Bernie Brillstein, a legendary show business talent manager and producer who guided the careers of such performers as John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Muppets creator Jim Henson and helped bring “Saturday Night Live” and other shows to television, has died. He was 77.
Brillstein, who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died Thursday evening at Barlow Respiratory Hospital in Los Angeles, Brillstein Entertainment Partners announced Friday.
“He was larger than life, a father figure to so many, and one of the last legends in the entertainment business,” Jon Liebman, partner and chief executive of Brillstein Entertainment Partners, told The Times on Friday.
The white-haired and bearded Brillstein -- “he looks and sounds like a raucous Santa Claus,” a New York Times writer observed a decade ago -- launched his more-than-50-year career in the mail room of the William Morris Agency in New York in 1956 and rose through the ranks to become a talent agent.
After founding Brillstein Co. in 1969 -- the first of three management and production companies to bear his name -- he helped launch “Hee Haw,” the long-running country music-comedy show.
He also helped start “The Muppet Show” and was instrumental in bringing “Saturday Night Live” to NBC in 1975.
As a manager, Brillstein represented the long-running comedy show’s creator-executive producer, Lorne Michaels, as well as Belushi, Radner and Dan Aykroyd.
“He was unwavering in his belief in me,” Michaels told The Times on Friday, adding that he couldn’t have done “Saturday Night Live” without Brillstein.
“He was just that voice in your ear,” Michaels said. “He believed in what you’re doing and helped give you confidence, but he also was really smart about show business, even the most fundamental stuff.
“Even though what I was doing [on ‘Saturday Night Live’] was more rock ‘n’ roll and different generation and different sensitivity” than Brillstein was used to, “at the core he knew about audience and talent and how to put on a show. He loved show business, and he was unabashed in how much he loved it.”
Michaels was a 24-year-old junior writer on “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” in 1968 when he first met Brillstein, who was representing comedian Norm Crosby, one of the show’s regulars.
Brillstein made an immediate impression on the young writer from Canada.
“He was from Manhattan and the nightclub business and a show business that I had sort of seen in the movies,” Michaels said. “And he was captivating and always funny, really funny, and direct in a kind of language I had never heard before. He was much more disrespectful than Canadians were allowed to be in 1968.”
Brillstein later was executive producer of such films as “The Blues Brothers,” “Ghostbusters,” “Dragnet,” “Happy Gilmore” and “The Cable Guy.”
And for television, he was executive producer of such series as “ALF,” “Buffalo Bill,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” “The Dana Carvey Show” and “The Martin Short Show.”
After Lorimar-Telepictures Corp. purchased his management company in 1986, Brillstein was installed as head of Lorimar’s movie division.
As he wrote in his candid and humorous 1999 memoir, “Where Did I Go Right?: You’re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead,” he put about 20 films in development in two years “and ended up making six lousy movies, two good movies and one great movie,” the latter being the Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons.”
In 1991, he partnered with Brad Grey to found Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, the high-profile personal management and production company whose clients included Martin Short, Jon Lovitz, Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage.
When Brillstein initially hired him at Brillstein Co. in the ‘80s, Grey told The Times on Friday, “Bernie was an icon and one of the most successful talent managers in the business.”
Added Grey, who is now chairman of Paramount Pictures: “He was a father to me, and he was my mentor and my partner and the godfather of my eldest son, and I’m going to miss him every day for the rest of my life.”
Echoing Michaels, Grey said Brillstein “truly loved show business, which is extraordinary in this day and age.”
“He knew the history of show business, his instincts for talent were extraordinary, and he knew people. And so not only was he very talented, he was brilliantly funny and he was fiercely loyal, and obviously he will be missed by our community and everyone that knew him.”
Although Brillstein sold his interest in Brillstein-Grey in 1996, Grey said, “he worked with me every day until I left to become chairman of Paramount in 2005.”
And Brillstein continued to work at the company, which was renamed Brillstein Entertainment Partners, and where, Grey said, he remained “a force until he fell ill earlier this year.
Brillstein was born in New York City on April 26, 1931, and grew up in a swank hotel, where his family lived with his uncle, comedian Jack Pearl. He graduated from New York University with a degree in advertising.
Brillstein, who was married several times, is survived by his wife of 10 years, Carrie; his sons, Michael Brillstein, David Koskoff and Nick Koskoff; his daughters, Kate Brillstein and Leigh Brillstein; and a grandson.
A funeral will be held for family and close friends. Details about a memorial service are pending.
The Big Picture: Patrick Goldstein reflects on a one-of-a-kind legend. Page E1