The Next Tycoon : Jerry Weintraub Helped Launch the Careers of Singers, Actors and Musicians. Now, He’s Launching Himself--as Head of a $461-Million Film Production Company.
There once was a kid with a dream
Whose vision was clean and supreme
He formed Management III
And quick as can be
The dream became one with his scheme . . .
BOB DYLAN, ON JERRY WEINTRAUB
IT’S PRETTY FASCINATING, my life. So, it fascinates people, and when I talk about it like this--the reason I do these interviews--is because I like to try to remember the past myself once in a while. Because it fascinates me when I hear it, and sometimes when I try to sit back from it and look at what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve done, it’s pretty awesome, you know? Pretty awesome.”
Jerry Weintraub delivers his summary of a life in show business evenly, on a slightly catarrhal tide of Bronx patois. What is awesome? Now 49, Weintraub came out of a stint in the Air Force to work as an agent for such clients as Jack Paar and Joey Bishop before launching a multimillion-dollar management (Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan) and concert-presentation career, a career that he left to produce films and television shows under various banners until his new topper: his own $461-million independent production company, the largest privately financed start-up in movie-industry history. Suddenly, Weintraub is making a bid to put his personal stamp on Hollywood much as his hero, Irving Thalberg (the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon”), did five decades earlier.
“Today I’m gonna buy something,” Weintraub declares in his street-corner indicative style. (The “something” turns out to be the nearly $85-million Cannon film library.) Weintraub’s speech is studded with the relics of his Bronx past--and with references to his acquaintances, who constitute Hollywood’s ruling elite. Interrupt, for example, a paean to his buddy George Bush by bringing up the now-defunct candidacy of Gary Hart and his Hollywood point man, Warren Beatty.
“Naw,” Weintraub says, “I don’t think the (film) industry means a damn thing. Just because Warren Beatty--who’s a friend of mine, Warren’s a good friend of mine, and so’s Gary Hart--just because they put the stamp ‘Warren Beatty Likes Gary Hart,’ I don’t think everybody’s going to run around and say, ‘I like Gary Hart, too.’ ”
Or try something along the lines of “I guess you don’t see too much of Bob Dylan these days.” First you get the look, the Roman head, with its semi-permanent tan and expertly groomed but relentlessly thinning hair, turning slowly: “He was here yesterday, sitting right where you’re sitting. We talked for hours. We’re doing a ‘Best of Bob Dylan’ video, with a lot of different great directors. That’s my idea, and he wants to do it. He’s my friend, you know, a great guy, a perceptive guy.”
One doesn’t even want to start in with him on such statesmen friends and acquaintances as Armand Hammer (Weintraub’s been all over the globe with the industrialist), Teddy Kennedy and Deng Xiaoping. Is there no important figure this man hasn’t dealt with along the way? Don’t count on it. “I presented some of the most important shows in the history of live theater, and I did it on a regular basis,” Weintraub says. “That’s pretty fantastic, you know. In retrospect I sit back and I say, ‘How the hell did I do that?’ You know--'How the hell did I do that?’ I didn’t do it. God directed me in those arenas, and I went there and I did it.”
GOD, WITH THE assistance of Rose Weintraub, brought Jerome Charles Weintraub into the world via Brooklyn on Sept. 26, 1937. Sam Weintraub, who worked in those days as a traveling salesman, was at the ballpark in Cincinnati. He caught the train east and met his firstborn a couple of days later at the family home on Featherbed Avenue in the Bronx. Soon, as Sam grew prosperous in the precious-stone business, the Weintraubs moved to an apartment 10 blocks from the Loew’s Paradise Theater, a 1929 fantasy palace where twinkling stars and moving clouds were projected on a deep-blue ceiling. Jerry Weintraub graduated from patron to usher as he grew up. “When I was 3 or 4 I was going to the movies. I loved movies, loved being an usher. There’s nothing I didn’t like about movies. When I was a little boy I wanted to be in show business.”
