The 77-year-old Hollywood manager and movie/TV producer died tonight from complications when his kidneys failed after a long illness stemming from heart disease. Bernie Brillstein’s longtime partner Brad Grey and his longtime client Lorne Michaels made arrangements for a memorial service Monday at 6 PM at UCLA. I’m told his funeral will be private. Like most everyone in Hollywood, I loved Bernie. Because he was that rarity in showbiz, an astute student of Hollywood history who also learned from it. And he understood the proper use of power in this town, as opposed to the abuse of power, in a way most did not.
Though his father was in the millinery business in New York, Brillstein majored in advertising and marketing in college. He scored two interviews at Madison Avenue agencies thanks to the influence of his uncle, Jack Pearl, an ex-Ziegfield Follies comedian who had become a radio star doing the voice of Baron Munchausen. But in the 1950s advertising was notoriously non-Jewish and the agencies gently hinted that to Brillstein. “They said, ‘Bernie, you’re terrific. But this is no place for you to be,’” Brillstein once said to me. “I loved them for being honest.” Instead, Brillstein landed a job in the mailroom at the William Morris office on Broadway.
After just three months, Brillstein was placed in the Morris publicity department, where his job consisted of writing bios for the agency’s biggest stars and canvassing the nightclub owners and TV bookers with flyers. When the department head retired, Brillstein, not yet out of his twenties, was put in charge. “Working in publicity in an agency is like being in charge of valet at a parapalegic camp,” Brillstein quipped to me. He was moved into commercials. So Brillstein began cold-calling the commercial bookers and pushing Morris clients for ad spots on radio and TV. With an easy laugh and honed sense of humor, Brillstein was a born “people person,” the kind strangers and colleagues alike felt they could trust the first time they met him. He easily established relationships within his new world, befriending one of his new clients, Edward R. Murrow. Brillstein personally pushed the journalist’s pioneering TV show, Person to Person. Thanks to smart decisions like that, Brillstein built his department, generally considered a loser, into a $2.5 million a year business. His success caught the eye of Morris’ powerful head of TV packaging, Wally Jordan, who brought Brillstein into the TV department to build on the connections with managers he’d forged in the commercials department. Bernie even managed to sign two clients away from then No. 1 agency MCA. The signings caught the attention of Marty Kummer, a former top agent with Wasserman at MCA who had opened a management firm with his biggest client, Jack Paar and offered Bernie a job. Brillstein liked the idea of advising and guiding a star’s career, so in 1963 Brillstein left Morris for Martin Kummer Associates. (When the two brought aboard manager Jerry Weintraub some years later, the firm’s name was changed to Management 3).
At Morris, a colleague asked Brillstein to meet with a little-known puppeteer, Jim Henson, whose acts included Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog. Brillstein signed him immediately and then booked him on the Jimmy Dean Show. Two months after Brillstein left Morris, Jim Henson called and said, “I need you.” Over the next decade, Brillstein made a fortune representing not only Henson but also the producing team of John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt. The producers came up with an idea for a corn-pone version of Laugh-In for the country-western set called Hee Haw and, in 1969, Brillstein helped package the show to CBS. Though the network cancelled the show in 1971, Hee Haw was sold into syndication, where it ran for another 23 years, becoming one of the longest-running shows in TV history, pulling in millions of dollars in licensing fees and making Brillstein a rich man.
In 1970, Brillstein left Management 3 and moved to Los Angeles, where he decided to go it alone. He built up a list of top comedy writers, including The Bob Newhart Show’s Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses and comedy writers Lorne Michaels and Alan Zweibel, and he packaged them all into new TV shows for the networks. By 1975, Brillstein was one of the hottest personal managers and TV packagers in the entertainment business. In that year alone, he sold both The Muppet Show, brainchild of puppeteer Jim Henson, and Saturday Night Live, created by Lorne Michaels. The story behind SNL is now legendary, but it bears repeating: when Michaels and Brillstein came to pitch the idea of SNL to NBC, the network executives simply stared at the men. “They said, ‘Who are these Jews from California?’ They absolutely hated us,” Brillstein remarked. When SNL’s first show generated 200 complaints, NBC wanted to pull the plug. It was Brillstein who fought to keep it on the air. “You idiots,” Brillstein told them. “Don’t you realize you have a hit here?”
As SNL grew in the ratings, so did the popularity of its cast, and almost overnight the show produced break-out stars in Second City alumni John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, who all relied solely on Brillstein’s managerial advice and support. The first time Brillstein met John Belushi was 15 minutes before the first taping of Saturday Night Live. Two days earlier, NBC’s legal department had sent Belushi an interim employment agreement. The actor was worried about a small clause that said NBC had the right to cancel his contract if the comedian were “disfigured.” Now, with the cameras ready to roll, the actor still hadn’t signed. An NBC executive was desperately pleading with him to sign the agreement when Belushi leaned over to Brillstein and asked, “Would you sign this contract?”
