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‘Cary Grant Is on Line 2’

”There is a buzz going around both the 32nd and 33rd floors, I could feel it, people gathering outside my little office. Lucy returns and sees that the phone call is real and now all the secretaries and assistants are walking by…“

As a newly minted Junior Agent, it's New York 1974 and I am waiting to hear about my business cards and an available office. Nothing is happening. 

Near Owen Laster's massive space was a tiny room that had been used for storage and was filled with agency junk. I had the vision to see that, minus the debris, this could be my first office — so with Janet Roberts' assistant, Don Faber and a floater named Angelo Crispo, we disassembled two old desks and a broken bookcase and removed a half dozen staplers, a paper cutter and three typewriters. It became mine. 

I didn't send a memo, I didn't ask permission, I took it. I put up some photos and filled the desk drawers with my things and ordered supplies to be sent to "the Axelman office." It was called "commandeering" in those days, and you had to do it at William Morris to move ahead.

It surely worked. Old time agents came to my office to ask me to set up meetings and schedule dates and the mailroom delivered my mail and the trades to that little space that was recognized as my own. 

I was just three days in when I read in the morning's Celebrity Bulletin that Cary Grant was in town, staying next door at the Hotel Warwick, not to publicize a new movie, that had little interest for him now, but to attend a Board of Directors meeting for the once prominent cologne Faberge (run by Cary's friend George Barrie) on whose Board he was a star member. 

I wrote him a one pager on agency letterhead, where I proposed that we represent the sale of his autobiography. I listed the impressive clients of the literary division, the recent sales of comparable bios and my vision of how this would be a major event in publishing. 

The proximity of the Warwick made it easy for me to descend the elevator, exit the MGM building, and hand deliver my missive. 

Several hours later, as I returned from lunch, Lucy Aceto, a tough but sweet New Yorker, said that there was a call holding for me from someone saying he was Cary Grant. "Probably Johnnie Planco pulling your leg. I told him what he could do with himself…"  

My stomach fell as I ran to my office, I pick up the receiver, "Hello?" I ask. "Arthur Axelman?" Cary Grant responds. "Yes"  "what a positively charming letter." he begins, "but my life, Arthur, is boring, truly, and why would anyone care?  The thing of it is, Arthur, it would bore me terribly to sit down and talk into a tape recorder or try to remember the first vaudeville dates, the early pictures. I hate that sort of stuff. You can understand." 

No I can't! I need this deal. 

There is a buzz going around both the 32nd and 33rd floors, I could feel it, people gathering outside my little office. Lucy returns and sees that the phone call is real and now all the secretaries and assistants are walking by as I hold the receiver out for all to hear Cary Grant amiably chatting about his life and the totally unromantic and mundane world in which he lives. 

"I'm just a businessman, Arthur." (He keeps saying my name, we're good friends!) "And I don't talk about the past anymore. But William Morris did come into my life many, many times and I had good friends there." 

Nat Lefkowitz (pictured right with Elvis Presley and WME agent Harry Kalchelm), then president of the agency, exits the conference room and approaches my door, my illegal, commandeered office. He sticks his head in "Did you make the deal?" 

"It was Cary Grant," I announce. "I know, I know, we all know. Well, what's going on?" he says. "I proposed a biography but he refuses to do one. He sends his regards to you, Mr. Lefkowitz."

I'm a little shaken.  Lefkoiwtz, a former CPA and attorney, a notorious dour and serious man, moves closer to me, winks his eye and nods. "I know how you feel, Arthur. Harry Truman once called me."

I had occasion to meet Cary Grant over the years after that phone call and he was indeed a dear, unforgettable and charismatic figure. 

But it was his returned phone call to me that day so early in my career that made me appreciate my mentor Nat Lefkowitz. 

 

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.