Aubrey : A Lion in Winter

Once upon a time, in what would seem like another galaxy, James Thomas Aubrey ran CBS and then MGM. He was one of those people who people in show business talked about, incessantly. In the press--and in best-selling novels--he was the prototype star executive, larger than life. Now he's returned to continue the legend.

"I thought my days on the Red Eye were over," said Jim Aubrey, dryly. His flight from Houston had been delayed three hours, and only days earlier he'd returned from Sri Lanka, of all places. But jet lag doesn't show on Jim Aubrey's face. Perhaps the most mysterious man in show business--and once the most fearsome figure in broadcasting--Aubrey has been out of executive suites for a dozen years now, but at 67 he's still nimble. There's no visible fatigue. Likewise, there should be no real surprise that Jim Aubrey is back on the Red Eye.

"No man in history ever had such a lock on such enormous audiences" is how Life magazine put it 20 years ago, after Aubrey took his fall from power at CBS. The man Lucille Ball called "the smartest one up there" and others called (at least privately) Jungle Jim was no mere workaholic. "He was the fourth president of CBS as Caligula was the fourth of the 12 Caesars" is how writer Murray Kempton put it. "Each carried the logic of his imperial authority as far as it could go."

If larger than life is one of those outdated terms, like showman , it's also too simple a description for Jim Aubrey. So is the nickname John Houseman gave him in 1959, the Smiling Cobra. But the mere mention of Aubrey's name to anyone in Hollywood over 40 elicits the same response, after the eyelids raise: "Is he really cooperating with an article?"

"I've never done this before," said the man of mystery, who after leaving CBS became president of MGM--the first man to head both a TV network and a movie studio. He was the most press-shy (if not the most written-about) of modern show-business executives. Aubrey is the omnipotent anti-hero of at least four pop novels. For "The Love Machine," he quietly cooperated with author Jacqueline Susann by giving her background on TV. But interviews with the press? Almost never. So when Aubrey says, "I'm doing something I don't do," you have to wonder why. The fact that he's back as an independent movie producer doesn't begin to answer the question.

The answer didn't become immediately apparent, but revealed itself over several meetings. At first, he would only stretch his very long legs in his very Spartan office (no art, no Aubusson rugs, a Doberman his only companion) and say softly: "I'm not doing this (interview) for the sizzle." The later--and lasting--impression is of the classic loner. Yet Aubrey in conversation is seductive in a way one expects a politician to be. He talks directly into your eyes, and brain, and your response is to be stumped. Why would this man shun the limelight when he takes so naturally to it? "Because Jim keeps his own counsel," is the answer given by his longtime attorney Greg Bautzer. The room where Aubrey works now is on the second floor of a Hollywood house very near to where Scott Fitzgerald wrote "The Last Tycoon." And Aubrey could be cast as Fitzgerald's Monroe Stahr, 40 years after the fact. By now, one would have expected at least a volume of Aubrey memoirs--sizzling or not.

The suggestion of sizzle (or exposure) brought a glint to his polar-blue eyes, and then the kind of slow smile that promised an anecdote.

"A few years ago, when (CBS founder) Bill Paley published his autobiography, I happened to be in New York," Aubrey began. "I had lunch with Bill and he asked me if I'd read the book."

Aubrey's pause was purposeful. It takes a moment to realize that Aubrey might still lunch with the man who fired him unceremoniously 20 years ago.

"I said to Bill, 'Of course I didn't read your book. You know I don't read fiction.' "

The smile is pure Aubrey, more direct than a cobra, more like a lion. It's not the smile of a man whose validation ever came from the so-called Boys Club, the executive clan that runs Hollywood. With the backing of 10 Texas investors, Aubrey is now chairman of Entermark, a company that finances low-budget films with a difference. (Among Entermark's principal shareholders are oilmen, ranchers and former Texas Gov. John Connally.) There are no up-front salaries; percentages are committed to participants, from secretaries to set decorators. The operation is one-on-one, with Aubrey and a few aides working with writers and directors on proposed projects.

The company's first projects are in the $2-million range--and already in production. If the titles sound like exploitation movies, they are. "Hostage" is a skyjacking saga shooting in Africa with Karen Black, and "Deathstone," is a thriller filming in Sri Lanka with Heather Thomas ("Fall Guy's" blonde diversion). In varying stages of development are "Savage Heat" and "Escape From Darkness."

