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Hirsch’s Hornet’s Nest

Illustration by Ryan Ward

It’s not often that entertainment attorneys start aiming their stingers at one another, much less inside the same law practice. Heck, the whole point of their chummy world is to keep the Hollywood machinery humming so everyone makes gobs of money and buys in Malibu. But that changed on August 13 when Barry Hirsch, infamous for giving Hollywood many Maalox moments, filed a surprise lawsuit against his firm on a Friday, quietly cleaned out his office on Saturday, stealthily spirited away his clients on Sunday, and then publicly portrayed his partners as backstabbing weasels guilty of ageism on Monday. Astonishingly, both Variety and the Los Angeles Times wrote stories that seemed sympathetic to poor, poor 70-year-old Hirsch’s supposed plight.

Hirsch as victim? Oh, puh-leeze. Believe that and next you people will be taking up a collection for the West Nile Mosquito Defamation League.

Though both sides now are generating partisan blather through dueling publicists (Hirsch hired Baker Winokur Ryder while the law firm went with Bragman Nyman Caffarelli), the untold story here looks like one of betrayal . . . but by whom? Talk with Hollywood players and a history emerges of Hirsch, while undeniably a brilliant attorney, treating his law partners like bugs under his shoe, going all the way back to the start of his legal career. And, like so much in Hollywood, this is also a tale about money and ego.

Sure, there’s now the usual “they said, he said” blustering. Partners in what is now known as Jackoway Tyerman Wertheimer Austen Mandelbaum & Morris (Hirsch’s name was quickly tossed) talked to L.A. Weekly only on condition they would not be identified individually. Hirsch, whose new practice is called Hirsch Wallerstein Matlof & Fishman, declined to give an interview to L.A. Weekly even though he overcame his usual reluctance to talk to the media and gabbed freely just before suing his ex-firm.

That this was a scorched-earth pitched battle by two show-biz powerhouses was made clear immediately when Hirsch issued Press Statement No. 1 to deny a published report suggesting he’d retired. Then he and his new partners issued Press Statement No. 2 to explain, “We filed a lawsuit for the benefit of all shareholders to ensure that they would equally share in the company’s assets since it was dissolved.”

For their part, Hirsch’s former partners first heard the buzz from a client that Hirsch was bolting. So Jim Jackoway rushed into work that Sunday only to find empty offices for Hirsch and three colleagues. The firm didn’t even discover until Tuesday that Hirsch had sued them five days earlier. “I don’t know if his medication wore off,” an ex-partner joked to L.A. Weekly. “It just wasn’t anything that anybody expected. But litigation is war. So I’m happy no one can accuse us now of going after an old man.”

Unanswered and off-the-record accusations began to pour out of the Jackoway Tyerman firm that Hirsch had made a habit of biting the hands that fed him — gripes about resisting his partners’ attempts to promote people or grant name-on-the-door status, about rarely giving any of his colleagues credit, about declining to refer business to other attorneys in the practice. “It hadn’t been a particularly pleasant working relationship with him for the last couple of years. He was nasty and causing stress and aggravation,” an abandoned partner explained. “It was the product of Barry’s resentment and paranoia and inability to root for the people around here who were now the foundation of a law firm that could have borne his name forever.”

That things had to get this extreme is kinda mind-boggling, especially considering Hirsch is a legal éminence grise who’s also a licensed marriage, family and child counselor. When he wasn’t presiding over the serial wedding ceremonies of clients Julia Roberts and J.Lo, he spent years treating celebrity and civilian patients and conducting group therapy sessions.

“What therapist would advise a patient in a 25-year marriage to leave his wife in the middle of the night while she was out doing the grocery shopping?” noted an ex-partner. Agreed one top talent agent who has worked with Hirsch for decades: “To be suing your law partners when you portray yourself as Mr. Human Psychology, Mr. Transactional Wizard, is just a total loser thing to do.”

