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
At the memorial service for Bernie Brillstein, the 77-year-old Hollywood manager and movie/TV producer who died August 7 from complications stemming from heart and lung disease, everyone who was anyone in Hollywood showed up. Brillstein’s partner, Brad Grey, and client Lorne Michaels arranged for so many comedians to speak inside UCLA’s Royce Hall that HBO should have been filming a new special.
Like most everyone else in Hollywood, I loved Bernie. Because he was that rarity in show biz, 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 do 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, he was placed in the Morris publicity department, and then put in charge.
“Working in publicity in an agency is like being in charge of valet at a paraplegic camp,” Brillstein quipped to me. He was moved into commercials. With an easy laugh and honed sense of humor, Brillstein was a born “people person,” the kind strangers and colleagues alike felt they could immediately trust. He easily established relationships and built his department, generally considered a loser, into a $2.5 million-a-year business.
He caught the eye of Morris’ powerful head of TV packaging, Wally Jordan, who brought Brillstein into the TV department. After Bernie managed to sign two clients away from then–No. 1 agency MCA, Marty Kummer Associates (later Management 3) offered Bernie a job in 1963, which he took.
Back at Morris, Brillstein had met with a little-known puppeteer, Jim Henson, and signed him immediately. Two months after Brillstein left Morris, Henson called and said, “I need you.” Over the next decade, Brillstein made a fortune representing Henson and everything having to do with the Muppets.
He also repped the producing team of John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt and their cornpone version of Laugh-In for the country & western set, then helped package Hee Haw to CBS. Though the network canceled the show in 1971, Hee Haw was sold into syndication, where it ran for 23 years, becoming one of the longest-running shows in TV history, pulling in millions of dollars in licensing fees and making Brillstein rich.
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 packaged them all into new TV shows.
In 1975, he sold Michaels’ Saturday Night Live to NBC. The story behind SNL is now legendary, but it bears repeating: When Michaels and Brillstein came to pitch the idea, the NBC executives simply stared at the men in disbelief. “They said, ‘Who are these Jews from California?’ They absolutely hated us,” Brillstein recalled to me. When SNL’s first show generated 200 complaints, NBC wanted out. He fought to keep it on the air. “You idiots,” Brillstein he told the suits, “don’t you realize you have a hit here?”
As SNL grew in the ratings, so did the popularity of its cast. Almost overnight, the show produced breakout stars in Second City alumni John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner, who all relied solely on Brillstein’s managerial advice and support.
The first time Brillstein met Belushi was 15 minutes before the first SNL taping after NBC’s legal department had sent the young comic 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, 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, like father and son. Brillstein was fiercely protective of the troubled comedian, even when people complained about his unreliability and, more critically, his growing drug habit. Brillstein understood obsessive behavior. During the 1970s, he’d beaten a gambling addiction. He also liked to eat, and his weight problems had forced him into the perennial attire of baggy Pepto-Bismol-pink sweaters. (Client Richard Dreyfuss called him “Shelley Winters with a beard.”)