Where Did I Go Right?: You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Deadby Bernie Brillstein, David Rensin
From his start in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency to his founding of powerful Brillstein/Grey Entertainment, Brillstein gleefully sets the record straight, telling you who he loved, who he hated, and what Hollywood's major players are really like. He takes you backstage to witness Elvis Presley in his first TV show, Lorne Michaels nervously assemble the then-unknown talents in the early days of Saturday Night Live, Jim Henson form the Muppets, favorite client John Belushi succumb to drugs and the lonely plane ride with Belushi's body to the funeral, and much more.
The New York Times Book Review
- Grand Central Publishing
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Read an Excerpt
If You've Never Walked Through the Kitchen to Get Backstage at a Nightclub, You Don't Know Show Business
In 1955, when I was twenty-four years old, I got a job in the mail room at the William Morris Agency in New York. Like every young guy who worked alongside me, my first thought was, "How quickly can I get the hell out of here and become a real agent?" The first thing I did . . .
Wait. On second thought, let's forget the clichéd story that always kicks off a book about someone's life in show business. To tell you the absolute truth, getting ahead at William Morris was the least of my worries. After my first week on the job I took one good look around and knew I could handle it. Easily.
My real problem at the time was my ass. Literally. It was . . . leaking. I couldn't work that way, so I called the family doctor. He referred me to a guy whose name I'll never forget: Dr. Emil Granite. When I got to Granite's office the place was jammed with waiting patients overflowing into the hall. Even I know an ugly metaphor when I see one. Right away I was not thrilled.
Finally, it was my turn. Granite walked into the examination room and asked me to drop my pants, then helped me onto the big stainless steel table. "Knees to your chest," he said. I closed my eyes and began to sweat. An icy cold sweat. Then he put a big tube in my rectum, and there I was: lying on the table with my cheeks wide open, and a foreign object inside me. Then to make things worse, he blew into the tube a few times, moved it around a bit, made a couple thoughtful grunting sounds and said, "Mr. and Mrs. Brillstein,Mr. and Mrs. Pearl. He has a fissure."
Mr. and Mrs. Brillstein? Mr. and Mrs. Pearl? What the hell were my father, Moe, my mother, Tillie, my uncle Jack, and my aunt Winnie doing there? I couldn't believe it. I hadn't heard anyone come in. But I opened my eyes and there they were, peering at me with pursed, concerned lips. And they were all looking up my ass.
I went berserkbut only in my mind, of course. It would have been disrespectful to say anything directly to my family, not to mention painful to make any sudden movements.
I'm not making this up. Who could? Who would?
It's all behind me now, but I probably shouldn't have been surprised. My family was what today we call "dysfunctional." That's a fancy name for screwed-up. Being raised in that environment cost me years of therapy and maybe more than one marriage. But you know what? I'm not angry. In fact, I'm grateful for their craziness. My uncle was a famous comic and radio personality who destroyed his career, my mother a bedridden depressive, my father a good Samaritan stuck in an unhappy marriage, and my older brother, Sam, unable to handle any of it. Growing up with them was the perfect career training for a life spent around people who put on makeup for a living and think every job is their last. That's why nothing in show business throws me. If I could survive my family, I could survive anythingand I pretty much have.
When the doctor was through, I got dressed and said good-bye to everyone. I still had to go back to work. Some guys would have snuck home, humiliated, and called in sick. That's not my style. Instead, I rushed to the office and immediately told everyone, in great detail, what had just happened.
Just like I'm telling you.
That's one of my big rules: when you have a great story, you tell itno matter what.
My aunt Winnie and uncle Jack shared their nine-room apartment in the swanky Eldorado, at Ninetieth Street and Central Park West, with Jack's brother Benny, their dad, Grandpa Jake, my parents, my brother, and me. Jack Pearl was a comedian who'd made a fortune on NBC radio as the Baron Munchausen. (His signature line was, "Vas you dere, Sharlie?") Winifred Desborough Pearl was a Ziegfeld girl. I was born on April 26, 1931, and we lived with them until I was nine.
The building was a showplace. Art deco frescoes covered the lobby walls. A beautiful awning hung over the front door. It was Natalie Wood's home in the movie Marjorie Morningstar, and it's all still there, except for the awning. We lived in 26D, in the south tower. It was elegant as hell, with a butler and a maid, and a great view. You could look over Central Park and the reservoir, past Fifth Avenue to the East River, and out to Queens.
