Every time I had a conversation with Jerry Weintraub, I felt like I was dialing back in time to ’40s Hollywood and reaching the guy who had Tinseltown at his feet. I look at the most successful young producers today, and they are so understated by comparison, afraid of offending anyone, and they sure don’t seem to have as much fun as Jerry did. My conversations with Jerry always started the same way. I’d call with some scoop on one of his films I wanted to splash in Daily Variety. I’d be met with that gruff “I’m in control here, kid” response, flavored by the raspy Bronx accent he never shed. For the next several minutes he would tell me why I couldn’t write that story until he finally warmed to me and the topic and then it became how big I was going to make the splash. I always hung up thinking this was a guy who was enjoying a great, opulent life full of famous friends whose names often found their way into our conversation.
He was bombastic and surely schooled by the central figure in the one movie that Weintraub always wanted to make but couldn’t. That was The Colonel And Me, his own coming-of-age story being mentored by Colonel Tom Parker, the former carnival pitchman who became Elvis Presley’s manager and guided his career. Much like I imagine Parker would have said, at times there was no splash I could provide that would be big enough. I recall once coming to Weintraub to tell him I planned to break news in Daily Variety that Catherine Zeta-Jones was joining the already star-studded cast of Ocean’s Eleven. “I’ve got the two top ladies in Hollywood in Catherine and Julia Roberts; it’s too big for you, it needs to go on the wire,” he rasped when I called. I told him that the wire services were indeed important — 20 years ago — and they would pick it up after I broke it. I hope he got over it.
It seemed he really had a movie there in The Colonel And Me, which he first attempted with Ron Shelton writing and helming, and Weintraub producing and serving as the “Me” in the film’s title. He later tried again, with Bo Goldman doing a rewrite for Barry Levinson. This was when Weintraub was flying high at Warner Bros with those Ocean’s Eleven movies, which he somehow managed to get funded despite a gross payday-hoovering cast that included Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Roberts and Zeta-Jones — along with Steven Soderbergh and, of course, Weintraub himself. Weintraub maintained that he and only he had the swagger and charm to bring all those stars into a room and manage to divvy up the gross pool. And despite all the pranks Clooney, Damon and Pitt pulled on him that involved him being waken up all hours of the night, Weintraub managed to make two Ocean’s sequels at Warner Bros, though I always wondered if the studio made any money at all when probably north of 30% of first-dollar gross went flying out the door.
I recall breaking the story about Weintraub’s own movie, The Colonel And Me. At first, Jerry told me I couldn’t write it — either it was too big, or he didn’t want it out, I forget which — but then he warmed up and told some of the great stories he’d repeat in his memoir. The film was all about how he was plucked by Parker from obscurity when Weintraub was little more than a kid hustler, to become the promoter of Presley’s concerts when the singer was the biggest star in the world. “It’ll be told from my point of view, cover how we got together, how we did the Presley tours, everything that happened over the years,” Weintraub told me back in 1997. “Parker gave me my first huge break in show business. I got to promote all the Elvis shows, right until the end. He was my mentor, my teacher, my father figure. It’s a road story, about a guy from New York and a guy from the South who got together and made a lot of money. He certainly made my career.”
Parker wasn’t an angelic figure to all. Critics lambasted him for taking a large percentage of Elvis’ earnings — once purported to have reached 50% — but some acknowledge that Presley might not have become an icon if it hadn’t been for Parker’s packaging and marketing savvy. At the time, Weintraub made it clear who the star was in The Colonel And Me. “It’s not going to be the Elvis Presley movie,” Weintraub said. “It’s my story, mine and the Colonel. … I think Ron Shelton’s one of the finest filmmakers in the world, and I think I’m pretty good, so the combination will be meaningful. He’s the guy I think can best write and direct the story, a story that’s very close to me.”
Many said that Weintraub got to play himself when he portrayed the tough character Sonny Capps for director Sydney Pollack in The Firm opposite Tom Cruise, and HBO turned his story into a documentary. He never saw his real dream project come to fruition, but he seemed to have such a good time being Jerry Weintraub at Warner Bros that maybe that was good enough.