The Texas element--the investors visit regularly, sitting in on meetings, asking questions--adds a maverick quality. It's not Hollywood-as-usual. "We expect to be the next Cannon Films," boasts Entermark's Texas-based president, Michael Leighton. "What's new about our operation is our accountability. The use of every dollar is predetermined; bank trust officials in Houston oversee all spending. Our theory is that with today's ancillary rights, there is real profit in a movie that costs $3 million. We don't need to gross $40 million, or open on Christmas Day."

The lower-key way of working would seem to suit Aubrey. It's been a dozen years since he played corridor politics. And his gray flannels and white button-downs are about as formal as it gets now. As he says, almost convincingly, "I long ago lost my taste for all that . . . authority ."

Aubrey meant that he doesn't generally look back (or up, as Lucille Ball put it) but there's no other way to tell this saga. Aubrey was the man, the monarch, on the 20th floor of CBS at a time in the early '60s when CBS could be compared to J.F.K.'s Camelot. ("It was Paley's company but Aubrey's network," the saying went.) In those days, Aubrey was as assured and, it seemed, as secure as John F. Kennedy himself. "Legends are built on myths and myths aren't always true," says producer Sherry Lansing, who in the late '70s was in a near-crippling auto accident with Aubrey. "But how many show business executives have had novels written about them? Or the covers of magazines? He was bigger than life when executives weren't bigger than life."

"When Aubrey was at his absolute peak at CBS, I remember playing golf with him at the Bel-Air Country Club," recalls publicist Jim Mahoney. "I told him, 'Jim, you should walk away now. If you leave now you'll be like (MGM czar) Irving Thalberg. Otherwise you'll never top yourself." David Susskind, who produced "Mr. Broadway" for CBS, explained Aubrey's power to Life in 1965: "Jim could brighten an account executive's day by simply acknowledging the man's greeting with a curt smile. Or send him weeping into his next martini by ignoring him." When asked last week to elaborate, Susskind said curtly, "I have nothing to say about Jim Aubrey. Firmly and irrevocably."

In a business where "people are approval-addicted," as Sherry Lansing puts it, "Jim is different. He does his own dirty work. Jim is one of those people who are willing to say, 'I didn't like your movie.' Directness is disarming to people who are used to sugar-coating. It's tough for people who need approval to see somebody who doesn't. Myths and legends begin to surround that kind of person."

Still, the bottom line has to fit. In 1963, CBS under Aubrey had 12 of the top 15 nighttime series and all 12 of the top 12 daytime series. Network revenue nearly doubled (from $25 million in 1959, when he became president, to $49 million in 1965). "No man in TV history made bigger profits--or more enemies," is how the Washington Post explained Aubrey's fiefdom. (When he departed, CBS stock dropped nine points. At Time-Life, boss Henry Luce reacted by personally agreeing to have two reporters spend six months exploring Aubrey's reign. The result was a piece in Life that ran to 7,000 words.)

Aubrey was a kind of video Warhol, a showman who could gauge popular taste--the favored programs were either rural corny ("Green Acres") or adventurous ("Wild Wild West") or starry (Danny Kaye's variety hour). He tended to trust himself in a business where people trust only their superiors. His decisions were strictly his, made on hunches, and his shows were known as "Instant Pop." He put on "The Munsters" (against Paley's wishes) after watching eight minutes of the pilot (but rejected "The Addams Family" on his own); he removed Jack Benny from weekly TV, after decades on the air, with no trace of deference. (Garry Moore and Arthur Godfrey got similar treatment.)

Just as swiftly, Aubrey signed the Smothers Brothers and Barbra Streisand (her 10-year, $5-million deal came just before Broadway stardom) and gave the green light to shows as diverse as "Route 66," "Mr. Ed," "The Defenders" and the pivotal (because of its rural spinoffs) "Beverly Hillbillies." As "Hillbillies" producer Martin Ransohoff put it the other day: "Aubrey was it . He spoke with a single voice. People thought Aubrey had a divining rod in the middle of his desk."