One evening, when I was eight, everyone gathered at the living room windows to watch as the lights of the 1939 World's Fair were turned on for the first time. Aunt Winnie hoisted me up by the armpits and held me high so I could also see. She pointed to a dark patch in the distance. Suddenly, there was a burst of light brighter than the flash of a thousand cameras at a movie premiere, and the fair was officially open. It was a keeper memory and, even more so, an important early lesson:
Life always looks better from the top.
If I'm not mistaken, that's also when I first knew I wanted to be in show business. And if it's not, it should have been.
The Brillsteins came from Mizerwicz, a little town on the Russia-Poland border. The family used to say it was really in Poland, until it got chic to be Russian. Then, of course, we were from the Mother Country.
My dad was born there in 1898, but when he was six months old the Cossacks invaded and that was it. My grandparents fled to America and moved to Harlem.
Years later, when I'd made some good money and the Communists were taking in tourists, I told my dad, "Let me send you to Russia." I thought maybe he'd like to see where he was born. I didn't know all that was left were twenty thousand graves.
"Nah, I don't want to go there," he said.
"How about London, or Japan, or Israel? I can afford it."
"Nah, I don't want to go there."
No matter how often I asked, all he ever said was, "Nah, I don't want to go there." I could never figure it out. Only after he died in 1990 did it occur to me that my old man was petrified to leave the country because he thought they wouldn't let him come back. I'm not even sure he had a passport. If he'd told me, I could have set him straight, but he was a typical Brillstein: he didn't want to bother anyone with his problems.
My mother was a different story. Her mishegas affected everyone. She rarely went anywhere because she seldom got out of bed. Occasionally, she'd show up at the dinner table for a meal, but it was like watching a ghost. No one knew it then, but she was clinically depressed. Her doctors treated her by handing out pills like they were candy. Lots of them. I'd get home and find her conked out on Tuinal or something stronger. She gradually became a basket case who required constant attention and service from everyone.
My brother never got over the family dysfunction, which might explain why he went into the finishing-and-dyeing business.
That left me. My problem was being fat.
For a long time, the husky department at Barney's was my second home. It was years before I'd go into a swimming pool without wearing a shirt. Until I managed the high school basketball team and had to take showers with the guys, I never knew that a man's shoulders are supposed to be wider than his hips. And tits . . . I didn't need girls, I had my own. Yet, big as I am, I have thin arms and thin legs. Juliette Prowse used to tell me, "You have the hands and legs of a ballet dancer." Unfortunately she didn't continue the analogy and say anything about an inner dancer waiting to get out.
No fat person is thrilled with their size. Imagine not being able to buckle the safety belt on an airplane. What's more embarrassing than saying, "May I have a belt extension, please?" Once, I flew to Rome, two days before a long Mediterranean cruise. At the airport, my baggage went missing. This is a fat man's worst fear. I have to buy at Rochester Big and Tall or have clothes made, and I didn't want to spend my vacation looking for a big and tallor, as I say, fat and grossstore, especially in a country where everyone has a size-two ass. My wife Carrie searched the phone directory and found an extra-large-sizes clothing store in Rome. The proprietor was great. He made me two suits and a sports jacket. Shirts and underwear were in stock. There went a quick $3,000.
At first, I fought my weight. I wanted to be six foot two, with a thirty-inch waist. I fantasized about being a great athlete so I didn't have to work so goddamn hard to get women interested in me by being friends first and then, by laughing my way into bed. Can you believe it? Some women actually don't like fat guys. It's amazing. It's even worse when you have a big waistline and a big ego. I think I'm charming. Some days I think I look great. Then I see pictures of myself and go, "Who the hell is that?"
I felt pretty bad about myself until one day, in a college management course, Professor DeFillippi (he was also a basketball referee at Madison Square Garden), wrote this on the blackboard: "You have to learn to live with who you are." For some reason it stuck. I knew in my gut that I would never be anyone but me. I decided to work really hard with what God gave me.
