COVER STORY : Managing in Turbulent Times : As personal manager to some of Hollywood's biggest names, Sandy Gallin has earned a rep for keeping secrets and dodging the spotlight. Now, the task of rebuilding Michael Jackson's image has forced him front and center

Claudia Eller is The Times' movie editor

Lying on the floor of his posh, newly remodeled Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park while getting a shiatsu massage, Hollywood mega-manager Sandy Gallin tells a reporter on the phone that he is finally ready to step out of the background and talk about the crisis plaguing his superstar client Michael Jackson.

"Let me read you something," says Gallin, 53, who also represents such other pop icons as Dolly Parton and Neil Diamond. Reading an emotionally charged statement he has prepared for The Times in defense of Jackson--who five months ago was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy and now faces a civil lawsuit set to go to trial March 21--Gallin finally breaks his carefully cultivated low profile, saying, "I can no longer remain a silent witness.

"Over several weeks now I have watched in silent horror the press crucify and assassinate Michael's character without any solid evidence and with no response from his side," he reads. "Based on my very thorough and intimate knowledge of Michael's activities" and "insights into his character, I am convinced that Michael has done nothing that is illegal or immoral.

"Michael's innocent, open and childlike relationships with children may appear bizarre and strange to adults in our society who cannot conceive of any relationship without sexual connotations. . . . This is not a reflection of Michael's character; rather it is a symptom of the sexual phobias of our society."

Gallin says the only reason for speaking up now is to help Jackson, not out of concern for his own image. "I don't think I would have been perceived badly, because I have a low profile," he says. "I stay in the background and my association with Michael is not that public."

He is certainly right about that. Unlike his two best friends, Barry Diller and David Geffen--neither of whom can be said to be press shy--Sandy Gallin has managed to keep his personal and professional lives out of the media spotlight during his 30-year career, particularly when it involves scandal.

Three years ago, for example, when his then-clients Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, better known as Milli Vanilli, were stripped of their Grammy after it was revealed that they did not sing on the hit album "Girl You Know It's True," Gallin and his management firm, Gallin Morey Associates, were barely mentioned in the flood of press accounts.

Diller defends his friend's choice of a low-profile strategy: "The reason he's chosen this tack is to maintain his dignity." Referring to the Jackson crisis, Diller says: "In a situation which has become such a media circus, I think what he's decided is one more voice isn't going to do anyone any good. He decided that the only way to best serve his client was not to talk."

Gallin says he has always preferred to stay in the background. "I am not a star, and I always thought someone I represented would think, 'Why am I not in these five pages . . . and why is my manager?' "

After graduating from Boston University in communications and the arts in 1962, the Brooklyn-born and Long Island-bred Gallin, who had always been fascinated by show business ("I even wanted to be Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton--a mega-star in every medium"), realized he was not destined for stardom. "It was the day of the pretty boy--Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Fabian--and I thought, 'I don't look like them. I am not going to make it, because I am not gorgeous.' So I decided I would go behind the camera. (Even then) I knew I wanted to be a manager and a producer."

The boyish-looking Gallin, with his cropped wavy brown hair, lively brown eyes, fit 5-foot-9 physique and expensive smile, could, in fact, be mistaken for a onetime teen idol. But in lieu of stardom, Gallin chose to transform the careers of the undiscovered into superstars, calling on his own strengths: an instinct for recognizing talent, hard-nosed negotiating skills, a bottomless schmooze capacity and, as one of his former associates put it, "an ability to understand the superstar mentality and subjugate his own ego."

While sometimes the lines are blurry between the duties of an agent and a manager, in general the agent negotiates deals for clients, while a manager supervises and helps forge a client's public-relations strategies and make career choices, and takes a more personal role in an entertainer's life.

"I look at the client as a business or industry," Gallin says, "and the manager becomes the chairman of the board. . . . You have to know the mind of the people you represent and become their alter ego. . . . I always try to put myself into their psyche and make decisions the way they would." Ultimately, he says, "all final decisions, no matter how big or small--whether someone should do 'The Tonight Show' or commit to a world tour--remain with the artist."

