Be willing to be lucky

One remark particularly stuck in my head today while reading When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead. Thus, the title of this post.

I began to look for work a few months after I started taking classes. The business side of entertainment–that’s where I was heading as far back as the family trip to the Fox lot. I applied to all the television networks and talent agencies in the city, intern, gofer, office boy, mailroom clerk, anything to get in the door. Most of the big outfits had unofficial programs to recruit executive talent. The men who hired for these jobs–it was always men–were middle-aged midlevel executives. I had an ability to win over these men and land myself these jobs. I was first hired as a page at NBC, this being, for many, the first step in a corporate program that turned the raw-boned kid into the executive in a Brooks Brothers suit.

There were hardly any Jews in the page program–it was mostly Irish kids. I remember the jacket they gave you the first day: a gorgeous blue coat, a gold braid snaking down the lapel.

I worked at the Hudson Theater on Forty-fourth Street, where I later produced Ann Corio, This Is Burlesque, and made a fortune. I lined up crowds, ushered people into their seats. The Steve Allen Show, The Jerry Lester Show, Broadway Tonight with Dagmar, I worked on them all. I was in and out of the theater all day, talking, schmoozing, picking up bits of gossip. I met Sophie Tucker. I met Ted Lewis. I met Steve Allen. I met Jerry Lester. I met Dagmar, a beautiful woman. I was getting an incredible look at an era that was vanishing: the Golden Age of Television. It was the late fifties. Ten years later, all these shows would be gone. It taught me about the rise and fall of empires, the fickle nature of fame. The point is, do not get attached to the world as it is, because the world is changing, something new is coming, every ten years a big hand comes down and sweeps the dishes off the table.

I have many memories from this time: running down West Forty-third Street in the rain to get a bottle of scotch for Sophie Tucker; smoking a cigarette with Steve Allen before his show; talking to Dagmar, who was certain her career would soon be over; taking a few bucks to seat some sailor boys in the Tonight Show audience at the last minute (tickets were free), walking them across a clean white stage, their boots leaving muddy black prints, the producer losing his mind (thought I would get fired for that one). But mostly, I remember how it felt to be young and in the city with my whole life in front of me. I stood watching the crowd, my mind cool and sharp, my hands at my sides, but another part of me was not cool and sharp, but fiery and excited. It was powerful, the happiness that rose in my chest and roared in my ears like the engine of a car when you step on the gas with the gearshift in neutral.

I knew I would not stay long in the page program, or climb the ladder to the executive suite. I would stay until I got what I needed, then move on. Various jobs, that’s what interested me. That could be my coda. Various experiences, various adventures.

Within a year of starting at NBC, I traded my blue coat and golden braid for a blue blazer. I was now working in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency. It was a grind. I was there early and stayed late, reading and sorting mail, delivering packages and studying the politics of the place. Grunt jobs are often the most instructive–they allow you to flow through an organization unnoticed, a corpuscle or cell moving in and out of the heart and lungs. William Morris was probably the most storied talent agency in New York, founded in the 1800s, when its hottest clients had been magicians, escape artists, song and dance men. Its mailroom was legendary, known in the business as the mailroom, a breeding ground for the future business talent of Hollywood. Michael Eisner, Bernie Brillstein–they all came through the William Morris mailroom, a credential worn in Hollywood as some wear the Legion of Honor.

I’m always hearing from people who say they worked with me in the mailroom at William Morris, but the odds are slim–I was only there for two months.

One afternoon, I went to lunch at the Park Central Hotel on Sixth Avenue. It was a notorious spot. Arnold Rothstein, the father of the Jewish underworld, had been shot in a room in the hotel, and Albert Anastasia, the boss of Murder Incorporated, had been shot in the barbershop off the lobby. It was a showbiz hangout, a haunt of managers and agents. I sat alone in the corner. Two young executives were at the next table talking in voices you could not help but overhear about a job that had just opened at MCA, the talent agency run by Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman. Their conversation was detailed and specific. One of the men said the posting was in the TV department, and that the man hiring was named Dick Rubin.

I finished my meal, went back to the mailroom, and called Dick Rubin. When his secretary answered, I said, in the coolest voice possible, “It’s Jerry Weintraub for Dick Rubin.” A minute later, when Rubin got on, I said, “Dick, Jerry Weintraub. I hear you’re looking for someone in TV. Well, I am over here at William Morris and none too happy.”

I went for an interview the following afternoon. MCA–Music Corporation of America–was a talent agency founded in the 1920s by Jules Stein. Lew Wasserman, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and started, like I did, as an usher in a movie theater, joined the company in the 1940s. He spent years in the trenches, working his way up. By the time of my interview, he was living and working in LA, but you could still feel his presence in the New York office. It was Wasserman’s company.

