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Lawrence Barnett, former MCA president, dies at 98

Also served as executive at Chris-Craft, United Television

Lawrence Barnett, president of the behemoth MCA talent agency right before its dissolution in the early ’60s as part of a long career in the entertainment industry, died June 11. He was 98.

After exiting MCA in 1963, where had served for 27 years, Barnett went on to top positions at Chris-Craft Industries, where he was executive vice-president and director, and United Television, where he was vice chairman. He also did stints as an executive or on the board of ICM forerunner General Artists Corp. and Warner Communications.

MCA founder Jules Stein hired Barnett in 1936, sending him to the agency’s West Coast offices. Barnett served as an agent for many big bands, including those of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo and Harry James, and handled the careers of singers Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne and Dinah Shore. MCA expanded into representing film stars on its path to becoming the world’s most powerful talent agency, and Barnett was soon repping the likes of Jack Benny, George Burns, Judy Garland, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Ronald Reagan and Marlon Brando. He counseled Brando on his acting career and helped Reagan through his divorce from Jane Wyman.

In 1948, Barnett was one of the original eight employees to whom Stein sold stock in MCA. The agency’s growth culminated in its 1962 acquisition of Universal Pictures, but the Justice Dept. forced MCA to dissolve its agency business as a result.

Barnett was born and raised in Orrville, Ohio. He worked his way through Ohio State U. as the leader of and booker for the Larry Barnett Orchestra, but fell ill and did not graduate (he completed his degrees decades later in 1988).

He devoted considerable attention to philanthropy, focusing on causes including the ALS Assn., devoted to seeking a cure for Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

In 1993, Barnett established the Ohio State U. Arts Administration Program, endowing numerous graduate fellowships, and later, the Public Policy and the Arts Symposium. The program also brings notable members of the entertainment industry to Ohio State to speak about their experiences; the first two speakers were Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier, both former Barnett clients.

Barnett’s wife, Isabel Bigley, a Tony winner for her role in the original Broadway production of “Guys and Dolls,” died in 2006. He is survived six children; 16 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Donations may be made to the ALS Assn.