This philosophy has served him well over the years. Since becoming a personal manager in 1970, Gallin has helped to steer--and in many cases launch--the careers of Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Pryor, Cher, Lily Tomlin, Barbra Streisand, the Pointer Sisters, Patti LaBelle and Olivia Newton-John, as well as current clients, who include aspiring stars like Martin Lawrence and Johnny Gill. He also has tried to widen his Hollywood power base, with his 8-year-old partnership with Parton, in Sandollar Prods., a film and television production company that produced "Father of the Bride' and HBO's Oscar-winning AIDS documentary "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt," as well as box-office flops like "Shining Through," "Straight Talk" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

But it is Jackson who is Gallin's highest-profile client--and, currently, his highest-profile headache. It's safe to say that Gallin is facing the toughest gig of his career: rebuilding the image of the world's biggest and now most beleaguered pop star.

It was only a year ago that Gallin, who began working for Jackson in August, 1990, persuaded the excruciatingly shy Jackson to try to transform his peculiar image. Gallin engineered the star's appearances on various televised award shows in early 1993, including the NAACP Image Awards, the American Music Awards and the Grammys, and booked him at President Clinton's pre-inaugural gala, the Super Bowl and finally an intimate televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, his first in more than a decade.

Gallin says that as a result of those appearances, Jackson's "Dangerous" album, which had been out more than 18 months, shot up the Billboard charts from No. 143 to No. 9 and went on to outsell his "Bad" album worldwide. And of course, it was hardly a one-way street; a source close to Gallin speculates that the manager earns annual fees "in the seven figures" from Jackson alone.

While he may feel differently about it privately, Gallin is unwavering that Jackson's image will remake itself again: "When all of the facts come out and people find out how Michael was taken advantage of and extorted, I believe the public sympathy will be enormous toward him."

When the sex-abuse allegations first surfaced in mid-August, Gallin dismissed them as just another extortion attempt, of which Jackson, he says, is the target of "numerous" times a year because of his wealth. But the matter escalated, and Jackson has been under investigation by Los Angeles and Santa Barbara police, although there have been no criminal charges. Jackson is scheduled to be deposed Tuesday as part of the civil suit.

During the last five months, Gallin has let Jackson's high-powered attorneys and other handlers work the front lines, while he has quietly worked behind the scenes. Jackson's litigation attorney, Howard L. Weitzman, says Gallin has contributed to "every major decision" Jackson has made, including the live broadcast in December from his Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara, in which for the first time he pleaded his innocence publicly. Weitzman says he believes the appeal, which was largely Gallin's idea, "greatly enhanced (Jackson's) image."

Elizabeth Taylor, a good friend of Gallin's, and Jackson's closest confidant, says Gallin's support of Jackson has been invaluable. "He is the best possible friend Michael can have. He's shown such restraint and such care of Michael from the very onset."

Taylor says that when Jackson became addicted to painkillers last fall, in part because of stress over the child-abuse allegations, Gallin insisted that Jackson's "Dangerous" world tour be canceled.

"He said, 'It's going to cost a lot of money--to hell with that, his health is more important." Gallin, Taylor adds, "was one of the only ones who really cared about Michael's well-being. Sandy and I have been the most blunt and honest and there for him." Both Taylor and Gallin flew overseas to be at Jackson's side at different times, before the tour was called off in November.

Gallin has managed to stay at the top of his field at least in part by his discretion and fierce loyalty. His refusal to ever reveal a confidence has won him the trust of the rich and famous over the years.

"He's quiet and keeps his nose out of things," said Mac Davis, who was Gallin's first client, in 1970.

Gallin's former business associate Bill Sammeth, who now manages Cher and Olivia Newton-John--both former Gallin clients--says: "As a confidant, nobody is better. If you tell him something, it stays with him."

Friends try hard to pry good dish out of Gallin, to no avail.

"He's totally worthless as a friend in that regard--he won't talk about his clients," ribs writer Fran Lebowitz. "If I ever decide to go into show business, I'd know who I'd want to be my manager. I get more information out of the National Enquirer than Sandy."

Lebowitz recounted a recent weekend gathering at Calvin and Kelly Klein's beach house in East Hampton, Long Island, where she, Gallin, Diller and Geffen are frequent guests. Everybody was seated around the dinner table when a call came for Gallin from Jackson. Lebowitz says Gallin ducked into the bedroom, shut the door and emerged half an hour later. "We all tried to get him to talk about Michael Jackson . . . but he doesn't seem to enjoy telling secrets."

This quality is undoubtedly valued by the very private Jackson, who in a brief phone interview with The Times from Mexico City before the cancellation of his tour said Gallin's best attributes as a manager are "his competence, his loyalty and his honesty. Those three things you can't buy--they're important to me. It's very important not only to be together professionally but to be comrades."

