Percentery pioneer dies

Gersh founded 2nd oldest H'w'd agency, repped Bogart

This article was updated at 8:55 p.m.

Phil Gersh, founder of the Gersh Agency, died Monday afternoon in his Beverly Hills home of natural causes. He was 92.

Gersh was still working in the Beverly Hills offices of the tenpercentery until March, with sons Robert and David and partner Leslie Siebert. The 55-year-old agency is the second-oldest Hollywood agency, after William Morris.

He was born in New York, where his immigrant parents ran a delicatessen. Gersh came to Los Angeles to attend UCLA in the early 1930s. After graduation, he went to work in the mailroom of his brother-in-law Sam Jaffe’s agency for $15 a week. After signing UCLA fraternity brother and director Mark Robson, Gersh met and signed other RKO directors including Robert Wise, Richard Fleischer and Joseph Losey.

He was drafted into the Army in 1942, fighting overseas in the tank destroyer battalion, before returning to Hollywood in 1945, where he replaced Ray Stark at the rival Famous Artists Agency, eventually persuading owner Charles Feldman to buy out the Jaffe Agency partners and change the name to the Phil Gersh Agency in 1949.

In his early agenting days he worked with directors Raoul Walsh and Richard Fleischer, as well as writers Ernest Lehman, Budd Schulberg, Wendell Mayes, Julius J. Epstein and Gordon Willis. Gersh eventually expanded his client roster to include actors Karl Malden, Fredric March, Lee J. Cobb, June Allyson, William Holden, Eddie Albert and Lloyd Bridges.

In addition to repping David Niven, Mary Astor and James Mason, Gersh handled Humphrey Bogart’s career in the 1950s. He helped Bogart land classic roles in “The African Queen” and “Sabrina,” often interceding to smooth the way between the volatile star and his directors.

Gersh also persuaded Arthur Hiller to helm “Love Story” after several directors turned it down. Gersh had to convince Hiller of the merits of receiving a smaller-than-usual salary against a larger backend, and Hiller eventually saw several million in payouts on the romance, Gersh told LA411 in an interview.

The Gersh Agency numbers about 50 employees in L.A. and New York.

“He worked in this business for more than 60 years and had more passion than I ever saw in anyone,” said son David. “I’ve never seen anyone love his clients more than he did. He always looked forward, and he was fiercely independent. He was also wonderful about bringing my brother and me into the business and putting himself and his ego aside.

“My father was a man of amazing integrity and great character,” he added. “He was a gentle man, but he was really good at what he did.”

A board member of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, Gersh was a benefactor and founder of the Los Angeles Music Center and was also instrumental in the growth of the Museum of Contemporary Art-Los Angeles.

Gersh and his wife of 59 years, Beatrice, were respected art collectors and donated part of their collection to MOCA in 1989. The collection includes works by Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein.

In addition to his wife and sons, Gersh is survived by five grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held 11 a.m. Thursday at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Donations can be made to Motion Picture Television Fund and/or MOCA-LA.