If I had to describe myself today, I'd say I'm the fat Kenny Rogers. Some people are more generous and say Santa Claus, but looks or the lack of them aside, if I walk into a room, I walk into a room. I don't need to attract a crowd, I am a crowd. I've always had this ability to get noticed, not by doing anything special, just by my bearing. Then, because I'm actually shy and not that good with large groups of people, I find someplace to sit with my back against the wall so that I can look around without feeling uncomfortable. That way, people come to me, even if they're just wandering by. I never wanted to be the putz who roams a party, glad-handing everyone.
It turns out that one's lot in life can be a lucky accident. In my case it has to be, because throughout my career my weight has always worked in my favor.
In business, no one is ever afraid of a fat man. People think a fat person is a lazy person. There's something vulnerable about an eighteen-wheeler-sized spare tire that everyone thinks they can handle. They don't stop to ponder how angry you might feel about your weight, or that you're holding it in. They figure you're jolly. So if you're smart you can use your size to your advantage. It's always been fine with me to be underestimated. I've always underplayed myself. It's a great way to get ahead.
Of course, if I'd had a thirty-two-inch waist, maybe by now I'd be president of the United States.
My father was a small-timer in life, a big-timer at heart. I really loved and respected him. He sold millinery in the garment district, but his real calling was the Millinery Center Synagogue, between Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth on Sixth Avenue. He was the driving force behind a group who raised the money to build the temple. In return, they made him eternal presidentat least until he died.
The temple was originally a convenience for the garment center guys who had to say Yiskor, a Jewish prayer for the dead, during the week and couldn't get to their own synagogues on Long Island or in Brooklyn, or wherever. Thanks to my father, they could pray locally. That was my old man. He birthed people, bar mitzvahed them, buried them. His natural inclination was to do nice things and favors. And you know what? He was right. You get a big return for that kind of behavior. You become more God-like. Any instinct I have for decency and doing the right thing I got from my father. I've tried to follow his example all my life.
My father also put together temple fund-raising shows twice a year at the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza hotels that featured entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat "King" Cole, and Alan King. He got to know everyone in show business. I learned a lot of what I know today by watching him.
Sometimes my mother would come out of the house for these galas. My father, Aunt Winnie, and Uncle Jack would schlep her to the hotel in a cab and put her in a complimentary hotel suite. If a thousand people came to the show, four hundred would come upstairs to pay homage to my mother, who sat in bed in her bathrobe, like a queen. She still had her charming moments and occasionally a sense of humor. In the early '60s, I started dating my second wife, Laura, when she was still married to a very rich guy in the advertising business. One weekend, Laura and her husband went to the Concord, a world-famous Jewish hotel and club on Lake Kiamesha, in the Borscht Belt. My mother and father were there, too. I waited at home, knowing that Laura would try to get close to my parents. Sure enough, my mother said, "Oh, that girl was there, with her husband."
"What did you think?" I asked.
"Well," my mother said, "he had gold cuff links, he had a gold tie pin, and a gold lighter. And when he kills you, he's going to do it with a golden gun."
Most of the time my parents didn't get along. I could always hear them arguing. Even as a kid I appointed myself referee, and I couldn't go to sleep until I made them make up. I'd fix them sandwiches hoping they'd stop battling and start eating. It worked for maybe a day. Sometimes, only an hour. As I got older it became obvious that my father found it impossible to live with an invalid whose disease he didn't quite understand. I guess that explains why he slept on the couch in the foyer for twenty years.
Three nights a weekTuesday, Thursday, Saturdaymy brother and I baby-sat my mother so that my old man could go out. Maybe he had a girlfriend. I don't know. He just wanted those evenings free to go downtown with the boys, drink scotch, and smoke cigars. He wanted some fun and some peace of mind. In that marriage it was the best he could hope for.
Now you see why my family was the perfect basic training for a life in show business. In one way or another, for more than forty years, I've continued to referee, to wait on the needy, to make sandwiches for peace, and to pull guard duty.
They call it being a personal manager.
Moe and Tillie's fighting drove everyone nuts. Eventually it chased away my aunt and uncle. For years they'd functioned as my nominal parents, and now the family was breaking up. I can still hear Winnie finally saying, "I've had enough of this shit, Jack. Let's get the hell out of this crazy house."