Dick Rubin was surprised by how young I was. I had really played it up on the phone, giving him the impression, probably, that I was an agent–not a kid from the mailroom. But I have a skill for interviews, and I got the job. Just like that, I went from making twenty-five dollars a week to making over seventy-five. My immediate boss was a big-time TV executive named Hubbell Robinson. He produced a bunch of shows, including the Ford Theatre, which was very prestigious. I was called Robinson’s assistant, but was really a glorified secretary. I sat at a desk outside his office, fetched coffee, ran errands. In the interview, he asked me a bunch of questions, like “Can you type?” and “Can you take dictation?” and “Do you know shorthand?”

“Oh, yes, sure, absolutely”–of course, I could do none of that stuff.

In the first weeks, whenever Robinson asked me to type something, I would get one of the girls in the secretarial pool to do it for me. If he dictated a letter, I would listen carefully, run out, and dictate whatever I could remember to one of the girls. This worked for a time. Then, one day, Robinson asked me to take down what he described as a “very important letter.” I went into his office with my pad and pencil, crossed my legs, assumed the position. He cleared his throat, then started: “Dear Mr. Muckety Muck, re: the matter of December 4 blah, blah, blah…” I followed as best as I could, but was soon left behind. He talked for two or three minutes–a long time–then said, “Okay, Jerry, read it back.”

I sat up, turned over the page, and started, “Dear Mr. Muckety Muck, re: the matter of December 4,” stumbled, stammered, then said, “Well, after that was something about a contract, or a litigant, or an out-of-country actor…?”

He looked at me like, you know, what the heck? then said, “Do you know shorthand, Jerry?”


“Can you type?”


“What did you think would happen when you got in here and sat down, and I started giving you this letter?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I was hoping it would just come to me, that I would suddenly know how to do it. I’ve heard of even crazier things happening.”

He asked me to leave. There were meetings and discussions. After lunch, I was called b

He asked me to leave. There were meetings and discussions. After lunch, I was called back into Mr. Robinson’s office. He said, “Look, Jerry, we’re not going to fire you. We like you–we like having you around. We think you’re going to be great. But stop trying to take dictation and stop trying to type. We’ll get an assistant for that. We’re promoting you to junior agent.”

What lesson do I take? Be willing to be lucky. Look at me. I had stumbled from chance to chance, emerging each time not only intact but with a better title and a bigger salary.

I was one of the suit-wearing agents of MCA now, with clients of my own, making a hundred dollars a week. But I think it was more than luck. I think I was being tested, as everyone is tested in this business, the object being–even if the bosses don’t mean it consciously–to see who can think on his or her feet, who can survive. The job of an agent is, in part, anyway, to bullshit and schmooze: How better to find talent than by seeing who can talk his way into a career? From usher to mailroom to secretarial pool to my own office.

It was like falling up a flight of stairs.

I had gotten back together with my high-school sweetheart–the girl who sent me the care packages in Biloxi. She was working as a secretary in the LA office of MCA. I called her every few nights on the WATS line, a party line that kept the East Coast and West Coast offices of the company in contact. You dialed Canal 6-0083-212 and a second later an operator picked up: “MCA, Beverly Hills.”

So one night I am at my desk in New York, feet up–I always did have excellent taste in shoes–talking to my future ex-wife, and we get into one those awful screaming fights you only have when you’re a kid. Five minutes later, you can’t even remember what it was about.

I come to work the next morning, seven, seven-thirty. I was usually the first one in. I sit down, and, before I can take a sip of my coffee, the phone rings. It’s the switchboard. “Is this Jerry Weintraub?”


“Please clear your lines. Lew Wasserman is calling.”

I had never met Lew Wasserman. I mean, he was the president of the company, the voice speaking from the burning bush, and I was a pissy junior agent.

I did the math. Seven-thirty in New York. Making it… six-thirty, five-thirty… For the love of God, why is the president of the company calling me at four-thirty in the morning?

I wait, listening to the static on the line, to the beating of my own heart, then he comes on–big, booming voice.

“Is this Mr. Weintraub?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What department are you in, Mr. Weintraub?”

He was showing me that he knew I was a peanut.


“Were you on the WATS line last night with your girlfriend, Mr. Weintraub?”


“Do you know for how long?”

“Well, no, but it seemed like forever.”

“It was three hours and twelve minutes, Mr. Weintraub. Did you enjoy your conversation?”

“No, not particularly.”

“Well, I listened to some of it and it was terrible. How can you talk like that?”

“You listened to my conversation?”

“I wanted to reach Mr. Stein in New York, and was trying to get on the WATS line, but they told me it was being tied up by a Mr. Weintraub.”

