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Agent to Stars,'Luckiest Guy in World,’ Has Little Field Named After Him

Times Staff Writer

Why don’t sharks eat Hollywood agents?

Professional courtesy.

That’s an old joke in Hollywood, where agents are perceived as only slightly more sensitive and moral than producers.

Fortunately, not every agent fits the profile. There is one out there who actually gives agents a good name. Jack Gilardi of Beverly Hills is probably the only agent who has had a Little League field named after him.

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“He’s not your average Hollywood agent,” said O. J. Simpson, who has been represented by Gilardi for 17 years on nothing but a handshake. “He’s almost like a camp counselor.”

Gilardi is a senior agent at International Creative Management with a client list that ranges from Joan Collins and Faye Dunaway to the Fat Boys and Don Rickles. He goes to church. He raises thousands of dollars for charity. He loves kids. He returns phone calls.

“Jack is a class guy, a man well-loved in his profession,” said Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, who has been friends for years with Gilardi. For 26 years, Gilardi and producer Joe Siegman--Gilardi gets the celebrities, Siegman writes the gags--has run the annual Hollywood Stars Night at Dodger Stadium, which benefits the Motion Picture Relief Fund.

There’s a black-and-white photo of Lasorda and Gilardi in Gilardi’s cozy office on the seventh floor of the ICM building in West Los Angeles. Overlooking the Hollywood Hills, the office is filled with antique furniture, but the dominant feature is a collection of National Football League helmets. There is also enough sports memorabilia to start a museum: boxing gloves, baseball caps, score cards, an engraved bat given to him by the Dodgers.

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Gilardi, who’s about 50 (he won’t give his exact age), has thick brown hair swept straight back and a wiry, athletic build. He is a man with a reputation for fair play and honesty in a cutthroat profession. He hangs out with sports legends and Hollywood icons. He was married “for 18 wonderful years” to Annette Funicello, one of the original Mouseketeers who is still his client, and they have three children.

No wonder Gilardi says, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

A second-generation Italian-American, Gilardi wanted to be a doctor when he was growing up in Chicago. So instead of taking a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame or Illinois, he attended Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, a small Catholic school that didn’t even have a baseball team. But his medical career ended when he “ran into organic chemistry--or it ran into me.” He graduated with a degree in business and was drafted into the Army for two years.

Stationed at Ft. Knox, Ky., he got the break of a lifetime. As a private, he was assigned to book entertainment--Duke Ellington, Ray Anthony--on the base, giving him a show business education and innumerable connections. Discharged from the service, he was offered jobs with three big entertainment agencies in the Midwest. But William Morris wanted him to start as a typist and the Music Corp. of America wanted him to wrap band posters in the publicity department. Only General Artists Corp. said it would hire him as an agent.

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“But I didn’t even know what an agent did,” Gilardi said.

He learned fast. In 1958, GAC--the forerunner of ICM--transferred him to Los Angeles and put him in charge of the “cocktail department,” meaning that he represented talent that performed in local nightclubs such as the Melody Room on Sunset Strip. In two years, he was running the agency’s entire West Coast nightclub department, a territory that included Las Vegas and Tahoe.

At the time, Gilardi was spending a lot of leisure hours at P.J.s, a West Hollywood club. Gilardi hung out with teen idol Frankie Avalon and Harvey Lembeck, the comic actor who played Cpl. Rocco Barbella alongside Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Ernie Bilko on television’s “The Phil Silvers Show.” They began playing pickup softball games at Roxbury Park against a team that included comedians Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene.

“All of a sudden I got calls from other people in the business who wanted to play games against us,” Gilardi recalls. Before Gilardi knew it, he was commissioner of the Hollywood Entertainment League, which became a major part of the industry’s social whirl.

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A lot of the major stars of the early ‘60s had teams. There were Jerry Lewis’ Clowns and Dean Martin’s Dinos, James Garner’s Gems and Pat Boone’s Boones. Producers Aaron Spelling and David Wolper played. So did Jack Nicholson, Bobby Darin, Burt Reynolds and the Nelson boys, David and Ricky. Gilardi played on the United Jewish Italians, which was sponsored by a Union 76 station.

After the league started up, Gilardi began dating Funicello. They married, and when their first child, Gina, was born in 1965, Annette began showing up at softball games pushing a baby carriage. But by the mid-'60s, the league began to change. Teams were bringing in ringers, circumventing a rule that limited rosters to players who worked in the entertainment industry. And when the caliber of play increased, the stars began to lose their enthusiasm. “Some of them couldn’t compete that heavily,” Gilardi said. “They just weren’t that good.”

By the late ‘60s, Gilardi was spending his time with his young family and his burgeoning business and could no longer devote a lot of energy to running a 10-team league, so in 1969 he announced his retirement as commissioner. The league went on for another year before it folded.

“Nobody else was willing to take on total responsibility,” Gilardi said.

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Gilardi’s involvement with the Hollywood Stars began in 1963. One of his clients was Nat King Cole, who had been captain and organizer of a celebrity team and asked Gilardi to take it over for him. Gilardi enlisted the help of Siegman, who had moved from Chicago. Today, comedian Billy Crystal is captain of one team and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar heads another.

“It’s a big deal to a lot of the stars,” said Gilardi, who keeps a photo of Funicello standing in the shadows of Abdul-Jabbar. “You can’t book Billy Crystal when there’s a game. He’ll block off those days.”

In 1979, Gilardi, who lived in Encino, signed up his son Jackie, then 8, in the Encino Little League. Five years later, his youngest son, Jason, began playing. Gilardi managed their teams. He got Annette to staff the snack stand and Simpson to throw out the first ball. He was league president for a year. And aside from being the most popular manager, said former league President Bernie Paperny, Gilardi raised about $200,000 for the league.

“He was the backbone of all fund raising,” said Paperny. “He worked countless hours and asked nothing in exchange.”

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Harvey Katofsky another former league president, remembers Gilardi’s ability to elicit donations for the league’s fund-raisers. “He even had a boat donated that we sold at an auction,” Katofsky said.

Gilardi has had a close relationship with the players, Paperny said. “He was like a father to all of them and made them feel good about themselves. Everybody wanted to play on his team. One year the kids elected him to manage the all-star team with 95% of the votes.”

Gilardi did not allow parents to meddle, Katofsky said, and winning was not as important as the players’ personal growth. “If his players lost, they had to be good sports,” Katofsky said. “All he demanded of them was that they do their best and try hard.”

In 1985, Katofsky led a movement to name the main field at the Encino Little League complex after Gilardi. The announcement, made at a league banquet at the Sheraton Universal hotel, “was a complete surprise,” Gilardi said. A photo above his office desk shows him standing on the field by a sign that reads: “Gilardi Field--in honor of Jack Gilardi--for his dedication to Encino baseball.”

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Gilardi’s largess and his extensive contacts have made him an easy touch--he’s known as the man to see for hard-to-get tickets to sports events and concerts. He even arranged a private tour of the Vatican for an associate.

“Jack truly likes to help people,” Siegman said, “and he’s helped out an enormous number of people.”

But Gilardi will call in an IOU. “For every favor you ask, you have to give back two,” he says. “So you better consider which one you ask for.”

In his office, Gilardi points to another photo on his wall, taken about 14 years ago. The ICM softball team is playing archrival William Morris. There’s a brawl going on. Players are squared off. Except for one. “That’s me,” Gilardi said, “trying to break up the fight.”

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And blow a chance to go for the jugular. No, Gilardi is not your average Hollywood agent.


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