Character Is All You Have in the Dark
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. –HELEN KELLER
Always let character be your guide. –MARY KIRKPATRICK HASKELL
My mother grew up during a time when people had few material possessions, so her character and reputation were her most valuable assets. She nurtured and guarded them with her every breath. Character is the rock on which my mother built her life, and she passed that value on to me. It is the foundation that supports everything else.
To some, character means integrity. Selflessness. The ability to inspire. Kindness. I think character is simply a unique combination of mental and moral qualities that distinguish us from one another. The Boy Scout Law best describes the complete recipe for good character: “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
Character tells us most of what we want to know about someone, but more important, what’s essential to know.
Here’s how to tell: In the absolute dark, you can’t tell if a person you meet is good- looking, plain, tall, short, fat, or thin. You don’t know eye or hair color, or if they have any hair at all. You can’t judge them by their clothes or body language. In fact, the only way to really assess who they are is by what they say and, more important, by how they act.
When you take away everything, when you strip a person of the superficial add- ons, all they have left is their true self. Character is what gives a person meaning. Character is the core of our being. I first learned about character where we all do: at home. Since my father traveled often for work, my mother embraced the chance to show me the way.
Momma expected nothing less than honesty from all her sons, and she never missed an opportunity to teach us the importance of always telling the truth.
My mother loved to read, and she worked hard to instill that same passion in her children. When Jamie, Billy, and I were little boys, my mother took us to the nearby Amory Municipal Library every Saturday. In the ’50s and early ’60s, the library was housed in the City Hall, a large old building from the ’30s. The outside walls were smooth concrete, and the inside smelled of history. I loved walking between the stacks looking at the newest selections, and I also loved the more timeworn volumes. Often, I would open those old books and read the names on the card that revealed who had read the book before me.
When I was eight years old, my mother thought I was mature enough to walk to the library by myself and be responsible for checking out and returning my own books. That meant I got to have my own library card, which made me feel so grown- up. I have always loved English history, and one Saturday I rushed to the library to check out a new book on the kings and queens of England. When I got home to show my mother the book, she asked if I had returned the books I’d checked out the week before. I hadn’t, but I lied and told her that I had. I knew those books were still in my bedroom, but I figured that I could put them in my book satchel and drop them off at the library on my way home from school on Monday.
Unfortunately, I forgot the books on Monday, and the next day, and the next day as well. Soon they were buried in my room under boxes of model cars and airplanes, baseball cards, parts of a Monopoly board, a kite with a tail made from old pillowcases, and my GI Joe paraphernalia–and there they remained for several months. Imagine my surprise when my mother received a notice in the mail from the library inquiring about my books– and there was a late fee charge of eight dollars . . . a lot of money in those days!
My mother marched me into my room and we started digging for the books. After we finally unearthed all four she walked me to the library, made me return the books, and made me pay the late fee with my own money. I had managed to save over ten dollars from my fifty- cent- a- week allowance, and in a flash it was almost all gone.
“Honesty means owning your mistakes,” my mother said.
“And apologizing for them.” Before we left the library, I had to apologize to the librarian for keeping the books out for so long and promise my mother to never be dishonest again.
That lesson stuck–I was always good about library books from then on! But there were other kinds of dishonesty that I hadn’t yet learned to avoid. When I was a high school sophomore, my cousin Nan Elliott, my friend Debbie Morris, and I would get together every night and study for our world history class. Well, sort of study. Actually, we’d laugh and tell stories until midnight, while my mother came in every half hour with snacks, asking, “Now, are you kids studying?” We’d all nod our heads and assure her we were.
When the girls went home, I’d stay up the rest of the night poring through my books so I could still make the A. I don’t think Nan and Debbie did. One day in class, I squished down low in my chair so Nan and Debbie could look over my shoulder and compare their answers with the answers on my test paper. When I looked up, there was our teacher, Jane Lancaster, standing right over me. “You seem to be slouching today, Mr. Haskell,” she said. For some reason, I burst out laughing. Then Nan and Debbie started to laugh. Though it was so unlike any of us to pull that kind of stunt, we couldn’t stop.
Mrs. Lancaster didn’t laugh. Instead, she gave me a look that froze me. She didn’t have to let the incident slide, but she did. At that moment I realized that while your mother might always forgive you, the world doesn’t have to. All anyone has is their reputation, which is easy to shatter and difficult to repair. I was put on notice that I’d been lucky to keep mine. Nan, Debbie, and I still remember the moment as one of the funniest things that happened to us in high school, but the lesson stuck.