They moved to an apartment with two bedrooms and a den, overlooking Fifth Avenue: 875 Fifth. When the building went condo they told my uncle it would cost him $8,000 to buy his place. Like a typical comedian, even though he had plenty of money, he wouldn't pay. "Those thieves!" he said. Today the place is worth $3 million.
Why was my uncle so stubborn? Easy. Comedians are the strangest breed of all. They're definitely not like the rest of us. Anyone who can get up twice a night in front of a room full of strangers, have the first show work and the second show not isn't normal. They do it because they're terribly insecure, always need love, and will do anything to get it. I suppose lots of people are that way, but not many are willing to torture themselves on top of it by complaining to a million people about one little thing like their sex lives. Listen to the language of comedy: "I killed 'em. I knocked 'em dead. I bombed. I laid 'em in the aisles. I destroyed them." That describes perfectly the terrible angst a comedian experiences, and oftentimes what I experienced managing so many tormented funny men.
It's not hard to understand why they feel that way. Comedy is the least respected of all the arts. Rodney Dangerfield isn't kidding when he says he gets no respect, because he knows that the world is full of guys who think they can do what he doesin their sleep. It's not so easy. If a guy remembers a joke his boss told him at dinner, it's a miracle.
If you're alone with a comedian you can say something really funny and they'll accept it, but don't try it in a crowd. The comic always has to be the funniest guy around. Comedians are also conservative with their laughter and toughest on each other. If you were a garment salesman, how would you like it if, after you made a great sale, eight of your contemporaries said, "You didn't sell that right," or "That was my sales method," or "How dare you do that?" Comedians judge each other all the time, even if they're best friends. It's the nature of the beast. They never want you to be as funny as they are.
My uncle's insecurity put him out of business. He'd been in the Ziegfeld Follies and had made a movie in 1933 called Meet The Baron, with Ted Healy and his Stooges (Moe, Larry, and Curly). Then he quit comedy at the height of his popularity, saying, "I want to do drama." This was like Woody Allen in his Ingmar Bergman period, only Woody got the irony.
Since no one would pay my uncle to do drama, he didn't work. When World War II came, let's just say that his German-dialect comedy fell out of favor. He tried a few comebacks on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town and on Broadway, but they didn't work. He went from the top ten on NBC radio to nothing. Fortunately he had made and stashed enough money from the radio show to live quite well until he died in his late eighties. Recently, I listened to some tapes of his act, and you know what? I never knew he was so unfunny.
For most of my childhood I also didn't know that Uncle Jack paid for our apartment. I found out when he started giving me mysterious envelopes for my father. I looked inside and discovered cash. It destroyed me. Later, my father told me that he'd been my uncle's de facto managerwithout getting a full manager's cut. My dad already had a job, so what he did for the family was expected and considered part-time. In exchange, my uncle paid some of the bills. My old man was never bitter, but later he told me he thought he'd been shortchanged. "He gave me a little money, but never ten percent." It was a lesson I didn't forget.
My family stayed in the Eldorado after my aunt Winnie and uncle Jack left, but we had to move to 3B, a smaller apartment on the third floor. We also inherited Uncle Benny, an alcoholic who left our uptown building every morning, with a sack lunch, for his job at the post office. Our new view was no longer of Central Park, but of Ninetieth Street, and my bedroom window overlooked the interior courtyard. A one-story brick terrace covered the lobby and divided the courtyard in half. To entertain ourselves, my best friend, Norman Kartiganerwho lived above me in 5Band I skipped marbles across the rooftop, hoping to hear one break a window on the other side. We were often successful. We also had less destructive pastimes, like playing punch, stick and stoop ball on Ninetieth Street, hockey in the house, one-on-one football in the snow, and baseball in Central Park.
I was the poorest kid in a rich neighborhood, so I couldn't go to to any private schools like my friends. Instead I attended PS 166, Joan of Arc Junior High, and the all-boys Stuyvesant High School at Seventeenth Street and First Avenue. Stuyvesant was mainly for kids who wanted to be engineers and chemists. Sounds perfect for me, right? Hey, it was a free education. I also managed the basketball team.
Whenever I could, I went to the movies. The Stoddard, on Broadway between Eighty-ninth and Ninetieth. The Yorktown between Eighty-eighth and Eighty-ninth. The Thalia, an art house on Ninety-fifth Street, where I saw Marx Brothers movies. Double-bill features at the Beacon. One night my mother followed Norman and me to the pictures, sat eight rows behind us, and caught us smoking: Kools, Spuds, Old Golds.
