NOT LONG AGO, I ESCORTED my daughter to a movie premiere and, waiting for the film to start, she pointed to a man who was slowly making his way up the aisle, shaking hands with virtually the entire audience.
“Which studio does he run?” she asked.
“He doesn’t run anything,” I told her. “That’s Rapke.”
“What’s a Rapke?” she demanded.
She’s hardly the first to ask that question. For more than 20 years now, the low-key, methodical Jack Rapke has been quietly working the town, shaking hands, closing deals, but never making waves.
In the post-Ovitzian agency era, when a new warrior class of young agents has been fighting for the spotlight and mythologizing themselves in the media, a reality check reveals something interesting: namely, that the lion’s share of the business still resides with an elite corps of “old pros,” of which Rapke is a vivid example.
This has been a pretty good couple of weeks for the “old pros.” Fred Specktor, who’s been an agent for three decades, signed Sylvester Stallone. Rick Nicita, who, along with his client Tom Cruise, took some big risks with “Jerry Maguire,” saw the project reap its share of Oscar nominations. And CAA by no means has a monopoly on “old pros”— one can cite Jeff Berg, Jerry Katzman, Jim Berkus and Bob Broder, to name only a few.
WHAT PLACES RAPKE in his own niche is that he doesn’t have to worry about the whims of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger. His stock in trade has been filmmakers, not stars, and his list is formidable enough to fuel a studio’s entire release schedule — Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Robert Zemeckis, Chris Columbus, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Harold Ramis, Martin Brest and Michael Bay, among them.
Whenever a top studio job opens up, Rapke’s name is always mentioned, yet Rapke steadfastly declines these offers and never even comments on them. A throwback to the era when agents were invisible, Rapke never talks to the press about anything. When I informed him I intended to write this column, he replied, “Please don’t.”
Sorry, Jack — you’ve negotiated many deals for clients to get final cut, but alas, I’m not giving you final cut on this column.
SO LET’S DEAL WITH Issue One about Rapke: Staying power. At a time when a Michael Ovitz or a Ron Meyer may decide to become a corporate “suit,” and when many agents are becoming managers, why does Rapke remain an agent?
One reason: He likes it. As Ron Howard puts it, “Rapke is passionate about the process of making movies. He likes being close to that process.” Rapke is much more an integral part of the process as an agent to top filmmakers than he’d be as a studio executive, clients point out.
Another reason: He’s very well-paid. A salary of $3 million a year can make a job seem very attractive. Rapke’s father eked out a modest living selling smoked fish, one client relates. “Jack once told me that his dad was thrilled to take home a sturgeon.” Jack could afford to corner the world sturgeon market.
AS A RESULT OF ALL THIS, Rapke, now nearing his 47th birthday, chooses to return his 200 or so phone calls a day, attend virtually every industry function and shake virtually every hand.
“Rapke is keenly aware that agenting has become downright nasty in its competitiveness,” one director client says. “He often tells me that the business has become unforgiving. The stakes are so high that everyone’s eager to pounce on any weak judgment call. There’s no room for a laugh anymore.”
In a business that seems to thrive, as Ron Howard puts it, on “duplicity and dishonesty,” Rapke represents an anachronistic return to a blunt, straight-arrow style. “Jack gives it to you straight, whether you’re ready for it or not,” says Columbus, the director who signed with Rapke when he was still at NYU film school. “He once read a script I wrote and told me simply, ‘It doesn’t work.’ Just like that. No apologies. And he was right, even though I hated to hear it.”
SOME COLLEAGUES at CAA criticize Rapke’s bluntness along with his rather aloof style. “Ask Jack a question and you always get the sense that he’s preoccupied with some cosmic thought that makes your concerns pale by comparison,” one CAA agent reports.
But colleagues understand that Rapke, lean and intense, is also a warrior — the sort of man who hears every word and measures every nuance. He can advance the most extraordinary demands on behalf of a client, yet does so in a calm, matter-of-fact style that elicits respect rather than anger.
Indeed, Rapke’s very formal manner and sing-song speech are widely parodied. “Second only to Jack Nicholson, everyone has their own Rapke impersonation,” Columbus observes.
But, again, the humor is coupled with respect. “Rapke can make you crazy,” acknowledges one of the town’s top lawyers, “but you know he’ll fight just as hard for his clients now as he did 20 years ago when he was a hungry kid. He won’t tell you he’s your friend, like other agents do. He won’t promise you favors. But you know damned well he intends to deliver for his clients and you better not get in his way.”
Hence, when my daughter asked me, “What is a Rapke?” I replied simply, “A Rapke is an old pro who happens to be an agent.”
To be sure, she looked at me skeptically and was about to reply when suddenly she, too, was shaking Rapke’s hand.
With that, her Rapke lesson concluded.