In 1947 the Weintraubs made a pilgrimage to Hollywood, staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt across from Grauman’s Chinese Theater and following in 10-year-old Jerry’s wake as he rang doorbells (Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, Jack Benny) and stalked the sidewalk outside Ciro’s and the Mocambo, presenting an autograph book from Bronx Public School 70 for the stars to sign. Miss Joan Crawford was so taken with the lad in his cap and English schoolboy’s suit that she crushed him against her before getting into her car.
“We went to stars’ houses,” he recalls, “all the people who later became my friends. I was a little kid, you know, cute, freckles, they didn’t say anything nasty. Of course, I don’t like it when tour buses go by my house (in Beverly Hills) now. I chase ‘em. I think back sometimes, I did that when I was a kid. Sometimes I come out and wave at people. They say my name, and I wave at ‘em.”
Young Jerry was an uninterested student at the Horace Mann and Dwight schools, though capable of acing an occasional test to prove a point. Feeling stifled at 17, he joined the Air Force because, says his younger brother, Doug, he said he “liked the color of the uniforms.” After training as a radio operator in Biloxi, Miss., he was posted to Alaska. (“I was making $750 a week up there, selling clothes to prostitutes and all kinds of stuff.”)
Finishing his service stint in Omaha, Weintraub returned to New York and used the GI Bill to study at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse along with James Caan, Elizabeth Ashley, Brenda Vaccaro and Dabney Coleman. There followed brief stints as a page at NBC and in the mail room at William Morris, then a step up to apprentice agent at MCA, the latter headed by Lew Wasserman, who is still a friend and whose daughter Lynne is a top aide at the new Weintraub Entertainment Group.
Ever fitful, Weintraub left MCA to become junior partner in an agenting business with a man who, according to the family apocrypha, changed the locks on his office door when he realized that his best talent wanted to go with Weintraub. The next couple of years were scenes out of Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose,” as Weintraub hustled the circuit of clubs from Cherry Hill to the Catskills.
One of his first major clients was Jane Morgan, a young woman of patrician New England stock who had sung in supper clubs while training at Juilliard as a lyric soprano. She went to Paris to sing in a club, came back stage-savvy and multilingual, and recorded the dulcet “Fascination,” a 1957 hit. At first, the manager and his client, who was several years his senior, kept strictly to business; he always brought a third party along when he visited her backstage at such engagements as the Plaza’s Persian Room or the Ed Sullivan show (on which she appeared 40 times). Each had already been married, Weintraub to Janice Greenberg, a dentist’s daughter from his Bronx neighborhood who had been singer Julius LaRosa’s secretary. His time on the road and simple incompatibility broke up the marriage early in its second year. “We were too young to be married, and we were not really in love. We were just kids who came from the same neighborhood.” The union produced one child, Michael, who now works for a direct-mail firm in Washington, D.C., but who remains in close touch with his father and stepmother; Weintraub flew to Washington when Michael’s wife gave birth to a daughter.
Morgan was divorced not long after Weintraub, but they didn’t get around to marrying till one night in Las Vegas in 1964 (according to her) or 1965 (as he insists). Weintraub had just put on his suit for a meeting with a talent booker and Morgan was being made up for a performance at the Flamingo, when a call came canceling his appointment. “Look,” he told Morgan, “I’m all dressed up, baby. Want to get married?” The ceremony took place at the Chapel of the Bells. “Fifteen bucks. The guy said, ‘You can have organ music or--' I said, ‘Just give me what’s fast.’ ”
It was shortly after the wedding that Weintraub sat up in bed one night and declared to his wife that he had just seen a marquee in a vision: “Jerry Weintraub Presents Elvis.” He got the number of Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, and called it every day for a year to hype his idea: Instead of making deals with the local promoter in each city, Parker could leave all the arranging up to Weintraub. Finally the Colonel broke down and called his bluff, telling him to turn up the next day in Las Vegas with a cashier’s check for a million dollars. Scrambling frantically to borrow the money (and getting an extension of a few hours), Weintraub flew out from New York with the check to make a handshake deal. At 28, he was sticking his face in with the tough guys. But promoters wanted Elvis. From the booking of that tour, Weintraub never looked back.
