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All Shook Up?

When the William Morris Agency’s board next meets Thursday, what probably won’t be discussed is far more interesting than what will be discussed. But keeping news under wraps is just William Morris being William Morris. What nobody is going public with is how the oldest, richest and stodgiest of Hollywood talent agencies is undergoing a seismic shift not unlike what’s happening beneath the San Andreas Fault.

There, it took millions of years for the Earth’s tectonic plates to form the Sierras. Inside Morris, it just seems like it’s taking eons to move the Beverly Hills agency from stuck-in-place-by-tradition to the cutting edge.

At issue is a generational transfer of power, and at the epicenter are four Morris nameplates. Of course, there’s something laughable about guys like Jim Wiatt and Dave Wirtschafter and Sam Haskell in their 40s and 50s being seen as kids as opposed to the geezers like Norman Brokaw who have kept an iron fist around the reins of the agency. But since this is Hollywood, the struggle is about money, too: Who controls it and who deserves it, the young or the old? No longer is it enough to move the Morris Christmas party from the old-fartish Spago to the lukewarm hipness of the Pacific Design Center "because the young people liked it," in the words of one agency insider. (This season’s at the retro chic Wilshire Ebell partied hardy until 2 a.m.) Instead, the goal is to loosen up the Morris board. "This is a painful process," a source says. "But I also view it as a point in the company’s history that’s very positive." So here’s what’s going on:

Sources say that beginning last April, Wirtschafter began negotiating a new contract. One sticking point was whether he’d assume the title of president. But that was already occupied by his boss, Jim Wiatt, who was both CEO and president. The contract talks lagged, and Wirtschafter’s status remained in limbo. Wiatt was supposed to climb another rung to chairman, a position long occupied by Brokaw. Sources tell L.A. Weekly that, at one point, Brokaw was on board with moving to emeritus status, which would free the chairman title for Wiatt. "But then Norman backed away," explains an insider. "And for a long time now, no one’s been clear who’s going to have what title." As if that’s not complicated enough, there remains the matter of Haskell’s status. As executive vice president and worldwide head of television, Haskell is known to be antsy for a higher position. Over the years, the title of vice chairman has been bestowed on the head TV guy (Jerry Katzman, for instance), so Haskell seems to be next in line.

But how long is too long for all this to happen?

Wiatt reportedly has assured Wirtschafter the president’s title will one day be his. (Wirtschafter may already have the promotion but hasn't yet announced it to his staff.) Talk about a break with Morris tradition: From the T-shirt and jeans and flip-flops he wears around the office to the ever-present dog around his heels and in the hallways, Wirtschafter is considered the leader of the new generation of Morris agent. "Symbolically, it’s huge," one source gushes. "It’s such a swing, but the agency needed to swing." Qualified though colorless, Wirtschafter is — no surprise — a lawyer who passed though the business affairs office at Creative Artists Agency, established his agent credentials at International Creative Management and then followed Wiatt from ICM to Morris in 2000. Aside from a good client list that includes the Wachowski brothers, Bryan Singer, Halle Berry, Alicia Keyes, Ridley Scott, Todd Phillips, Carl Franklin and Spike Lee, Wirtschafter still doesn’t have any "gotcha" clients to speak of. But his plusses are that he brings in money, likes to sign, helps other agents and hates the pretense. If Wiatt is the glad-handing outside man, then Wirtschafter is the rainmaking inside guy. He rarely talks to the press (though he’ll be featured in an in-the-works article on agents by The New Yorker’s Tad Friend).

When I recently asked Wiatt about when he’d assume the Morris chairmanship, he stonewalled me with a smile. "There are no title changes. Nothing imminent happening," he said. "I’m only chairman in my mind." As for the generational shift under way, he said: "There’s no resistance here. The old guys have embraced change."

But have they? Yes, the board is looking younger than ever before, but people inside Morris for some time now perceived two separate camps there: old-timers including Irv Weintraub, Steve Kram, Richard Rosenberg, who are all siding with Brokaw, versus newcomers Wiatt and Wirtschafter. But only recently, "They found a way to work together," a source says with some surprise. Any controversy seems just like old times.