Hirsch and his new partners’ press statement, however, portrayed themselves as winners. “We are able to launch this firm because of the loyalty of our clients, who have wholeheartedly embraced this change. We are excited about the future, both as partners and as friends, and look forward to continuing our practice with all of our clients.”

But was Hirsch’s midnight exodus also a midnight raid on his old firm? Despite Hirsch’s boasting, it’s unclear who will, and won’t, join him besides Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Coppola and her can’t-get-arrested dinosaur of a daddy, who was Hirsch’s first big celebrity client back in Hollywood’s Jurassic Era. As for Julia Roberts, right now, unless and until Hirsch’s old firm receives a notice to transfer files, she is still very much a client of Jackoway Tyerman.

 

As for why he struck out on his own, Hirsch and his new partners made this joint statement: “The catalyst leading to the creation of the new firm is our collective belief that we can better represent our clients in a more intimate setting, one in which we can provide a higher level of our personalized expertise.” Funny, but that’s exactly the opposite of the pitch Hirsch used to make to potential clients that big was better.

Says one of his abandoned partners, “Barry’s philosophy for the firm was always that you’re repping a client in all facets of their lives. Not just making deals, you are planning their estates and taxes, buying and selling their houses, setting up and administering their corporations. The very thing Barry used to distinguish our firm was this support — all of which we’re keeping, and none of which he now has.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood is waiting breathlessly to see what happens next with some unfinished Hirsch business at his old firm regarding his old friend Michael Ovitz. As The New York Times reported in a 2002 article on Ovitz’s then beleaguered management company (sold soon after), “Loyalist Barry Hirsch, who was his attorney, is now in a dispute with Mr. Ovitz over money.” Yet sources tell L.A. Weekly that, inside the firm, Hirsch didn’t want to go after Ovitz for what sources said was “a six-figure bill.”

 

To fully understand Hirsch and what happened, you need a primer in Hollywood law. For the longest time in the entertainment biz, attorneys were an afterthought in the deal-making process. The first movie star on record as enlisting the services of an attorney to negotiate against a studio was Gladys Smith in 1911. Her attorney reputedly doubled her pay, secured her a screen credit, negotiated a publicity tour and changed her name to Mary Pickford.

By the 1940s, lawyers became part of a star’s entourage, with the top talent retaining personal attorneys to do the byzantine business of mostly tax work. Then agent Lew Wasserman negotiated a percentage of a film’s net profits for Jimmy Stewart and created the two words — back end — that redefined movie deal-making. The days of the simple deal memo were over. Superstars became virtual mini-moguls, usually with their own production companies or incorporated businesses. The attorneys saw an opportunity to collect fat fees from this burgeoning branch of entertainment law.

By the ’60s, established Los Angeles law firms added entertainment divisions. But there also grew a new generation of entertainment lawyers looking to replace the ossified climates of the old firms with a more personal atmosphere. This appealed to talents’ narcissistic need for individual handholding. Soon the biggest legal names in this nascent world included Ken Ziffren, Skip Brittenham, Bruce Ramer, Frank Wells, Bert Fields, Tom Pollock and Jake Bloom.

Like many of L.A.’s rising entertainment attorneys, Hirsch was a local boy. The product of a Westside middle-class family, Hirsch graduated from USC Law School in 1957 and went to work for an old-line entertainment firm before a merger formed Schiff Hirsch and Schreiber.

Schiff was strictly old school. Hirsch was a poster boy for the ’70s: hip, happening and intent on exploring his Me Decade potential. He wore blue jeans to the office and, after hours, joined an acting group. He obtained a master’s degree in behavioral science and set up a private therapy practice. Many of the same clients discussing business problems with him during the day were returning at night to discuss personal woes. As Hirsch himself once said about this commingling, “The clients’ needs and wants and desires become important for the lawyer to know, so he can be achieving them.”