Wasserman had probably expected me to obfuscate, bullshit, stammer, or lie, but I instead told the truth. Which disarmed him immediately and made it so he would probably never forget me. I mean, can you believe this kid?

There was a pause, then he said, “When I come to New York, I want to meet you.”

A few weeks later, he called, asked me to his office. We talked, and later talked again, then again, and gradually, over time, we became friends.

By the early sixties, MCA represented the biggest names in Hollywood. The agency had a kind of monopoly on star power, which allowed Wasserman to go to the studio bosses, who had always enjoyed total control, and say, “Look, you have a choice: Either you share some of that control, or you make your films without our stars.” In this way, he was able to negotiate for his clients an unheard-of degree of freedom, meaning they could choose their projects, move from studio to studio, let the market determine their fees, which meant a shift of power from management to talent and, ultimately, the breakup of the old system. Of course, this all came back to bite Wasserman later, when he turned MCA into a studio.

I learned a lot from Lew: from his rise, from how he built his agency and studio, but also from his limitations, which resulted from the very quality that made him a success–his sympathy and identification with talent. He operated close to the ground, among the actors and directors who were turning out the product, thus sometimes missed the big picture–the tracking shot–which was, after all, part of his job. The vision thing. I think that’s why MCA was later taken over by Matsushita, by Seagrams. Simply put, Wasserman missed a turn in the plot. The other studios launched television networks, theme parks, diversified and grew, but did Wasserman develop an HBO or MTV? No. Sony, Paramount, Disney, Columbia–they all realized they had to get bigger to survive, but Wasserman kept MCA small. Big but small. When the game changes, you have to change with it. The more you change, the more you risk in order to survive–and it gets harder and scarier as you get older.

Not long after our first meeting, Wasserman gave me a shot. He moved me up and let me float, meaning I worked all over the company, in every department, which was a great opportunity. Why did he do this for me? Because, when the obvious thing was to lie (about the WATS line) I told the truth. That was unusual. It set me apart. It made me interesting, and interesting is valuable. I was now in a position to see how the company really worked, how the deals were really made, how a contract was negotiated, how the terms were reached, how the points were traded and the deal closed, but–here is the funny part–the more I observed, the more I realized how much I knew already. I already instinctively knew how to handle a client, how to deal with a demand, how to back off a bully, how to make everyone walk away feeling good about how bad the other guy was feeling–this was pure Bronx, street-corner stuff.

After a few years working for Wasserman, I felt I had learned all that I was going to learn and was ready to move on. Maybe it was that old restlessness again. I was tired of being a cog in another man’s machine. It might seem strange to walk away from such a plum gig, a risk, but I did not feel like I was taking a risk. I was just doing what I had always done. It did not matter if it was Lew Wasserman or my father with his jewelry case. I did not want to follow another man’s script. I was living my own plot, following my own light. How did I know it was time to move on? How do you know that a movie is over? The girl kisses the boy, the credits roll, you stand up and leave. I was twenty-four. I had decided to start my own business.

I told Lew I was leaving. We were in his office in New York. He came around the desk, took off his glasses. “You’re doing what?”

“I’m leaving.”

It was exhilarating–not quitting Lew, because I loved Lew, but taking control of my life and my career, choosing, saying, “I want to do this, not that.”

That’s freedom–that’s all it really is.

He put his hand on my shoulder.

He said, “This is a mistake.”

He said, “This is the best possible place for you.”

He said, “Do you understand what kind of opportunity I have given you?”

Finally, when he saw my mind was made up, he went back around his desk, sat down, and said, “When you leave here, where do you think you’re going?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “You mean to say you’re going to quit MCA, and you don’t even know where you’re going?”


He said, “You’re not as smart as I thought you were, Jerry.”

Years later, after I had bought a house just up the street from Lew, some representatives of a fund-raising group came to see me. They said they wanted to honor me, throw me a dinner, blah, blah. They were flowery in their rhetoric as to me, but as you get older you come to understand the real reason you’re chosen for such honors: because the committee of whatever thinks your name can sell tables. It’s not you they are after, in other words, it’s your address book. Five or six of them sat in the living room, explaining why I had been selected. It’s you and only you, Mr. Weintraub; you are the only man who is worthy. I finally interrupted them, saying, “Look, there is another man far more deserving than me living just down the street. In fact, I would feel uncomfortable receiving such an honor with him unhonored.”

They moved to the edge of the couch.

One of them asked, “Yes, yes? Who is it?”

“Just go three houses in that direction and ask for Lew Wasserman,” I told them.

“But we already offered it to him,” the man said. “It was Mr. Wasserman who sent us here.”