The rod also apparently was used for self-flagellation. In 1965, at his peak, Aubrey was abruptly fired. (After attending Jackie Gleason's 49th birthday party in Miami Beach, he was summoned back to New York and the Paley suite at the Regency Hotel.) There are at least 13,000 theories on why he got the ax, some of them lurid, but none as obvious as the fact that CBS was starting to slip in the Nielsens. "And there was a basic dissatisfaction with me ," as he put it. If Aubrey understood ratings, and revenue, he also was no stranger to a kind of after-hours recklessness that mirrored the Camelot of its day. Nobody questions that Jungle Jim had a good time in the playgrounds of Manhattan and Hollywood.

"Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine," Aubrey mused late on a recent Saturday. "We used to talk about this whole thing of being 'ladies' men.' People thought we got away with a lot more than we really did. . . . I'm certainly no example of clean living. But as I always said, 'If a man can be indicted for liking pretty girls, I'm guilty.' " For years, gossip columnists had to bite their tongues because the fodder on Aubrey was so tempting, but mostly unprintable. How much was hearsay and how much was fiction is not clear.

Harold Robbins doesn't admit he based "The Inheritors" on Aubrey, but Susann (Aubrey's neighbor in Manhattan) was open about "Love Machine's" womanizing executive Robin Stone being Aubrey-like. As she explained before her death, "Jim is one of those people who are born to run the works. A natural for a novel." If not a natural for a movie: Aubrey has the distinction of being the only executive to run one studio (MGM) while a rival studio (Columbia) was filming a fictionalized version of his life, the ill-fated movie of "Love Machine."

Among other Aubrey-inspired books that didn't succeed (on any level) was the late Keefe Brasselle's simplistic "'The CanniBals". Brasselle had been an Aubrey crony and producer of three flop series--"The Reporter," "The Cara Williams Show" and "The Baileys of Balboa"--that didn't help Aubrey in his final season at CBS. Most prominent of the Aubreyesque books was Merle Miller's nonfiction classic "Only You, Dick Daring." Miller, who later wrote "Plain Speaking," the oral biography of Harry Truman, managed in "Dick Daring" to satirize TV in general and Aubrey in particular. Miller's description of the writing of 19 drafts of a Jackie Cooper TV pilot still stands as a major (and hilarious) illustration of how TV works--and doesn't.

Aubrey doesn't deny that he shoots from the hip, in a style that can unhinge the fragile egos of show business. "If I was in the tire business," reasoned Aubrey, "I wouldn't be hurt if the customer didn't buy my tires. I'd think, 'So what?' But in my business, if I don't buy the script, then the writer kicks the dog and beats his wife. So you learn to pay attention to personal relationships. But that doesn't mean you lie to people. I've been the screwer and the screwee, and I know which is better. It's better to be the screwer, and it's very difficult to do that with honesty, but it's how I prefer to be treated. I don't want power now, or authority, so I suppose my candor can't hurt me."

Not that he ever slapped backs. In an age of affiliation, Aubrey is somewhat of an outsider. (He said at the beginning of the interviewing, "I want my associates to get the advantage of any topspin of this article.") But Hollywood's Boys Club seems to understand Aubrey even less than the public, and it's no wonder: He's complex, colorful and a soloist--and the Club is made up of team players. That's why Texas backing would seem to make sense for him now.

Aubrey approached the subject of a Boys Club as if it were a new toy. "Am I hurt that I'm left out? That's a rather acute observation." Aubrey was wondering aloud, as though this subject had never arisen. "I never felt the doors were shut. I actually think I've been given every opportunity to be a member of the Club. If I'm not a member, it's of my own choosing. I don't play the game, that's true, but that doesn't mean I'm right. Those who play do seem to get a lot of comfort from dealing with each other. If I don't, it's just that. . . ."

A pause was long enough for a station identification; people who are seldom interviewed tend to listen to questions before answering. "I hesitate to use the word loner . When I am called upon to get along with people, I do it reasonably well. I know people who can't be by themselves, but it doesn't bother me to be alone. The reverse is also true. On the other hand, I don't feel any necessity to have people around."

