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Buddy Hackett Enters My Life

Many were often terrified of Buddy, especially when he was angry, but he came bearing gifts

I don't remember who sent me the book but it was Owen Laster's client Bob Thomas' not yet published typed manuscript of the biography of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello "Bud and Lou."

A three-day bout with the flu got it personally read quickly. A definite TV movie, I yelled at the dog. 

But when I recovered I had several pitches planned for all three networks for six different clients. I was overbooked and it was to be a nightmare week. Some syndicated documentary producer Robert Halmi was in town and I had promised Leon Memoli that I would escort him to all three nwtroks. Ron Yatter had asked me to take Elia Kazan to see Bill Self at CBS midweek. 

But first, producer Bob Banner and I were going to see Deanne Barkley at NBC to pitch an idea that a series writer client had based on a prison for boys who all had committed murder. The actual site was on the road to Malibu from my Tarzana home.

Called "Behind the Wall," the premise involved Farrah Fawcett (or Cheryl Ladd or Donna Mills) being hired as an English teacher, thrown into the dangerous and sexy world of a boys' prison. Teacher behind bars

The writer, somehow, didn't make it to the meeting. Still shaky from my flu, I told Bob about this new show biz bio while we waited for Deanne to see us.  We waited and waited.  Forty-five minutes later Bob got up and said, "Let's go. I've got too much to do at the office." 

We told Deanne's assistant we couldn't wait any longer.  We later found out that this was the meeting in which Deanne introduced Ron Howard to Brian Grazer, which became one of the industry's leading production companies, so it's kind of historic, but it angered producer Banner, who 15 years earlier had given Deanne Barkley her first TV job. 

When I got back to the office, her call awaited me. "I am so sorry, I cannot believe that you and Bob had to sit there, and I want to make it up to you. What were you pitching? I told her about“Bud and Lou.” "Well you have a deal, choose any writer you want and, furthermore, it's a firm picture."

"A firm picture, terrific, can you do that?" I asked. She laughed. "I certainly hope so." 

My last NBC executive, socially challenged Joe Taritero, used to yell at me (and most other agents) "What do you want!?" at every phone call, so this was developing into a very different relationship.

Deanne was an unusual and charismatic executive, who had a white grand piano in her office and often serenaded visitors who were there to sell TV movies. But her greatest and most appreciated quality was her ability to "buy in the room," which she often did.

Soon NBC business affairs called and reaffirmed that “Bud and Lou,” through Bob Banner's company, was a firm picture for the network, subject to a closed license-fee agreement. No one at the agency could understand how I managed this achievement but since the network purchased the unpublished book outright instead of a mere option, there was joy in New York and Bob Thomas became a fast friend.

But first to find a writer. New York writers I had known and liked were largely ignored by their L.A. agents and rarely if ever submitted for L.A. based projects. I had put New Yorker Jerry Coopersmith on an ABC movie "An American Christmas Carol" and was intent on using a New Yorker on“Bud and Lou.”

I remembered a fast and competent writer named George Lefferts and called him. He told me he happened to be an expert on the comedy team and admired them greatly. (I later was not so naive learning that writers wanting work will lie about their knowledge, background and their religion to get a job.) He got the job.

I must admit that Bob Banner and his staff believed I walked on water at this time and went along with everything I wanted. First I believed that we should cast John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and called Deanne who adored the idea.

Though a mutual friend, Carrie Fisher, I got to the boys without talking to an agent and the report back was that they loved the idea. Bernie Brillstein, their manager, thought otherwise and killed it. Who could play the team? As ridiculous as it sounds, Albert Brooks was offered the role, NBC agreed, and Stan Kamen and I spoke to him about it.  Albert fortunately had the good sense to pass. 

Then suddenly one night I saw Buddy Hackett on Carson. He was wonderful as usual and I called Deanne and asked if I could make an offer. She agreed. 

When Lefferts turned in his first draft he expected to be paid immediately. The WGA rule was that once a draft is delivered to the production company, a pre-negotiated percentage of the payment is due. The Hollywood tradition for TV movies was that the production company only paid when the network paid them. And NBC hadn't been given the teleplay until Banner and his minions had read the script and given notes.  But it angered Lefferts to the point where he called the agency's president Nat Lefkowitz and asked that I be fired! 

You've got to admire a client turning against the only agent getting him work! Nat Lefkowitz understood immediately and complimented me on the excessive memos I was sending out worldwide everyday. At WMA at this time intelligent, promising and creative inter office memos were almost as career building as actual deals. 

In the meantime, I tracked down Buddy Hackett's home phone number and cold called him. Early in his career he had been a client but for the past decade he used only a New York lawyer. I told him who I was and what I had and if I could send it to him.  He said " … you still on El Camino?  Can I come over?" 

He did and he sat in an uncomfortable chair and read the entire script. My niece was on her honeymoon, visiting California and she popped in to see me and Buddy Hackett told her "Congratulations, now go away, I'm reading." But he smiled as he whisked her off.

Buddy committed and asked how much money was there. I made up a figure. $75,000.  Buddy was happy. "Who's playing Bud?" he asked. 

"We don't have a Bud yet."

"Can I help you find one?" 

"Please, dear God, get me a Bud." 

"Any requirements?" 

"Just that NBC, a lady named Deanne Barkley, she's fantastic, she has to approve. That's it." 

"Well, I'm going tomorrow to Vegas and I think I'm going to come back with something you'll like."