Landing Jackson as a client was clearly the biggest coup of Gallin's career and a nice gift from pal Geffen, who helped bring the two together. But it was the kind of signing Gallin no doubt expected to make one day. From childhood, Gallin says, "I always knew I was going to be successful." At age 4 he announced to his aunts that he was going to be the most successful person in entertainment, "and I talked in the millions of dollars."

The sons of middle-class Jewish parents, young Albert Samuel Gallin and his older brother, Henry, moved from Brooklyn to Lawrence on Long Island, then the richest Jewish community in New York. "We lived like we were rich, but we were always living above our means," he says. He points to his magnificent Malibu beach house and says, "We lived in a house like this, where the gas would be turned off, the telephones would be turned off, the electricity would be turned off and the butcher would call to say, 'We just can't extend any more credit.' "

When Sandy was 15, his father, Sidney, a high school dropout who became a builder, lost all his money. "My father was always a gambler, and always running around with other women. If he made $100,000, he'd spend $125,000." When Sidney Gallin had a stroke not long afterward, his siblings put him into bankruptcy, the big house and cars were sold to pay his debts, and the Gallins moved to an apartment. Sandy's mother, Florence, a housewife who hadn't worked outside the home, took a secretarial job to support the family.

That situation made a profound impression on the young Gallin. Gallin confesses to having had until very recently a deep-seated fear of ending up destitute, "sitting on a park bench waiting for the bus with a brown paper bag between my legs--poor, penniless, homeless."

After graduating from college, Gallin took a $50-a-week job working in the mail room of the New York office of General Artists Corp. (predecessor of International Creative Management).

"To deliver a letter to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme's apartment or Paul Anka's--I couldn't believe it. I was so happy and proud to be in the mail room," he recalls. He took a crash course in typing and shorthand, and after six weeks of sorting and delivering mail, he persuaded the secretary of powerhouse variety TV agent Tony Ford to quit her job and got himself hired as her replacement. Gallin began booking such TV game shows as "What's My Line?" and "To Tell the Truth" and worked on "The Ed Sullivan Show"--for which he booked the Beatles in their 1964 American debut.

Soon promoted to full-fledged agent, Gallin signed a diverse group of clients like Cass Elliott, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Virginia Graham. He worked his way up through the agency's music, TV and packaging departments and became a senior vice president at age 28. In the mid-'60s, he was transferred to GAC's West Coast offices, a move he welcomed because he was a closeted homosexual. "I was afraid of being gay living in the same city as my brother and mother," he says.

Geffen, who briefly worked with Gallin at the agency, had proposed that the two go into business together in a record company and management firm. In a decision he has always regretted, Gallin turned Geffen down to become, in 1970, a manager with his distant cousin Raymond Katz, who represented such clients as Jackie Gleason, Merv Griffin and Jack Carter.

The two remained partners in their firm, Katz Gallin, for 14 years, managing such clients as Parton, Tomlin, Rivers, Cher, Davis, Goldberg, Anthony Newley, Florence Henderson and the Osmonds, as well as producing a number of award-winning TV specials and shows. In 1984, the cousins had an acrimonious split over the allocation of fees, and Katz sued Gallin for taking clients Parton, Davis, Goldberg and the Pointer Sisters; the case was settled out of court.

Gallin formed his own management company in 1985 with Jim Morey, a longtime manager and former partner at Katz Gallin. The same year saw the launch, with Parton, of Sandollar.

Also in 1985, Gallin had his one shot at stardom, hosting a short-lived NBC summer-replacement variety show called "Live and in Person," which quickly foundered, and also caused a major conflict with at least one client. "I didn't want a manager who was a performer, who would get on the phone and say, 'Sorry, I can't talk, I have to go on camera,"' says Rivers, who fired him shortly afterward.

That he never achieved stardom--and has yet to become a movie mogul--are two things that stick in Gallin's craw.

Howard Rosenman, a onetime close pal of Gallin's who co-headed Sandollar's movie division for six years before leaving last June for Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, says: "Sandy always wanted to be a player in the motion picture business--and he will. As a manager, depending on the viability and marketability of your clients, you're a player, but as a producer you're viable yourself only if you have a hit."

Future Sandollar projects include "I.Q.," a romantic comedy for Paramount to be directed by Fred Schepisi, and "Father's Little Dividend," a sequel to "Father of the Bride." Sandollar TV has two new on-air commitments: one for an NBC series starring Gaby Hoffmann, about a young girl growing up in St. Louis; the other a CBS series, "Dixie Fixin's," featuring Parton as the host of a cable-TV cooking show.