He developed his rock ‘n’ roll territory on the twin tracks of management and tour promotion. His organization for the latter was Concerts West, a name that belies the transcontinental grasp he commanded in the ‘70s marketplace. Within 10 years, Weintraub had made such good enemies as rival impresario Bill Graham, who in 1976 told Newsweek: “He comes into town like an eagle, scoops up the money and leaves. He tells his acts, ‘For a piece of the action I can eliminate certain promoters and agents.’ He’s more a power broker than a producer.”
Weintraub’s other track was called Management III, a partnership with Bernie Brillstein (who later handled John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) and Marty Kummer. In 1969 Weintraub found John Denver playing in a small New York club for $75 a night and made him the particular pearl (“the proudest thing in my life”) of a string of clients that included Neil Diamond, the Pointer Sisters, the Moody Blues, Dolly Parton and many others--a string that allowed Weintraub to claim that no man had ever made more money managing pop stars and spurred Dylan to write the encomium sitting framed in Weintraub’s office:
First there was Denver and
Followed by Dorothy Hamill
And as we all know, others came
wanting to deal
He was Man of the Year
The Wiz of the Biz
And accolades too many to count
The dream and the scheme
Turned the bread into cream
Success it continued to mount . . .
WEINTRAUB’S threshing, power-brokering style began to clear a path in movies just as it had in the music world. His landmark break arrived one night after a John Denver performance at Carnegie Hall. Director Robert Altman was among the crowd at a post-concert party at the Weintraubs’ Manhattan apartment. Altman said he wanted to work with him, says Weintraub, and the producer suggested Altman send him a property. It turned out to be “Nashville.” “This town needs a good young producer,” Weintraub told an interviewer as the project got under way. “I bet on a creative person, then I rely on him. It’s like the shmata business in New York.”
With Pauline Kael jumping the gun to compare a rough cut of the film to “Citizen Kane,” “Nashville” became one of 1975’s sleeper hits. Weintraub’s 1976 “9/30/55,” a bittersweet look at the day of James Dean’s death, was received tolerably well by the critics though far less so by the public. A year later Weintraub produced “Oh, God,” for Denver, cementing his reputation for knowing how to sell tickets. Then, in case anybody expected another nice family picture, Weintraub undertook the William Friedkin-directed gay-underworld story “Cruising” in 1979. Still another turn brought 1982’s “Diner,” which landed neatly between art and mass appeal. And if director Barry Levinson was privately peeved when executive producer Weintraub took credit for discovering the young stars (Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg) he had cast, that was a producer’s traditional prerogative.
Meanwhile, Weintraub’s management career began to suffer setbacks. Client Karen Carpenter died of complications from anorexia in February, 1983 (Weintraub is currently producing her cautionary TV-movie biography). Then, in 1984, John Denver abruptly walked into Weintraub’s office and fired him. Weintraub blames the split on a whisper campaign by some of Denver’s intimates charging that the manager was getting too big a cut of his client’s income. But he figures the break was inevitable. “At some point artists want to grow up and be their own person.” Still, it stung. “I considered him a great friend. He was in my will as one of the executors of my estate, taking care of my kids should anything happen to me. We were that close.”
EVEN THOUGH Denver’s departure left Weintraub with a more-than-adequate pop-music power base, and Concerts West continued to thrive, Weintraub wanted a change. The kid whose childhood heroes were such showmen as Thalberg, Harry Cohn and even P. T. Barnum was aiming to extend his role as Hollywood mogul. “I think he saw,” says his brother, “that that end of it was even more glamorous than being a star.” If Weintraub’s idea of glamour sometimes stumbled into glitz--he arrived at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival via yacht, with George Hamilton, then slated to star for him in a sequel to “Love at First Bite"--he did have an eye for worthwhile projects. Witness “The Karate Kid,” his first mega-hit, a family-entertainment package with a whiff of “Rocky,” a lovably stern old man (Pat Morita) and an appealing street kid (Ralph Macchio).