When Buddy returned, he called me at noon. "Can you come over here?"  I dropped everything and drove to his home. 

His Whittier Drive estate was a surprise for many as it was very accessible to all and famous for a massive concrete elephant decorating his lawn. A magnificent and tastefully decorated 8000 square feet. Buddy had guests for lunch, actors George Segal and Richard Benjamin. Buddy indeed had news for me. He had pitched the script to Frank Sinatra and Frank agreed to play Bud Abbott. I was excited and couldn't wait to get Deanne's approval.  At first she seemed equally excited and then said "let me call you right back."  

Her returned call was not happy. "You're not going to believe this but since this is a firm picture I clear casting with New York and Paul Klein said no to Sinatra. I think it's insane and I don't know the reason but he was adamant." When I broke the news to Buddy he asked, "How do I tell this to Frank?  I don't think he's been turned down for anything in 30 years." George Segal yelled "Get him another gig." At that moment Buddy went to answer the doorbell. It was Bob Newhart. 

"Oh my God," Buddy whispered, "call that lady and get Bob approved." I knew I should ask if Newhart wanted to do it first, but I was excited about this as Newhart was the perfect foil for Buddy as they appeared to adore each other. Deanne approved. However Newhart was not certain and wouldn't commit.  In fact he wouldn't commit for several weeks until one day Buddy called and said that Newhart was out and he was considering getting out as well. 

I ran to my car and drove with a pounding migraine to his home. Buddy made me a tuna sandwich while he talked about the script. "Maybe they should just get another fat guy."  "Ridiculous! I yelled, hoping Hackett had Excedrin. They want Buddy Hackett, they want your incredible talent. There are such great moments in this film, Buddy, you could win an Emmy!" He dropped the idea of leaving. 

In the meantime, we had a problem getting a release signed by the only living person depicted in the book and Lefferts' adaptation, Bud Abbott's wife, Betty. She demanded compensation. Instead the director gave Betty's scenes to Lou Costello's wife (played by Michele Lee) and I wondered if it seemed strange that Bud Abbott had intimate conversations with the wife of his partner!

I had been working on an ABC package, an American version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” set in Depression-era America when I asked producer Gary Smith, "Did they call the Depression the depression during the Depression?" Smith thought that hysterical but no one knew the answer and we eliminated the word from the script. 

It had originally been planned as a vehicle for Harvey Korman, coming off of the Carol Burnett Show, but the network had other ideas and provided a list of five actors that would greenlight the picture. The fifth name on the list was Henry Winkler. I had known Winkler in his starving actor period when we were, in fact, dating the same WMA secretary and he hung around her in the office until her boss threw him out.

Winkler could now greenlight a TV movie and I gave him the script and he committed.  Tony Fantozzi called to complain. "You screwed Korman and he is a nicer guy that this Fonzie putz. You must get him a TV movie or I'll key your Silver Cloud." A lightbulb goes off. "Fantozzi, you think Harvey would play Bud Abbott to Buddy Hackett's Lou Costello?" 

Fantozzi "if the money is right, why not? Where is it?  In my hands, I said grandly, calling Deanne and getting Korman approved.

I happily called Fantozzi with the news. "Oh, Arthur, Harvey's getting $100,000 for the movie. "Impossible, Tony, Buddy's only in for $75K." "I really don't give a shit, Harvey's getting $100K." 

I decided this called for me to go to the producer Banner. I called Bob and filled him in. He said, "Why not give Buddy the same, then you will have no problems." With his blessing I went to Buddy and said, "Oh, there's been a change, you're not getting $75K, you're getting $100 grand." 

Buddy said, "something is not kosher, I'm getting shpilkas, Arthur, what's going on?  "No, it's just that Harvey's agent demanded $100K so you're getting the same." Buddy said, "I'm coming over." 

I had no idea what to expect. Many were often terrified of Buddy, especially when he was angry. But he came bearing gifts. First was a hairbrush that his wife and he were marketing. It was one of the best brushes I ever had. But he had another gift. 

"I never met an agent like you. You don't even look like an agent; you look like a pharmacist. You are the most ethical, considerate and devoted agent I ever had and yet you're not officially my agent. So, if you want, I want to sign with you."  I was thrilled. I sent out a memo that Buddy Hackett had returned to WMA where he began his career 25 years before. Lee Saloman, a personal appearance agent in New York called and said, "Please ask Buddy if we can handle his personal appearances." I did and he said, "Yes. Sure. Why not." 

Lee said "Buddy makes $4 million a year in personals. Good work, little Axelman." 

My life with Buddy was filled with early morning jokes that he would invent or re-invent.  He had a spectacular intellect, a wealth and depth of knowledge about science, history and medicine far greater than a Stanford PhD.  After five years he left, as many clients, even those who become close friends, often will, but we frequently spoke over the years and he shared advice and genuine caring in many ways that I cannot discuss here. 

I miss him every day.

(Photo, Buddy Hackett and Arthur Axelman, circa 1980)

 

A former senior vice president at William Morris for two decades, Axelman founded the movie for television packaging division, responsible for putting together the elements for more than 150 TV movies, features and series while representing winners of the Tony, Emmy, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize.

Since 2004, he has taught Entertainment Business and Law at UCLA.

He currently has written two half-hour pilots and co-created three reality shows with Diane Raymond.

He is at work on an agency-inspired tell-all novel.