Formidable force for Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Jack Valenti, the urbane Washington lobbyist who served as Hollywood's public face for nearly four decades and was best known for creating the film ratings system, died Thursday afternoon, according to Warren Cowan, his longtime friend. He was 85.

Valenti had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in March. He was treated for several weeks at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore but was released Tuesday and returned to his home in Washington, where he died.

For 38 years until retiring in 2004, Valenti headed the Motion Picture Assn. of America, guiding the trade organization from a clubby group of movie studios led by autocratic moguls into a collection of global media conglomerates involved in television, the Internet and an array of other media businesses.

To the moviegoing public, however, Valenti's legacy will always be the ratings system he fathered in 1968, which now labels movies G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17. Valenti defended it for years against attacks by critics. Today, it remains largely intact as the self-policing vehicle he envisioned.

"It's the end of an era," said industry veteran Sherry Lansing, former Paramount Pictures chairwoman. "He was one of the greatest leaders our industry ever had. He was one of those unique individuals who could build consensus."

Former Warner Bros. Chairman Bob Daly said Valenti's passing represented "a sad day."

"He was friends with everybody in the industry, and even though he might not agree with you, you could talk to Jack and he understood your point," Daly said.

Valenti's death comes on the eve of the anticipated release of his memoirs chronicling a life that included piloting a B-25 in World War II, serving as one of President Lyndon Johnson's closest confidants and shaping nearly every issue faced by today's entertainment industry. Titled "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood," the book is tentatively scheduled for release in June.

In his role as entertainment industry lobbyist, Valenti moved effortlessly between Hollywood and Washington while trying to bridge two cultures that were often at odds.

With his silver mane, custom-tailored shirts and suits, and polished cowboy boots, Valenti was one of the most recognizable figures in the nation's capital. Despite being a loyal Democrat, he skillfully worked both sides of the aisles, possessing one of the town's best Rolodexes. Along the way, he became nearly as much a celebrity as the stars he befriended, addressing the worldwide Academy Awards TV audience each year.

In public, his Texas-accented eloquence was reminiscent of a Southern preacher. In fretting over the rising costs of making and marketing films, Valenti once said: "As the American movie rides an ascending curve throughout the known world, it is being pursued with malignant fidelity by total costs. It is a terrible confluence of hope and terror which confronts every studio, every producer, every production company."

The grandson of Sicilian immigrants and son of a tax clerk, Valenti was born Sept. 5, 1921 in Houston. An honor student and debating champ at Sam Houston High School, he graduated at age 15.

Lacking the money to attend college, Valenti worked as an $11-a-week movie theater usher -- his only entertainment experience before going to work for the MPAA. While employed by an oil company, he attended night classes at the University of Houston, where he was elected student body president.

At age 20, Valenti enlisted in the Army Air Forces after being turned down by the Navy because of a heart murmur. Flying 51 missions, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. He received his MBA from Harvard University in 1948 and four years later started his own advertising firm.

He was among a dozen young men and women invited to a reception at a Houston hotel to meet Johnson, then the U.S. Senate's majority leader, who was eager to cultivate talented young fellow Texans who might help him one day.

Valenti was in awe the moment he met his future mentor. Recalling that day during a Caltech appearance in 2003, Valenti said: "I was fascinated the way I'm fascinated by a hooded cobra or a silken panther on a hillside ready to spring. It was an animal magnetism I never got over."

After Johnson was selected as John F. Kennedy's running mate in 1960, Valenti worked on the ticket's media campaign in Texas, and he kept in touch with Johnson after he became vice president.

Valenti was also smitten by Johnson secretary Mary Margaret Wiley. After spotting her coming off an airplane with Johnson in Houston, Valenti asked an aide to call the Rice Hotel and order the staff to rearrange the seating so she would be placed next to him.

When the couple married in 1962, Wiley's father was ill, so Johnson gave the bride away. The couple had three children.

Valenti continued to handle assignments for Johnson, and, in November 1963, the vice president asked him to help in a politically sensitive campaign visit that President Kennedy planned to make to Texas. The trip would make Valenti an eyewitness to one of America's darkest chapters and abruptly change the course of his life.

On Nov. 22, Valenti was riding six cars behind the presidential limousine as it snaked through the streets of Dallas toward Dealey Plaza. Valenti would later recall that he never actually heard the shots that killed Kennedy but immediately knew something was wrong.

"Suddenly the slow-moving motorcade became the Indianapolis Speedway," he recalled in a Times piece published on an anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. "The car in front drag-raced from 10 mph to over 60. None of us had any idea of what happened."

After Kennedy died, Johnson asked Valenti to join him on Air Force One flying back to Washington. Valenti can be seen crouching on the left in one of the event's defining photographs showing a somber Johnson taking the oath of office on the presidential jet, Jacqueline Kennedy at Johnson's side still wearing her blood-stained dress.

"That act of inscrutable fate changed my life," Valenti said.

Valenti helped write the words Johnson uttered when he addressed the American people for the first time as president, and bunked at the White House until his family arrived from Texas.

Valenti effectively became Johnson's companion, troubleshooter and trusted confidant. Throughout his life Valenti was a loyal defender of Johnson, even as his presidency was crumbling because of the Vietnam War. He compared Johnson to the Greek mythological hero Achilles, seeing him as a talented leader whose flaws brought him down.

In a 1965 speech to the Advertising Federation of America, Valenti uttered a sentence that would hang around his neck like an albatross: "I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my president."