In the mid-’70s, Hirsch got his first big break when Francis Ford Coppola’s lawyer committed suicide. The famed director asked producing partner Fred Roos for a recommendation. Roos, who had gone to Venice High with Hirsch, suggested his old school chum. Next, Hirsch signed Jane Fonda after Gunther Schiff himself called Henry Fonda and put in a good word. These two major signings quickly caught the attention of Mike Ovitz. Schiff and Ovitz already knew one another through their mutual client Sally Struthers, one of CAA’s first clients. Ovitz asked Schiff for an introduction to Hirsch, so the three of them had lunch.

Even back then, Hirsch was the quintessential bad cop in studio dealings. In an interview years ago, Schiff told me about the time Hirsch held up production on a project because he was demanding a $3,500 per diem on location for a client, when $1,500 was the standard. Since Hirsch was on vacation and the studio was screaming, Schiff called the client. “I don’t care,” the client said. “I don’t think we’re going on location anyway.”

 

Later, at a partners’ meeting, Hirsch chided Schiff for giving in. “Barry, it’s always better if you leave a little on the plate,” Schiff warned. “I don’t believe that,” Hirsch said. “I think you should get the whole plate for your client if you can.”

“I think Barry was out to prove himself,” Schiff recalled. “And he used whatever means. I don’t mean fair or foul, because nothing he did was foul. But Barry was very obviously out for Barry. He was highly intelligent, highly motivated and greedy.”

Add arrogant. Few at Schiff’s firm will forget that infamous partners’ meeting where, to everyone’s horror, Hirsch went around the table and, one by one, rated each attorney’s usefulness to the firm: “You are a two, you are a six, you are a one,” he said to the lawyers, then analyzed them professionally and psychologically.

According to a 1980 American Lawyer article, internal firm disputes at the time over partnership shares and merger attempts had become increasingly tense, “but everyone assumed they’d be worked out.” A source was quoted as saying Hirsch felt he deserved more money than everyone else. That was the same year a rumor swept Hollywood that Ovitz was looking to redefine the working relationship between attorneys and agents by seeking a legal ally to deliver new clients to CAA and also prevent existing ones from leaving. Ovitz visited several top show-biz attorneys with a carefully rehearsed speech about working together as “partners.” Ziffren, Brittenham, Pollock and others were amused by Ovitz’s chutzpah. But Hirsch, by many accounts, was intrigued.

So was Gary Hendler, who at age 40 had established himself as Hollywood’s undisputed tax maven. He became the founding partner of a small tax specialty firm that included Art Armstrong and Greg Gibson, and the attorneys protected their clients’ millions from the IRS. The son of a greeting-card-store owner in the Bronx, Hendler headed to California after Harvard Law School and joined Los Angeles’ prestigious tax firm Irell & Manella. Not long after, Hendler left to open his own boutique firm in Century City, taking Robert Redford with him. By then, he’d become the master of real estate ventures that resulted in huge tax write-offs before the laws were changed. His client list soon included Sean Connery, Barbra Streisand, Sydney Pollack and Goldie Hawn. As it happened, Hendler’s Century City offices were just two floors above CAA’s.

One day, in 1979, at CAA’s regularly scheduled Wednesday motion-picture meeting, Ovitz drew up a list of actors the agency should sign as soon as possible. At the head of the roster was Sean Connery, and Hendler delivered him to Ovitz on a silver platter. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the best of all possible scenarios would result if Hirsch and Hendler joined up together.

On Friday afternoon, April 25, 1980, Gunther Schiff received a phone call from a reporter at the Los Angeles Times asking, “Do you have any comments about Barry Hirsch breaking off from your firm?” Schiff was caught flat-footed. He arranged to meet Hirsch in the office Saturday morning.

“I hear you’ve been talking to Hendler,” Schiff said to Hirsch.

“No, no,” the attorney insisted. “We’ve had some discussions, but nothing has happened.”

“It’s going to be in the paper,” Schiff pressed.

“Oh, no, I haven’t even met Armstrong,” Hirsch assured.

