Iconic agent Norman Brokaw was warmly remembered by more than 400 friends and family Monday in a celebration of life at the Hillcrest Country Club.
Tony Orlando emceed with heartfelt tributes delivered by Sam Haskell, Kim Novak, Marlo Thomas, Berry Gordy, Mary Hart, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis and Regis Philbin along with family members Joel Brokaw and Wendy Brokaw Kretchmer.
Brokaw, who rose from the mailroom of William Morris to become chairman-CEO in a career that spanned seven decades, died on Oct. 29 at 89.
Brokaw was remembered for his pioneering efforts to package talent for the agency in television and helped start WMA’s television division, luring major film stars to TV. Speakers at Monday’s event — which included 19,000 of Brokaw’s trademark red roses — stressed that Brokaw stood apart for his ability to give talent a sense of family.
Orlando explained that Brokaw stood by him when he had drug problems, when no one else would. He persuaded Orlando to take the lead as a replacement for Jim Dale in the Broadway play “Barnum,” which included walking a 12-foot-high tightrope. When Orlando asked if that was necessary, Brokaw replied, “They’ll know that you’re not on drugs.”
Orlando also performed the song “The Colors of My Life” as a tribute.
“Part of me wants to cry and part of me wants to celebrate,” he told the audience. “I see a joy in your faces because you were touched by this man.”
Marlo Thomas recalled that Brokaw helped turn her father Danny Thomas into a television powerhouse in the late 1950s and early 1960s by teaming him with Sheldon Leonard for shows like “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Andy Griffith,” “The Real McCoys” and her own “That Girl” — all while shunning publicity for himself.
“His credo was ‘The client is the star,” Thomas added. “He had a real innocence about him, and he was a true great friend to my father.”
Novak explained that Brokaw had a mastery of persuasion and speaking plainly, recalling that he was able to convince her return to the movies while she having an affair with a count in Europe.
“He was kind and understanding and spoke my language,” she said. “He’s still my big brother.”
Davis said that when he first met Brokaw, he was amazed by his enthusiasm for show business and the multitude of celebrity photos in his office, evoking major laughs when he said. “I asked myself ‘is this guy for real?'”
McCoo and Davis then performed their signature 1967 song “Up, Up and Away” with McCoo asserting, “That’s where he is now.”
Joel Brokaw, Norman Brokaw’s eldest son, recalled that his father was stern but loving and told a story of smashing up their mother’s car when they moved it 30 feet into the carport. “We were waiting in terror, expecting something like the God of the old testament but instead he just smiled when he got home,” he noted.
The son found out decades later while working on his father’s memoirs that he had done something similar — showing his persuasive powers by convincing the principal at his elementary school that the following day was a Jewish holiday, resulting in the entire school being given the day off.
Gordy singled out Brokaw’s ability to identify projects for clients — in his case, moving into film producing with “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross. The 1972 film, produced by Gordy’s Motown, was nominated for five Oscars.
“When I asked him about the film, he said, ‘Don’t worry — I got connections,” Gordy added. “The gratitude that’s felt for him is so heartfelt.”
Philbin and Hart credited Brokaw with being able to convincingly persuade them to expand their TV careers. “He made me feel as if I could do anything,” Philbin added.
Brokaw’s daughter Wendy Brokaw Kretchmer told the audience of her father’s devotion to restaurants, the William Morris mailroom (which was his first job in the business), stylish clothing, desserts and the Hillcrest Country Club.
“You all know that my dad would have loved to be here,” she added. “This was his home away from home.”
The tribute concluded with Vienna Doller, granddaughter of Brokaw client Donna Summer, expressing her love for Brokaw and playing a piano version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”