Ronni Chasen: Hollywood’s ultimate old-school publicist
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If Hollywood had ever wanted to hire its own publicist to keep its public image untarnished and well-scrubbed, it would’ve been Ronni Chasen.
The circumstances of her death early Tuesday -- she was found in her Mercedes in Beverly Hills, shot five times in the chest -- remain mysterious. But what is clear is the profound sense of loss everyone in this town is feeling.
Even though Ronni was only 64, it often seemed as if she’d been around since the day they invented the talkies. When we’d schmooze at a screening or a press party (with me usually trying to distract her from pitching an article on a client I had no interest in writing about), she’d tell stories about working with George Burns on ‘The Sunshine Boys’ or helping John Travolta do one of his first interviews after he became a TV star on ‘Welcome Back Kotter.’ One of her first jobs, in the late 1970s, was as head of publicity for American International Pictures, Sam Arkoff’s fabled B-movie factory. (Her older brother is the writer-director Larry Cohen, a cult-favorite B-movie guy himself, who wrote and directed such low-budget classics as ‘It’s Alive’ and ‘Q.’)
Ronni knew all of Hollywood’s old royalty, most of whom she’d represented at one time or another. Her client list included movie stars, composers and directors, but for me, her most interesting clients were A-list producers like Richard Zanuck, Irwin Winkler, Lee Rich, Bud Yorkin and Arnold Kopelson. They were clients for decades because they became her friends.
‘We were together for 30 years,’ Winkler told me Tuesday. ‘She would come to our house every year when we broke the fast on Yom Kippur. Nothing ever discouraged her. She always believed in the people she was representing. You couldn’t say anything bad about any of her clients because they were part of her family. It’s why I feel so awful, because I really feel that I lost a member of the family.’
Ronni was already a legend when I began writing about entertainment in the 1980s. Back then, she had the L.A. Times so wired that she seemed to know what stories we were doing before we actually got around to doing them. It often felt as if she had some sort of hypnotic power over our top editors and writers, even though as I got to know her better it became evident that Ronni had such terrific access and influence largely because she was simply the kind of person who would never take no for an answer.
I can’t say Ronni ever hypnotized me, but I’d be the first to admit that she probably persuaded me to do more stories on people I didn’t care about than any other publicist. If you said no, she took it to mean ‘not now.’ If you said maybe, she knew your resolve was already crumbling.
How did she do it? Pure, unadultered salesmanship. Once she detected even a faint glimmer of interest, she would begin calling relentlessly, trying one angle after another until she found one that hit paydirt. It helped that Ronni also had a stable of great clients who were always in demand, including class acts like Zanuck and Winkler, who turned out to be two of the best storytellers in the business.
One story Ronni didn’t have to nag me into doing was a column I wrote about the prominent Hollywood composer Michael Kamen, who revealed that for years he’d been secretly suffering from multiple sclerosis. He died a couple of years after the story ran, but getting to spend a day with Kamen, soaking up his remarkably optimistic outlook on life, was one of the best days I’ve ever had doing my job.
When Ronni called afterward to thank me for the story, I told her that this time around, our roles were reversed. ‘I have to thank you,’ I said. ‘It was an inspiration just being around him.’
It’s probably the way a lot of Ronni’s friends and clients feel now. When you were with Ronni, whether you were watching her work the room or grouch about the awful 24-hour media buzz cycle, you knew you were in the presence of an old-fashioned star. When it came to showbiz publicity, Ronni was a queen, surrounded by jesters and pretenders to the throne.