Talent Managers Assn. lifetime achievement honoree Larry Thompson has worn a plethora of different hats over a four-decade career in show business. Though best known as a talent manager, with longterm clients including William Shatner, Joan Rivers and Drew Barrymore — not to mention Richard Pryor, Merle Haggard, Tatum O’Neal, Jason Bateman, Shannon Doherty and hundreds of others — he’s also served stints as a TV and film producer, an author, an entertainment attorney, a record label counsel, and a motivational speaker.
There is one title he thoroughly rejects: brand manager.
“Managers were originally called personal managers,” Thompson relates. “Then they were just managers. Then Madison Ave. came along with brands, and suddenly we started calling ourselves brand managers, like the talent was a brand. While I understand that — if anyone understands that it should be me, since Shatner and Rivers certainly are brands — I try not to fall into the trap of thinking of myself as one. I like to use the phrase that I’m a curator of iconic personas. I monitor them, manage them, help identify them and monetize them. But they’re human beings, they’re not a Nike t-shirt or a cereal box.”
This attitude is part and parcel with Thompson’s management philosophy, in which he emphasizes personal relationships and a holistic, decades-long approach to career-making. Speaking of individual talent as simply “the ante in the poker game,” he stresses that iconic careers can only be maintained through drive and strategic thinking, with management that is sensitive to the ebb and flow of the business and the volatility of the creative life.
“If you’re representing Coca-Cola, that is a product and a formula that doesn’t change. It’s going to taste the same whether you’re selling it in India or Abu Dhabi or La Cienega — you grow your business by growing your market. But with talent, you can be hot on a series, and then you’re off the air and no one knows where you are for two or three years. You get caught in the airport staggering after you’ve been drinking, boom, you’re busted, and suddenly your brand is tarnished. These stars are people, and they deserve some slack. If you sell them as a brand, you’re assuming nothing bad is ever going to happen to them and nothing is going to change, and you make yourself vulnerable to being knocked down.”
If anyone should understand the inevitability of human frailties, it’s a former lawyer, and it was as a lawyer that Thompson was initially pulled into management. After a stint at Capitol Records — where he managed the legal entanglements of the Beatles’ breakup — Thompson founded the firm Thompson, Shankman, Bond and Moss in the 1970s, which represented a variety of entertainment clients.
As time went by, Thompson more and more found himself recommending agents, publicists and career ideas to his clients, and decided to devote himself to management full-time. Jim Nabors was his first client.
One of his longest-running relationships, and one that perhaps best illustrates his approach as a manager, is his association with Shatner. When Thompson entered into a partnership with the actor, he was frustrated by his typecasting as Capt. Kirk on “Star Trek.” With Thompson at the helm, Shatner found another recognizable role on “T.J. Hooker,” and memorably appeared as a guest star on “Saturday Night Live” in 1986. Playing himself in a sketch, Shatner finds himself beset by Trekkies, driven so mad by their esoteric questions that he finally explodes: “Get a life! It’s just a TV show!”
“The fact that he suddenly made fun of himself put him on the inside of the joke, and that led to him being a bit more acceptable, and his persona having more traction,” Thompson says, opining that if Shatner had instead angrily insisted upon his serious thespian credentials, it only would have buried him further into Kirkdom. “I always say that this is way too important to take so seriously. You can’t be so precious or protective about what you do.”
It’s that far-reaching and highly strategic approach that Thompson argues distinguishes managers from a star’s coterie of other assistants and handlers. Comparing an agent to a contractor, for example, Thompson likens the manager’s role to that of an architect.
“Actors need jobs, which agents can get them, but stars need career moves,” he says. “And at that level, management is very important, because it’s a sophisticated thing. You need to have mutual interest in each other, because you have a pretty intimate sort of relationship — this artist is sharing and asking you to guide the source of their livelihood.”
Reflecting his lifetime forging these sorts of relationships, Thompson’s production projects have tended to center on celebrity biography, including such biopics as “Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter,” “And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story” as well as this year’s social media favorite “Liz and Dick.” He also served as executive producer for a handful of “Iron Chef America” specials, and has a project on the life of Oprah Winfrey in development.
Yet he’s fully aware that his career is one lived primarily out of the limelight.
“As a manager, I spent a lifetime making sure my clients hit the spotlight, and not me,” Thompson says. “If I had a dollar for every time a photographer told me, ‘could you get out of the shot…’ You get to a point where you feel like people look right through you. There are times when you feel unappreciated, like no one really notices what you do.
“That’s why I was genuinely stunned when I got the phone call about this award,” he continues. “It made me very proud to be a manager. When I accept the award, I want to tell managers who may have days where they feel the way I do, not to feel that way. It’s an honorable, noble job.”
What: TMA Heller Awards
When: 7 p.m., Sept. 19
Where: Beverly Hilton
The Talent Managers Assn.’s annual Seymour Heller Awards honor excellence in management. They’re named for Seymour Heller, a personal management pioneer and one of the founders in 1954 of TMA’s predecessor, the National Conference of Personal Managers. The first Heller Awards were presented in 2009. This year’s recipients:
2013 Heller Award Lifetime Achievement in Talent Management
2013 Pat McQueeney Award
2013 Heller Impact Award
2013 Heller Luminous Award
2013 TMA Manager of the Year