The Mighty, the Fallen : The story of the William Morris Agency : THE AGENCY: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business, By Frank Rose (HarperBusiness: $30; 416 pp.)

Gregg Kilday, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, is currently writing an account of Dreamworks for Dutton

Show business' greatest lie is that talent, like cream, always rises to the top. At any of the ubiquitous "How to Break Into the Business" seminars that proliferate throughout Los Angeles, from UCLA Extension to the newest multimedia conference, the panel of pooh-bahs on display dispense empty bromides about Practicing Your Craft Because Talent Conquers All. But their eager, often desperate, listeners already know the score: All they want is a contact, a phone number, a business card, an agent. What does it matter if you can sell a song when what you really need is someone to sell you?

Forget that next seminar. Invest in Frank Rose's "The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business" instead. It's like sitting in on a long, gossipy afternoon at the Hillcrest Country Club, feasting on a collection of war tales from the front lines of show business. Can you believe it, William Morris, the German emigrant, who set himself up as a vaudeville booker in New York way back in 1898, worked so hard that he canceled passage on the fatal voyages of both the Titanic and the Lusitania. And poor Johnny Hyde, he spends a couple of years trying to turn Marilyn Monroe into a star and just a few days after Fox finally signs her, he dies of a heart attack. What about that affair between Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr., which could have killed both their careers, but word had it George Wood, a New York Morris man with ties to the mob, made a few phone calls that forced Sammy to back off. And what about the ones that got away--the conservative Morris agency may have snapped up Elvis, but it failed to see the potential in Streisand and the Beatles. Win some, lose some.

"The Agency" is more than just a titillating string of bold-face names, though; Rose uses the saga of the Morris Agency's rise and fall as a prism through which to examine the constantly evolving nature of show business itself. Founder William Morris definitely had an eye for talent--"No act too big . . . no act too small" was his motto as he went about signing early clients such as rodeo performer Will Rogers, blackface singer Al Jolson and novelty acts such as Conrad's Pigeons and Singer's Midgets. But discovering talent was just the beginning. To book his acts, Morris had to battle first the Combine, a booking agency established by theater owner Benjamin Keith to drive performers' prices down, and then the monopolistic Keith-Albee vaudeville chain, which controlled the best houses. So Morris scouted Europe for even more new acts, opened his own theaters and, quick to realize that Hollywood's "talkies" would completely upset the balance of power, opened an L.A. outpost in 1927.

To succeed, the Morris Agency had to continually master the changing terrain, as vaudeville gave way to movies, which had to make room for radio, which eventually gave way to TV. What good was talent, if you didn't also cultivate buyers? And whenever the dominant buyers got too powerful, the smart agents encouraged competition by seeking out even more buyers. After the Morris Agency's arch-rival, MCA, stole away clients like Amos 'n' Andy and Jack Benny and delivered them to the rising CBS, establishing its dominance first in radio and then TV, Morris served up stars like night-club comic Danny Thomas to the upstart ABC in a bet that ABC family sitcoms like "Make Room for Daddy" could challenge the older-skewing roster on CBS. Forty years later, the ongoing network battles, for all the ink they command, are really nothing more than multimillion repeats of ancient skirmishes.

Given the choice, in its early years, between controlling talent or controlling vaudeville houses in which the talent appeared, William Morris opted to throw out his lot with performers. And, as Rose recounts his agency's steady rise--drawing upon an unpublished biography of Morris written by his children, government files and vivid anecdotes from show business veterans--it proved a shrewd decision. For while the showcases for that talent changed over time, the demand for talent never abated. If anything, the Morris Agency, with its cadre of agents all wearing identical dark suits, chose to cultivate a certain faceless anonymity. When its competitor, MCA, plunged into TV production in the '50s, a move that would eventually lead to unrelenting scrutiny from the Justice Department, Morris hung back, foregoing the immediate profits TV offered rather than facing the government's wrath. Without putting itself on the line, the agency prospered instead by selling its talents to all the other producers and networks.

By today's standards of self-promotion, the Morris Agency's avoidance of the limelight looks almost quaint--and, in time, it did prove its undoing. One lesson that it learned too late was that in the illusory world of Hollywood, the perception of success is even more important than the bottom line. By 1988, Morris was enjoying record revenues of $60 million--much of that a windfall from its successful packaging of "The Cosby Show," a "Make Room for Daddy" for the '80s. But it couldn't get any respect. For by then, its reputation as an industry powerbroker was in a tailspin, because its prestigious movie stars, never mind that they didn't necessarily bring in as much cash as Cosby, were busy jumping ship.

Abe Lastfogel, the agency's legendary chairman who joined the firm as a 14-year-old office boy in 1912 and presided over its heyday, passed away in 1984. A wave of deaths felled the next generation of Morris men--the most traumatic being that of the gentlemanly Stan Kamen, the company's top movie agent, who died, as discretely as he had lived, of AIDS. Suddenly, long-time clients such as Al Pacino, Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Goldie Hawn were up for grabs. And the Creative Artists Agency, formed by five renegade Morris agents just 11 years earlier, was poised to grab them.

Delineating the great Hollywood talent agencies, Rose characterizes Morris as "fundamentally interested in talent"; MCA (which would go on to buy Universal Pictures and divest itself of its talent agency) as interested in "power more than money"; and CMA, a forerunner of ICM, which enjoyed a splashy, star-studded success in the '70s as "clearly in pursuit of the maximum dollar." The new CAA quickly mastered all three pursuits under the leadership of Michael Ovitz, dubbed "super-agent" by a media too short-sighted to realize that the star packages for which CAA earned much of its notoriety were actually pioneered by the pugnacious William Morris back in the days of vaudeville. The Morris agency, recovering from chaotic management turnover, was quickly outdistanced by both the smoothly operating CAA and its sometimes fractious rival, ICM.

Bouncing along like "Ragtime" in its early pages, "The Agency" ultimately reads like a melodramatic remake of "The Bad and the Beautiful." Stars come and go: The most dramatic example of a star's gratitude being the cable sent by an insecure Steve McQueen to Kamen, the man who made his career. "DEAR STAN," it reads, "YOU'RE FIRED. LETTER FOLLOWS. STEVE." Rose tries to cover so much territory--like an absorbing side trip into MCA's duel with Robert Kennedy's Justice Department--that the reader has to rush to keep up. And in an effort to sketch in the accompanying social history, he sometimes overdoes his effects--everything from television to Vegas to Elvis' pelvic thrusts are described as "atomic." But given the dramatic portraits he provides along the way, that's hardly a deal-breaker. Bottom line, "The Agency" is a vivid demonstration that when it comes to show business, talent is whatever sells, and selling is a talent all its own.

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