Bernie Brillstein: Alive and dishing

A key figure in the careers of John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Lorne Michaels talks about being a Jew in Nashville, the girl who got away and bad-mouthing Michael Ovitz.

Published December 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Bernie Brillstein may not be a household name unless of course you've been anywhere near showbiz in the past 30 years. The arc of Brillstein's career as a manager and producer detailed in his new memoir "Where Did I Go Right? You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead," resembles a Saul Bellow novel in the way its protagonist rises from the obscurity of the William Morris mailroom to the head of his own firm. In a recent conversation, the Hollywood titan who helped launch programs such as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Muppet Show" among others, talked about the deal-making, skirmishes and rivalries that have shaped his life.

I was amazed to discover your involvement with a lot of shows I'd watched over the years including "Saturday Night Live," but the strangest connection was that you're the guy who came up with "Hee Haw." What's a nice Jewish guy from New York doing with a show like that?

It was my concept. I tried to sell the networks on "The Muppet Show." They said a puppet wouldn't work at night and I was furious. So I got really angry, I woke up at 3 o'clock one morning and I said, "OK, I'll give them what they want." I broke down the top 10 -- it was "Green Acres," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Laugh In." So I said "I'll do a country 'Laugh In.'" There was more brains than luck in that.

When you went to Nashville where "Hee Haw" was shot, they put you in the Jewish wing of the Best Western.

Overlooking the railroad. And I was Mr. Brillenstein -- that's how they pronounced my name -- it was Brillenstein.

You also mention some problems in having Ray Charles on that show.

Some of the people who were on the show walked out of the studio. In those days that was Nashville and the South and maybe it still is, but Ray Charles -- give me a break.

One of the things that struck me in the book was your preoccupation with your weight and appearance over the years.

Are you thin or heavy?

I guess I'm thin.

I was in good shape probably for about five years, from about 30 to 35. My whole family basically had Russian peasant bodies. I was always heavy, my father was always heavy.

I think you look like a pretty distinguished guy.

I'm distinguished now because I'm successful (laughs). You know, it was always a game, a challenge to get ahead -- with women and life and in show business. I just wanted to prove, like Camryn Manheim, that this is for all the fat people.

Hollywood's obsessed with age and looks.

People who are on the business end of this, who are not the stars, no one gives a damn how they look. Who are they trying to look like? Most of them are not very attractive. Most of them want to be the stars they represent or they produce and they are not. So I don't care. I wear sweatsuits and sweaters, and I know that I am not supposed to do what they do.

But you've had your moments. You were having phenomenal success and you let it catch up with you while representing John Belushi.

I did. It was the Blue Brothers moment. I thought I had invented show business. There I was in my Blues Brothers hat, my Blues Brothers scarf, glasses, my Blue Brothers jacket, and my pin -- god forbid, no one should know it -- and I was 48 years old. I looked in the mirror one day and actually said, "Schmuck." My ex-wife said, "Stop it already, will you please." That brought it to a screeching halt and that was the end of it.

There's a topic that runs through the book in which you acknowledge how older people really helped your career, and you admit you're now one of the older people. Do you see that sort of mentoring happening in Hollywood now?

Not particularly. There are some people who ask my advice. But I think mostly everyone thinks they can do it better on their own. This just happened so I've never told anyone this story. Saturday morning I was in a deli called Nate and Al's here. I was having breakfast with some friends of mine and Lew Wasserman walks in. And he comes over to the table and says, 'Thank you for being so nice to me in your book.' It was great!

You weren't kind to everybody in the book.

No, but I was kind to most people.

Michael Ovitz is not on anybody's most loved list. You were warned about your dealings with him and eventually you came to some conclusions your self.

Yeah, it took me 10 years cause I'm such a quick study.

What is the real story?

Look, I don't know any redeeming factors about him. I'm sure there must be some. For 20 years in this town no one said a bad word about him except me and Joe Eszterhas. All of a sudden everyone's come out of the closet in this town with "Oh, he's a bad guy." Where were they when I came out? Where were they when Joe came out? They were petrified. That's what I really resent.

At least Michael Ovitz has the guts to be Michael Ovitz. All of these people who now say "Oh, what a bad guy he was," they were like Hitler Youth -- marching in order right on to Paris. All of a sudden they found out he wasn't such a great leader and such a great guy. He was not nice to me or my daughter. When someone takes off to hurt my family -- I never forget that. Whatever happens to this guy is not enough. I say in this book, no one controls this town except the talent. The talent runs everyone -- the talent is the power.

Hollywood seems like a weird place.

It's a different world. There's no such thing as constant anything.

