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R.I.P. Bernie Brillstein

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.

Jon Lovitz and Bill Maher told anecdotes and jokes about their manager and producing partner, while another client, Jennifer Aniston, read from Bernie’s recent autobiography.

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.”)

By 1980, Belushi and Aykroyd had left SNL to become the hottest comics in Hollywood. Brillstein loved making deals for them over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. But Brillstein had only dabbled in feature films and, frankly, failed almost every time out. He had secured only a $35,000 contract for Belushi to appear in 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Like most performers, Belushi felt the fast track lay in Hollywood films. Together, Dan and John saw a future in their April 1978 SNL characters of Joliet Jake and his silent brother, Elwood. Over the next months Aykroyd expanded the act into a full-length The Blues Brothers movie. By then, Animal House was the No. 1 movie in the country.

That summer, Belushi phoned then–Universal exec Sean Daniels about The Blues Brothers script, and Daniels bit. Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg was coaxing Belushi to take a part in 1941, but Brillstein argued that Spielberg had never done comedy and the script was not really that funny. But Belushi told Brillstein, “I can’t turn down Spielberg.”

Meanwhile, Brillstein was fighting with Universal for a bigger piece of the Animal House pie — $60 million so far on Uni’s negative cost of $2.7 million — for Belushi and himself. Thom Mount, then-head of Universal, was trying to make a three-picture deal for Belushi. Okay, Brillstein said, but why not agree to give Belushi some retroactive percentage of the Animal House profits? Universal wouldn’t budge. In the end, Mount would only offer a $250,000 bonus for Belushi if he signed the deal — take it or leave it. Brillstein left and called Belushi, who had only one demand: Get the check that day.

Belushi received $500,000 for The Blues Brothers, but Brillstein’s take was only $150,000 — peanuts to him. So, in 1980, Brillstein signed with CAA’s Michael Ovitz and funneled his clients there. The relationship paid off immediately: Ovitz did a deal for Neighbors, guaranteeing Belushi $1.25 million and Brillstein $400,000. “I nearly shit,” Brillstein recalled.

Managers traditionally charged 15 percent of a client’s salary. But Brillstein had long ago found a much more profitable way to generate income as a TV packager. Using his stable of A-list writer-producers to create projects, Brillstein would load as many of his own writers onto a show as he could, generating even more fees, and then attach himself as executive producer and sell it.

Brillstein not only collected a producer’s fee but also profit sharing and back-end participation. With syndication and licensing fees, a hit show could bring in millions upon millions. Now Bernie was packaging himself into Belushi’s and Aykroyd’s movies as well. It was the price the studio had to pay him to deliver his stars.

A manager putting himself in business with his own clients was, to say the least, a gray area. It could be argued that the arrangement saved clients from paying the manager’s commission. But it was also a conflict of interest. But such matters did not concern Brillstein or his clients.

By now Bernie was having a tough time keeping Belushi’s drug problems from damaging the comedian’s career. They soon took an even bigger toll. By 1982, Belushi was living at the Chateau Marmont and hounding Brillstein for cash to score cocaine and worse. The day before he died of an overdose in Bungalow 3, Belushi told Brillstein he loved him. Bernie was called when Belushi’s body was found on March 5.

The manager’s remorse was overwhelming — followed by anger, first over Bob Woodward’s book Wired, and then over the movie blaming Brillstein and the rest of Belushi’s entourage for not doing enough.

Brillstein’s biz wasn’t damaged, however. He had bought the rights to the screenplay for Ghostbusters from Aykroyd for $1. But, surprisingly, the studios were reluctant to buy it, in part because Aykroyd had yet to prove he could carry a movie. “Universal had it first and passed; John Landis passed; a lot of people passed on it,” Brillstein told me. “But we owned it and I was instrumental in keeping it alive.” So was Ovitz, who helped structure a difficult deal with Columbia. Released in 1984, Ghostbusters quickly became the highest-grossing comedy of all time.

By 1986, Brillstein had never been hotter as a manager or TV producer, packaging Buffalo Bill, Open All Night, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and The Garry Shandling Show. With Alf, Brillstein added another cash cow.

But then Brillstein’s luck changed. He became embroiled in a long-running feud with Michael Ovitz and CAA. He took an ill-fated job as head of Lorimar Entertainment’s new movie studio, thinking it would give him the stature in Hollywood he had long deserved. But Bernie also knew the moment he gave up his management company he would lose all his clients and his power base.

Brillstein, as always, had a solution to the dilemma: Why didn’t Merv Adelson purchase Brillstein’s company? Brillstein not only pocketed $26 million, but he retained control of the management firm as well. To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest even though one certainly existed, Brillstein agreed to take a salary of $1 a year for his new position as CEO of Lorimar Film Entertainment. As Variety noted, the deal created “one heaping big show business macher.”

Soon, Brillstein’s representation of Aykroyd ended. Then Adelson, without warning, agreed to sell Lorimar-Telepictures and all its holdings, including the movie company and Brillstein’s management company, to Warner Bros. The studio quickly folded Lorimar into Warners, and Bernie found himself out of a job. He was forced to start all over. Brillstein took his golden parachute and went back into the management business. He also took a very young Brad Grey under his wing.

Together, the two were able to sign back many of Bernie’s former clients and start the careers of many new hot young ones, as well as expand into A-list actors. Slowly, Grey took over running the company, named Brillstein-Grey Entertainment by 1991, until Brad left to become chairman/CEO of the Paramount Motion Picture Group in 2005.

It was an incredible testament to Brillstein’s legacy that, when Brillstein-Grey decided in June 2007 to rebrand itself, the talent management and movie/TV production entity paid homage to its founder and mentor by renaming itself Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Said Brillstein in the press release, “It’s been a pleasure seeing this company evolve over the past 38 years.”

And it was a pleasure to know you, Bernie.