Longtime Hollywood agent, producer and studio mogul Guy McElwaine, 71, died at 5:15 AM. Many knew he was gravely ill and made the pilgrimage to his bedside at his home in Bel Air to say goodbye in recent days. I knew Guy very well so I also recognize this is a tremendous loss to Hollywood. Not just because of the kind of person he was: gentlemanly yet gruff, easy-going yet stern. But even more because he represented a showbiz breed that is too rapidly dying out along with their enormous repository of Industry history. The perennially tan, silver-haired agent was the kind of man other men liked and women loved — a charming, martini-drinking, storytelling gentile. Scrupulously loyal to clients, he was also a tough, shrewd negotiator who knew the politics and the rituals of Hollywood as only a true insider can. His friends were established Hollywood: Alan Ladd Junior, Frank Price and Ray Stark, who, in the ultimate compliment, once called the agent “a Jew in Goy clothing.”
Where do I start? There are so many stories, not just the ones about Guy but the ones he used to tell about himself. His days as an MGM publicist, alongside Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. As a Columbia Pictures executive, when he got into a fistfight with Laddie over exactly how many times the rakish McElwaine had been married. (One of his children is Dawn Taubin, who had a long career in film marketing at Warner Bros.) As a top motion picture agent, when he used a controversial windmill-style of softball pitch that ended up in an on-field brawl between William Morris and ICM’s forerunner, CMA, on the diamond at Rancho Park, across the street from the Fox backlot. (With a bemused Elliott Gould trying to play peacemaker from the bleechers.)
McElwaine would have rather been a baseball legend than a Hollywood legend, and he would have been but for a torn rotator cuff that killed his minor-league career. Guy was a local boy, born in the original Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood and raised in Culver City, where his father worked nearby as an MGM studio publicist. The son went to USC on a baseball scholarship, which he lost when news leaked out that he’d played for the Hollywood Stars, the town’s popular minor league run by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Married with two kids by the time he was 21, he worked three jobs and attended night school at UCLA. His older sibling, Bob, was working for Danny Kaye and managed to land his kid brother a job in the mailroom of Paramount for $49 a week. One day, McElwaine was talent-spotted on the lot, and he soon found himself spending half his day collating and the other half in acting classes with Ursula Andress. McElwaine finally screened for a bit part in a new Doris Day movie and landed the role; unfortunately, McElwaine’s acting debut ended up on the cutting room floor. (He had all the footage destroyed, so “nobody could ever surprise me at some birthday party.”)
His other brother, Don, who worked at MGM, arranged for Guy to publish an in-house studio newspaper. McElwaine got the idea to interview some of the young unknown actors MGM had under contract and, before long, he was getting pieces published by the town’s gossip sisters Hedda Hopper, Esmey Chandler and Louella Parsons. One day at a meeting in the studio’s publicity department, the assembled group of middle-aged flacks had never heard of Elvis Presley. MGM had signed the singer to a 3-picture deal, and after a meeting Col Tom Parker told the young publicist: “You’re my man.” After the release of Jailhouse Rock, McElwaine began traveling with Elvis and the Colonel on the singer’s new tour — the one where Elvis was arrested for indecency.
Back at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel room that night, Elvis asked his young publicist, “Do you think I do a dirty show?”
“In my opinion, yeah, you go a little far in certain areas,” McElwaine replied truthfully.
The next day, McElwaine was back at MGM; his tour with Elvis was over. Recalled McElwaine. “There’s a fine line you walk, and at that age, I hadn’t learned how to walk it.” He did soon enough as the unit publicist on Frank Sinatra’s shoots at MGM.
McElwaine eventually left MGM for the publicity firm Roger & Cowan to handle Sinatra’s account personally. After a few years, McElwaine started his own flackery, Guy McElwaine and Associates. He represented Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, the Righteous Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas and Judy Garland. (One night in Vegas, Garland called McElwaine onto the stage and said, “I’ve only sang Happy Birthday once in my life in public and that was to Clark Gable; now I’m going to sing it to you.”) He soon transformed his PR firm into a management company. Through Garland, McElwaine met Freddie Fields. The two men liked each other immediately and by 1968, McElwaine joined CMA as a vice president, bringing over many of his clients. He also helped young, brash, ambitious television director Steven Spielberg transition into a prominent feature film director. When CMA morphed into ICM, McElwaine as head of motion pictures was one of the town’s biggest players and signing big-name directors as clients. Yet, ironically, Spielberg’s now enormous success began to feed McElwaine’s growing dissatisfaction with agenting. The agent felt cheated out of the fulfillment of the creative end. “I would visit Steven on the set, and I would get the lowest feeling, because you stand there like a dope; you’re not doing any work,” recalled McElwaine. “I never got to see Steven’s films all the way through. I’d be right with him up to principle photography, then the next thing I saw the rough cut.”
