Bernie Brillstein was among the first of the super-managers who broke the traditional rules of old show business and followed a lucrative new path. They were both buyers and sellers of talent. While licensed talent agents at agencies such as William Morris, where Mr. Brillstein began his career, were prohibited from producing for their clients, there were no such restrictions on personal managers. They could develop a career and then, cash in with the star.
At various times Mr. Brillstein represented most of the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” including the late John Belushi. Forty years later, he still personally represents “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels. He had a long association with the late Jim Henson of Muppets fame and even gets credit for creating the ’60s hit comedy “Hee Haw.”
Mr. Brillstein was already a Hollywood legend in February 1984 when he attended the National Association of Television Program Executives conference, held that year in San Francisco. One entertainer on the program was Garry Shandling, who was doing stand-up comedy. He was accompanied by his manager, Brad Grey, then 26 years old.
Bernie and Brad hit it off immediately. Mr. Grey joined The Brillstein Co. as a manager in 1985, and became a partner in 1989. The company morphed into Brillstein-Grey in 1992. And Mr. Brillstein sold it all to Mr. Grey in 1995 so he could semi-retire. In fact, Mr. Brillstein has worked hard ever since as a manager and in assisting other managers. The company now has more than 150 clients, including Adam Sandler, Dennis Miller, Gary Sinise, David Spade, Noah Wyle, Ed O`Neill, Michael Keaton, Greg Kinnear, Jimmy Smits, David Hyde Pierce and Courteney Cox Arquette.
In his 1999 book, “Where Did I Go Right?: Mr. Brillstein recalled: “Brad was … bright and ambitious. He had longer hair then, and baby fat on his cheeks, yet something about him-the look of resolve in his eyes, the way he cut through the chronic bullshit and got to the point-made me feel he got it: the truth about show business and the way things really work. Even though we had different styles of doing business, from day one, and as the years went by, we were a great team. The press called me `Mr. Personality’ … `larger than life’ … `old showbiz’ … `the last of a dying breed’ … `the Godfather.’ Brad was `Mr. New Hollywood’ … `The Genius’ …. `Michael Corleone.”‘
Last week that hugely successful 19-year association came to an abrupt end, and nobody was happier about it than Mr. Brillstein. Mr. Grey was named chairman and CEO of Viacom’s Paramount Motion Picture Group, with business and creative oversight of movie and studio operations.
“Brad will be gone, which is a sad thing for all of us because we love him,” Mr. Brillstein said last week. “He had to do this. It was too good. [Viacom co-President Tom] Freston is his friend. They are lucky to get his energy and brain and talent relations there. It’s a good thing.”
Part of the deal is that Mr. Grey must unravel his 100 percent equity ownership of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment. Details were sketchy last week, but Mr. Grey was expected to sell or transfer his equity control to a group of employees, led by Marc Gurvitz, who runs the agency day to day, and Cynthia Pett-Dante, who represents Brad Pitt and will now take on expanded duties. They will be part of a new executive management group that may also include other key BGE execs.
The company is so associated with Mr. Grey that there were some reports it would be dissolved. The Hollywood Reporter last week cited “speculation that, in the near term, BGE might shutter or at least significantly scale back its production efforts.”
That is absolutely not the case, according to Mr. Gurvitz, who said things will continue as they have been. Mr. Gurvitz explained that in recent years Mr. Grey has spent much of his time making movies at Plan B, where he is partnered with Jennifer Aniston and Mr. Pitt. Television production, in particular, will not be scaled back, Mr. Gurvitz promised, noting the BGE has about 25 script development deals at broadcast network. “We aren’t just trying to place shows at networks,” said Peter Traugott, 40, president of the BGE television division. “We try to figure out where it fits best creatively and take it there first.”
Next is “Jake in Progress,” a series for ABC with John Stamos, due in March.
While Mr. Grey won’t be around to oversee what is alleged to be the final season of “The Sopranos” on HBO, Mr. Traugott said the pay channel, where client Bill Maher recently renewed his show, is still a priority. “They have a big appetite for half-hours, which is something we have proven to be pretty good at.”
The most pressing issue is making a deal with a TV distributor. The current three-year pact with 20th Century Fox TV expires in June. While Fox wants the company to stay, despite a mixed track record on shows such as “Married to the Kellys.” Mr. Gurvitz said they will talk to all potential partners . “We are part of the `pod’ universe,” explained Mr. Traugott. “They provide us with development money, overhead and deficit-finance our shows in exchange for distribution rights.”
That means a low-cost structure but great upside for shows that succeed, as has happened with client Jim Belushi’s ABC show “According to Jim,” which is a hit on the network and in syndication.
Mr. Gurvitz said Mr. Grey has been a role model for his integrity. He also noted that many employees have been there for decades: “I`m here 18 years.”
“The good news is [Mr. Grey] has done a good job of creating pretty autonomous units that have functioned without his day-to-day involvement for a number of years,” Mr. Traugott said. “I hope and think the brand of Brillstein-Grey and some of the programming we’re done in past years provides an opportunity to continue on as we’ve been doing. That’s the goal. And it seems to be bearing out.”