Eight years later, after moving to Los Angeles, I worked in the William Morris Agency mailroom. My salary was $125 a week, before taxes, so I also had a part- time job at Professor Bloodgood’s Olde Time Photography Shoppe, on the Universal Studios tour, taking pictures of tourists dressed up as movie stars or gangsters or Western saloon people.
When I tell you that I had no money in those early days, it is a fact. Each Sunday night, I would purchase only what I needed to make my lunch for five days. For ten dollars, I could buy enough bread, ham, and cheese to make five ham and cheese sandwiches. I could also get one large bag of potato chips, which I’d divide evenly into five Ziploc bags. And I’d get a six- pack of Coca- Cola.
Yet every day at work I was surrounded by food–and temptation. I’d have to drive to the market to pick up Danish, fruit, lox, bagels, and sumptuous lunches for the agents. I was given the money to pay for the food, and I would give the change to the mailroom clerk. Another trainee who did the market run with me said that he and some of the other guys would order more food than was really needed and leave some groceries in their cars to take home. I saw him do it several times, and he suggested I do the same. Maybe it seems like no big deal to some people– you know, I’m just one guy and the company can afford it–but as much as I needed and wanted that food, I remembered the promise I had made to my mother about valuing my reputation and self- respect, and said, “No, that’s not honest.”
Good character, my mother had always explained, meant never letting yourself go anywhere you can’t come back from. Don’t do something you can’t retract. Don’t make the fatal error. Don’t delude yourself that something wrong is right because you wish it were right because life is unfair. If I had been comfortable stealing a quart of tuna fish, who knows what else I might have eventually gotten comfortable with?
My partner on the market run was astounded–angry even– and froze me out with some of the other guys as someone who didn’t play along. Was he ashamed of himself, or worried that I might spill the beans, or both? I know I spent the next few days wondering if I’d been ostracized because my refusal to cheat had seemed too judgmental about what the other trainees did to get by. It didn’t matter. I still couldn’t do it and feel morally straight.
Damage to a person’s character can start with the smallest crack in the mirror. So I ignored their attitudes and focused on my work. I also vowed that if, in the years to come, the business ever required me to do something that made it difficult to look at myself in the mirror because I’d not been true to what I knew was right, I would not and could not continue doing it.
Today, I believe that turning down that minor opportunity to take what wasn’t mine helped me prevail when far more consequential temptations and compromises presented themselves– as they inevitably do. Since then, I have eaten in some of the world’s finest restaurants, yet there is still something special to me about a ham and cheese sandwich, a handful of potato chips, and a Coke.
HONORING THE CHARACTER OF OTHERS
I have always dearly loved my first cousins Dan and Mary Rogers. Dan was two years older than I, and Mary was three years younger, but my mother and my aunt Betty raised Dan and Mary along with me and my brothers, Jamie and Billy, as if we were siblings.
Because Dan was older, I always looked up to him, wanted to be like him, and of course, wanted him to like me. Mary was the little sister I had always wanted. I adored her. Still do. When we were kids, we all lived just minutes away from each other, so we always played together after school and on weekends. When I was eight and Dan was ten, Dan started having after- school football games in his backyard, and I wanted to play. Unfortunately, he had grown a bit weary of his younger “shadow”–me. Also, I was not as good at sports as the other boys, and Dan was probably a little embarrassed about my lack of ability. One day, we got into an argument about why I couldn’t play with him and his friends, and he pulled out his BB gun and shot me several times in the rear end. I ran home in tears, and just as I was telling my mother what had happened, Aunt Betty and Dan arrived at our back door. Aunt Betty had immediately found out what had happened, and she had brought Dan to our house to apologize. I was still crying, very angry, and I didn’t want to accept his apology. Dan, however, knew what he had to do, and even though he might have done it reluctantly, with my mother and Aunt Betty watching, he tried to apologize. I pouted and turned away. Suddenly, my mother took me by the shoulders and said, “Sammy, it takes a big man to apologize, but it takes a bigger man to accept it.”
Realizing that she was right, I grudgingly shook his hand and accepted Dan’s apology. Looking back, I realize that my relationship with Dan turned an important corner that day. We went through Boy Scouts together, high school football together, and Ole Miss together, and he was a groomsman in my wedding. Because he’d been big enough to apologize and I’d understood the meaning of honoring his character by accepting that apology, he became the big brother that I wished I’d always had.
It’s funny how even years later those lessons stick with you. By the time I had worked my way up to become Worldwide Head of the Television Department at William Morris, I found myself in the parental role, hoping that an agent in my department would have the character to apologize for and own a mistake he’d made.