The Loews on Eighty-third featured films from Paramount and MGM. The RKO at Eighty-first played movies from Twentieth Century Fox. I knew every star under contract to Paramount and MGM. I even knew the secondary players by heart. That's when movies meant something; they were still about mystique and illusion. What mattered was what was on the screen, not what happened behind the scenes.
Today, everything has changed. The studios no longer have contract players or own theaters. Agents, managers, the talent, and conglomerates run the business. The Stoddard has been a supermarket for years. The RKO became a television studio/theater where I once saw Norman Jewison direct the Hit Parade. Last time I drove by, it was two retail spaces, one a Starbucks and one an empty store waiting for a tenant.
My family may have been neurotic, but they gave me much more than simply an education in dealing with head cases. Thanks to my uncle and my father I experienced New York's two distinct show-business cultures, the East Side and the West Side. I learned to feel at home in the Stork Club and the Carnegie Deli, and could get a good table at both. By the time I went to college I knew the language of the swells and the streets. I could talk to anyone.
My uncle taught me the East Side: Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf-Goodman, the Stork Club (where you could see Ethel Merman and Walter Winchell), the Harwyn, Toots Shor's. Ordinarily I would never have gone to the East Side. It was Protestant Land. The girls were out of my league. Even the Jews east of Central Park were different. West Side Jews were garment center workers and roundabouts. The East Side had German Jews, not a good breed if you ask me. They're the ones who thought Hitler wouldn't come after them because they were a "better class" of Jew.
If I had my life to live again, I'd live it at Toots Shor's restaurant on Fifty-second Street. There I saw presidents, movie stars, ballplayers. Jackie Gleason. Joe DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jack Benny. George Burns. Even John F. Kennedy. All my heroes. Writers, too, like Damon Runyon, Mark Hellinger, Jimmy Cannon. Regular people went, too. Those with money sat up front; the farmers sat in back. I loved it. Everything I wanted, the essence of New York, in one place.
The late '40s and early '50s was a great time to be a celebrity in New York. My uncle and I could walk into any theater and see the shows for nothing. We'd stand in the back for the first act, then go to another theater for our "second act." My uncle liked to tell me showbiz lore, like the reason Ziegfeld insisted his Girls wear silk underwear. "Because it made them feel like Ziegfeld Girls." The lesson stayed with me. I like my clients to feel special. Sending a big gift is always nice. Even when they go on vacation, I send them something: not because they're not working, but because I'm thinking of them. I suppose, if there was anyone I wanted to be back then, it was Ziegfeld. Everything I heard about him, and his instinct for talent, said "show business."
At a club, my uncle and I would get backstage by going through a kitchen full of pungent odors to a tiny dressing room where we'd hang out with the performers. The place always smelled of flop sweat. Comedians who would in three minutes have to be hilarious might be red faced and yelling at their girlfriends. A singer might be puking from the tension. It wasn't glamorous, just real. It's the reason I always say, "If you've never walked through a kitchen to get backstage at a nightclub, you don't know show business." You don't know the emotions or the sounds or the closeness of it all. You're behind the scenes, and the way it works is right there in front of you, and you are part of it. Not too many years later, I went to nightclubs for a living, but I would have gone for nothing. In fact, I would have paid. I loved being there with the customers and the stars.
What's lost today is that intimate connection to the process and the talent. Until the '80s, Harvard MBAs and Wharton grads went to Wall Street. Now they flock to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. They want to be in show business because it's chic and the money is intoxicating. It has to be when you can sell someone for $1 million and make $100,000 with one phone call. But that's not the thrill I'm talking about.
My contemporaries were streetwise people. Who knew from rich? Sure, you could make moneyand we wanted tobut nowhere near the kind of money you can make in this business today. It wasn't about that. People were lured to entertainment largely by their dreams. It was wish fulfillment. They wanted to be the people on the stage and screen. Too many of today's show-business players just want to make the money their clients make. If power and notoriety are part of the bargain, all the better.
