The 411 On Tom's Partner Paula Wagner

Wow, massive print coverage on Tom Cruise’s takeover of United Artists, but little of it as cynical as my posting yesterday how this was hardly more than out of the box PR-think by slapping a studio name onto a housekeeping deal and grabbing positive headlines for the tarnished star. Isn’t everyone and their mother finding outside financing these days? I also feel the need to point out that, as a production company, Cruise/Wagner over the years has been surprisingly glacial in getting projects underway, considering they could get almost anything they wanted done at Paramount and any other studio, and also considering CAA genuflected to them on a regular basis. Why in the world weren’t they more productive as producers? That said, I’ve received emails asking me for the 411 on Tom’s partner, Paula Wagner. OK, here goes: she started out as an actress. After working in New York theater, Wagner moved to Los Angeles and hoped-for stardom, but had to settle for a few bit parts of television. Her agent, Susan Smith, had seen some of the best in the business (Sally Field, Kathleen Turner and Glenn Close) because of her acumen for spotting talent, and Smith quickly recognized that, as an actress, Wagner was only mediocre. After a year of trying to jump-start Paula’s career, Smith finally called Wagner into her office. “Go away over the weekend and think about what I say to you. You have three choices: either you must leave the agency because I don’t know how to do it for you, or you have to go to regional theater and remember what acting is about again, or, and this is the one I recommend, you give up acting and let me train you to be an agent, because I think you could be terrific.” As Smith talked, tears streamed down Wagner’s face. That Monday, Wagner began her training as an agent. From the start, Wagner was good at it. After four years with Smith, Wagner caught the attention of Wally Nicita, Rick Nicita’s then wife, who worked as a casting director. She told Rick about this “really tough lady” who would make a great agent at CAA. Nicita went to CAA head Michael Ovitz, and Wagner was offered a job. (When Rick and Wally Nicita later divorced, Rick would marry Paula and they became CAA’s power couple.) At CAA, Wagner’s unbridled ambition helped her rise fast. She was a good signer, partially because she used to give the same rehearsed half-hour speech to all prospective actors and actresses about how important it was for them to make movies with great directors. (Hilariously, she’d sit at her desk applying makeup while talking on the phone to clients.) She had a knack for recognizing on-the-rise talent. She happened onto Tom Cruise early in his career. When Cruise’s star rose after his 1983 breakout in Risky Business, Wagner’s rose with him. She left CAA to launch Cruise/Wagner Productions in September 1993. Her husband took over Cruise as a client at CAA. So there you have it.

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