“This is my baby. This is when it all started. This is my pride and joy, my first Oscar win in 1974.”
Meet Murray Weissman, one of the earliest Oscar consultants, who on this day is proudly showing off a blow-up photo on the wall of his North Hollywood publicity agency commemorating that day almost 40 years ago when, as executive in charge of the motion picture press department at Universal Pictures, he reveled in the seven Academy Awards won by “The Sting,” George Roy Hill’s wry tale of Depression-era con men starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Weissman was so happy following the hard-fought victory over the other nominees, including “The Exorcist,” that he rushed to costume designer Edith Head’s bungalow on the lot the next day and asked to borrow seven of her personal Oscar statuettes so he could pose for a photo that also featured him holding the front page of the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner with its headline trumpeting the victory — Universal’s first best picture since 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
He is 87 now and walks with a cane — the result, he confides, of an inner-ear infection that has affected the balance on his left side — but otherwise, this tall, still-burly former World War II Navy radio operator and grandfather of three with a gray, shadow beard, seems more than fit for the task ahead.
From 1969’s “Anne of the Thousand Days” to last year’s “Lincoln,” the Brooklyn-born Weissman, working with each studio and members of their various Oscar teams, has campaigned for 35 best picture nominees, helping capture Academy Awards for “The Sting,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Dances With Wolves,” “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Chicago” and “Crash.”
This year, Weissman/Markovitz Communications, which Weissman runs with his son-in-law, Rick Markovitz, represents Paramount Pictures on two Christmas releases, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” as well as Alexander Payne’s newly released “Nebraska,” starring veteran actor Bruce Dern.
Weissman is particularly happy to get behind Dern, who won best actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Dern starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Family Plot” in 1976, when Weissman was still at Universal. Hitchcock would invite Weissman to lunch at his bungalow on the lot, where the menu would always feature wine and fresh sole flown in each day from Dover, England.
It’s been quite a ride for the man who was introduced to Hollywood when he carried flashbulbs for his older brothers, Art and Len, who were celebrity photographers roaming such nightclubs as the Cocoanut Grove, the Mocambo and the Trocadero. Weissman remembers watching Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis perform at Ciro’s as he sat in the back eating hamburgers and drinking cherry Cokes.
He came up in an era that produced giants of entertainment publicity, such names as Henry Rogers, Warren Cowan, Dale Olson and Lee Solters. They are all gone now, leaving Weissman as the reigning godfather of Oscar consultants, a role he embraces after having mentored many of today’s top consultants.
Studios, of course, have their own marketing teams. Why do they need award consultants? “Because,” Weissman says, “I think we come up with concepts that they don’t. We know how important it is to launch a film at the Telluride, Toronto and Venice film festivals, and how to create a bandwagon effect for a movie.” Providing the movie is deserving, he adds. Otherwise, “you’re hitting your head against the wall.”
And while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences never reveals how its roughly 6,000 members vote, Weissman learned that every vote counts after Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl”) and Katharine Hepburn (“The Lion in Winter”) shared the Oscar for lead actress of 1968.
“They were tied, so I took the attitude [from then on] to go after every vote,” he says. “I remember one time when an academy voter said to me toward the end of a balloting period that he hadn’t seen the movie. So I sent a limousine for the guy” to take him to a screening.
He’s had his downs too, though. In 2003, Weissman was entangled in controversy when the Los Angeles Times reported that a newspaper column purportedly written by renowned director Robert Wise praising Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” actually had been written by Weissman. To this day, Weissman maintains that he obtained Wise’s permission and that Wise approved the piece. “I’ve been writing speeches and articles for clients for 50 years,” Weissman notes, calling the issue a “tempest in a teapot.”
Still, the academy cracked down. Weissman was kicked off the academy’s Public Relations Peer Group, and the academy adopted a rule prohibiting quotes by its members in Oscar ads.
“In my mind, it’s called the Murray Rule,” Weissman, an academy member since 1968, says with a chuckle.