Very early in my career in show business, the agents’ association in Chicago brought a guy up on charges for unethical conduct. Nothing came of it; it was finally decided that among agents there was no such thing as unethical conduct.
I remember when MCA signed Johnny Mathis, who had been with General Artists. MCA, being the Cadillac of the agency business, charged fifteen percent for concerts. General Artists charged ten percent for what they called one-nighters. After about six months Mathis‘s manager, Helen Noga, was hard put to figure out why she was paying fifty percent more to do the same show for the same people.
MCA, in essence, had conned her into believing they were offering her a different service than GAC when all they were offering was a much more structured organization. They had a slogan, “Think Yiddish, dress British,” while GAC was still the stripe-suited agents.
My favorite agent was Ernie Lieberman’s father-in-law, George Wilner. When I met him in 1958, George had been driven out of his profession, and he was making a living in New York by selling underground movie scripts over the phone. People who had been blacklisted would write scripts under an alias, and George would sell them through somebody else.
By late 1959 — it was that late in the decade because in Hollywood the witch hunts lingered longer — George had moved up a bit. He was working with a little independent agency and selling small scripts on his own. Finally he went back to Hollywood when he landed a job at the Rosenberg Correll Agency, working the secondary studios. He knew Louis B. Mayer and people of that ilk, but he wasn‘t allowed to call them.
George had taken a shine to me early. He called me “Kid” all the time. “Kid, you should quit whatever it is you’re doing and come out to Hollywood and become a producer,” he used to tell me. “You know more than all these people.” This was the furthest thing from my mind. I was already overwhelmed by whatl was doing. I didn’t really believe that this was all happening to me, and I also didn’t believe Hollywood was as easy as he said it was. But it was very intriguing. Everybody wants to be a producer.
By 1965, George was on the edge of being back. He had moved up to vice president at the Rosenberg agency. He was talking to all the heads of the studios. I called George up one day when I was in Los Angeles and said, “George, this is the kid.” “Yeah, kid.” I said, “George, I want to come and talk to you. I‘m ready to be a producer.” George said, “Well, come on over.” I came on over. He ordered sandwiches for lunch, and I sat in his office while he sold a script to Zanuck over the phone. I watched him work that script up from an asking price of eighty thousand dollars to a final two hundred and twenty. After he hung up, he smiled, looked around, leaned over his desk and whispered, “There’s no other buyer.”
“George, I want to be a producer,” I said.
He said, “WeIl, kid, the business has changed. You got to have a property. A producer brings in a property and develops it. That’s what makes you a producer.“ So I asked him what a property was, and he explained it. All right.
Two more years went by, and I found a property. By this time George‘s agency had been through a couple of mergers and had come out as one of the biggest outfits in Hollywood, and George was vice president of the literary department — the big job. I called him. “George, I got a property,” I said. “I’m ready to be a producer.” George said, “I can‘t talk to you now, kid. I‘m on my way to Italy with Burt, Harold, and Ray.” Burt Lancaster, Harold Hecht, and Ray Starr. Two days later I heard from him again. “Kid, I‘m at the airport.” He hadn’t asked me what my property was.
“I got these two young writers,” George shouted. “They‘re great, just great. For fifty thousand they can develop your property.” I told him I’d get back to him sometime. End of story. George was a wonderful man, but he was an agent.