“Kid” was one of the highest-grossing pictures of 1984, and its sequel became the cornerstone of his October, 1984, six-feature deal with Columbia Pictures. Of that package, only the sequel and “Bright Lights, Big City” have made it to production--in part, perhaps, because Weintraub was soon lured to the brave new world of “New UA,” the studio that was partitioned out of Kirk Kerkorian’s sale of MGM-UA to Ted Turner. Kerkorian, born to Armenian immigrants in the San Joaquin Valley in 1917, had made his fortune in the airline business; he was a shirt-sleeved entrepreneur impressed by Weintraub’s energy. Kerkorian named Weintraub chairman and chief executive officer--the studio chief. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Weintraub said when he took the post in November of 1985. “At this point I have done everything else.”
Weintraub soon hired about 150 people, notably Kenneth Kleinberg, a young but seasoned lawyer who had run the entertainment side of the firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp and who had counseled Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger. Weintraub also needed a head of production, and Guy McElwaine, who had steered “The Karate Kid” at Columbia, was about to be at liberty. After years as an agent for the likes of Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty, McElwaine had moved up the ranks at several studios to become president of Columbia in 1981, and had been promoted to chairman and chief executive officer in 1985 even as his Travolta vehicle “Perfect” was bombing at the box office. Rumors of McElwaine’s ouster had begun in the spring of ’85, just as he was closing the deal on the Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman comedy “Ishtar.”
In the first week of April, 1986, Columbia announced that McElwaine was leaving “to pursue other interests.” Those interests, the usual sources said, included a lucrative production deal with Weintraub’s new UA regime. Then at 5 p.m. on Monday, April 14, after a day rife with rumor, came another announcement, from UA, its key phrase being “Jerry Weintraub is no longer chairman and chief executive officer of the company.” He had held the office five months. The only picture in the pipeline was the latest James Bond, a company legacy. The media used a range of verbs from departs through axes and ousted for Weintraub’s exit; since then, the book is that he quit . In any event, he was gone, abruptly and embarrassingly.
“It was a crushing blow at the moment,” says Weintraub now, planted comfortably in a chair at one end of his ample office, “because I had brought 150 people in there, and there were all kinds of nonsensical stories about why I was leaving. The story was not a very involved one. It was just two guys who both should have their own companies--two guys in one building who both need to be in their own building.” The insider whom Variety quoted on the subject said Kerkorian felt that Weintraub was “making too many parties and not enough deals.”
Very shortly after the news hit the papers, Weintraub retreated to Florida with his wife, and Sam Weintraub rushed down from New York with advice and support. A friend loaned a yacht for a cruise to the Bahamas. But it was not a pleasant time, as Jane Weintraub remembers. “There had been such momentum and excitement. Entourages and security and everybody around hovering at your every word, everything you do is watched and handled and taken care of and all of a sudden you’re . . . just a guy standing on a dock talking to somebody on a phone, trying to find out what the people back in Beverly Hills are doing about this situation. And it was a tremendous shock, to go from that one life style to this other
one--in one minute.”
BY MAY 2,WEINTRAUB was back at his Malibu estate huddling with Kleinberg, business manager Nathan Golden, and his attorney, Gerald Parsky. Weintraub’s UA contract assured him a settlement leaving him roughly $14 million richer than he’d been five months before. “I had money before that,” Weintraub says now. “My net worth is pretty damn good for a guy who started with 500 bucks. It’s OK. But money is not what it’s about. I love making money--that’s how I keep score--but that’s not the issue.”
For those keeping score along with him, the mid-June opening weekend of “The Karate Kid, Part II” was impressive. It grossed $12.7 million, Columbia’s best opening since “Ghostbusters,” and it left Weintraub primed for his next opportunity. He had been well-acquainted with Coca-Cola’s leisure-side executives, such as Francis T. (Fay) Vincent and Richard Gallop, from his days with the bottling giant’s studio subsidiary. But he claims he hadn’t expected anything like the proposition he got over lunch not long after the UA debacle. “I guess the idea of me having my own studio jelled when Fay Vincent said it to me. The idea must have been up there for a very long time or I would not have reacted so quickly. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that, that’s great.’ ”
It was an offer backed up by especially deep pockets. Yet, says Weintraub, “what was interesting was not the money, but the fact that I had just come through this bad situation in my life (the United Artists departure), and he was there for me and Columbia Pictures was there for me. They said, ‘Your home is here, all you need is here. We’ve never touched your office at Columbia, it’s here for you.’ That was a great feeling in a town that’s supposed to be as hard-bitten as Hollywood. I know I have a tough reputation, I mean, I’m no pussycat, but you can’t be in show business and do what I do and not be sensitive. I am basically a promoter and an entrepreneur and a showman and I cry pretty easily, love a good story. They gave me the emotional strength to go ahead and do this.”