“I designed the fucking contract,” Brillstein replied. “And you can always break it.”
It was the beginning of a long and close friendship, almost like father and son. Brillstein was fiercely protective of the troubled comedian, defensive when people complained about his work habits, his unreliability and, more critically, his growing drug use. Brillstein understood obsessive behavior. During the 1970s, Brillstein had beat a gambling problem. He also liked to eat, and his weight problems had forced him into perennial attire of baggy sweaters. (Client Richard Dreyfuss called him “Shelley Winters with a beard.”)
By 1980, Belushi and Aykroyd had left SNL to become the hottest comedic actors in Hollywood. Brillstein loved making deals for them over breakfast at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. But Brillstein had made most of his money in TV. He had only dabbled in feature films and, frankly, been skewered almost every time out. He had secured a $35,000 contract for Belushi to appear in 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House, an enormous sum given the fact that Belushi had no film experience. Aykroyd, too, could have had a part but declined in order to keep on writing for Saturday Night Live. But like most performers, Belushi was impatient for success. He felt the fast track lay in Hollywood films. He had been in three minutes of the 1977 Jack Nicholson vehicle Goin’ South. Now Belushi and Aykroyd felt there was a future in their April 1978 SNL characters of Joliet Jake and his silent brother, Elwood. They asked Brillstein to convince Atlantic Records to produce an album for $125,000, Briefcase Full of Blues, which was released in December 1978. Then Brillstein booked the Blues Brothers to appear as the opening act in a 9-night engagement that comedian Steve Martin had scheduled at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles the next fall.
Over the next months Aykroyd expanded the act into a full-length Blues Brothers movie. By then, Animal House was the No. 1 movie in the country. That summer, Belushi phoned then Universal exec Sean Daniels about Blues Brothers, and Daniels bit. Brillstein was thrilled how it was all turning out. But he resisted Steven Spielberg’s coaxing Belushi to take a part in 1941 for $350,000. Brillstein liked the money but argued against the project on the grounds that Spielberg had never done comedy and the script was not really that funny. But Belushi told Brillstein, “I can’t turn down Spielberg.”
Meanwhile, Brillstein was fighting with Universal for a bigger piece of the Animal House pie — $60 million so far on Uni’s negative cost of $2.7 million — for Belushi and himself. Thom Mount, then head of Universal, was trying to make a 3-picture deal for Belushi. Ok, Brillstein said, but a discussion of the future might begin with the past. Why not agree to give Belushi some retroactive percentage of the Animal House profits? But Universal wouldn’t budge. In the end, Mount would only offer a $250,000 bonus for Belushi if he signed the deal — take it or leave it. Brillstein left the office and called Belushi, who had only one demand: Get the check today. Brillstein and Belushi signed the 3-picture deal: $350,000 for 1941, $500,000 for The Blues Brothers and $750,000 for a third movie Continental Divide. But Brillstein’s take of the Blues Brothers was only $150,000 — peanuts, as far as he was concerned. So, in 1980, Brillstein signed with CAA’s Michael Ovitz. Except for Jim Henson, Brillstein’s clients signed with CAA as well. The relationship paid off immediately: Ovitz did a deal for Neighbors guaranteeing Belushi $1.25 million, and Brillstein $400,000. “I nearly shit,” Brillstein recalled.
Managers traditionally charged 15% of a client’s salary. But Brillstein had long ago found a much more profitable way of generating income as a TV packager. Using his stable of A-list writer-producers to create projects, Brillstein would load as many of his own writers onto a show as he could, generating even more fees, and then attach himself as executive producer and sell it to a network. As executive producer, Brillstein not only collected a producer’s fee but also profit sharing and backend participation. With syndication and licensing fees, a hit show could bring in millions upon millions. Now Bernie was packaging himself into Belushi’s and Aykroyd’s movies as well. But unlike TV, an executive producer on a movie was for the most part an empty title. Usually it was given to someone who was in control of a project at one point and then lost it, but was still bound to the project contractually. Other times it was a quid pro quo, for example, a payback for delivering the rights to some material. In Brillstein’s case, to put it bluntly, it was a “bribe,” the price the studio had to pay him to deliver his stars. A manager putting himself in business with his own clients was, to say the least, a gray area. It could be argued that the arrangement was better for the client because it saved him paying the manager’s commission. But it was also a conflict of interest. No matter how straight a manager played it, the fact that such questions could even be raised was troubling for many. But seemingly such matters did not concern Brillstein or Brillstein’s clients.