I believe the business, the art, and the public all suffer for it. If only today's hot shots could have sat five feet away from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or Tony Bennett and a twenty-piece orchestraor any act they love. There's nothing wrong with Mick Jagger prancing around in silk pajamas with his wiener poking outit's great show businessbut it's tough to get intimate in a baseball stadium, unless it's with your date or the person behind you who just threw up on your coat. Today, no one gets close because everything's too big. The closest thing to what I experienced is MTV Unplugged. It works because it has the timeless appeal of performers close up. In my day I didn't have to watch anyone on a huge screen. I could sit near enough to Frank Sinatra to see him perspire into my soup.
My father took me around the West Side: Madison Square Garden, Murray's Sturgeon Palace, Barney Greengrass, the Polo Grounds. I went with him to Fifty-second Street, where his friends from Harlem, the connected guys, owned the jazz clubs in which you could hear music like nowhere else in the city. My father, a respected temple elder, also showed me the world of strippers and hookers. My friends and I would meet him at Leo Bernstein and Henry Fink's Club Samoa, a bust-out joint on Fifty-second Street where guys could pick up broads. We'd eat club sandwiches and drink Cokes, and be treated like kings while the girls jerked off their other customers under the table. The girls would pretend they wanted to meet these losers later, but they never did. My father saw nothing wrong with me being in that environment, as long as I didn't have some gal's hand in my lap. That was fine with me. My reward was just being able to take my friends to these places. And the next night I'd be in the Stork Club or at Bill Bertolotti's, a fancy restaurant downtown, with Uncle Jack.
My favorite spot was the Copacabana.
The club was at 10 East Sixtieth. The phone number was Plaza 8- 1060. It was technically on the East Side, but always West Side at heart. Today the entrance at that address is sealed, but in its day the blue awning floated above the doorway, and flowered paper covered the walls inside. It was known as a tough-guy hangout and the hottest club in New York.
The club's backstage entrance was in the far-right corner of the lobby of the Hotel Fourteen, next door. You'd walk down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the action. The whole thing is immortalized in the motion picture Goodfellas. There was always a line around the block, so I used to sneak into the Copa the same way as Scorsese's camera. Once I got through the kitchen and into the club, I'd stand quietly against the back wall and see the shows for nothing. If the maître'd came up I'd give him five bucks to let me stay. After a while, he got to know me, and I could just mix in.
Every other week a new act opened at the Copa. Dates were not allowed on Sunday; you could only bring your wife and family. Friday was Wiseguy Night, a night on the town. Actually, every night was Wiseguy Night, but especially Friday. It all stopped when rock got popular and styles changed. Today, with the resurgence of Rat Pack nostalgia, the swinger's life may be back, but the old clubs are long gone.
My favorite Copa memory is seeing Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis play there when I was seventeen. I sat through every show for twenty-one days. I knew every lineevery movementof their act. I could recite it and work itwhich, by the way, has come in handy because just to get a laugh, I've stolen a lot of their stuff over the years.
Like I said, the great thing about a club is that you can sit so close to the performers. On closing night I got lucky and sat almost against the stage. As the duo worked, Jerry Lewis saw me mouthing the words of the act. He grabbed the microphone, walked over to me, smiled at the audience and said, "Look at this kid. I'm getting all the money and he knows my act better than me. He's jumping on the punch lines."
I stared at his blue sapphire pinkie ring.
"You want to come up onstage with us?" he asked. I just kept staring at that pinkie ring. I couldn't very well meet his eyes, could I?
One night my friend Larry Perse and I strolled into the lobby of the Hotel Fourteen after the second show. There, dead drunk and leaning against a column, was Frank Sinatra. This was before From Here to Eternity, when his career was cold, cold, cold. No matter, we idolized Frank. My brother had taken me to see him at the Paramount Theater. My father took me to his first nightclub engagement, at the Riobamba. Sinatra may have been stiffing, but he was still a hero. He was still The Guy. And at the moment he was blotto.
We'd read all the newspapers and knew that Sinatra stayed at the Waldorf. We also knew that in about five seconds he was going to fall on his ass. So we two schmucks called a cab, got in with him, took him to the Waldorf, and gave him to the doorman.
