Mogul’s talent for handling talent

Guest column

Juggling clients is an important skill for any agent, but Lew Wasserman’s list required extra dexterity as the 1960s began, as shown in this excerpt from Kathleen Sharp’s “Mr. And Mrs. Hollywood: Edie & Lew Wasserman and their Entertainment Empire,” published by Carroll & Graf.

MCA’s clients were becoming especially needy. Marlon Brando called his agent, Jay Kanter, every day to check in. Judy Garland was falling down drunk before performances. Marilyn Monroe was showing up at the office in shabby dresses, with hair like straw.

“She looked like she was homeless,” said MCA secretary Myrle Wages. Tony Curtis agreed: “Everybody in town thought I was giving a bum rap to Marilyn, but she was in trouble and I knew it.”

The actress struggled with drugs and alcohol, yet her agents seemed unable to help. “Marilyn only did (“Some Like It Hot”) because she needed money to help her husband (Arthur Miller) with his legal bills from HUAC,” said Curtis.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Miller had appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 — without his MCA agent. He had admitted attending a few political meetings, but denied that he was a Communist. Congress cited him for contempt, forcing Miller and Monroe to spend money clearing his name.

MCA had recently sold a Miller screenplay for “The Misfits,” which would feature Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, and Monroe.

But Monroe was showing up late, stalling production, and she was caught with her paramour and previous costar, Yves Montand, while her husband worked on the set.

The project was so messy that Robert Mitchum warned director John Huston, “You’re going to kill Gable with this film. I saw him the other day at lunch, and he had the brandy tremors.”

Two weeks after production wrapped, the 59-year-old Gable died of a massive heart attack. Edie and Lew grieved at his funeral, and, over the next 18 months, they’d mourn the deaths of other MCA clients — Jeff Chandler, Gary Cooper, and the troubled Monroe as well.

Wasserman was now 48 years old and tired of the business. He’d been an agent for 25 years — in Hollywood for 21 of those years — and through it all he had kept a low profile.

This was partly because his boss, Jules Stein, had demanded it and partly because he knew what publicity consisted of. “It’s primarily ego,” he told me — whether star’s ego, a mogul’s ego, or even an agent’s ego: “It’s ego on the part of everyone involved.” He’d become the ego wrangler par excellence, the unrivaled handler of legends and names. “You either know how to handle stars or you don’t,” he explained. Wasserman had the knack.

He had worked hard to perfect his touch, using an iron fist, kid gloves, or sleights of hand, depending on what was needed. How had he represented so many fragile talents for so long? “With care,” he answered wearily. Patient, loving care.

So, too, with MCA. He had grown the agency by cajoling and pushing his agents away from their early reliance on band-booking fees. Now he had movie stars, scriptwriters, and screen directors on his roster. He worked with unions, producers, and networks, and owned TV shows, reruns, and old movies. The only thing in town he didn’t have was a major film studio.

Wasserman knew that Posner was inquiring about MCA and the studios. “If you’re talking about links, what about the one between Universal and MCA?” one actor teased Posner. MCA’s purchase of the land at Universal Studios was an obvious connection. Before the sale, Milton Rackmil had cut its slate to 12 films.

Some 100 MCA actors were under contract at Universal, and after MCA’s packages. There was Doris Day and Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk”; Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in “Operation Petticoat”; Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Tony Curtis in “Spartacus”; Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Galvin, and Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”; Henry Koster, director of “Flower Drum Song”; Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Now Wasserman was drawing plans to develop the 400-acre lot.

In fact, the ties between MCA and Universal went back before the real estate sale, to a series of deals in the 1950s that Wasserman had negotiated for his clients. In 1950, he and Jimmy Stewart waived the actor’s $200,000 salary in return for half the potential profits on first Universal film “Winchester ’73.” Stewart worked for nothing; the film became a hit and went on to net $2 million — half of which belonged to Stewart.

“Everyone called (studio chief Leo) Spitz and Lew Wasserman geniuses,” said former Universal production exec Ed Muhl. Wasserman had the confidence that his client would make a hit, and Spitz jumped at the chance to sign a star without paying cash up front. But that deal also included a contract for a Universal picture, “Harvey,” one of Stewart’s favorite films. He happily waived his salary to star in the movie, but this time, it flopped. Wasserman had won half of his two-part gamble, and Universal had gotten one hit and one free star performance.

Whenever MCA needed to park a fading star, Universal obliged. For example, when MCA client Ronald Reagan couldn’t get a studio contract elsewhere, Universal gave him a five-picture deal in 1950 at half his previous salary.

When one of MCA’s grande dames wanted a job, Universal accommodated–as it did with Joan Crawford in “Female on the Beach” and June Allyson “A Stranger in My Arms.” It got so that Universal was called the agents’ studio, run by Jules Stein, rather than by Milton Rackmil.