Thus, one is operating from one's own rules, and if that can lead to megalomania, it can also teach lessons. Producer William Dozier (the "Batman" series) recalls Aubrey lecturing at one of Dozier's UCLA TV classes in the early 1970s. "In the question-and-answer period he was asked, 'What prompted you to put on the air three new series in the same season without making a pilot of any?' Aubrey hesitated a moment and replied, 'Arrogance, I guess.' It was a remarkably honest answer, containing a clear indication of Jim Aubrey's having taken stock of himself."

The lessons were learned in hard ways. Eight years after entering broadcasting ("In 1950, I was hauling cable around KNXT"), Aubrey was president of CBS. The how and why are the kinds of questions one can't usually answer oneself, but Aubrey tried. "I could sense the mood, if you will, or the response of people who want to be entertained, even though the products aren't things I personally liked. And then I always fought with my bosses, whether it was Bill (Paley) or (CBS corporate chief) Frank Stanton or (MGM owner) Kirk Kerkorian, I always fought. If somebody didn't agree with me about something I believed in--or something I didn't believe in, but thought the public would buy--I fought. I'd just go out there and fight relentlessly, until finally they'd say, 'Look, Jim, NO !,' and then you give up, because it's Paley's candy store, or Kirk's, and I never questioned that. I would battle, but they had the right to the final decision, and you have to be very careful about that."

Two examples came to Aubrey's mind: "When I first left CBS in 1956 to go to ABC, to head programming, people in New York said, 'Oh, gee, why ABC?' Because really, at that time there was no ABC. The headquarters was an old riding stable. But I went because (ABC chairman) Leonard Goldenson in effect said, 'Look, I don't know that much about TV, I'm a lawyer.' And he let me have autonomy."

Aubrey used it by scheduling "wild, sexy, lively stuff, things that had never been done before, like '77 Sunset Strip' and 'Maverick,' to get us attention." One of those series became "The Real McCoys," and it's not top-secret that the show's sponsors reacted badly at first to what would become a staple of 1950s TV. "I remember watching a rough cut of the first episode before anyone had seen it, and very quickly rethinking it."

A show about hillbillies in the upwardly bound '50s? "The success of the show hinged on the first 12 seconds. This family--Walter Brennan, Dick Crenna, Kathleen Nolan--inherited money. I felt we had to show them coming from the hills of West Virginia in a rickety old truck to this farm they inherited in the San Fernando Valley. I thought, 'Omigod! They've given up everything to go West in a truck!' But to be a hit we needed to glamour it up. The first 12 seconds, the opening shot of the contrast from poverty to wealth, that did it. It was a great hit."

Flash forward. "I'd gone to CBS, and I'd become convinced 'Beverly Hillbillies' was going to work. Bill Paley wasn't convinced. Bill has this great sense of propriety. Putting aside the Sarnoffs and all the other great names of broadcasting, Paley stood--stands--head and shoulders above everyone else. He had this blasting genius of instinctively looking at a show and knowing if it should be on the air. He could also be ruthless and distant. We used to date the same girls and send the same girls bouquets. . . . But Bill was intuitive about both the business and creative sides of TV. And he genuinely disliked 'Beverly Hillbillies.' I put it on the schedule anyway."

Against all odds. "But I was very convinced about 'Beverly Hillbillies,' " Aubrey continued. "I said to Paley, 'Everybody in America thinks he's Abe Lincoln. Lincoln is the patron saint of the U.S.A., and all Americans think of themselves as log-splitters.' I sensed the public would still go for the idea of buying the big estate. It was an idea that had been worked, hard, but it would work again. I remember Bill and Frank Stanton saying, 'All right, Jim, but it's your job if it fails. You put it on, you pay the price.' "

Aubrey's response? "This idea isn't new, but it will work. Hell, nobody since Edison has had a new idea."

Almost nobody. "I'm a jock at heart, I guess," acknowledged Aubrey, segueing to the subject of football--a major programming success. "Nobody had done football on TV when Pete Rozelle came to me, asking blind bids from networks. It was a big expenditure--let's say $17 million--and approval from the CBS executive board was needed. We are talking about the first time professional football was ever televised. Bill said, 'Oh, can't we get it for $13 or $14 million?' I said, 'No. I want to go the distance on this.' Nobody knew how profitable football was going to be. I didn't want to go to $19 million--I wanted to bid all the way up to $21 million! I told Bill, 'Otherwise I'd feel we'd suddenly lost it. I want CBS to be the best of everything!'

