In 1995, talent manager Brad Grey started pitching the major television networks on an edgy show about a depressed middle-aged mobster. Everybody turned him down.
Using the salesmanship skills that became his calling card, Grey finally persuaded Chris Albrecht, then HBO's head of original programming, to take on "The Sopranos." That show helped usher in the current "golden age" of television and transform HBO into a cable juggernaut.
"He called me up and said, 'I'm going to bring you something really special,' " recalled Albrecht, who now runs cable network Starz. "Brad would never insist. He would just talk you into it. I never made a mistake trusting Brad's opinion or trusting Brad, period."
Grey, who died Sunday evening of cancer at age 59 at his home in Holmby Hills, was, until just three months ago, chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures, the storied Hollywood studio behind such classics as "Chinatown" and the "Godfather" films.
A shrewd and tenacious figure in a notoriously cutthroat business, Grey oversaw some hits for Paramount, such as the "Star Trek" and "Transformers" movies, but his 12-year tenure there was marked by turbulence. He was ousted from the Viacom Inc.-owned studio in February after a long period of box-office stumbles and financial losses.
Still, it was his earlier work in the television business — where as a manager and a producer he had an uncanny knack for collaborating with both the creative and corporate classes — that could come to define his legacy. He was a savvy deal-maker who helped bring shows such as "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Real Time With Bill Maher" to HBO before "prestige TV" became an industry buzzword.
"He had an intuitive sense of what would make for adventurous television," said Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media. "Those [HBO] shows redefined what comedy, drama and political satire could be on television. They were landmarks."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Grey didn't spend decades working his way up the corporate ladder to run a studio. Instead, he parlayed a successful run as a manager and head of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment into the chairmanship of Paramount. In making this jump from representing actors to running a studio, Grey followed a path similar to that of former agent Ron Meyer, who left Creative Artists Agency in 1995 to run Universal Studios.
Born in the Bronx, the youngest child of a New York garment industry salesman, Grey sold belt buckles made in his grandfather's factory when he was in high school. While in college, he got his foot in the door working as a gofer for then-concert promoter Harvey Weinstein, who would later go on to co-found Miramax Film Corp. Grey studied business and communications at State University of New York at Buffalo, trekking to Manhattan on the weekends to scope out comics at the Improv comedy club.
Once he made it to the top, Grey enjoyed a conspicuous A-list lifestyle. He bought a sprawling Holmby Hills residence where Frank Sinatra had lived in the 1940s. And in New York he kept a residence at the Carlyle Hotel, the ritzy building that was once the Manhattan home of President John F. Kennedy and more recently Viacom Chairman Emeritus Sumner Redstone. When Grey gave interviews, a choice booth at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge was a preferred locale.
Grey moved with ease in the highest echelons of Hollywood, befriending the stars who appeared in his films and TV shows. He formed the production company Plan B Entertainment with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in 2001.
In 2011, Grey married second wife Cassandra Huysentruyt, a creative consultant two decades his junior, in a wedding attended by Pitt, Jennifer Lopez and Tom Cruise. The nuptials were held at the former Sinatra abode, which Grey later tore down, building a modern residence in its place.
Grey was also known to take annual retreats to far-flung locations such as the Amazon rainforest with fellow moguls including movie and TV producer Brian Grazer.
"On the one hand, he was a very strong personality," said Grazer, who had known Grey for decades. "On the other hand, he would say, 'l'm just a kid in Hollywood with a dream.' "
Grey was hired by Tom Freston, then the CEO of parent company Viacom, to run Paramount in 2005, replacing Sherry Lansing. Though he was a novice at navigating the corporate culture of a Hollywood studio, Viacom hoped Grey would bring a fresh perspective to the movie business.
Grey developed a reputation as a survivor, leveraging close and often fruitful relationships with Hollywood heavyweights including Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. He also tapped J.J. Abrams to reboot the valuable "Star Trek" franchise.
"His genius at picking and identifying talent was unprecedented," Weinstein said.
Grey led Paramount's acquisition of DreamWorks SKG, the studio created by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. He is also credited with securing a deal to release movies from Marvel Studios. Films from DreamWorks Animation and Marvel helped round out Paramount's lineup with reliable blockbusters.
But Paramount suffered from a lack of homegrown brand-name franchises, especially compared with rivals Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures, which invested heavily in entertainment brands. Grey and his allies blamed the deficit on belt-tightening by Viacom, which earlier this decade spent billions of dollars to buy back shares.
Exacerbating matters, Paramount lost the lucrative deals with Marvel and DreamWorks, leaving a big hole in its business. Paramount stopped distributing Marvel's films in 2011 – the result of Disney having purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion two years earlier. And after clashing with Grey, Katzenberg in 2013 moved DreamWorks Animation's distribution deal to rival 20th Century Fox.
Grey was also caught in the middle of a tumultuous battle for control of Viacom last year, in which then-CEO Philippe Dauman was pitted against Redstone, the controlling shareholder. Dauman had proposed selling 49% of the studio to pay down debt and boost Viacom's flagging stock. Redstone, who controls a $40-billion media empire that encompasses Viacom and CBS Corp., adamantly opposed the plan. Grey was close to Redstone and his daughter Shari Redstone, who had been intensely critical of Dauman.
As the corporate drama swirled, Grey faced pressure to turn around the studio, which had been hobbled by a thin slate of movies and mounting flops. Paramount lost $445 million in fiscal 2016 because of a string of box-office misfires, including "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" and "Zoolander 2."
Amid the turmoil, the soft-spoken Grey was criticized for spending too much time away from Paramount's Melrose Avenue headquarters. While filmmakers appreciated the long tether he would give them, that approach sometimes backfired, as when Scorsese's long-gestating religious epic "Silence" grossed just $7 million at the domestic box office last year. Despite criticisms, many filmmakers who worked with Grey praised his hands-off approach with talent.
"He let us make movies the way we've wanted to make them," Abrams told The Times last year.
One of Grey's skills was the ability to act as a calming go-between for talent and executives whose views sometimes diverged on creative and business matters. During the "Sopranos" days, Grey would often serve as peacemaker between the volatile star, James Gandolfini, and HBO brass, Albrecht said.
"Brad was there to talk everybody off the roof," he said.
Friends and colleagues who were unaware of Grey's health problems were stunned by the news of his death. During Paramount's Golden Globes party at the Chateau Marmont in January, Grey was seen greeting guests, including the film producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
Grey is survived by his wife, Cassandra; their son Jules; his three grown children, Sam, Max and Emily, from his marriage to Jill Grey; his mother, Barbara Schumsky; his brother, Michael Grey; and his sister, Robin Grey.
There will be a small private funeral service this week, and a memorial service will be scheduled in the coming weeks, the family said.
Twitter: @rfaughnder, @danielnmiller
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.
8:10 p.m.: This article was updated with more background on Grey's career.
12:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.
10:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details of Grey's career.