Norman Brokaw, Innovative, Powerful Agent at William Morris, Dies at 89

Norman Brokaw Dead
AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

William Morris agent Norman Brokaw, who rose from the mailroom of the fabled agency to chairman-CEO in a career that spanned seven decades, has died at home in Beverly Hills. He was 89.

Brokaw packaged talent for radio, paving the way for similar, highly lucrative agency efforts in television and, indeed, helped start WMA’s television division, luring major film stars to TV. His contract negotiations for actress Kim Novak led to increased profit participation deals for talent, and he guided the career of Bill Cosby. Brokaw was also a pioneer in signing sports stars to talent deals.

In 1943, the 15-year-old Brokaw was employed delivering mail for Morris at $25 a week, and he became the first employee to use this route to becoming an agent, paving the way for countless other agents and executives including Michael Ovitz, Barry Diller, Sue Mengers and David Geffen. He was the nephew of Morris agent Johnny Hyde and rose by getting to know the inner workings of the agency.

One of his duties was to travel across town to the major studios to retrieve weekly paychecks for the agency’s clients. This job not only gave him entree to the hallowed offices of top studio executives but made him privy to the salaries of both major and minor players. That information proved to be his ticket out of the mailroom. “One day, while I was serving coffee at a motion picture department meeting,” he recalled, “one of the agents was discussing a particular actor’s asking price, which he said was at $4,500 a week. Without thinking, I blurted out, ‘Four thousand.’ ”

His knowledge and attention to detail was rewarded. He was initially assigned to help out with vaudeville and radio clients as Morris’ first junior agent under Ben Holzman, who represented such talents as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor.

Brokaw developed radio programs by integrating talent repped by the agency — writers, producers, stars and directors — work that provided the foundation for TV packaging.

In the early ’50s he was commandeered by then-agency head Abe Lastfogel to help start the agency’s television division. “My first thought was, Is this a step backwards?” he once recalled. Lastfogel assured him that television was the future.

(Photo by Catherine Leroy; Courtesy of Brokaw family)

Brokaw was a pioneer in coaxing major feature film names to the medium, starting with Loretta Young and Barbara Stanwyck. He later personally guided the enormously successful career of Bill Cosby. Among his other clients were Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Clint Eastwood, Andy Griffith, Kim Novak, Danny Thomas and Hank Aaron. His contract negotiation for Novak in the mid-’50s was a turning point for actors, increasing their power to command profit participation in their films.

When the agency was looking to further expand its base of operation in the 1970s, Brokaw signed major sports figures like Mark Spitz, skater Linda Fratianne and baseballers Hank Aaron and Steve Garvey and political names such as former president Gerald Ford and his wife under the agency umbrella, developing multimedia, multimillion-dollar deals for them that went beyond the typical product endorsements. He added similar clients in former surgeon general C. Everett Koop and Israel’s Menachem Begin and negotiated international deals for President Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger.

In 1976, he broadened his duties by signing television news personalities starting with Kelly Lange. The agency later signed Hugh Downs, Jane Pauley, Leslie Stahl and Geraldo Rivera. In later years he also signed O.J. Simpson prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden to major book and television deals. More recent clients included Brooke Shields, Priscilla Presley, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Ivana Trump, Tony Randall and Mary Hart.

Brokaw was born in New York and moved to Los Angeles in his teens. By 1951 he was a senior agent in motion pictures and television and in 1974 was named a worldwide vice president of William Morris.

Taking actors with some film profile like Barbara Britton, Diane Lynn and Wanda Hendrix as well as B-movie directors who could work on tight budgets and abbreviated schedules, Brokaw helped fill the rosters of the fledgling medium of television. By packaging major names like Young and Stanwyck for TV, he helped legitimize the medium for bigscreen stars and extend their careers well into middle age. Other Brokaw clients soon followed, including Susan Hayward and Ann Sothern.

But his greatest coup was guiding Cosby’s career into an entertainment empire, starting with Brokaw’s suggestion to producer Sheldon Leonard that he sign Cosby as Robert Culp’s co-star on the series “I Spy.” That made Cosby the first African-American cast as a top star in a network television series By the mid-’80s Cosby was back and bigger than ever with “The Cosby Show,” which generated more than $1 billion in revenues.

Cosby left WME for CAA in 2012, ending his 48-year association with Brokaw. That concluded one of the longest agent-star relationships in the history of the business.

In 1989 Brokaw was elected president and chief executive officer of the agency and in 1991 he moved up to chairman and CEO.

In the wake of the 2009 merger of the William Morris Agency and Endeavor, Brokaw was named chairman emeritus of the newly christened WME. He was still actively representing his roster: Cosby, Presley, Ivana and Ivanka Trump and Novak, as well as some writers.

In August 2010 Brokaw received the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Governors Award, which salutes an individual, company or organization that has made a substantial impact and demonstrated the extraordinary use of television. He became the first agent ever to receive the honor.

“Norman’s extraordinary career achievements have helped shape the entertainment industry and its ‘best practices’ rules of business,” TV Academy chairman-CEO John Shaffner said.

Brokaw also maintained a profile as a philanthropist, serving on the board of directors of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition Brokaw was president and co-founder of the Betty Ford Cancer Center.

He was a long-standing member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Brokaw leaves behind his wife, Marguerite Longley, six children and four grandchildren.