You've got a painting in your office called "Nebraska." What significance does that painting have to you?

David Rensin who co-wrote this book with me, was looking at this picture and asked me why I loved it. There's a big stop sign in it and he used that as a metaphor for my life. It's gorgeous and it's lonely.

You mention a woman named Marilyn Boroy who you were once in love with. She was a nice looking gal. You've tried to find her, any success?

You know, I produce the Marty Short show and unbeknownst to me, Marty and the producer went on a search to find her and they couldn't find her. I just found out yesterday. I did the Marty show and they were going to bring her on.

Like "This is your Life."

Right, and no one could find her. She was gorgeous -- looked like Ava Gardner. I went into the army and she married somebody else.

You talk about the highs and the lows of the business. There are a couple of anecdotes in the book that are telling. One of them is when you were in London trying to reach your client Jim Henson by phone and you couldn't get through. Everybody's been through that moment -- "Geez, he or she's not calling me back."

I'm glad you picked up that story. I still feel the pain of that day because it's insecurity we all live with. I should never have ever thought that with Jim, but I couldn't get him. So I thought he's avoiding me, he's doing something. When he called and said my phone's been out of order -- my God. I don't think I'd do that today.

Your business gets pretty complicated.

This is a very obvious business if you're just a person who understands life. This isn't atomic energy. Emotionally complicated. It would take me two weeks to teach anyone I know about deal-making.

You talk about people's perception of what an agent does. It wasn't just picking up the phone and picking up a check.

I always figured the smart person gets what I do for a living and how I protect [my clients]. I always think I make it look too easy, which makes people think I'm not working hard enough. I also believe you don't have to hang out with them to do the job. They're grown-ups and I'm not a hand-holder. I know a lot of people want a hand-holder but that's not what I do for a living. What I try to say in the book is, look guys, I'm not an overnight success. It took me a long time. My first paycheck, for God's sake, was $32.45.

I loved that you put that in the book.

I saved it because I always want to remember it. I don't want to forget things like that. And to me 10 thousand bucks is still a great deal of money.

It sure is to me, Bernie.

To everyone. Lorne Michaels says the greatest thing. Everyone has a choke price, it's amazing how little it is. It's the truth. You can get someone killed for $2,000. And someone says, "Oh my god, $10,000 how dare you insult me!" It's a lot of money -- it's the down payment on a house to lot of people.

The business seems like a real roller coaster.

Of course it is. John Belushi, Jim Henson and Gilda Radner where three of my biggest clients. I get a call -- they're dead. First of all, I loved them. How long does it take to build a star like that? A lifetime is the answer. So not only do you feel the emotional hole, you eventually get down to thinking about the business hole.

I thought you were honest talking about the balance between business and personal relationships in the book.

Here's another thing no one thinks about. You do a television show for five years, the money comes in every week like clockwork. You get used to it. One day the show is canceled. One Friday you don't get a check. I've never gotten used to that. It's scary.

You mention a lot of business that you did on just a hand shake. Is that still your practice?

Yes, to this day. I was really going to call the book "My wink is binding." They talked me out of it. I would have liked that title because it's who I am. Why have a contract that they can sue you on? If they want to leave, let them leave.

One guy who took advantage of that style of business was Richard Dreyfuss who you represented.

Richard Dreyfuss hurt me emotionally because I really thought he was my friend. That's a terrible assumption to make. I was wrong and he was an actor who hired me. I did a good job and then he figured he didn't need me anymore. That was emotionally hurtful to me. It was like a girlfriend -- good luck, goodbye!

You viewed his going as a betrayal obviously.

It was a betrayal. I took him and he hadn't worked in three-and-half years. I really brought him back to being Richard Dreyfuss and I guess he wanted that moment alone, not with me. In the remaining 10 years he's had a half a hit.

Now he's got some kind of nature travel show.

You got it!

You produce Marty Short's new talk show. He's a very funny guy, but he's not as funny as a host as he was in just about everything else he's done.

OK, you want me to answer that. When you do a show five days a week you can't write all those comedy sketches. We do more than anyone's ever done. Marty is a great interviewer. The show's ratings are going up, believe it or not, and it's sort of catching on. Will it be picked up? I don't know. I certainly hope so because I think it's very good entertainment. I love the show. I wouldn't go every night if I didn't love the show.

It is extremely difficult to be a talk show host.

Look at Jay Leno. He's still not a monologist. We've only been on the air eight weeks -- I swear I think the show is going to make it.

Well, you haven't been wrong often so we'll go with your prediction.

By Jon B. Rhine

Jon B. Rhine is a writer living in San Francisco. He has written for Time, Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

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