I had asked him to submit an actress client of mine for a role in a TV miniseries. After three days of waiting for a meeting to be scheduled, I’d heard nothing. The actress called me on the hour, wondering what had happened, and I kept calling the agent to find out when the meeting would be set. When I finally got my agent on the phone, he told me that the producers had passed and would not agree to meet my client.
I was shocked, so I called the producer myself. He said he had never spoken to my agent about the matter.
My practice was to always back my team, and in the rare instance I discovered I had an internal problem, to handle it immediately. When agents had problems with each other, I’d get them to trade apologies, find a common ground, and then move on. In this case, I set up my client’s meeting with the producer myself, then called the responsible agent into my office. I told him what the producer had said, and asked him to clarify what had happened. His answer: “You caught the producer in a lie, and he must have agreed to the meeting to placate you.” I knew the agent was lying to save face. The producer had been a friend for twenty years; he had no reason to lie to me. The whole situation could have been dismissed with a warning if my agent had just done the right thing and apologized. But unlike my cousin Dan, he didn’t. I didn’t fire him, but it caused me to question his character from that day forward.
Thanks to my mother’s lessons and examples, I was a pretty good kid growing up, as these things go. I knew the difference between right and wrong. I wanted to make my parents proud. I made mostly straight As in school. I was respectful and kind. I was involved in community service and church activities. I had leads in the school plays and musicals. I was an Eagle Scout, Rotary Boy of the Year, senior class president, Class Favorite, and member of the Hall of Fame.
And yet, I felt a constant need to be liked by everyone around me.
Sports were one path to popularity. I knew that would also please my father, who had excelled at football and track and loved the jocular, go- drink- with- the- boys- and- watch- a- ball- game camaraderie.
I enjoyed tennis and swimming. I disliked football, baseball, and track.
Helping with charities and working at the church made me feel good about myself.
Dad thought I should be working out in the gym.
My father made me join Little League when I was eight. I couldn’t throw well and didn’t bat well. He figured that maybe I’d pick up a few skills as well as get some fresh air and physical conditioning, and I did it because my mother had taught me to handle any responsibility to the best of my ability. Commitment not only built character, she said, but resulted in success. Often she’d quote the Book of Luke: “To those whom much is given, much is required.” I understood, and so I threw myself into whatever sports made my father happy, and I was determined to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Through hard work and some well- timed growth spurts, I improved. In middle school I played football and I was on the swim team. In high school I was on the tennis team and on the Amory Panther varsity football team as a starting lineman for two years. As a senior, I was even chosen as a cocaptain for one of our Friday night games.
That wasn’t quite enough for my father. He also wanted me to be a track star, as he’d been. Obediently, I joined the track team even though I hated running, a truth I’d discovered when the football coach made the squad run after spring practice. We’d run a couple of miles up and back on Highway 25 North, which connected Amory to the little town of Smithville. There were no lights on Smithville Road. One night, after a really rough football practice, I was late exchanging my cleats for tennis shoes and getting out of my pads and into my running gear. I managed to keep up for the first couple of miles, but on the way back, I slowed down as it got darker and darker. Because we weren’t allowed to walk, I trotted. Slowly. I passed a house with a big, welllit front yard, and a barking dog jolted me “awake.” When it ran at me, I started running as fast as I could–which wasn’t very. The dog caught up with me and bit my ankle. The owner rushed out, grabbed his dog, and said, “I thought everybody had gone by twenty minutes ago. That’s why I let the dog out. You sure can’t run very fast, can you, boy?”
I hung in there, but I realized I would never be much of a runner. However, my throwing all my effort into football did please my father and made me feel good about myself–especially because as an offensive lineman, I didn’t have to run very much (unless it was backpedaling furiously to protect the quarterback). The persistence and commitment to hard work that I’d learned as a child came in handy early on at William Morris. While in the mailroom, I kept my second job at Professor Bloodgood’s Olde Time Photography Shoppe on weekends. Having no days off for almost an entire year was exhausting, but it had to be done.
Thank goodness I was young enough– twenty- three–and had the energy to match my ambition. And I didn’t mind working my butt off because, beginning with the Cheer Man experience, I had faith that the rewards would come as long as I put in the effort. In the mailroom, I was always the first to volunteer for the most menial chores. As the most famous William Morris mailroom graduate, David Geffen, has said, “The work was more tedious than it was tough. I had to change the toilet paper in the bathrooms and fill the soap dispensers. It wasn’t challenging, just what I had to do to get to the next step–and I was always willing to do that. . . . The mailroom is where you learn that if you haven’t got the patience to go through the s**t, you’re not going to get to the cream. It’s a test. It’s about humility. Lots of people complained, though, and quit because they thought it was demeaning. I kept hoping everybody would quit, because the more people who quit, the higher up on the list I got toward [getting out of the mailroom].” One merely has to look at the heights that David Geffen reached as an agent, personal manager, art collector, moviemaker, and cofounder of DreamWorks Pictures to understand the wisdom of his advice.