"So I made a direct appeal to Bill and Frank Stanton to make a direct appeal to the board. At one point, I remember Frank saying, 'Now if this fails, don't bother coming back to the office. . . .' The upshot was that CBS ended up with the National Football League."

There's a postscript, of course. "Years later Bill bought the New York Yankees and I remember walking up to him at a party, and saying, 'Mistake, Bill.' Of course he later sold it, at a loss. But when CBS got the football contract, Bill was only too happy to take the credit. And that's as it should have been. It was his company."

And, for a time, Aubrey's network. Paley, son of a cigar tycoon, built CBS from his own $400,000 investment in 16 radio stations; Aubrey built himself to network president (at age 40) from nowhere. Certain qualities (aside from ambition) had to have emerged early. Aubrey put some thought into trying to explain what they were. A lot of Chicago boys make it to Princeton, after all, but not so many get to the presidential suites.

"The thing that separates the men from the boys, in my opinion, the one thing in terms of leadership that stands out, is not intelligence or ability. Those who operate most effectively, those I respect most, simply are not afraid. And most people are afraid, they're scared of decisions. Bill Paley could be ruthless, but he was not afraid of decisions. Everybody has a fear level, when you've gone as far as you can go, but you do have to go that far. Your modus operandi can't be, 'What if it doesn't work?' I never really analyzed this, but maybe it's why I've taken the blame for many things. I was willing to take that blame."

The same was true at MGM. Four years after exiting CBS (and developing projects that mostly didn't happen), Aubrey was the Comeback Kid. In 1969, he signed on as the first president of MGM under new owner Kerkorian. Aubrey took a salary of $4,000 a week, but wanted no contract. ("I wanted Kirk to be able to say, 'Get lost, Jim,' without obligation if it didn't work.") It worked: Kerkorian and Aubrey reduced MGM's $80-million bank debt to $22.5 million. The heat was turned off (literally) on the top floor of the Thalberg Building, 3,500 employees were fired and 12 projected films were canceled (including Fred Zinnemann's "Man's Fate," just days before production was to begin). Largely due to the success of the Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, MGM went back into the black before Aubrey left in 1973.

(The Aubrey-Kerkorian connection was due to Greg Bautzer, the attorney for both men--and Howard Hughes. In 1967, Bautzer put together a deal for Hughes to take over ABC, with Aubrey at the helm, but Hughes refused to appear in front of the FCC. As Aubrey said to writer Martin Kasindorf at the time, "There have been a lot of almosts in my life.")

There almost wasn't an MGM. What Aubrey found in Culver City was "total disarray. Until you were in a position to lift up the rug, there was no way to know how much disarray. The crown jewel of studios had become a shambles." The studio's valuable film library made the Kerkorian investment pay off, but "Kirk and I decided we'd get rid of everything else, and we did. The banks had extended credit to such a degree that we had to have a meeting to indicate our willingness to make good. We sold off acreage, European movie houses, whatever we could."

Otherwise, as Aubrey states now, "There would be no MGM today. But I was silhouetted against a garish horizon." In other words, Aubrey was once again newsworthy, if not hugely popular. This time it was the public who got angry at Aubrey over the auctioning of MGM nostalgia. "The buck had to stop somewhere, and it was with me," he says now, without apparent regret. "Nostalgia runs strong out here, so we were criticized for selling Judy Garland's red shoes. To us they had no value, and they had no intrinsic value." (Spencer Tracy's suit from "Inherit the Wind," which went for $5, later turned up on a district attorney in the Charles Manson trial.) Reiterates Aubrey: "In all honesty, I don't think anyone--Kirk, Greg, myself--knew just what it was going to take to save MGM. We really had to claw our way back."

Side effects included cuts and scratches and bleeding. At one point, economy measures became rather macabre: Aubrey told one extraneous studio executive, "We are sending you to Nepal for three months to convert rupees to dollars." The man took the hint and quit.

