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Jerry Weintraub Was at His Best as a Bold Supporter of Talent

“No one could have invented Jerry Weintraub except Jerry Weintraub.”

That was Weintraub’s self-assessment, delivered in 2010 as he was promoting his memoir, and I admired the line for its candor as well as its narcissism. Weintraub was, in fact, a master of self-invention, and he managed to keep reinventing himself throughout his life, often successfully, often disastrously. The successes were wonderful to behold; the failures were disturbing to those who invested in him.

The curtain came down on his career last week in Santa Barbara at age 77.

Weintraub once told me that every talented person in Hollywood wanted to do something he’s not good at — hence actors wanted to direct, directors to write, etc. Weintraub embodied this precept. He dreamed of being able to write the checks, not just hustle the big ideas. And he was bad at it.

As a promoter, and self-promoter, he helped propel the careers of important performers ranging from John Denver to Elvis to Led Zeppelin. He understood the concert business and excelled as a manager.

As a producer, Weintraub’s formidable passions helped levitate a range of films from “Nashville” to “The Karate Kid” to “Oh, God!” to the rebooted “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise. Weintraub’s carefully cultivated relationship with HBO resulted in the freewheeling Liberace profile “Behind the Candelabra,” the current series “The Brink” and even a flattering self profile, “His Way.”

Filmmakers who worked with Weintraub admired his fierce support even when their films encountered adversity. When William Friedkin delivered the brilliant but brutal “Cruising,” Lorimar Films backed away in the face of protests, and the then-ratings guru, Richard Heffner, dissolved in panic. Weintraub fought for an R rating and for a UA release. “Weintraub was Monroe Stahr from Fitzgerald’s ‘Last Tycoon,’” reflects Friedkin. “He totally understood the mechanisms of music and film.”

Weintraub, however, always imagined himself as the boss, not just the promoter, and his two adventures as a studio czar were disastrous. In the mid-1980s, he persuaded Kirk Kerkorian to allot $500 million to reignite the legendary United Artists label, promising to bring in the greatest talents not only to shoot the films, but also to help re-edit them. When Weintraub had Billy Wilder view his slate of pictures, however, the filmmaker told him, “Your films are a pile of s—, and all I can do is make them into a smaller pile, but they will still be s—.” Weintraub was irate over this assessment, as Wilder later told me.

Since I also was brought in as a consultant during that period, I often witnessed Weintraub’s frustration. He would stride around his lavish offices, often carrying a bottle of vodka, shouting at filmmakers and editors, and demanding better results. It didn’t happen. After several months, Kerkorian fired his studio boss, complaining publicly that Weintraub was talented at spending money, but not at making movies.

Stung, Weintraub started his own company, the Weintraub Entertainment Group, with $461 million in financing and a thunder of publicity. Again the offices were lavish, the announcements elaborate but the product paltry — “Troop Beverly Hills,” “My Stepmother Is an Alien,” etc. This enterprise, too, ended in bankruptcy — an episode barely mentioned in his memoir, titled “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead.”

Alas, Weintraub has now stopped talking. When he talked, he was great fun to listen to. When he gave orders and wrote checks, the fun stopped and the party ended.

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