Paul Bloch kept a lot of bright and shiny objects in orbit: Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and, more recently, Academy Award-winner Brie Larson.
For 58 years, the legendary press agent was the gatekeeper to some of Hollywood’s biggest careers.
But never mind that for a moment. In the eyes of the world’s toughest industry, it was how Bloch handled his clients that really counted, with an uncommon grace and unwavering decency, putting friendships first and never betraying his storied stable of major stars that also included the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, the Beach Boys and Michael Keaton.
On Monday night at Paramount, 350 family members, childhood buddies, industry heavyweights and the legions of press reps he mentored through the decades gathered to pay tribute to Bloch, who died May 25 at 78 after a long illness.
As with any memorial, there were tears and quips and photo montages. Unlike most industry celebrations, it was about a Hollywood icon’s utter lack of ego, selflessness in a notoriously selfish trade.
The night was pure Bloch. Like him, it was rosy-cheeked and ebullient and almost never without a hug or a smile.
“In a business where people root for misfortune, he loved to contribute to people’s success,” said longtime colleague Alan Nierob, who hosted the evening and was one of eight speakers. “He was relentless, he was passionate.
“We can laugh at Paul’s lack of social media skills,” he said of Bloch, who even shunned email during his long career, all with Rogers & Cowan. “But in the end, who was smarter?”
For 58 years, Bloch was an old-school press agent in a new-school town, a Brooklyn-born bon vivant who sported giant belt buckles, Hawaiian shirts and a ceaseless twinkle.
He was, according to anyone he ever gently guided by elbow through a red-carpet mob, a master of his little-understood craft.
Indeed, the role of press agent is a fuzzy concept to most fans, and only a few who do it rise above the fray. They are celebrity babysitters at awards shows and media appearances. What do they do? Everything and nothing.
Just remember, somebody had to put that first clump of grapes on Carmen Miranda’s bonnet. That was a press agent. Someone had to help Nick Nolte get out of jail after his drunk driving arrest. In that case, it was Bloch, who also was at Travolta’s side when he muffed the Oscar introduction of Idina Menzel.
Bloch was clearly among the best at handling such flubs, along with his agency cohorts Warren Cowan, credited with masterminding the now-ubiquitous Academy Awards campaigns, and Henry Rogers, who single-handedly made Rita Hayworth a legend.
With moves like that, star makers soon found they could turn human flesh into gold — and still do. Only a few names might sound familiar to anyone outside entertainment PR. Among them: Lee Solters, Pat Kingsley, Joe Hyams, Cowan and Rogers.
But none of the legendary publicists elicits the warm-and-fuzzies the way Bloch does.
On Monday, former colleague Matt Paget recalled an adage, “Your soul doesn’t live in your body, it lives in your relationships,” and said that such a sentiment completely defined Bloch’s ethos.
He lived big, he lived well, though spending his whole life in his childhood home. He launched a thousand careers, on the screen and behind the scenes, and mentored hundreds of young publicists, including for a while, this writer’s two daughters.
He worked to the very end, and his passing even brought famous tough guys to tears.
Bloch was “my safe harbor in a rough and tough industry,” said Willis, as he paused Monday night to find composure.
“There was never a point where I didn’t feel fiercely protected,” the actor said.
“He had a wok for a belt buckle,” chided Stallone in a video clip.
“He was the only person allowed to take out the Peking duck at Mr. Chow’s,” noted his childhood friend David Weiss.
“There will never be another one like him,” Weiss said.
So true. Long-term relationships like those Bloch had with stars and producers are almost a thing of the past as celebrities flit between agencies, and “crisis management” has become a PR specialty all its own.
Add in the era of social media lightning storms, and the traditionalists seem more of a relic. How do you gracefully “manage the message,” as publicists like to say, when there are 10 million different messages on 10 million different devices?
A busy publicist in attendance Monday said it’s now about finding the right platform. She said she uses Twitter to reach journalists and Instagram to reach fans.
“It’s old-time PR tactics in a new form,” she said.
Bloch wasn’t much for the new forms. But in the vortex of Hollywood on Monday night, in a roomful of stars and publicists, his tactics certainly resonated: friendship first; business later.