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When a Hollywood Manager Feels Like a ‘Working Girl’

Times Arts Editor

The ties that bind in Hollywood have the tensile strength of overboiled spaghetti, and some ties are even more fragile than others.

With few exceptions, the tie between actor and press agent is probably the most fragile of all. The press agents are in a no-win situation--fired if they do too little, dropped if they do so well that the actor can afford a larger, glossier agency or figures that he no longer needs publicity at all.

The link between actor and personal manager is almost as fragile and for much the same reasons. The slow nurturing of a career either pays off not at all or succeeds so well that the actor presumes to fly alone and would as soon not be reminded of his or her previous condition of servitude and dependency.

The glittering performances that win Academy Award nominations, of course, rest atop a vast undergirding of executives, lawyers, agents and managers.

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Personal managers are probably the least known members of the Hollywood firmament. They operate in a loosely defined realm of career guidance that is distinct from the work of the agents, who sell, the business managers who oversee the money side and the press agents who bang the drums, not slowly.

Phyllis Carlyle is a personal manager who had what began as a very happy day when this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced. She was the co-executive producer, with John Malkovich, of “The Accidental Tourist,” one of the nominated best pictures. She manages Willem Dafoe, who co-starred in “Mississippi Burning,” another of the nominated films. Malkovich himself co-starred in “Dangerous Liaisons,” a third nominated film. And, until that week, she had for nearly nine years managed Melanie Griffith, who was nominated as best actress for “Working Girl,” fourth of the five nominated films.

But Griffith had ended the association with a five-line note, which Carlyle opened when she returned from a trip the day of the nominations. The note hoped that they would always be friends. It is a fair speculation that Griffith’s renewed association with Don Johnson might have been a factor in the dismissal of Carlyle. Griffith now shares Johnson’s attorney and press agent and presumably has all the support system she feels she needs.

Carlyle is disappointed but philosophical. “At the time she became a client, nobody would take Melanie seriously. She had a lot of problems. I offered friendship, support and advice. I sent her to New York to study. She began to work again. Along the way she had other personal problems that we had to work past. She felt she was able to overcome all of it and now, I think, she wants to show that she’s a star and she probably feels some resentment at having to be grateful.”

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In an earlier Hollywood the studios shaped the careers of their contract players, teaching them to act, fence, dance, sing and, within limits, to behave. The players were brought along if they proved to have an it audiences responded to. The end of contract rosters in the television era left actors without the kind of career guidance the studios had provided. Personal managers now try to fill the vacuum. If she has a talent, Carlyle says, it is in identifying actors who have whatever it is.

She was born in Cleveland, the daughter of Russ Carlyle, a well-known band leader in the Big Band era. She moved to Chicago and started a talent agency for commercials, handling models for catalogues and print ads and actors for voice-over work.

After 10 years she sold her agency, A-Plus, and moved to Los Angeles. The idea of making movies had already appealed to her. She began again in commercial casting and says she found Ted Danson his first commercial. “I got Steve Guttenberg his SAG card,” Carlyle says.

Carlyle was by no means the first personal manager; there are dozens. But with her agency, Carlyle Casting, well-established she decided to move into managing because by now she knew so many promising talents in need of guidance.

Her first client was an actor pal, Jamie Widdoes, who is now going into directing. Griffith, nine years ago, was an early client. Back in Chicago six years ago, a friend took her to see John Malkovich in “True West” and he became a client. After a couple of years, she says, “We traded labels and became a producing partnership,” ending the manager-client relationship.

Among her other clients are Willem Dafoe, Andy Garcia, Donna Mills, Geena Davis (nominated for her supporting role in “The Accidental Tourist”), Chris Sarandon and the director John Frankenheimer among others.

Four years ago an agent had shown Malkovich a copy of “The Accidental Tourist” and the partners persuaded Warner Bros. to buy it for them. Frank Galati was hired to do a script, and the original idea was for Malkovich and Melanie Griffith to co-star.

But the course of true Hollywood never runs smooth. The original Warners executive left within weeks after the property was acquired. There were creative differences with a director brought into the project. Malkovich was committed to “Burn This” on stage and then to “Dangerous Liaisons.” Lawrence Kasdan came aboard and was set to find someone to co-star with Griffith when “Working Girl” became available for her. So “The Accidental Tourist” ended up as a Kasdan-William Hurt-Geena Davis vehicle, with pleasing consequences.

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Carlyle is now developing another Anne Tyler book--her most recent, “Breathing Lessons"--for Columbia and has two other projects that appear likely to go this spring, one in Australia.

She is expanding her role as a personal manager to embrace more directors and writers. “They find they don’t have anyone to bounce off any more either,” Carlyle says. “They want a shaping hand, need a shaping hand, especially if what you’re all after is excellence.”


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