Despite these ambitious plans--and Gallin's hope to "raise the quality of the movies"--he maintains that management remains his first priority. Parton, whom Gallin has handled since the early '70s, says, "Sandy is the greatest manager anyone can have." The fact, she points out, that "I can be best friends with someone managing my career and be in business with him has made it easier for me." Their close friendship, however, did not sit well with some of Gallin's other important clients, including Rivers and, reportedly, Cher.

"There've been some professional jealousies, and Sandy has lost some major clients because they feel he put me first," Parton says. "He doesn't put me before other people. . . . It just happens that I am his best friend and he is mine, and they were jealous because we have such a great and rare friendship."

Neil Diamond, who knew Gallin for several years before hiring him as his manager nine years ago, says that initially he was "a little nervous" about entering into a business relationship with a friend. But, he says: "It's worked out wonderfully. I don't do anything without getting his input on it."

A number of his clients, including Parton and Davis, credit Gallin with believing in their talent even before their careers took off.

"I went from nothing--making zip working for a (music) publishing company--and within a year I was doing college concerts all over the country, TV, and had a hit record," recalls Davis, who met Gallin when he was a struggling songwriter. He later introduced Gallin to Parton, who was a struggling singer-songwriter herself. Shortly after signing with Gallin in 1974, she had her first crossover hit record, "Here You Come Again."

Calvin Klein, who is not a client but a close friend of Gallin's, recalls a night he spent with Gallin in L.A. five years ago, a day before checking himself into a rehab clinic in Minnesota: "I think of him as my brother. It was a difficult time for me, and just knowing he was there was all I needed."

Even a number of Gallin's ex-clients still keep in touch with him. Whoopi Goldberg, whom Gallin managed from 1983 to 1990, says: "He promotes you; he gave me all my good habits and good pointers on how to talk to people and how to deal in business." Now represented by Keith Addis, once a partner of Gallin and Morey's, Goldberg says the reason she fired Gallin was "very simple--I outgrew Sandy and he outgrew me. He moved on to new folks like Michael." Once she won the best supporting actress Oscar for "Ghost," Goldberg says, her goal with Gallin had been achieved and "it was time to move on and explore some new avenues."

Rivers too credits her former manager with "taking me from being an opening act in Vegas and guest on the (Johnny) Carson show, to a (headlining) act and doing concerts." And Tomlin, also a former client, says of Gallin: "He can just get you geared up for anything. When I was with him I even sang a duet with Barry Manilow," referring to a spoof of duet songs.

Morey, Gallin's management partner, who considers himself "a button-down, conservative person" compared to the "very flamboyantly" styled Gallin, says: "He gets some crazy ideas sometimes, but there may be one tiny aspect of a wild idea that becomes the driving force of a project. . . . We speak everyday at about 7:30 a.m. and Sandy will have an idea I think is pretty outlandish. By noon that idea doesn't seem so extraordinary, and by midafternoon, I'm on the team."

Gallin does have his detractors, however, who are quick to say he can be ill-tempered, controlling and dismissive to people he thinks don't matter to him. He is also very hard on people who work for him and with him, which even he admits.

"He is respectful to the people he likes, needs and perceives to have power, and he is rude and dismissive to people he cares little for," said a Hollywood executive who has done business with Gallin over the years.

Tiny Tim, a client from the GAC days, still harbors anger toward Gallin for snubbing him at Gallin's 1980 surprise birthday party. After being invited to perform at the L.A. party and traveling from New York by train, Tim remembers: "I said 'hello' to Mr. Gallin and he was absolutely not friendly. Not only did I get the cold shoulder from him, it was 'thank you and goodby.' . . . I never forgot it."

Gallin suggests that what may seem condescending is actually shyness. He does admit he has a hot temper (he claims it's more under control, after four years on Prozac) and can be impatient. He admits he once threw a desk at a secretary. He also acknowledges: "I am a perfectionist and expect it from others--poor everyone around me."

He won't get an argument about that from some ex-employees. Barry Josephson, an executive vice president of production at Columbia Pictures who worked as a manager for Gallin from 1983 to 1988, says: "He's hard to work for, very demanding and goal oriented. It's trial by fire to work for him, but he's a winner, so when you graduate, you get it."

Gallin's present employees are much more circumspect.