That was pretty much my life as the '40s gave way to the '50s. I was probably hipper than someone just going into college had a right to beat least in my own mind. I'd lived through my Martin-and-Lewis stage. I'd watched Ray Charles, who was just coming up, at Carnegie Hall. I'd seen Lenny Bruce, and he blew my mind. After five minutes my friend Norm and I turned to each other and said the same thing: "He's talking about things we talk about every dayonly onstage!" Gays, blacks, whites, Hitler. It was just so fresh and different. Can you imagine what it would have been like to have HBO back then? Everybody could have seen this stuff.
Those three events helped cement my emotional connection to the business, but I never quite understood why until recently, when I read a newspaper story about the singer-dancer Bebe Neuwirth. She was asked why she still did Broadway when she could easily do television. Her answer was a revelation: "On the nights when I'm perfect, the ensemble is perfect, the orchestra is perfect, and the audience is with us ...I feel like I've been touched by God." That's what I felt watching Martin and Lewis, Ray Charles, Lenny Bruce, and others: touched by God. It's the same feeling I'd have years later when I helped Jim Henson, Saturday Night Live, the Blues Brothers, the people who made Dangerous Liaisons, my partner Brad Grey, and all the guys he represented get it right. When you ace something, knowing how tough it is, the feeling is unlike any other. That's why I do what I do, and why I've kept doing it.
After high school I went to NYU and got a BS in Advertising. But college seemed somehow tangential to everything else. In fact, one of the only lessons that stayed with me was learning about the "You Attitude."
In a nutshell: Talk about them, not you. Don't worry about what you want to sell, worry about what the customer wants to buy. What does he need? Get into his head. If what you have to sell is good, you'll eventually succeed, but there's a right time and a wrong time, and you've got to be sensitive to the other person. It's all about him, not you.
The "You Attitude" is at the heart of what it takes to be a good manager. In my business it's all about staying behind the scenes and making people feel good. My joke is, "I sublimate my ego for cash."
Once, I kiddingly called myself "the bowing Jew." (Jews aren't supposed to bow or kneel, which is why we always look awkward in a church.) Back when Mike Ovitzthe guy who from 1975 to 1995 built the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) into the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood, and himself into one of the most feared men in townand I went to war, he'd always bitch to me about all the crap he had to do for his clients. Half seriously I'd say, "Mike, you can be Mike Ovitz, and I can be Bernie Brillstein; we're really wealthy, powerful guys. But we're still slaves to the stars. You and I are nothing without our client lists. I will say it until the day I die. All of us. If we don't have what they want, good-bye and good luck."
After college I was drafted into the armythe only way I'd go. It was 1953. I had never been far from New York, so I decided to make it a test to see if I could get along in an environment over which I had no control. I was the Jew from New York in a world with few Jews, and not that many people from New York, either. After basic training, I was posted to England. I kept from doing any real work by doing what came naturally: I produced shows. I'd seen a transvestite revue in college, in which people from the audience were called onstage to dance in a number called "Balling the Jack." So I stole it. Only I made sure officers were summoned to dance with guys in drag. It wasn't hilarious, but at least it kept me busy.
I was discharged on February 1, 1955. I moved back in with my parents at the Eldorado and screwed around for a month. I'd been away for two years and I knew the world was a bigger place than the garment center and the Millinery Center Synagogue fund-raising shows. I was restless and needed a job.
One day my uncle called and said he was good friends with a guy who owned a television station, WGTH, in Hartford, Connecticut. If I wanted a job, they had one. The pay was $125 a weekgood money then. I'd never learned to drive, so my brother took me to Hartford. I smiled a lot during the interview and they made me a time salesman, meaning I had to sell a fifteen-second spot after the Lassie show.
I lived at the Hublein Hotel. I met a willing girl at the TV station. We necked under the broadcast tower. It helped pass the time. During the day, when I was supposed to visit pet stores on Lassie's behalf, I'd go to the movies instead. After a month I called Uncle Jack and said, "Look, I don't want to do this. I'm coming back." Then I called my brother and said, "Pick me up." I moved into the Eldorado with my parents once again.
In April, while playing softball in Central Park with my friend and NYU fraternity brother Billy Rubin, he said, "You know, Bernie, you'd make a helluva agent." Billy knew Lou Weiss at the William Morris Agency. He promised to set up a meeting.
It seemed like a good idea. Show business was in my blood. I knew the rhythms. The politics. The people. In fact, Billy's suggestion made so much sense, to this day I don't know why I didn't think of it first.
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