Aside from his sharp one-liners and long, hilarious stories told in thick, inappropriate dialects, Larry Brezner wasn’t exactly a comic — but he knew funny when he saw it.
A Hollywood producer and manager of top comic actors including Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, Brezner had a talent not just for making people laugh but for cultivating the comedic genius in others.
“He loved the history of comedy,” Crystal said in an interview this week. “He appreciated the nuances of comedy like very few people I’ve ever met.”
Brezner, whose film producing credits include “Throw Momma From the Train” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” died Monday at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte. He was 73.
He was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year, said his friend and longtime business partner David Steinberg.
While not a household name, Brezner played an important role in many big show business careers.
In the late 1970s, he spotted Juilliard dropout Williams at a Hollywood improv class, and was immediately taken with the young actor’s manic energy and elastic imagination.
“No matter what situation was thrown at him, he never got lost,” Brezner told Rolling Stone in 1979. “In an improv, right before the blackout, you’ve either won or lost; you either hit the big line or it lays there. I watched two hours of this kid never losing, reacting off the top of his head, working off nerve impulses — not intellect at all. Incredible.”
But Williams’ nonstop wildness also kept audiences at a distance. Brezner and his colleagues persuaded him to reveal more of himself by ending his act with a moment of actual seriousness, framed as a few kind words from a character who had survived World War III.
“When he took the quiet moment and walked offstage without a laugh, the applause was deafening,” Brezner once recalled in the New York Times. “You knew, sitting in the audience, you’d just seen something special. He’d touched you.”
Brezner also helped shape the career of Crystal, whom he got to know when Crystal was still substitute-teaching and trying to make it in comedy with a group called 3’s Company.
Brezner and fellow talent manager Buddy Morra gently urged Crystal to ditch the threesome and go it alone. When the prospect of a one-night gig at New York University crossed his path, Crystal impulsively agreed to fly solo.
“I called Larry and said I’d just booked myself at a frat house for $25 and I wasn’t paying commission,” Crystal recalled.
Brezner, Morra and their senior partner, Jack Rollins, showed up at the event in a driving rain and watched the comic do a hilarious hour-and-a-half. Crystal was, in the term he would later make famous, mah-velous.
“I was supposed to do something like 20 minutes,” he said. “But the kids went crazy. There was no turning back. Afterward, Larry walked up to me and said, ‘Let’s go to work.’ That was the beginning of our relationship.”
Born in New York City on Aug. 23, 1942, Brezner was raised in the Bronx. He attended the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and received a master’s degree in psychology from St. John’s University.
Brezner taught at an inner-city elementary school before opening a quirky little club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The place went bust but Brezner married one of the acts he booked — singer Melissa Manchester. They later divorced.
Brezner managed Manchester’s career and, to gain experience in the field, started doing unpaid work for Rollins and his partner, Charles H. Joffe. Over the years, their firm managed talents such as Dick Cavett, Robert Klein, Martin Mull and Woody Allen, whose films were produced by Rollins and Joffe. The agency later opened offices in Los Angeles.
Brezner ultimately focused on producing movies. In 1987, “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Throw Momma From the Train” started production in the same week. The next year, stars from both films were nominated for Academy Awards — Williams for the top role in “Good Morning Vietnam” and Anne Ramsey for a supporting role in “Throw Momma.”
Over the years, Brezner produced a wide variety of films, including: “The ‘Burbs” (1989), “Coupe de Ville” (1990), “The Vanishing” (1993), “Angie” (1994), “Krippendorf’s Tribe” (1998) and “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (2005).
His most recent film was “Ride Along” (2014), with Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.
Until his illness, he boxed, played tennis, danced salsa, and was active in his company, Brezner Steinberg Partners.
Most of all, he joked.
“He told jokes better than anyone I know,” said Steinberg, his colleague and lunch companion (scrambled eggs or cheese blintzes, depending on the place) for 40 years.
“He was always funny,” Steinberg said, recalling an ancient joke about a parrot that Brezner told in a thick Yiddish accent at a surprise party last spring. “He was always willing to be inappropriate.”
Brezner’s survivors include his wife Dominique Cohen-Brezner; daughters Lauren Azbill and China Brezner; and brother Jeff Brezner.