Veteran Talent Manager George Shapiro Looks Back on Early Career

george shapiro First Time in Variety
Illustration: Michael Hoeweler

Talent manager George Shapiro helped put Jerry Seinfeld and Andy Kaufman on the map. But that’s only a sliver of his showbiz accomplishments, which include packaging such TV fare as “The Steve Allen Show,” “That Girl,” “Gomer Pyle, USMC” and specials for Carol Channing, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. These days, Shapiro, 86, is busier than ever, serving as the producer of the Seinfeld Netflix series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” and serving as manager to his 96-year-old uncle, Carl Reiner; he was also executive producer on last year’s HBO documentary about people over 90, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” A decade after launching his career as a William Morris Agency mail clerk in New York in 1955, Shapiro received his first mention in Variety on April 22, 1965, an item in Army Archerd’s column, saying “Melody and George Shapiro (Wm. Morrisman) were expecting a baby.

Do you remember the Army Archerd mention?

It was a thrill — especially since I’d known about Variety ever since I could remember. It was the most important newspaper in the history of show business and it still is.

Did Carl Reiner have anything to do with your becoming an agent?

Carl became my uncle when I was 12 years old. Years later, when he was writing for “Your Show of Shows,” I used to go to the studio to watch. But I’d already had the idea of being an agent from the summers I spent at Tamiment resort in the Poconos during college. After I got out of the Army, he had his agent at William Morris get me an interview with the head of the mailroom, and that’s how I got the job.

You became a rising TV packager at William Morris. When did you meet Elvis Presley?

I met Elvis in New York during his first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956. I was just out of the mailroom and still a very junior agent. That night, they held a press conference right before he went on. I went up to him and said, “Elvis, they’re ready for you.” He said, “Yes sir. I’ll be right there, sir.” I was 24 and he was 22, and I said, “Sir! I’m from the Bronx. You’re the first person in the world to call me sir.” He was the sweetest guy. To this day, I cherish the fact that Elvis Presley was the first person ever to call me sir.

The ’60s were heady times to be an agent in Hollywood. Was there a rivalry between WMA’s New York and L.A. offices?

When I first came out here in 1961, there were 16 variety shows on the air. I worked on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and I sold talent to “The Carol Burnett Show,” plus there were others like Danny Kaye, Red Skelton and “The Hollywood Palace.” You didn’t even think about taking a vacation. We also had a feeling of teamwork between the L.A. and New York offices that doesn’t exist anymore.

One of your first big discoveries was Jim Nabors.

When I met him, Jim was working as an assistant film cutter at NBC. He wasn’t working a lot as a performer, but he did occasionally work at The Horn in Santa Monica, where he’d talk in this hillbilly accent and say, “I’d like to sing a song for you.” Then he’d sing “Pagliacci” like an opera star. It was the craziest thing. This was around the same time when they were casting for Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show.” He was only with Andy Griffith for a year before he did “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” which was a hit right out of the box, and we booked him all over the world after that.

Who was the most difficult client?

Buddy Hackett made me furious a couple of times. One of my first assignments as an agent was booking “The Patrice Munsel Show” for ABC. She was a famous opera singer and we’d booked Buddy. When he got to the studio, he said, “There’s no phone in my dressing room and I’m not going to do the show without one.” So I got one installed, only to have him rip it out of the wall. He didn’t care. Then at a place called the Factory, which was a popular disco, he kept insulting William Morris. We almost went at it while we were shooting pool. I was ready to hit him with a cue stick even though I would have lost my job and probably gone to jail. He looked at me and said, “Wow, you’ve got guts, young man.” The power of comedy took over; not long after this, Buddy was performing on a double bill with singer John Gary in Las Vegas. I’d gone out to see them, and Buddy made me laugh so hard that I literally fell out of my chair and completely forgot about what happened before.

Why did you go out on your own to form Shapiro/West Associates in 1973?

My motivation was not only my interest in management, but also my love for production of television and motion pictures following the trail blazed by my friend Bernie Brillstein. I was also intrigued with the idea of working with fewer people as a manager — people you really like and whose talent you worship — as opposed to working with 250 people, where there’s a fair share of a-holes in that group. My partner Howard West and I shook on it that we were going to work with people with good hearts who were really talented. One of the first projects we sold was an animated “The 2,000 Year Old Man” to Fred Silverman who was the head of CBS at the time.

Will you ever retire?

Never. I’m having the best time of my life right now, and the best is yet to come.