Two nights later, a friend of Schiff’s spotted Michael Ovitz, Gary Hendler and Hirsch eating together at a local restaurant. “The rumor was that Barry was going to bring Jane and Francis and some other clients,” recalled Schiff. “And I was told that Ovitz was brokering a marriage.” A week later, Hirsch left the firm after 15 years. At the time, an angry Schiff told The American Lawyer, “Mr. Hirsch hasn’t told me why he’s decided to leave the firm. I’m not sure Mr. Hirsch knows. I said, ‘Go with God.’”

Hirsch immediately joined Hendler’s firm, now renamed Armstrong Hendler & Hirsch but still located above CAA. He took with him his entire client list and two Schiff partners. The brand-new law firm was the buzz at Industry watering holes from Jimmy’s to Le Dôme. What went unreported was Ovitz’s role in it. Within months, a red-bordered CAA ad in the trades announced the signing of Robert Redford.

 

By many accounts, Hirsch was ambitious to run Hendler’s law firm by himself. Sure enough, not long after Ovitz brokered the professional marriage of Hendler and Hirsch, Hendler was appointed to help Columbia Pictures executive Victor Kaufman head TriStar Pictures, a new production company started by Coca-Cola-owned Columbia, HBO and CBS. Armstrong Hendler & Hirsch became Armstrong Hirsch.

Soon, TriStar became Columbia’s version of “New Coke.” After less than two years on the job, Hendler was out. Several sources told me that Hendler asked Hirsch to let him return to the law firm and that Hirsch said no. One day, a routine medical checkup for an ulcer showed that Hendler had incurable cancer. He died just before the July 4th weekend at age 50. As the story goes, the only well-known person to attend the funeral was longtime client and friend Ella Fitzgerald because Barry Hirsch and Mike Ovitz were out of town.

Watching the Hirsch-Ovitz alliance, it began to dawn on Hollywood that, in the position of trusted adviser, an attorney could artfully draw the line between what constituted the best interests of the client and the best interests of the client’s reps. It’s been said over and over in the biz that no one blurred that line better than Barry Hirsch.

Not only did other entertainment law firms believe Hirsch had a decided advantage over every other attorney in the business when it came to CAA, but inside the agency there was a push to place clients with Hirsch. As one agent there told me, “You got a sense that when you had a client who was hot, that it would be a good idea for them to go to Hirsch’s law firm. It would be the way to get brownie points with Mike.”

On the other hand, there was the time that Ovitz’s partner Ron Meyer desperately wanted to sign Jane Fonda, who had Hirsch as her lawyer but no agent. Meyer tap-danced for Hirsch for a long, long time to get a meeting with her. After Fonda became a client, Meyer told Hirsch, “Now, I want Goldie.”

Hirsch’s response was icy: “I am not a delivery boy.”

Hirsch and Ovitz spoke at least once a day. When a client had a problem, no matter how minor, Hirsch was on the phone to Ovitz: “I would get a call from Mike Ovitz saying, ‘This was just mentioned at a meeting in Barry Hirsch’s office,’” recalls former CAA agent Tony Ludwig. “The client could not have been out of Barry’s office five minutes, and already I was fixing the problem.”

At the William Morris Agency and ICM, Hirsch was suddenly seen as a threat. The idea of a lawyer intruding himself in the middle of the representation process, lobbying for one agent over another, played to the deepest fears of CAA’s competitors. For instance, top brass at Morris became apoplectic when they learned that young agent Elaine Goldsmith had recommended Hirsch to be the attorney for her rising star Julia Roberts. And, one Friday night, ICM’s managers had made a courtesy call to Hirsch that his client, director Penny Marshall, would be leaving CAA and coming over. On Monday morning, Penny Marshall called ICM to say the most extraordinary thing had happened. Out of the clear blue that Sunday, Mike Ovitz phoned her, came over to her house and described the big plans he had for her. Marshall stayed with CAA.

Ultimately, sources say, Hirsch held summit meetings to assure both Morris and ICM that he was not in CAA’s back pocket.

