Media Circus

The hellish existence of the Hollywood assistant.

By Catherine Seipp

Published July 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The other afternoon I was ... not exactly napping, but, as Redd Foxx used to say, checking my eyelids for cracks, when I was once again disturbed by a phone call from some Hollywood bigwig's assistant who was "updating our Rolodex." My peaceful reveries are interrupted by these Rolodex updating calls at least once a week. Actually, this one I rather enjoyed because of its weird new fillip of
Hollywood pretension. Lynda Obst's assistant, a polite young man named Scott, informed me he was "updating Producer Obst's Rolodex." Producer Obst? God.

Well, leave it to Lynda Obst, an industry character whose favorite phrase is "We'll do it my fucking way!" to transform producer into an honorific, like "professor" or "Reichspresident." But the interesting thing here is really the thankless role of the Hollywood assistant, a job so stressful and jammed with silly busywork that the rare moment of downtime must be immediately filled making calls to the boss's contacts just to make sure that they still exist.

Yesterday I had a triple whammy from the office of
Michael Levine, Hollywood publicist, which took about half a day to unfold:

11 a.m. "Oh! I'm so sorry! I didn't think you'd answer the phone!" stammered Levine's assistant. "Mr. Levine just wanted me to make sure this was still your number."

3 p.m. "Can you hold for Michael Levine?"

3:05 p.m. "I'm sorry, can Mr. Levine call you back later?"

Why don't they just make their assistants call and ask, "Is your refrigerator running?" It would get to the point quicker.

But this is just grunt work in the world of Hollywood assistants. Those who have worked for someone like Scott Rudin (producer of "The Addams Family" series and "Ransom") are comparable to Green
Berets. Rudin, who once went through 30 lackeys in a 15-month period, who has the digital readout on his office phone system programmed to demand "String cheese NOW!" at the press of a button, is generally acknowledged to be the king of demanding Hollywood bosses. Here's how the foul-mouthed, phone-hurling Rudin, who once threw a tantrum on a movie set when his assistant brought him the wrong kind of sushi, is remembered by one of his former slaves:

"I walked into the office at 7:30 a.m. and picked up the messages," recalls Rudin's ex-assistant, "and there were messages time-stamped 11 p.m., midnight, 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6:30 a.m., all from Scott -- the guy doesn't sleep -- saying, 'Remind me to send flowers for Anjelica Huston's birthday.' 'Remind me to call
Mike Ovitz.' Then the phone rings -- it's 7:35 a.m. -- and it's Scott, saying, 'Start on those calls.'

"This goes on until about 11 a.m. He's in the office now. I'm making calls, and suddenly he screams, 'You asshole! You forgot to remind me to get flowers for Anjelica Huston's birthday!' And as he slowly disappears behind his automatic closing door, the last thing I see is his finger, flipping me off."

Memorable as this experience was, the assistant -- wiser now, and on his way up in Hollywood -- is cynical about questions regarding who treats assistants the worst. "Every executive at every studio," he says levelly, "is the worst."

Then there are the movie stars, and their many, many needs. Although tense and pressured while working, they can be positively dangerous when unemployed. "One of my duties was to select a maid, and she went berserk because the maid didn't fold her underwear properly," recalls one of Faye Dunaway's
former assistants, who lasted a month during one of the actress's idle periods. "One day I came to the house and the maid and the nanny were out sitting in the car. They said, 'She's having a fight with her boyfriend, and they're throwing things.' Also, she bought all this expensive exercise equipment, and I
must have returned it three times. She'd say, 'Oh, my head doesn't fit the cushion right.' It was like 'Mommy Dearest.'"

"I think, in a funny way, a really good personal assistant has to love the employer, maybe romantically, and then suppress it," says a woman who used to work for Sylvester Stallone's production company, and still remembers how Stallone's devoted personal assistant at the time guarded access to the
star like Cerberus. "When I called about the job there, the assistant yelled, 'Who are ya and whaddya want?' And I had to say, 'Well, you called me, actually.'"

But despite the peccadilloes of celebrities, truly nasty behavior seems to be the province of producers, studio executives and the dozens of power-mad agents who would be king. "Movie stars may make you do personal errands and stuff," says one agent's assistant, "but agents all went through the same
hazing and make you go through it too. I used to work for this one agent who was a total dweeb. He'd make me sit in his office while he randomly called good-looking female executives and got turned down
for dates. I'd keep saying, 'Can I go now?' And he'd say, 'No, you just sit.'"

For years the worst assistant story I knew was about the girl who had to take her boss's stool sample to the doctor. But it didn't take long delving into the wacky, anal-explosive world of Hollywood before I found one that topped even that: One female producer/manager made her assistant follow her into the bathroom and take dictation while she was sitting on the toilet. The woman is known as a real up-and-comer in the area of assistant abuse -- presidential, even, if you remember LBJ.

Then there was the infamous 12-page, single-spaced memo passed around a few years ago that Barry Diller's regular assistant wrote to a temporary assistant in preparation for a trip Diller was taking to New York. Among the instructions: All hotel brochures and stationery must be tucked away in drawers; two bathrobes (in case there's a guest) must be in the room at all times; a cigarette package must be on the night stand, opened and with two cigarettes conveniently propped out. "By now," the memo announced
about halfway through, "you are probably in tears."

The reason for all this, of course, is control -- a rare sensation in Hollywood. The star may back out, the project may fall apart, the over-budget action picture that looked like a sure thing may bomb at the box office ... but the one thing you can control is your assistant. So put those calls involving million-dollar deals on hold -- that idiot has just returned with blue jeans for your kid's trip to Paris that are yet again the wrong shade of blue!

Why do assistants put up with it? Because for all the stories about flunkies who quit the business in disgust, there's also a story about one who didn't. Even Mike Ovitz started out as an assistant. But not all job titles, especially at the beginning, mean an end to slavery. "Who's that poor girl?" asked a visitor to a Joel Silver set, having just witnessed the producer of the "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" series scream at a young woman to get up and wipe off his chair, which was damp. "Oh," came the answer, "that's the
associate producer."

But revenge is sweet, and sometimes assistants get it. Last week I heard from Hustler insiders that Larry Flynt is taking the high road about the highly entertaining home video the skinmag just received ... apparently from a disgruntled assistant, who sent the video to Hustler to get back at the boss.
The video reportedly shows a major media mogul happily exclaiming, "My dick's as big as a house!" while being penetrated by his dildo-equipped wife. A feather boa and another woman also participate in the scene.

The star of this sexual scenario called the head of the Hustler empire and asked him as a favor, media mogul to media mogul, not to feature it in the magazine. Flynt, who is full of surprises these days -- he recently had a cordial meeting of the minds with former nemesis Jerry Falwell -- agreed. The obvious moral of this story is that media moguls stick together. But here's another: Think twice before making your assistant program your VCR.

Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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