In a career that has spanned more than 40 years and 200 stars, Larry A. Thompson is accustomed to remaining behind the curtain.
That will change Thursday when the spotlight lands on the veteran talent manager and producer as Thompson is presented with the Seymour Heller Award for lifetime achievement by the Talent Managers Association.
“I was truly stunned when I got the call,” Thompson told TheWrap. “Management at times can seem unappreciated and invisible. In fact, being invisible is part of your job. Your job is to bring the spotlight to your client.”
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Thompson, who has shepherded the careers of a wide range of artists and entertainers such as Drew Barrymore, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Sonny & Cher, is a magnet for talent in other ways. His work as a producer has taken him from Broadway with “Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It,” featuring long-time client William Shatner, to cable with the recent Lifetime movie “Liz & Dick,” that infamously offered up Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor.
In a wide-ranging interview, Thompson let TheWrap in on the secret to staying on top as a talent manager, the trials and rewards of working with the mercurial Lohan and his plans for a new TV mini-series about Oprah Winfrey.
He also offered his take on the split between Shelley Browning and UTA, which has sworn off during business with the former agent after she left to become a manager at Magnolia Entertainment.
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How has the talent management business changed since you started four decades ago?
Managers have become more intimate and personal and boutique-ish with clients and agencies have become larger and more powerful. At times, it can create tension. Talent is either “castable” or “packagable.” During the “castable,” lean years before they achieve stardom, talent needs all the help they can get and they are all right with paying for managers, agents, publicists and lawyers because they recognize they need a team.
During the “packagable” stage when they hit big, sometimes they start to believe that they no longer need such a big team with everyone demanding commissions. So that can create a musical chairs scenario that can bring out the worst in even the best agents and best managers. Managers usually argue loyalty as a reason to stay and agents argue leverage.
Is the fight between UTA and Shelley Browning an indication that the relationship between agents and managers is deteriorating?
I doubt that the fight between Shelley and UTA signals a new rash of these kind of breaches. I think it’s unique to them. I don’t know the facts of their dispute, but it must have been very abrasive for them to issue a corporate statement that they won’t do business with her any more. In general, the top agencies don’t feel threatened by the boutique managers, but that changes if they feel that a manager is in a position to undermine their interests.
I do remember that CAA did something with Mike Ovitz after he started a management and production company. They begin to see him as a competitor who might poach clients, because he came from the agency world like Shelley.
You’ve worked with William Shatner for 33 years and through a lot of different incarnations. From “Star Trek” to Priceline pitchman, how has he stayed relevant?
The key has been to keep him fresh and moving and constantly evolving. For awhile he got so big as Capt. Kirk or T.J. Hooker that nobody could believe he could play anything else.
But anytime he got too big, he’d make fun of himself on the Priceline ads or on the SNL “Get a Life” skit. Humor is an enormous factor in a career like William Shatner’s. It defuses the audience’s expectations and it allows you to risk failing because the audience will still love you and keep rooting for you at all times.
What was it like working with Lindsay Lohan on “Liz & Dick”? To put it charitably, she has something of a reputation.
Nothing could prepare you to work with Lindsay. It’s a unique experience.
By casting a Lindsay Lohan, I knew I’d bring a younger demographic and a new generation to the movie that might not have known who Richard Burton or Elizabeth Taylor were, and I knew that Lindsay had a shared experience with Elizabeth of being a child star that would allow her to identify with the role.
Still, there were many days of the shoot that I questioned my sanity for hiring her and there were days that I knew I’d done the right thing. It’s just that sometimes it’s easier to make the right decision than it is to live with the right decision.
You’ve optioned Kitty Kelley’s biography on Oprah Winfrey. What’s the status of that project?
It will be made and if somebody else makes it but me, I’m going to be furious. I’ve been working on it for about a year, and while broadcasters easily admit it would be an enormous ratings getter, they’re afraid of Oprah and they don’t want to greenlight the film.
Is this a warts-and-all portrait of Oprah?
Oprah doesn’t have a lot of warts. I’m not by any means out to degrade her enormous talent. I want to tell a three-dimensional story of everything that happened in her life, so viewers can understand how someone gets to command the world stage like she does.
What makes a good talent manager?
This is a business in which, generally speaking, loyalty has the duration of flashbulb. But I’ve kept a lot of long-term relationships by being totally honest with my clients. At whatever risk I don’t cover it up for them and I don’t spin it, so they know my advice rings true.
Today it seems like every smartphone has a camera and the sheer number of celebrity obsessed blogs multiplies by the minute. Is it harder to control a star’s image in that kind of climate?
It’s impossible to in the 24/7 news cycle. Everything in the world winds up on YouTube. But that’s changed things in a good way. Today, we don’t want our stars on a pedestal. We know they’re human and they’re flawed and we can accept that more than some sort of fabricated role model.