moore, saying, “He made it his business to know everybody.”

Several people offered overlapping anecdotes, perhaps the funniest being how Tommy was so obsessed with keeping his pants neatly pressed, when riding in a cab he would prop himself up so his butt never actually touched the seat.

The list could go on, and on — including many of the reporters and journalists Tommy knew, among them my colleague Steven Gaydos; former Hollywood Reporter columnist Martin Grove, who filled in valuable background; and New York Times reporter (and fellow Los Angeles Times survivor) Michael Cieply, who fielded at least as many calls from Tommy as I did. Tommy didn’t have kind words for a lot of people, but the ones he respected, such as Cieply, could do no wrong in his eyes.

I even heard from a member of the medical team who cared for Tommy in his final days, and spoke of what a memorable and “fascinating” character he was.

As Dryer noted, Tommy didn’t have a clue about the Internet; he banged out notes on an old Remington typewriter, and would rip out pages from Variety, circle passages I had written that he liked and mail them to me. Frankly, he wouldn’t have believed his own obituary unless he saw it in print. “The town’s dead,” Tommy used to complain regularly, and while there was hyperbole in that (and indeed, a lot of what he said), I have to say “the town” feels deader without him.

It was a lot of time to produce what amounts to such a small token of appreciation, but honestly, I’ll sleep better knowing the “Rosebud” aspects of this riddle have been solved, and that Tommy had his moment in one of those old rags he scoured so ravenously.

And when I kick, I hope some young (or at least younger) bastard does the same for me.


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