With Freddie Fields out the door and CMA a cog in the new ICM machine, McElwaine decided the time was as good as any to pursue another career. Not long after he cut the deal for Close Encounters, the agent went to Warner Bros as John Calley’s production executive. Yet, in another ironic twist, it would be Spielberg who indirectly prompted McElwaine to return to agenting. In December 1975, former Warner Bros president Ted Ashley was hired back to head the studio. But Ashley and McElwaine had different tastes in film. Besides Close Encounters, McElwaine spent 18 months working closely with Warren Beatty developing Heaven Can Wait. McElwaine considered both Beatty’s and Spielberg’s movies the kind of crafted yet commercial viable pics Hollywood should be making. “I thought if Ted didn’t like those two scripts, then I was at the wrong place,” recalled McElwaine. By the end of 1977, McElwaine quit Warner and returned to ICM. Spielberg re-signed with the agent immediately, as did many of McElwaine’s former clients. Within months, it was as though the agent had never left.
But he did leave again, when in June 1980 he was passed over for the presidency of ICM by owner Marvin Josephson in favor of Jeff Berg, then the 33-year-old head of motion picture lit. The next day, McElwaine received a phone call about it from Josephson early in the morning. “I didn’t take it well,” McElwaine confessed. “I didn’t like the way it was done. Had it been discussed with me, it would have been all right. I was offended. I decided I wanted to leave.” Within three months, despite a long-term contract, McElwaine was out the door. He leaped back into production as the head of Rastar Entertainment, then became Frank Price’s second-in-command at Columbia. When Price jumped to Universal at the end of 1983, McElwaine was given the job of his former boss, chairman of Columbia Pictures. It wasn’t long before many of his biggest clients and agents were out the ICM door after Guy’s leaving ICM provided the opportunity for then upstart CAA to start winning the agency wars.
But McElwaine was tempted by the agency business again and again. Few know that, after the William Morris Agency’s motion picture head Stan Kamen died in 1986, the job was offered to several major Hollywood names, including McElwaine. As head of Columbia, McElwaine had overseen a number of hits, including The Big Chill, Ghostbusters and Jerry Weintraub’s The Karate Kid. But by 1985, the studio was plagued by expensive bombs like The Bride of Frankenstein and The Slugger’s Wife. McElwaine kept having to fly back to Atlanta to answer to the executive suites at the studio’s new owner, Coca-Cola. In 1986, he was forced out of Columbia. That’s when WMA’s Roger Davis pursued his pal McElwaine who believed he could rebuild the department. But it would take lots of money. And he wanted to be made a board member. The Morris board argued and mulled and wondered whether it was worth it. An impatient McElwaine signed a lucrative production deal instead with his pal Jerry Weintraub, who’d been made chief at United Artists.
McElwaine was out of a job again when UA replaced Weintraub with Tony Thomopoulos and Lee Rich. Guy kicked around a number of opportunities, including offers from both Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty to run their production companies. Ultimately, McElwaine settled on his own independent production company, cutting first- and second-look deals at Columbia, Universal and Warner Bros. By 1988, Weintraub had found financing to start his own independent studio, Weintraub Entertainment Group, and hired McElwaine to run the motion picture division. But soon Weinraub’s company was having financial problems. And McElwaine was bored churning out middle-range family movies like Troop Beverly Hills. “I couldn’t take it any more,” Guy confessed. “Some people had started to know I was unhappy. And agencies started talking to me and I would just listen.” That’s when Jeff Berg, Sam Cohn and Jim Wiatt cajoled McElwaine one night over dinner to go back into the agency business at ICM. “We all left there feeling like we had never been apart,” recalled McElwaine.
One client who immediately came back to him was his close friend, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, then represented by CAA. And that’s how the infamous “Eszterhas letter” came about, when Joe wrote how he was threatened by Mike Ovitz for wanting to re-sign with rival McElwaine. The missive was faxed all over Hollywood and became a cause celebre. I won’t go into all the gory details here, but you have to know that Mike Ovitz once told CAA that if McElwaine ever got back in the agency business, “it would be curtains for all of us.” As it happened, McElwaine expressed this concern to Eszterhas if Ovitz made good on the threats. “Do what’s right for you. Don’t do what’s right for us.”
It was a testimony to McElwaine’s reputation that no one ever seemed to question whether he could really lure back any of his former clients. Most were already ensconced at CAA. But in truth the agency business McElwaine had left was much different when he returned. At the time ICM had already lost so much ground to CAA, and kept losing ground for years after, that it was too much to make up. I can’t begin to tell you how that saddened McElwaine.
In 1998, McElwaine moved back into production as president and COO of Trilogy Entertainment, and then in 2002, with Morgan Creek Productions. My last conversation with Guy, like my first conversation with Guy, was enjoyable and educational. Let me sum up this way: If Hollywood is populated by a one-of-a-kind breed, then he was a purebred.