While veteran publicist Dick Guttman was learning his craft under the tutelage of Warren Cowan at Rogers & Cowan, he asked his mentor what was the cardinal rule of publicity.
"Get the hell out of the shot," recalled Guttman. "What he meant was, I would rather not have people know that my clients have a press agent. Somebody said to me once, 'Press agents don't sell publicity, they manage it.'"
Guttman must have learned his craft well because at 82 he's going strong in the publicity racket, bringing his old-school know-how to a vastly changed media world. He's had his own company, Guttman Associates, for more than 23 years. (Previously, he had teamed with Jerry Pam in the firm Guttman & Pam.) He handles such talent as Barbra Streisand, Jay Leno, Jane Seymour and Jacqueline Bisset.
Guttman, who did the Oscars campaigns for such distinguished films as 1959's "Room at the Top," 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde" and 1974's "The Conversation," continues to be a consultant on Oscars campaigns.
Last year, he self-published his 600-plus-page autobiography, "Starflacker: Inside the Golden Age of Hollywood," which is filled with delicious stories about Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Warren Beatty, Cary Grant, James Mason and Marilyn Monroe just to name a few.
"I've always loved the profession because it has dignity," said the gregarious Guttman in the conference room of his Beverly Hills office in a vintage building on Beverly Drive. "You have a task, and you accomplish it in a skilled way. To me that's dignity."
"Dignity" and "publicity" are two words rarely heard in the same sentence. Guttman said people have the wrong impression of publicity because of "Sweet Smell of Success," the 1957 noir drama starring Tony Curtis as an ambitious press agent and Burt Lancaster as a ruthlessly powerful Broadway columnist.
"It's a great movie, but it misrepresents publicity badly," said Guttman. "It is almost a paranoid hate of it because [co-screenwriter] Ernest Lehman was [involved in publicity] in New York. I can understand he hated what he did, but he stigmatized the whole profession."
Guttman fell into the career by accident when he began an office boy at age 19 at Rogers & Cowan while attending UCLA. The budding journalist had worked at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner as a teenager in a program in which students would write the high school sports page on Saturdays.
But he didn't have a clue what Rogers & Cowan did or even what publicity was, then "one day I made a delivery and Kirk Douglas answered the door. So I started reading the memos I was delivering."
Guttman soon discovered he had found his calling. "I was a journalist," he said. "And I knew a lot about motion pictures. They were my two passions."
When he began at the company — Henry Rogers was Cowan's partner in the firm — Rogers and Cowan had "more stars than MGM, who had more stars than there are in the heavens," recalled Guttman. "This was 1954-55, and it was just when the contract system was ending. Everybody was celebrating this — their new freedom and they were going to make their own films. Little did they know it was the end of the golden age."
There were plenty of opportunities then to get clients mentioned in the press. "What is now a trickle was a raging river," said Guttman. "There were six papers in L.A. and 16 columns."
Publicists back then would often make up stories about their clients. "They were not harmful stories," noted Guttman, just fibs designed to keep their clients in the public eye.
He recalled the time Maximilian Schell decided to leave Hollywood and do theater in Germany and Vienna after he won the lead actor Oscar for 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg."
That wasn't the typical behavior of a red-hot Oscar winner.
"You are supposed to be at the Brown Derby or the Polo Lounge and getting these star-making movies," Guttman said.
So Guttman came up with a tale to keep Schell in the press. "I put out this story that Vienna is agog with the beautiful woman who is behind the curtains of the royal box and that Max receives a dozen roses at every performance. And then it turns out, she's a countess and we don't know if the countess is married to the count."
Schell, said Guttman, would complain about the stories. "I said, 'Your name is in the paper. It always says 'Oscar winner.'"
A few years later, Schell gave a press conference at Trader Vic's for the 1969 film "Krakatoa, East of Java."
"He's talking about the film and [the press] said, 'Tell us about the countess. Is that still hot and heavy?' He says I am going to tell you something that will make you sad. It will make my friend Dick Guttman sad because he is so close to her. The countess has passed away."