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Phil Gersh, 92; Agent With Old Hollywood Instincts, Art Patron

Times Staff Writer

Phil Gersh, an old-school Hollywood agent who ran his namesake agency for more than five decades and represented everyone from Humphrey Bogart and Zero Mostel to Robert Wise and Arthur Hiller, has died. He was 92.

Gersh, who with his wife, Beatrice, was one of America’s leading private collectors of modern and contemporary art, died Monday of natural causes at his home in Beverly Hills, according to his family.

Gersh became an agent in the mid-1930s and launched what became known as the Gersh Agency in 1949. Today, it has 60 agents working out of offices in Beverly Hills and New York City. The company has been run by Gersh’s sons, Bob and David; Leslie Siebert; and the elder Gersh, who continued to come into the office every day until about 10 weeks ago.

“You can set your watch by him going by on his way to work every day,” actor-director Richard Benjamin, a Gersh client who lives on the same street as the Gershs, told The Times in 2002.

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The wiry, silver-haired New York native was considered one of the last links between Hollywood’s Golden Age and today’s corporate-owned movie business.

“I just loved watching him operate,” Benjamin said Monday. When Benjamin wanted to launch his directing career about 25 years ago, he said, he turned to Gersh, who responded: “ ‘Let me take care of that,’ in that kind of great New York voice he had.”

As an agent, Benjamin said, Gersh “got what he wanted -- and made the person feel good on the other end of the phone. I heard him wrap up a deal one time and he said, ‘Why don’t you just sign off on this and we’ll have a drink together.’ It was like it was already done -- and in a very relaxed, charming kind of way.”

Gersh, Benjamin said, “absolutely loved” being an agent.

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“He once said to me, ‘You know, I’m not going to take you to lunch because if I take you to lunch, who’s working for you?’ And he worked all the time. I’d talk to him at the end of the day and he’d say, ‘God, I made a good deal today.’

“I think he retired briefly at one point and that lasted about 10 minutes. He couldn’t stand that. He missed the action.”

Sherry Lansing, Paramount Motion Picture Group chairman, said Gersh “was the epitome of a gentleman. He was an extraordinary agent: He was honest, he was decent, he fought hard for his clients, but he always fought with great integrity and passion.”

William A. Fraker, a six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer, said Gersh was “probably the best deal maker in Hollywood.”

“He was a terrific negotiator,” said Fraker. “He was a good friend, very loyal. You could depend on him. He was one of the originators of what agents really were in Hollywood. He was part of Hollywood when Hollywood was romantic; it’s not romantic today, it’s all business.”

In old Hollywood, Fraker said, Gersh “was a pillar -- as important as [Lew] Wasserman and all of them.”

Gersh was born in New York City to Russian-immigrant parents who owned a small deli on 25th Street and 9th Avenue.

“My family really struggled,” Gersh told the Hollywood Reporter in 1999. “When I was 8 or 9, they moved to Washington Heights and opened a small restaurant with my father’s two brothers. They became kind of successful and made a nice living.”

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Gersh moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘30s to attend UCLA. His sister Mildred had married then-Paramount executive Sam Jaffe, and after graduating in 1934, Gersh worked on a swing-gang in the Paramount prop department.

In 1936, after Jaffe quit Paramount and opened his own talent agency, Gersh took a $15-a-week job as an office boy in his brother-in-law’s company.

In a 2002 interview with The Times, Gersh said his first client as an agent was Mark Robson, a former fraternity brother who had moved from editing at RKO to directing. That relationship led Gersh to sign other young directors at the studio -- Robert Wise, Richard Fleischer and Joseph Losey.

“I got lucky with them and got a reputation for representing hot, young directors,” he recalled.

His Hollywood career was interrupted by World War II. Gersh served in the 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa and Italy and later was transferred to Special Services. Resuming his career as an entertainment agent after the war, Gersh bought out partners Jaffe and Mary Baker and eventually renamed the company the Phil Gersh Agency.

His list of clients included David Niven, Fredric March, Mary Astor, Lee J. Cobb, Dorothy McGuire, James Mason, Eddie Albert, Lloyd Bridges, William Holden and Karl Malden. He also represented such writers as Ernest Lehman, Budd Schulberg, Julius J. Epstein and Abraham Polonsky.

In the 1950s, Gersh helped Bogart, one of his biggest clients, expand beyond his typical tough guy roles. “Bogey was a very decent guy; very loyal,” Gersh told The Times in 2002.

“He had the same lunch every day between films at Mike Romanoff’s: two scotch and sodas, an omelet, French toast, some milk and then, at the end, coffee and brandy. In those days, everybody drank.

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“This one particular lunch, we didn’t have a future commitment for him. This was after he’d won the Oscar for ‘African Queen.’ He turned to me and said: ‘Kid, no scripts. You didn’t bring any scripts.’ I said, ‘Next week, I’ll have three scripts for you next week.’”

Bogart shook his head and said, “You didn’t bring any scripts. Nobody wants me.”

“The insecurity!” recalled Gersh. “You see, those actors were used to the old studio system and having a contract 40 out of 52 weeks ... four, five pictures a year.”

Although his father could tell great stories about the old days, David Gersh said Monday, “he was always forward-thinking, and it was always about today and the future. He just had a huge heart for this business.”

Gersh served on the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund for many years, and he and his wife have been major benefactors to its retirement home in Woodland Hills. Gersh also was a founder and a benefactor of the Los Angeles Music Center.

Phil and Beatrice Gersh began collecting art seriously in the 1950s; they were part of a core group that in 1979 began the push to create the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A.

Paul Schimmel, MOCA’s chief curator, said Monday that the Gershs were among “a handful of people who were the reason why MOCA was created.”

They continued to support the museum with major cash contributions and donations of art, including Jackson Pollock’s 1948 drip painting “Number 3;” David Smith’s towering aluminum sculpture “Cubi III;” and L.A. artist Edward Ruscha’s painting “Picture H House.” In 1989, an exhibition at MOCA showcased 45 pieces from the Gershs’ collection.

Gersh’s enthusiasm for art never flagged, Schimmel said; as recently as March, they met for lunch and a tour of an L.A. gallery.

“It was never an investment. They always bought out of love,” Schimmel said. One of Gersh’s hallmarks as a collector was his constant eye for emerging artists. “Phil was always looking for new talent in his [entertainment] business, and the idea that the next generation of artists held talent was very near and dear to his heart. So often we’d be in the studio of some young artists at the beginning of their career, and he’d go, ‘I can tell this is a star,’ ” Schimmel said, mimicking Gersh’s enthusiastic, gravel-toned voice.

In addition to his wife of 59 years and his two sons, Gersh is survived by five grandchildren and a sister, Pearl Sindell.

A funeral is planned for 11 a.m. Thursday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 Centinela Ave., L.A.

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Times staff writer Mike Boehm contributed to this report.


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