One reason that Morris moves so slowly is because it’s steeped in all that history. Whenever anyone outside the entertainment industry mentions talent agents, the conversation inevitably turns to Canon Drive. Yes, there really was a William Morris who in 1898 stopped selling ads for a garment-industry trade newspaper and started selling talent. The agency hearkens back to the early days of vaudeville, through flickers (silent movies) and talkies into the Golden Era of Radio and then the Golden Age of Television and then the nickel era of the Internet.

But Morris’ greatest strength as an institution — its enduring constancy in the face of flux — would become the agency’s greatest weakness for decades. True, the daily sight of the septuagenarian Abe Lastfogel shuffling the two blocks from his penthouse apartment to the Beverly Hills office in the 1970s, or of the octogenarian Lou Weiss sitting behind a desk in the New York office even today has been a comfort in a perplexing world of little stability and less sanity. But in a town where loyalties change with the latest box-office numbers, Morris had always been more than just a place of work. It’s a family or, more to the point, a Jewish family, with all the tradition and dysfunction that implies. Close-knit to a fault, the group of elders who long ran the agency with one eye on the dotted line and the other on the bottom line viewed agenting not as a career but as a religion. For young agents, the feeling you were almost working for your parents was at times odd, even humorous, and stood in contrast to the cruel realities of show biz. It was assumed that the Morris elders would finish their careers at the Morris office and be carried out the door feet first.

Certainly that’s been Brokaw’s attitude.

After running Morris for decades, Brokaw has weathered the agency’s up and downs. His blind devotion to the agency made him something of a joke with younger colleagues. Without the least hint of self-consciousness, he made such grandiose pronouncements to colleagues and reporters as: "The way Morris goes is the way show business goes" or "We’re not the best because we’re the oldest; we’re the oldest because we’re the best." Once, when the Saturday staff at the Grill didn’t recognize Brokaw and refused him his usual booth, the agent returned with a copy of his "official" Morris biography. Brokaw seemed hopelessly out of date and out of step with gab about dead stars like Marilyn Monroe or nearly dead ones like Red Buttons.

That is, until Brokaw could lay claim to the biggest deal in the history of the agency, the syndication of client Bill Cosby’s 1984-1992 sitcom, The Cosby Show. I’m told Morris’ first check came to $40 million, the biggest packaging fee for a series in the history of television at the time. Many more checks followed, and Brokaw to this day is considered a working agent who earns his keep. No one will ever dare show him the door.

On the other hand, Haskell may leave on his own. He’s that rarity among top Hollywood TV agents: goyim. Morris knows from Italian-Americans in its midst (affectionately dubbed "faux Jews") but not from Haskell, who hails from the spit-sized town of Amory, Mississippi. There’s even a street named after him. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Haskell, a Republican, runs for Congress with the help of his Mississippi buddy Trent Lott, the ex-Senate majority leader.

Which brings us to Wiatt.

The son of a clothing magnate, a Beverly Hills High brat, an aide to former Senator John Tunney, Wiatt loved politics but never thought he’d make a good candidate himself. That’s why he believed he’d make a good agent because he never wanted to be the star. Wiatt rose at ICM to co-chairman because he could massage egos, put out fires, translate boss Jeff Berg’s "vision" into everyday concepts and, most importantly, get Sam Cohn on the telephone. But for years, Wiatt had lived the high life (literally) and, after two divorces and a third marriage (to Berg’s ex-assistant), found himself deeply in debt to ICM. With reportedly over $1.5 million worth of loans outstanding, and most of his compensation tied up in company stock, Wiatt made no secret of the fact that he needed cold hard cash to keep his gilded lifestyle. After looking around, he jumped to Morris.

There are some who believe that Wiatt is an agency lifer and others who suspect he is still on the prowl. With mogul pals like Les Moonves, Tom Freston, Brad Grey and Jeff Katzenberg, he wouldn’t mind joining their club. It’s known he’s available for the Paramount topper job and even the Disney CEO gig. But as long as Hollywood superlawyer Skip Brittenham remains Wiatt’s buddy, the agent will not worry too much about losing his footing at Morris, should a temblor happen to roll through.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.