Meanwhile, the gray area had also sifted down into the billing process, blurring even further the traditional “church and state” division between agents and attorneys and studios. Though there was nothing legally wrong with having the studio pay agency commissions or attorney’s fees for talent, the appearance of the arrangement alarmed some high-level Hollywood players. So, sources have told me, when Frank Price was forced out as motion-picture chairman of Universal and replaced by über-attorney Tom Pollock, one of the first things Sid Sheinberg, president of the parent company, MCA, wanted was a review of all of the studio’s contracts with CAA and Hirsch.

 

At the apex of his power, Hirsch’s hardball tactics, especially his penchant for brinksmanship, made the attorney notorious as a deal-buster inside the studios. He’d hold out for major deal points until things went down to the wire, and then refuse to let his clients report to the set. His battling with Disney’s then business-affairs hellcat Helene Hahn became the stuff of legend. As the story goes, she was negotiating a directing deal for Francis Ford Coppola with Hirsch, and all that was left was Coppola’s signature.

 

According to The American Lawyer, “Then Hirsch called Hahn and asked for the check. When Hahn balked, Hirsch insisted, and she ultimately backed down. Hahn became furious when Hirsch called back — after the check had cleared — with proposed contract changes. In the end, Hahn agreed to the revisions, but plotted a way to convey her sentiments to Hirsch. At the time, a scare about bacteria-infested watermelons was making front-page news. Instead of sending Hirsch a fruit basket, which Hahn often does as a gesture after closing big deals, she shipped him [some] suspect melons.” (Another version of this story has it that the tainted product was Jalisco brand cheese.)

Once Ovitz left CAA for Disney in 1995, Hirsch was suddenly seen as vulnerable. “He was still formidable, but not really in the position of power that he once had,” says a legal rival. “What happens is you get to a certain point and your clientele begins to age. The Dick Donners, the Barry Levinsons, the Bob Redfords were still active but not like they were 15 years ago when they dominated. It’s a generational business.”

And then came the fallout from Francis Ford Coppola’s lawsuit against Warner Bros. over a Pinocchio project. Hirsch was at the center of the shit-storm. Without delving into the mind-numbing details, in the end who won and lost didn’t matter. What did was that Hirsch was now considered persona non grata at Warner. Yes, part of an entertainment lawyer’s job is pissing off those guys. But it was also problematic.

There was also the help he gave Ovitz in setting up Artists Management Group. Hirsch became embroiled in an ugly tug of war for his clients, managers Rick and Julie Yorn, between their old bosses and their new best pal Ovitz. The idea was that Hirsch could share some of AMG’s hot young clients. But then a pissing match broke out between AMG and CAA. The mess culminated when AMG was sold off and Ovitz self-destructed with that King Lear–ish rage against Hollywood’s supposed gay mafia.

Meanwhile, Hirsch’s firm was thriving, thanks in part to younger people who, because they’d gained influence and clientele, needed and deserved to be given props. The name of the firm was changed first to include three partners. Then, as recently as January, three more people were added to the letterhead. Now the partners were discussing a more tax-efficient way of organizing the firm by changing its “C” corporation status into a limited liability partnership.

They were also talking about a succession plan.

“Nothing was going on behind anyone’s back. There was no cabal. No one was saying, ‘In 30 days you’re out,’” says one of Hirsch’s ex-partners. “Barry asked for us to present him with a plan, and people with good will responded to his request. We made him a proposal, which was a very fair proposal. When he got it, he was very unhappy.”

Sources tell L.A. Weekly that the dispute was over money. The ex-partners claim their plan guaranteed him a revenue stream “over years and years and years. Besides,” explained one of them, “Barry owned a place in Hawaii and had become in recent years a very avid golfer. And, when you’re in your 70s, you’re entitled to go out and enjoy life and success. But Barry could not accept that.”

In the end, this “they said, he said” drama is a hornet’s nest for everyone involved.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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