"He will only demand of you what he himself would do," says Sheila Gilles, who has been Gallin's assistant for six years.

That perfectionist nature extends from the elaborate homes in which Gallin has lived to his personal appearance. "I am fastidiously clean," he says, as if the eat-off-the-floor appearance of his house didn't say enough. "It's a good thing I'm not picking up your folder, your glasses and your tapes and putting them in the drawer."

Gallin's critics say he has lost many more high-profile clients than he has acquired, and that he is not the vital force with new talent that he once was. One highly placed record-industry source says: "He's had a big turnover of employees and artists. Why? It's a problem with the way he's structured his business--he's always delegated other people to manage his acts. Put it this way: He's not on the tip of our tongues when we look for a manager for an act."

But even his detractors view Gallin as someone who yearns to belong and be loved. "Down deep, he's really a mensch --a nice Jewish boy who won't consciously do anything immoral. He's competitive and self-absorbed, but basically he wants desperately to be liked," says someone who knows him well.

Gallin, in fact, is candid about his self-absorption. His extensive plastic surgery and three manicures a week in the office are legendary. His other indulgences? "Collagen as often as needed and massages three to four times a week."

His morning ritual includes yoga, meditation and working out with a personal trainer. And he is admittedly hypochondriacal and has a relentless fear of getting AIDS, though he continues to test negative. "I go get tested every time I get a cough, and my doctor says, 'I'm not doing this again.' "

Ten years ago Gallin had a different cause for worry. After discovering a lump under his arm, he learned he had cancer. While waiting to see if the cancer had spread--it hadn't--Gallin said he began to mediate and use visualization techniques.

As a result of his avowed gratitude to God for sparing his life, his morning ritual also includes putting on tefillin --small leather boxes containing passages from the Old Testament that observant Jews don daily as part of the prayer ritual, along with a prayer shawl and yarmulke.

Gallin's longtime friend Carole Bayer Sager says: "We all tease him about everything he's done--his meditating, exercising, praying--but this is something Sandy did way before it was fashionable." Bayer Sager, who met Gallin in New York in the '60s on a blind date that she remembers as a "dazed horror," says he "really tries to incorporate some spirituality into his rather hectic external lifestyle. He looks for some inner meaning or connection--and I relate to that."

Gallin's spiritual leanings seem in stark contrast to his more temporal, extravagant Hollywood lifestyle. Sources estimate Gallin's personal worth at $30 million, and say he makes $3 million to $7 million a year. While his wealth pales next to that of Geffen (whose personal fortune is about $1 billion) and Diller (whose QVC network is currently bidding about $10 billion for Paramount Communications), Gallin says he is grateful for what he has, though he wouldn't mind more.

"I would love if a little birdie would fly into my window with several hundred million dollars and lay it on the table right here. I live very big and spend a lot."

Gallin's prize possession is the $13-million Cape Cod-style beach house he built in Malibu in 1991, where he spends nearly every weekend with Scott Bankston, 32, his lover of six years, who is a talent manager at Gallin Morey, and his three Boston terriers, Uggams, Mickey and Panda. (During the week they live in the Hollywood Hills, near Gallin's office.)

On a recent perfect day, Gallin sits on the veranda of the white clapboard house overlooking the Pacific, eating a lunch served by his cook. He is dressed in madras cotton shorts and forest-green T-shirt, relaxing in the luxurious surroundings, which, though lovely, are in fact more modest than the ostentatious Beverly Hills mansion Gallin previously lived in.

"That was a ridiculous house," Gallin says. "I always dreamed of living in Hollywood and making it big, of knowing famous, influential people and stars and being in the loop. So I built this 17,000-square-foot house, and the night I moved into it and it took me 45 minutes to turn on all the lights, I knew I made a major error."

That mansion--one of 11 houses that Gallin has built or remodeled--was the site of his lavish Hollywood parties, which have been supplanted by a more low-key style of entertaining at the beach house. "As I've become more secure in myself, more spiritual, I need less of the outside accouterments to make me feel accomplished."

That growing reliance on the spiritual can only help during his current crisis. Diller says Gallin "doesn't complain" about the emotional weight of the Jackson ordeal, but points out that "the fact that this has been an everyday crisis for so long, I think it's a real tear on somebody. . . . He may have great strength and reserve, but it can't be easy on him." Comparing Gallin's work to that of super-agent Michael Ovitz, Diller says, "No matter how good or strong you are at it, it's a truly stressful life, and therefore your life is subjugated to your clients.' "

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