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How I Made It

Associate dean Larry Auerbach brings Hollywood expertise to USC role

'You've got to have friends,' former talent agent Larry Auerbach says of making it in Hollywood

The gig: Larry Auerbach is associate dean of student industry relations at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, where he has worked since 1992. He spearheaded the Graduate Certificate in the Business of Entertainment and later the Business of Cinematic Arts program for undergrads. Before USC, he worked at the William Morris talent agency for 47 years. He turns 86 next month and holds the Larry Auerbach Endowed Chair.

Entry level: Auerbach says he didn't know what a talent agency was before he started working part time in William Morris' New York mail room while he was still in high school. Soon, the Brooklyn native was booking live acts in nightclubs and theaters. He then moved into television and launched the agency's rock music department, where he brought in artists including Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. He would later run the firm's New York movies division before moving to Los Angeles in 1975 to head the television department.

Claim to fame: Auerbach booked Elvis Presley's first network television performance in 1956. The agency had just signed on to represent Presley when a producer for Jackie Gleason's "Stage Show" called Auerbach and said he needed an act, "a country singer," for an upcoming broadcast. So Auerbach said, "I've got one," while knowing almost nothing about Presley's act.

During rehearsal, there was a problem. Producer Jack Philbin turned to Auerbach while Presley gyrated and said, "All the parts in his pants are moving." Auerbach, assigned to fix the problem, took the singer to an Army and Navy store at 53rd Street and Broadway and bought him his first athletic supporter. "He said, 'Why am I wearing this?' and I said, 'So your parts won't move,'" Auerbach recalled.

Pressure cooker: Auerbach worked with Alan Alda during the height of "M*A*S*H" and negotiated transformative TV deals for Bill Cosby, selling "The Cosby Show" to NBC. But his biggest challenge was dealing with the killer pressure of the entertainment business, which became his social life as well as his job. "I always felt I had a client's life and well-being in my hands," he said.

Move to USC: After his long stint as executive vice president at William Morris, Auerbach began contemplating his next move. He considered teaching jobs at Santa Barbara City College and UC Santa Barbara but determined he couldn't stick to a syllabus. Then came the opportunity to help USC students navigate the entertainment business. That role fit more with his career experience and abilities, he said. "It was something I've done all my life, not necessarily with 18-year-old people, but it was selling talent and advising talent."

Agent for students: The graduate Business of Entertainment and undergrad Business of Cinematic Arts programs both came from a partnership between USC's film school and the business school. Students learn from industry leaders. Graduate-level courses take place at off-campus locations, including the Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Century City and the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. Participants learn what it takes to be a producer or a talent agent, how to finance films and how to market entertainment.

Crucially, Auerbach and other educators serve as mentors, meeting one-on-one with students to discuss career moves. "I sit down and give them advice on the importance of making connections, the importance of reaching out, and how difficult it is to navigate this town alone," he said. "You've got to have friends."

Primed for success: The popular undergrad program is highly competitive, admitting only 50 freshmen a year out of 200 applicants. The young people are attracted by the prospect of breaking into an industry that is famously difficult for recent grads to enter, the school says. USC does not compile statistics on employment rates for graduates, but some have landed at places such as UTA, WME and Richard Lovett's office at CAA, according to Auerbach. A LinkedIn group of alumni includes 150 members who work in the entertainment business, including film company executives, filmmakers and TV producers. "We've populated the industry," he said.

Education: Auerbach's academic second act is somewhat ironic, given that he barely had a college career. His mother encouraged him to go to school to be an accountant, but instead he went to study journalism and try his hand at sportswriting. So he attended secretarial school in the morning, worked at William Morris in the afternoon and took the train to Brooklyn College at night. "I was exhausted," he recalls. "I don't think I even finished the semester. I don't know what I was learning, but I said I couldn't do all this."

Personal life: Auerbach has three sons and six grandchildren, and he claims to still play "a bad game of golf." His wife of 57 years, Carole, died about five years ago, and in 2012 he made a major contribution to the USC film school in her honor. As for next steps, Auerbach says he doesn't know how to retire. "I see too many of my friends retire, and they have nothing to do," he said. "I like staying busy. Right now I'm too busy, but it's OK."

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

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