Brad Grey: RIP to Hollywood’s Savviest Player-Mogul

Grey was a smooth operator. His low-key demeanor masked a laser focus on smart internal politics and an ability to maneuver for survival and success in a cutthroat business

Hollywood reeled today from the news that one of its own, Brad Grey, had died at 59.

I was as shocked as anyone else. These days 59 is early middle age and Grey had seemed entirely vibrant and engaged in his work. (Plus his last boss, Sumner Redstone, is pushing 100.) I last saw Grey at his pre-Golden Globes party at the Chateau Marmont where he sat at his usual sofa in the middle of the courtyard, chatting with Jerry Bruckheimer and Russell Simmons as servers circulated with champagne.

As always Grey was gracious and spent time asking about TheWrap, how we were doing, how I was doing. I knew he talked to all my editorial rivals too, but he always cared enough to support my young venture. Brad was a savvy media player.

He was one of the savviest, in fact.

Every mogul is different, and Grey’s was a particular style. On a studio lot once informed by the raging temper of Jonathan Dolgen and the foul language of Sumner Redstone, Grey was a smooth operator. His low-key demeanor masked a laser focus on smart internal politics and an ability to maneuver for success in a cutthroat business. He talked to a few select reporters when he needed to, but kept the media at bay most of the time.

For years, Paramount Pictures has been underperforming as a unit compared to the revenue and profits brought by his colleagues on the TV side. But Grey knew how to tend to his relationship with Redstone and, while it mattered, Philippe Dauman, and to deliver enough profit to keep them happy. He also made some great films – “Up in the Air,” “There Will Be Blood” – and launched some significant franchises – “Star Trek,” “Transformers” – in the process.

There were few executives in Hollywood who knew how to play the game as well as Grey did. Even as he ran one of Hollywood’s legendary film studios, Grey continued to rack up credits as a producer on shows including “The Sopranos,” The Departed” – even up to last Friday night’s episode of “Real Time With Bill Maher” which he still produced. We can thank him too for the gifts of Garry Shandling and Larry Sanders (though that led to a bitter legal dispute with Shandling).

This used to drive his peers crazy who regarded it as double-dipping. How did he get to run a studio while remaining a partner in Brillstein-Grey? But Grey, calm and unflappable, took it all in and continued on his way.

Even as news swirled about the changes at Viacom, and the fact that Paramount was producing so few movies, Grey always remained calm and confident. “Sumner’s happy,” he’d say. And inevitably Paramount would reappear in the Oscar season with a worthy movie or three — talent wanted to be at the legendary place.

That was why I was skeptical over the rumors late last year that Grey was on his way out and Jim Gianopulos might replace him. I didn’t know he was ill. Judging by the shock that coursed through the movie industry today, I don’t know if anyone did.

Grey was always talking about his kids, three of them. Before he got divorced, his union with Jill — who he met in college — was one of the most longstanding among Hollywood moguls, and he was proud of that. I remember seeing him and Cassandra at Herb Allen’s Sun Valley mogulfest when they’d just gotten engaged. Life went on, and a new child even arrived, Jules Andrew Grey.

And too suddenly, it ended. Just one week ago, a few dozen of Paramount’s luminaries — executives, producers, directors — gathered in the corporate commissary to salute Sherry Lansing, the legendary executive who preceded Grey at the studio, and who is the subject of a new biography by Stephen Galloway.

The new studio chief Gianopulos was there, as were longtime members of the Paramount family: producers Donald De Line and Sean Daniels, directors John Singleton and Alexander Payne, Motion Picture Academy President (and former Paramountian) Cheryl Boone Isaacs and executives including international marketing chief Megan Colligan and production chief Marc Evans.

All had worked with Grey for many years. No one mentioned him, or an illness. My guess is  today came as a shock to most of them. I’ve spoken to no one who knew he had cancer.

He leaves a gap, most surely. Hollywood can be a harsh place, with tough competitors. But today people spared a moment to regret the unsettling, unexpected loss of Brad Grey, one of its best.