On a more serious level, Aubrey went out on a limb by decreeing that no MGM film would cost more than $1 million. He personally went to Rome to oversee Michelangelo Antonioni's editing of "Zabriskie Point," a $6-million clinker that he inherited from the previous management. Aubrey angered writer-director Blake Edwards over his recutting of Edwards' "Wild Rovers." (Edwards had similar well-documented problems with other studio chiefs, notably on Paramount's "Darling Lili." His hostility surfaced years later in his bitter Hollywood satire, "S.O.B.") Aubrey, who'd been schooled in programming and sales and broadcasting, admits now he was in for a rude awakening in Hollywood's movie factory. The rules were different.

(It's probably no accident that Aubrey first saw the MGM executive suite--the one he would later occupy--when Louis B. Mayer was in power, and the room featured a grand piano. Aubrey was in on a pass, so to speak, as actress Phyllis Thaxter's husband. Thaxter ("Sea of Grass," "Breaking Point," "Springfield Rifle," "Jim Thorpe," "Superman") was under contract to MGM when the Aubreys wed in 1944. The couple had two children and divorced in 1962.)

"It was different out here," says Aubrey. "The major difference about movie making is that everything here is manufactured from dreams. TV did not work that way. Movie producers and directors are told that every picture is going to be a smash, and get academy nominations. The moment a movie begins shooting, the dream machinery proclaims it a hit. I find that attitude unrealistic. Some movies are not going to turn out well. Yet very few directors will stand up and say, 'I did my best, but it didn't work.' So the executive becomes the heavy."

Four years as studio president, by current standards, is a long run. There were, inevitably, other offers when Aubrey left MGM in 1973. But "I just didn't want to do it anymore," he says now. "There are people who don't know when to walk away, or can't walk away, and it's painful to see that. I just no longer had interest in the machinery of a big studio." Was he gun-shy? "Maybe a little, but in all honesty I've never been afraid of failure. And I've never been afraid to admit failure."

The tackle-it philosophy was built-in early. It makes perfect sense that James T. Aubrey played end on the Princeton football team in 1938. Aubrey was always a little off to the side. "I was a late starter, really," said the oldest of four sons of a prosperous Midwestern advertising man. "All four of us were aspiring jocks." The brothers were raised in a patriarchy reminiscent of the Kennedys. "We all went to the same prep school (Phillips Exeter), and we all went to the same college. My father insisted on accomplishment."

The eldest son, cum laude at Princeton, claimed he would have followed father's footsteps and returned to Lake Forest had it not been for--surprise!--romance. His marriage to actress Thaxter was the only reason for moving to Hollywood. Already in his late 20s, Aubrey was not exactly a Wunderkind . "Not at all. I'd already been in the service (as a test pilot, and a major in the Air Force) but I was brand new when the TV industry was brand new and looking for people. I jumped in with both feet."

And eyes and ears and everything else. At CBS (and even at MGM), Aubrey would become known for reading every script of every program the company produced, and making suggestions on every area from casting to set design. "I liked my work to the point of not taking a vacation ever, to the point of being at 8 a.m. meetings and hanging around at night to haul cable. It was never my desire to direct or produce or even to make deals. . . ."

Aubrey was asked if he ever considered performing; his concentration can be so powerful that a camera might take nicely to it. "Oh God, no! I've been enough of a ---- in my life without becoming a star, too!" he says, with a hearty, self-deprecating laugh.

"There was no compulsion to be creative," he continues. "If you are going to be a writer, you are a writer, period. There is not a way to teach it. You support yourself waiting tables because that drive inside of you determines that's what you will do. Me? I wasn't wanting to produce or direct or write. I guess I was thinking about surviving."

"Jim has what we all really want and won't admit to," says Sherry Lansing. "He's self-contained. He doesn't need to be invited or included, and people know that." It's one explanation for Aubrey's virtual disappearance in the last decade. One might see him jogging near his Benedict Canyon house, but one would still have expected a spot to be found sooner for Aubrey in the complex community of Hollywood. As time passed, he seemed to become even more reclusive. Addressing that issue, Aubrey answered the question of why, finally, he'd agreed to be interviewed.

"I never understood people who devoured the trade papers," said Aubrey simply. "Why read other people's lies and believe them? I was a problem for the press because I tend to be too candid and forthright. Then I've been misinterpreted. I haven't bothered to do anything about that. A real story is one thing, but a lot of announcements that nobody believes are a waste of time. I may have paid for it, but I've still found being direct is the best way. I've no regrets."

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