Later, when he complained to Johnson that he couldn't escape the quote, Johnson replied: "I don't know what you're fretting about, Jack. Do you know how few presidential assistants say anything memorable?"

Valenti regarded his time with Johnson in Washington as the "summertime" of his life -- the only period when he was doing something that really "counted," he said in his 1976 book about Johnson, "A Very Human President." Washington, he added, is the "ultimate seduction. After that, everything is tasteless passion."

In 1966, two Hollywood moguls, MCA Inc. power broker Lew Wasserman and United Artists' Arthur Krim, were looking for someone to lead their trade group and they approached Valenti. After initially resisting the idea, Johnson gave his blessing.

Valenti left in April, saying he could not turn down the $175,000-a-year post. The new position paid more than six times his $28,000 White House salary. By the time he left the MPAA he was one of the highest paid lobbyists in Washington, reportedly earning $1.35 million annually.

Two years after taking over the MPAA, Valenti and association counsel Louis Nizer devised the ratings system so they could scrap the industry's Hays Code, which for decades placed tight restrictions on movie language and sexual content. The code had such rules as no open-mouth kissing and a requirement that a man and a woman in bed each have one foot on the floor.

"If you wanted to be affectionate, you had to be Nadia Comaneci the gymnast," Valenti later recalled.

One of his first dealings with the code after being hired by the MPAA was to negotiate what language could be used in Mike Nichols' film version of Edward Albee's play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Valenti would not permit the use of some crude language to describe sex, although he approved use of the phrase "hump the hostess." But the almost comical exercise in discretion made it more obvious that enforcement of the code had become virtually impossible.

At the time, Hollywood was facing competition from more daring foreign films and was seeing a new generation of directors push the boundaries as Nichols did with "Virginia Woolf" and Michelangelo Antonioni did with "Blow Up." Valenti abhorred censorship and wanted to do away with the code but knew he needed an alternative to head off any potential restrictions from lawmakers.

Valenti became immersed in the industry's business issues as well. He championed open markets for Hollywood films and in the final years of his tenure was preoccupied with digital piracy, as technology made it easy to create pristine bootlegs of films.

He did misjudge the impact of home video on the business, initially seeing it as such a threat that it was "to the American film producer and the American public what the Boston Strangler is to the American woman at home alone." Instead, home video became a gold mine for studios.

In the early 1990s, Valenti threatened to resign so he could publicly denounce Oliver Stone's "JFK," which suggested that Johnson was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. Daly, the head of Warner Bros., talked him out of it. Valenti agreed to wait until after the Oscar ballots for 1991 were in, then issued a blistering seven-page statement in which he called the film a "propaganda masterpiece and equally a hoax."

Nonetheless, Valenti defended Stone's right to make the film.

"I do not consider myself anointed by God to have these immaculate visions of how a movie ought to be made or how a movie ought to be told," he said.

With the energy of an executive decades younger, Valenti traveled relentlessly until his retirement. He obtained his taekwondo black belt in 1999, at the age of 78.

Toward the end, some executives started to question whether Valenti's erudite, Old World style reflected the image of the New Hollywood -- whether his longevity, in fact, was a double-edged sword in dealing with a new range of complex issues.

But Valenti remained one of Washington's most effective players. He scored a victory by temporarily beating back a move by the networks to control TV rerun rights and revenues -- upholding rules prohibiting them from selling or syndicating programs they aired. It was a windfall for the studios represented by Valenti, and although the networks later won the battle to eliminate these rules, it was regarded as a major success for him at the time.

Throughout, his infectious "Valenti-isms" endeared him to politicians and reporters. In a single conversation he might quote Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli and the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. After a trying week politically, he once told a Times reporter: "You gird your loins. You get out on the battlefield, your broadsword flashing."

Valenti expressed some frustrations with the changing nature of the job. After a series of mergers and takeovers, studios had become slices of diversified entities that changed the landscape of Hollywood. And with the growing international market and emerging technologies, his focus was not just on movie production and a burgeoning TV industry, as it was when he started out.

In addition, it was Valenti who often took the bullet when it came to criticisms of Hollywood and popular culture. In 2000, he led a group of studio executives to Capitol Hill, where they were lambasted over violence in the media.

"I do get frustrated; in fact, I do get depressed from time to time. But if I just hunker down -- as LBJ used to say -- like a jackass in a hailstorm and wait until the storm passes, it's going to be all right," he said. "If this were an easy job, you could probably get someone fresh out of Harvard Business School to do it."

Industry veteran Sidney Sheinberg, former president of Universal Pictures' longtime corporate parent, MCA Inc., marveled at how Valenti operated as head of the MPAA.

"He had an impossible job. And the impossible part wasn't dealing with the exhibitors [theater owners] or foreign countries, but people who were his nominal bosses," said Sheinberg, referring to the heads of all the motion picture studios. "He had to reconcile their opinions and conflicting interests, and it requires the utmost statesmanship."

In 2004, Valenti finally gave up his post, succeeded by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. Until the stroke, Valenti remained active, working on world health issues and consulting the industry on how to educate parents to block objectionable TV shows.

In addition to his wife of 45 years, he is survived by their three children, Courtenay, John and Alexandra; his sister, Lorraine Valenti Dinerstein; and two grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private.

james.bates@latimes.com

Times staff writer Claudia Eller and special correspondent Elaine Dutka contributed to this report.

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