How Elizabeth Taylor Helped Move Me to the Coast

Harvey Herman had optioned a novel “The 42nd Year of Mrs. Charles Prescott” — he asked me to find a star.

 

New York, 1975, and a call from Tony Ford requesting I meet with a young director named Harvey Herman. Herman had made a mark in directing children's commercials and was ready to follow in the footsteps of Madison Avenue directors who had moved successfully into theatrical features.

Herman was managed by a guy with the same last name as an important agent on the west ooast who turned out to be his uncle. I liked Harvey Herman immediately. He reminded me of Roger Miller, the country composer and singer. He was upbeat and optimistic, great qualities for any career especially in this world of rejection.

Herman had optioned a novel "The 42nd Year of Mrs. Charles Prescott," which he wanted to write and direct. He asked me to find a star. I discovered that both Lauren Bacall and Gena Rowlands were chasing the rights to this novel, but I wanted a splashier attachment. Aaron Frosch was a legendary show biz attorney who represented Elizabeth Taylor at this the height of her tabloid fame. I called Frosch to pitch the property. Officious and impenetrable, I sent over the package and waited.

In the meantime, an ABC exec named Andy Siegel was in search of a junior executive to work closely with him. His friend, comic writer Norman Steinberg, had recommended me for this open spot in the comedy department of ABC in Los Angeles. Siegel called me — he was funny and smart and I believed I was on my way to the coast and a network career. But first I had to be interviewed by an important east coast executive Dennis Doty. If I passed that level, ABC would send me out to the coast to meet with Siegel.

To accommodate the requirements of the William Morris training program in the early '70's (and with a salary that began at $75 a week), I learned about 9th Avenue (and other) thrift stores where wealthy gentleman unloaded their wardrobe. Many were very lightly used and many were from the finest custom designers in New York, Milan and Saville Road.

I experimented with suits that appeared to fit, costing from $7 to $24 and became expert at choosing second-hand suits that made a deep impression. I was wearing my favorite when I met with Doty. The epitome of charm and good humor, I liked this guy and hoped it was mutual. But he soon called and said they were going with a young, bright woman already on the coast named Marcy Carsey. The nerve.

My secret agent Norman Steinberg had also sung my praises to an old time L.A. agent named Leonard Hanzer. Forgotten today, Hanzer owned and operated the Major Talent Agency and was a "major player" beating out the top three agencies in handling the show runners of the day. In fact it was Hanzer who invented the term "show runner." A former paratrooper, he was respected and feared partly because of his style and partly because he spent 16 years as a gold leaf major.

He never betrayed that image. Hanzer was tough and to the point, he booked his writers for the run of their series with a credo every client had to be working. Almost a one man operation, he always had one bright, young junior agent-right-arm-assistant covering the office as he spent two to three days a week at Del Mar Racetrack. They, in turn, became either major agents elsewhere or network executives. 

My second trip to L.A. included a breakfast meeting with Leonard Hanzer at a restaurant in his Wilshire building known as Nibbler's. I never knew any place could ruin breakfast until I had eggs at Nibbler's. I went into my rap about my ingenius small successes and how the west coast was alarmed by my aggression and courage and what an astonishing talent I was. To "flourish," I suggested, I needed to be in L.A.

I had never truly had a job interview until this moment and probably went overboard. Hanzer, who today could be described as a short James Gandolfini, never once smiled. But he summed up my career with advice I'm sure he didn't expect me to immediately accept. "If you are everything you say you are and they think about you exactly what you claim, it's very easy for you to come out here. All you have to do is let Sam Weisbord know that I took you to breakfast."

He told me what he would pay someone like me and it was $14,000. While I knew there were agents making a lot more, it sounded like a fortune as it was double what WMA was paying.

I went back and advised the head of television that Leonard Hanzer had "flown me out" (he barely paid for the awful eggs) and that he made an offer to be his new right arm (a cherished position he hadn't yet offered) and it was quickly arranged for me to see Weisbord (pictured with me, back in 1979) who was replacing Nat Lefkowitz as the agency's new president.

Weisbord was not warm and friendly. "We don't like to negotiate with a gun to our heads." An irony, I thought, considering Hanzer's military career. I went into some diatribe about how my father spent 32 years working at a job he didn't like and that I love working for William Morris and the thought of working for another agency is basically repugnant to me. But, "I have to be where the action is, Los Angeles, and that's why I agreed to meet with Hanzer."

We exchanged childhood memories and philosophies of life for almost two hours.

Sometime during this meeting, with Weisbord warming up, a message came through that Aaron Frosch was calling me. Lucy Aceto, interceding the call at my desk in New York, knew that Frosch was Elizabeth Taylor's attorney and, knowing I was visiting the West Coast offices, forwarded the call to L.A. believing I was somewhere hanging out in the TV department.

The call was transfered to Weisbord's office. I asked Weisbord if I could take the call. It was Frosch saying that his client liked "The 42nd Year" and wanted to meet with director Herman and discuss a deal. I told Weisbord that it was Harvey Herman's property. Sam's eyes widened. "You mean the guy my nephew represents? And you put Liz Taylor in it? Damn great agenting!"

The tone of the meeting changed and Weisbord suddenly had a brilliant idea. "Why don't we move you out here so that you can get involved in all the things that interest you?" I told my new friend and mentor-to-be that his idea was a splendid one.

Harvey Herman did, indeed adapt a screenplay based on his optioned book and Elizabeth Taylor signed on. But the film was, like so many others, not to be. In between husbands, Herman and Taylor for a brief time were "an item" and became lifelong friends.

After directing an ABC children's miniseries I secured for him, Herman returned back to enormous success in the ad world. And I was scheduled to relocate to the Coast at the beginning of the New Year. 

My first assistant, Jim Cantlon, left to work for Cary Grant. My second assistant, Shelley Baumsten, the first female agent trainee, left to work for Leonard Hanzer.

He was very grateful.