Weintraub and Kleinberg cut a deal guaranteeing them creative independence from Coca-Cola, which coughed up $14 million in equity and another $146 million in advances. “My star is hitched to his star,” says Kleinberg, who left UA soon after Weintraub, “and neither one of us was interested in a situation where we were in effect the chattels of another person. We found the experience at UA very sobering in that regard.”
Thus, in addition to Coca-Cola’s money, Weintraub put up $11 million of his own money to become the majority shareholder, with 78% voting control. Wall Street, cool to film ventures since the Cannon Group and the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group suffered financial reverses, was impressed by the Coke connection. Weintraub raised $81 million by offering 13% on private bonds, and another $62 million in stock to companies like United States Tobacco and a variety of private investors, including former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. And with the participation of Cineplex Odeon ($2 million) and Weintraub’s longtime friend Ted Mann ($1 million) of the theater chain, he has a link with the very exhibitors who are the outlet for his product. Not insignificant is the $2 million invested by the members of his own management team, including Kleinberg and McElwaine.
The Weintraub Entertainment Group occupies the 20th floor of a high-rise dominating the landscape where the San Diego Freeway crosses Santa Monica Boulevard. A barrier of smoked glass, two receptionists and two assistants shields Weintraub’s lair. He seldom arrives at the office later than 7:30 a.m.; even his dedicated top staffers don’t try to match strides. “I left here for an appointment the other night around 7,” says Guy McElwaine with a compressed grin, “and Jerry calls out, ‘Another half day, McElwaine?’ ” Lynne Wasserman, raising a son, is likewise bemused: “I get in at quarter to 8, because I drop my son at school near here, and I have never beaten (Weintraub) to the office. On the nights I leave at 8 or 9, if I stay late, I have never left after him. He has an energy, a very inspiring energy, I wish I had.”
“There are about nine Jerry Weintraubs,” McElwaine says warmly, “and only one of them is a pain in the ass.”
JANE WEINTRAUB is wearing sunglasses as she walks across the living room of Blue Heaven, the Weintraubs’ Malibu estate. The big-windowed house is designed to drink in light along with the view of ocean and cliffs. The estate includes guest quarters where both Vice President Bush and Ted Kennedy have stayed, a tennis court where Jimmy Connors has played, and stables where California’s elite have saddled up to ride along the beach. Also on the grounds: a gym, three kitchens, an inventory of electronic hardware. There are other Weintraub retreats in Beverly Hills, Palm Springs, Manhattan and coastal Maine if the ashtrays ever get full on these eight acres.
The clear focus of Blue Heaven is the upstairs quadrant where Jerry Weintraub prowls like a mad scientist of leisure time while his family sleeps. Here is the big screen where the world’s profusion of television channels are beamed in by satellite dish and frisked for ideas by Weintraub’s restless trigger finger; a TV set built into the sauna wall, and a little porch outside where you can sit in the Jacuzzi sunning yourself while gazing at Catalina Island. Attached to the porch is a circular steel staircase--"Since he lived in the Bronx, I thought he shouldn’t have a house without a fire escape,” Jane says. This salt-air Eden allows Weintraub to slow down a bit, sometimes, on weekends.
