James Lassiter: All business, no limelight

Smith's Overbook partner toils behind the curtain

For those outside his inner circle, James Lassiter can be something of a mystery.

Will Smith’s partner in Overbrook Entertainment grants few interviews, and when he does, he largely avoids talking about himself.

In fact, even after more than 20 years working together, not even Smith and Lassiter quite agree about what role he plays in their partnership.

Smith has been quoted as saying that Lassiter’s tastes “are much more outside the box (than mine). He is looking to break the mold, whereas I’m looking to maximize it.”

Yet Lassiter sees it the other way around.

“I look at Will as the dreamer and I’m more the pragmatist,” Lassiter tells Variety. “So what happens is, I think Will lives outside of the box. I think our partnership works well because I’m able to corral the dreams and focus them.”

However their yin-and-yang dynamic works, one thing is clear: Lassiter and Smith strike an almost ideal balance.

Their partnership dates back to the 1980s. Early in that decade, Lassiter and Smith attended Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia but didn’t know each other then. Lassiter, who was a senior when Smith was a freshman, says with a laugh: “I was actually cool in high school, so I wouldn’t have known Will.”

He set out to get a business degree, then was on his way to becoming a lawyer when his longtime pal Jeff Townes became half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. The other half was young Will Smith.

The new group needed a manager, and Lassiter took on the job. “It was the beginning of hip-hop, and like most kids around us, we all were just kind of transformed by hip-hop,” he says. Besides, being a manager suited him. He came to the job with a businesslike attitude born of his time in school and the fact that “I wasn’t talented as a musician.”

“I think Will and I from the beginning connected on a certain level, even though Jeff was one of my closest friends, because Will and I had a desire to explore and see the world,” Lassiter says, “even if at the time it just meant going to Baltimore and D.C. and New York almost every weekend. That was fun and exciting for us.”

Those regional jaunts eventually turned into treks to the West Coast and today includes global travel. Lassiter still gets excited about such sojourns as his trip to Ghana, Mozambique and South Africa for “Ali.”

Besides that desire to explore the world, the two shared powerful ambition.

“I think everyone who’s successful consistently is ambitious,” he demurs, but adds, “I know what I want, and I’m relentless in achieving what I want.”

That drive doesn’t manifest as screaming or a hunger for publicity, though, as it does with so many in Hollywood.

“James is very private; he’s very professional,” says scribe Akiva Goldsman, who worked with Lassiter on “I, Robot” and “I Am Legend.”

“He’s slyly subversive. But you’ve got to know him awhile before you see that grin. He’s (also) a very kind person, which actually matters.”

Helmer Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend,” “Constantine”) agrees that Lassiter is a “no-drama kind of guy.”

“Akiva and Will are kind of loud,” says Lawrence. “James I always find to be my quiet comrade in the corner of the room.”

Lawrence remembers that during work on “I Am Legend” he, Smith and Goldsman would “get very caught up in things. (Lassiter) was great to pull in those moments, and that happens all the way through the process.”

But while his style is laid back, Lassiter also is known for being direct.

“He’s entirely honest,” Goldsman says, “which is the rarest quality here in Hollywood.” But he also has a warning for anyone doing business with Lassiter.

“Never try to maneuver James, because he’ll see it coming a mile away, and by the time you finish your maneuver you’ll be standing there all by yourself.”

That gets a laugh from Lassiter. “Put that in the article,” he retorts, “because I feel like every meeting I have, someone’s trying to maneuver me.

“It’s easier for me and it’s easier for the person asking if we can help each other achieve our goals if we can state it right up. State what you want right from the beginning and I can say I can help you or I can’t help you.”

Another piece of advice for anyone pitching Lassiter: Avoid the tried and true.

“People are looking to replicate something that’s been made before,” Goldsman says. “James is the opposite. What makes this object unique? Why is it unlike anything that’s come before?”

Lassiter agrees, saying, “My experience is that’s the only way we can have success,” adding, with just a touch of exasperation, “When anyone pitches me, and I’ve heard it a million times, ‘It’s the black Seinfeld’ or ‘It’s the new version of something that’s already been successful,’ I immediately shut it off. I won’t ever entertain doing ‘the new version of such-and-such.'”

It’s a riskier path than following the herd, and he concedes that “for a long time I guess we were a little afraid and you had to temper those risks. But we’re at the stage now where we want to take those risks.

“I think the first 10 years was built on creating a strategy for Will the actor to be successful. Now we want to replicate what we did with Will with all of our movies, including the movies that Will’s not in. And at the heart of that is looking at our properties from development through production through marketing as global movies. That’s what we do with Will, and that’s what we like for our company to represent.”

That means turning down movies that might only appeal to teenage boys or only work domestically. Lassiter is making deals in the Middle East and even looking ahead to the maturation of Africa as a movie market, which he expects in about a decade.

“If you get an emotion that everyone can relate to, that translates through all languages and all cultures,” he says.

Lassiter’s more private pursuits reflect his cerebral attitude. Despite his background in the music business, he says most of the music he listens to is dictated by work. It’s his reading matter, he says, that reflects his own interests.

“Right now on my desk it’s (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s) ‘Team of Rivals,’ it’s (Malcolm Gladwell’s) ‘Outliers’ and it’s (Daniel Keyes’) ‘Flowers for Algernon.’ So it’s kind of all over the place for me. Some’s for work, and some is just pleasure. For pleasure, my taste tends to be nonfiction and historical things.” And with his busy schedule, he laughs, “I have a bunch of open books around, and I go from book to book.”

Lassiter enjoys fine wine and has been known to indulge in cigars now and then, sometimes over the objections of his wife. A current passion: golf. He got hooked three years ago. He calls his game “horrible” and wishes he had more time to play. “It’s not about necessarily beating other people or being No. 1,” he says, “but being the best I can be.”

His perfect vacation, he says, is the vacation he now takes every year: Up at the crack of dawn, while his family is still sleeping, for 18 holes of golf; the rest of the day spent hanging out with his family by the water. “And then be asleep by 7,” he says. “Every day for seven days.

“That would be perfect. I’m a pretty simple guy.”