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H’w’d lawyer Leon Kaplan dead at 95

Stars repped included Welles, Bronson, Brynner, Kelly

Attorney Leon Kaplan, one of the top entertainment attorneys from the 1940s into the 1990s and credited with being a force in the development of the indie production industry, died Friday at his Brentwood home. He was 95.

New York native, reared in L.A. and a graduate of USC, was founding partner of the former Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berkowitz & Selvin in 1940. Among his many major clients were Arthur Krim and Bob Benjamin when they bought United Artists from Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. As son Robert Kaplan (also a lawyer) recalled, his father declined their offer to move to New York to be their top business exec and instead stayed in Hollywood, where he repped all of the major independent producers who worked for UA picture by picture.

Those producers included Mirisch, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, and others. He played an instrumental role, for example, in getting “The African Queen” made.

Stars repped included Orson Welles, Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, Ava Gardner, Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly and the list goes on.

Likewise the list of directors, producers and others is also considerable: Stanley Donen, Louis Malle, Ernest Lehman, Alan Pakula, William Wyler, Robert Aldrich and Rod Serling among many others.

As counsel to distribs, his clients were Hollywood and beyond writ large: Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, J. Arthur Rank Organization, Four Star Television, Pathe Laboratories and more.

Agencies were also among his clients, particularly the William Morris Agency and International Creative Management.

At its height, it had the largest entertainment practice of all law firms, with 72 full-time lawyers.

Today, “graduates” of the firm are scattered throughout the film industry, from other law firms to production companies, talent agency and studios.

His son said his father’s success lay in “his sense of integrity and decency and his keen insight and ability to get to the heart of any issue, no matter how complex. The fact that he was an absolutely hysterical wit was just frosting on the cake.”

The firm closed in 1980, but he remained “of counsel” to Mitchell, Silberberg and Knupp. He retired fully at the end of 1996.

At the time of his death, he had been working on his memoirs, tentatively title “When a Handshake Meant Something.”

Among his community and professional activities over the years, he was a trustee and president of the Los Angeles Copyright Society; a director for the Beverly Hills Bar Assn.; chairman of the American Bar Assn. Committee for the Motion Picture, Television and Radio industries; and a speaker at a number of symposiums held under the auspices for the USC and the UCLA law schools.

Besides his son, survivors include his wife, Eugenia; daughter-in-law Marilyn Black Kaplan; and two brothers. He was predeceased by one son.

Services were pending.

Contributions in his memory can be sent to Reed College or the Law Center of USC or charity of the giver’s choice.

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