But on weekdays, whether here or in Beverly Hills, says Jane, “My husband gets up at 4. He doesn’t have an alarm, he just gets up and goes into the gym and works out on the treadmill, gets on his bicycle, then does his exercises. Sometimes he’ll walk for 10 or 15 minutes, on the beach or around the town, then he comes in, showers, shaves--and he’s waiting for us to wake up. I can always tell, because he starts banging around. Six o’clock, he’ll come into the room, bang the door, or he’ll say, ‘You’re not awake yet? Not up yet? Where’s the coffee?'--little hints like that. Or he’ll say, ‘What, are you going to sleep all day?’ That kind of stuff. At a quarter to 7 he can’t wait to wake up the kids (adopted daughters Julie, 11; Jamie, 9, and Jodi, 6). Now the security guard has brought the papers and the trades, so he sits down and watches the news and reads. By now I’m down with the kids for breakfast and coffee with him. He’ll usually leave for the office before the kids leave for school.”
“I have a 21-hour day because I want to,” says Weintraub. “I like it. I think when I die I’m going to sleep, you know, very quietly.”
Weintraub works the phone in the manner he claims to have inherited from his father--30-second bursts, over and out. “I don’t ask people how they are, how their kids are. I say yes, no, OK, goodby. I don’t have any problem making decisions. They get answers fast.” The decisions have to come fast. WEG is aiming, in the next four years, to launch more than 26 feature films, average budget $14.375 million (“Some will be 10 and some will be 20"), using its $461-million war chest.
He’s building talent assets, too. Richard Pryor is signed for a picture, while Mel Gibson and his business partner Pat Lovell are signed to a two-year, first-look deal between their production company and WEG. The first script headed for production via that arrangement is a comedy-thriller called “Tetley,” starring Gibson (Weintraub cut the deal before “Lethal Weapon” boosted Gibson’s marquee value through the roof).
Always on the lookout for a moneymaking hedge (in the past several years he’s set up such relatively mom-and-pop enterprises as the Tovar beauty salon in Beverly Hills and an Elvis museum in Tokyo), Weintraub is also keeping an eye on television. His leadoff TV series entry will star Lee Majors as a man who runs a stud farm in Australia with his three sons (shades of “Bonanza,” not to mention Majors’ six previous hit series). And he’s one of three investors in “Starlight Express,” which skated past appalling reviews into the highest-grossing week in Broadway history.
But job No. 1 at WEG is the movies, and a succession of stars have visited the conference room to lunch at the big table with Weintraub. Molly Ringwald recalls how convincing his manner was when he brought her into a deal at UA. “He really believed in me when I wasn’t established as someone who deserved that much belief. He’s very straightforward; he just said: ‘I really like you, I think you’re great. I want to do a lot of movies with you.’ You think, ‘God, not many people seem to be this way.’ ” Ringwald’s WEG project is Walter Tevis’ book “The Queen’s Gambit,” about a female chess prodigy. “He leaves people to be creative--he checks in, asks questions, but doesn’t make people feel claustrophobic. And that also seems to be kind of rare.”
IT’S COME TO the time of day when the sun, seen through the massive windows of Weintraub’s office, is a perfect orange circle about to drop into the Pacific, the time of day when Weintraub enjoys his Stolichnaya--three drinks, or maybe four, to be sweated out before dawn the next day--and he sets to musing on his work and times.
“I don’t know how people view me, but I’m very sure of myself, and I’m not afraid of any situation that might arise. I know how to make movies, and I know how to make music and television, how to do shows. I know how to entertain the public, and I also have a flair for events. I love to sell popcorn, I love to sell T-shirts. I worked with some of the greatest people in this business, and they taught me how to make an audience cry, make them clap, make them scream. I was there for 12, 13 years learning all that stuff. So when Billy Friedkin calls me ‘Presents'--that’s his name for me--or Frank Sinatra writes on a picture to me, ‘To Jerry and His Flying Circus,’ it’s because inside of me lurks this carny guy, this circus guy who would really like to have an elephant parade behind him when I go someplace.”
That someplace, these days, is the high-risk world of studio film-making. Weintraub doesn’t seem daunted. In fact, you can almost see the wheels turning as he thinks of what might come after the studio. At their precious-stone business on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Sam and Doug Weintraub are looking at a decades-old childhood photo of the two brothers. “This one looks content,” says Sam, tapping Doug’s picture as he studies his two sons, “Jerry’s looking, anxious for something all the time.”
“I think he’s found it,” says Doug. Sam looks over quickly, pausing before he speaks.
“I wonder,” Sam says.