By now Bernie was having a tough time keeping Belushi’s drug problems from careening the comedian’s career. Belushi by 1982 was living in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont and hounding Brillstein for cash. The day before he died of an overdose in Bungalow 3, Belushi told Brillstein he loved him. Bernie was called when Belushi’s body was found on March 5th. The ambulance rushed the actor to Cedars-Sinai. While Brillstein waited, he received the one call he had always dreaded. He dropped the receiver. He would never see his friend and client again. The remorse was overwhelming. Followed by anger over first investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s book Wired blaming Brillstein and the rest of Belushi’s entourage for not doing enough to help the comedian’s drug addiction, and then the movie.
Aykroyd and Brillstein sold Ghostbusters with both of them attached. Brillstein had bought the rights to the screeplay from his client for $1. But surprisingly, the studios were reluctant to bite once the script went out. The screenplay relied heavily on silly slapstick and oneliners and not everybody got it. And Aykroyd, who would star, had yet to prove he could carry a movie without his Blues Brothers sidekick. “Universal had it first and passed; John Landis passed; a lot of people passed on it,” Brillstein told me. “But we owned it and I was instrumental in keeping it alive.” So was Ovitz who helped structure a difficult deal with Columbia. Released in 1984, Ghostbusters quickly became the highest grossing comedy of all time.
By 1986, Brillstein had never been hotter in TV, packaging Buffalo Bill, Open All Night, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and The Gary Shandling Show. Brillstein had a commitment to NBC for another show and thought puppeteer Paul Fusco’s and writer-client Tom Patchett’s Alf might be the perfect project. Fusco, Brillstein and Patchett all met in Brandon Tartikoff’s office to present their pitch. But the presentation, as Brillstein put it, was going in the “crapper.” Then suddenly Fusco reached into a bag and pulled out Alf, who promptly exploded in a huge sneeze, then wiped his nose on Tartikoff’s arm. Stunned, the NBC executive laughed hysterically. Tartikoff grasped the marketing and licensing potential immediately and bought the series on the spot. Alf immediately shot to the top of the ratings and soon there were Alf plush toys everywhere. Brillstein had added another cash cow.
But then Brillstein’s luck changed. He became embroiled in a long-running feud with Michael Ovitz and CAA. He took an ill-fated job as head of Lorimar Entertainment’s new movie studio thinking it would give him the stature in Hollywood he had long deserved. But Bernie also knew the moment he gave up his management company he would lose all his clients and his power base. At the time, The Brillstein Company guided the careers of such in-front-of-the-camera talents as Dabney Coleman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Falk, Garry Shandling, Bronson Pinchot, Gilda Radner, Jim Belushi, Geena Davis, Andy Williams, Norm Crosby, Thelma Hopkins, Marsha Mason and George Wendt. His writer clients included Jim Henson, Pat Lee, John Moffitt, Alan Rafkind, Jay Tarses, Dave Thomas, Alan Zweibel, Sheldon Keller, Buzz Kohan, Marty Pasetta, Perry Rosemont, Kenny Solms and Barry Sand. In addition, Brillstein was the executive director of five network TV series — Alf, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, The Slap Maxwell Story, and The Nell Carter Show.
But Brillstein, as always, had a solution: why didn’t Adelson purchase Brillstein’s company? Brillstein not only sold his management company to Lorimar for $26 million but retained control of the firm as well. To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest even though one certainly existed, Brillstein agreed to take a salary of only $1 a year for his new position as CEO of Lorimar Film Entertainment. As Variety noted, the deal created “one heaping big show business macher.”
But soon Brillstein’s representation of Aykroyd ended. Then Merv Adelson, without warning, agreed to sell Lorimar-Telepictures and all its holdings, including the movie company and Brillstein’s management company, to Warner Bros. The studio quickly folded Lorimar into Warners, and Bernie found himself out of a job. He was forced to start all over again. Brillstein took his golden parachute and decided to go back into the management business. He also took a very young Brad Grey under his wing. Together, the two were able to sign back many of Bernie’s former clients and start the careers of many new hot young ones. Slowly Grey took over the running of the company, named Brillstein-Grey Entertainment by 1991, until 2005 when Brad left to become chairman/CEO of the Paramount Motion Picture Group.
It was an incredible testament to Brillstein’s legacy that, when Brillstein-Grey decided in June 2007 to rebrand itself, the talent management and movie/TV production entity paid homage to its founder and mentor by renaming itself Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Said Brillstein in the press release, “It’s been a pleasure seeing this company evolve over the past 38 years.”
And it was a pleasure to know you, Bernie.