By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Jack Gould
A director arrives home to find fire trucks, police cars and his house in shambles. “It was horrible,” his wife says. “Your agent came to the house; he just went berserk — he raped me, beat up the kids, killed the dog, tore the place to shreds . . .”
“Hold on,” says the director. “My agent came to the house?”
No single group — not lawyers, lepers, ex-cons or telephone solicitors — is quite so reviled as Hollywood talent agents. Which makes it all the more startling to attend one of the political “Speaker Soirees” hosted by agent Paul Alan Smith, a social visionary in a profession not known for its humanitarian outreach. At the spacious La Boheme restaurant, on Santa Monica just east of La Cienega, Smith and his co-host, entertainment attorney Lawrence Rose, are providing a bountiful feast of salmon, pasta and blueberry cobbler free of charge for the foot soldiers of the film industry — the assistants, junior agents, VPs and development execs through whose hands all content travels. In return, they agree to listen to a 30-minute speech by a political activist — in this case, LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group and NGO (nongovernmental organization) that gets tough when governments prove recalcitrant, our own included. (Six of the seven indictments in The Hague against Slobodan Milosevic resulted from the group’s research.)
Smith started out at the Triad agency in the early ’80s as an assistant to Arnold Rifkin, later the head of William Morris. “Harry Belafonte was a client,” says Smith, “and every day I would talk to him, and he would say, ‘Never forget to incorporate your moral values into the workplace.’ He said this incessantly. It got so that I didn’t know lunches were for talking about clients; I thought they were for indoctrinating people.” Smith went on to become a television executive at Warner Bros., but eventually his conscience caught up with him, and he left the business on a Razor’s Edge–like quest for spiritual solace through Africa and India. Headhunted by a midsize Beverly Hills–based agency in the mid-’90s (he prefers not to say which one, out of deference to clients who may not share his politics), he took the Marxist dictum “from each according to his ability” to heart — leading him into doomed, quixotic projects like setting up Howard Zinn’s monumental A People’s History of the United States as a miniseries at first Fox, and later HBO. (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were attached as executive producers, on the strength of their name-check in Good Will Hunting.)
After 9/11, concerned that $1,000 ticket prices for liberal benefits were leaving behind the next generation of industry progressives, Smith began hosting soirees at Cava on West Third, picking up the tab on pasta dinners and lectures by the likes of John Stauber, founder of PR Watch, chronicling how up to 40 percent of our nightly news comes from corporate press releases; Norman Solomon of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), recalling his experiences escorting Sean Penn to Baghdad before the war; and Connie Rice and Bo Taylor on their experiences brokering an L.A. gang truce in 1993. When Cava went under a year ago, Smith decided to take a break; at one time, he estimates, he was tithing a fifth of his income to “invigorate the democracy.” But times being what they are, when La Boheme manager Brian O’Connor stepped forward with a price break, after hosting a previous benefit for Amnesty International, the timing seemed right.
“How do you say something to the majority of Americans, even when it is in their best interest, so that the hairs don’t stand up on the back of their neck?” Smith asks. “We have to be a step ahead of the public relations that attack us. Maybe we’re the Neanderthals, who were said to be smarter and more compassionate than Homo sapiensbut terrible fighters, and we just haven’t evolved. But these guys on the right — Rush Limbaugh, etc. — they are not difficult targets. They’re just fighting with the gloves off. And now they’re destroying careers, so enough is enough.”
Jefferson wraps up an impassioned speech about Human Rights Watch’s efforts in combating sex trafficking in Malaysia, rape as a military strategy in Serbia and Kosovo, honor killings in Jordan, serial mutilation in Ciudad Juarez, and domestic abuse everywhere. Young Hollywood — including Xander Berkeley and Sarah Clarke from 24, Kathleen York from The West Wing (Toby Ziegler’s ex), and Gina Belafonte (Harry’s daughter) — listen enrapt and respond enthusiastically when she’s finished. And Smith seems a shade more enthusiastic that his message may be getting through.
“I could easily become a radical, step out and talk about my 20 years in show business and how hypocritical everybody is,” he says. “But you’ve got to stay in the game — even just to understand it.”
Happy Gilmore Goes Surfing
Adam Sandler was out surfing the other day, just another average semi-kook on a Surf Tech long board scrambling and bubbling and banging rails for meager little 2-foot waves on a picture-perfect, “I Love L.A.!” afternoon. The ocean didn’t cut him any breaks and neither did the crowd, a couple dozen wave-hungry citizens who were far too intent on getting some to recognize a mega movie star. Which is probably how Sandler wanted it.