One task that could get you noticed at William Morris, and perhaps lead to a promotion, was to read three movie scripts a night and then deliver typed- up synopses of each the next morning. I once took an assignment to read scripts the night of the Academy Awards; I had to stay up until six in the morning to get it all done. Or I might be asked to take the mail from Beverly Hills to Marina del Rey on a Friday night, through rush- hour traffic, when no one else would do it because they had hot dates.
But whether I delivered mail in the building or packages to movie studios and stars, I was determined to make an impression. Big smile. Always happy. Always eager. Too often we don’t realize how important these little things–these brief connections–can be. I made sure everyone saw me working hard, because that was the way out of the mailroom and to a job as an assistant on an agent’s desk.
I didn’t get hired on the first agent’s desk I tried for, but through a combination of opportunity, luck, and keeping my nose to the grindstone, I did get the second desk, working for Deborah Miller, about whom you’ll learn more below.
My second week at William Morris, I had delivered mail to a man named Sy Sussman, who ran the screening room. While looking at the projection equipment, I realized it was the same setup we used at the Ole Miss TV station. When Mr. Sussman decided to take his vacation, he said, “Mr. Lastfogel [the big boss!] comes in every afternoon to watch an old movie. I need someone up here who can operate this equipment.”
I said, “Well, I can do it.” So he pulled me out of the mailroom for a week and I ran the projection room. I had read about Abe Lastfogel in Garson Kanin’s book on Hollywood, so I took advantage of the chance to make an important connection and have a short chat with him each afternoon, and impress him with my knowledge of Hollywood history.
During my week running the screening room, my future boss, Deborah Miller, came to watch a tape of a TV special starring her client Ann- Margret–who later became my client–with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Ms. Miller was head of the television variety department, which put together specials and handled bookings on all the award shows. At that time The Donny and Marie Show was very popular, as was Battle of the Network Stars. And there were dozens of TV talk shows. After the tape was finished, Deborah asked for my opinion. She agreed with what I had to say, and it turned out she later shared my comments with the show’s producer. That started our relationship. At the same time I regularly talked to her assistant, Amy Howard, and always pointed out, “I’d really like to work for Ms. Miller one day.” When Amy was promoted, Deborah Miller took me out of the mailroom, where I’d been for only nine months, and put me on her desk.
I knew my mother would be proud of how my hard work had paid off–and she was. Plus, she loved the stories I could tell her about my “adventures” with the stars, especially when they gave me the chance to put her lessons to work.
For instance, one of Deborah’s clients was Doc Severinsen, the bandleader on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Doc’s manager was Bud Robinson. Bud and his wife, Cece, had been very nice to me, inviting me to parties at their home, taking me to dinner, teaching me about the entertainment business. Suddenly, Cece was diagnosed with cancer, and had to be admitted to Cedars Sinai hospital in Beverly Hills. To cheer her up I decided to write a story, complete with funny photos cut out of a magazine with pictures of my head put on other people’s bodies. I asked Bud if I could visit Cece and bring what I’d written. He said absolutely. When I walked into her hospital room there was Johnny Carson and his wife, Joanna. I froze. How could I possibly perform my silly little story in front of the King of Comedy? I stalled, I hemmed and hawed, and finally Cece said,
“Sam, Bud told me you’ve written something for me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Joanna Carson and Bud egged me on to read the story, while Mr. Carson sat there silently. I had to do it. It took about five minutes to read the story and pass the funny photos around the room. Cece smiled and gave me a hug. Then a voice I knew all too well piped up: “Maybe you should have opened in a smaller hospital–out of town.”
The room exploded in laughter.
Not long after that, I got another chance to actually show my mother the progress I’d made. David Letterman was also Deborah’s client, and occasionally she’d send me to take care of him when he guest- hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. But on his very first night guest- hosting, we both went with him. In the dressing room, he didn’t like the way his suit and tie looked. He glanced at me and said, “Haskell, your tie is perfect. Let me have it.” I did. Then I called my mother to say, “Be sure and watch The Tonight Show. David Letterman’s wearing that tie you gave me last Christmas.”