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Stand in the Light

Apr 26, 2009  •  Post A Comment

In 2004, Sam Haskell, former executive VP and worldwide head of television at William Morris, walked away from the storied talent agency after a 26-year run that began in the mailroom and ended in the executive suite.
His new memoir, “Promises I Made My Mother,” is being released this week by Ballantine Books. In it, he details the lasting influence of the fundamental beliefs imbued in him by his mother, whether in his small-town Mississippi childhood, the halls of Ole Miss or the power corridors of Hollywood and beyond.
In the following excerpt, Mr. Haskell recalls the arrival of James Wiatt as WMA president and the circumstances that led to Mr. Haskell’s departure from the agency.

Even though this is not a Hollywood memoir, I’ve never talked publicly before about leaving William Morris. Some of the people who read this will be happy, some won’t. But that doesn’t matter to me; it’s my story, I lived it, and I’ll tell it truthfully and in my own way because once again the experience contained a big lesson for me. This is the story of that lesson and of the struggle I went through to keep my promise to my mother to always stand in the light.
To understand this part of my life, it’s helpful to understand the structure of the William Morris Agency. We had a chairman of the board, a chief executive officer, a president, a chief operating officer, a chief financial officer, a worldwide head of television, a worldwide head of music and a worldwide head of motion pictures. This group made up the executive committee of the agency, and each of us served on the William Morris board of directors. With the exception of the chairman, the president and the CEO, the other four of us were executive vice presidents. Serving under us were dozens of vice presidents and agents working in every department in the company. Each of the executive vice presidents had at least 50 people reporting to us, and we reported to the CEO.
The television department had historically made the most money for the company, but the motion picture division provided the prestige. We had TV hits like “The Cosby Show,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Murphy Brown,” “Lost” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and our motion picture stars included Russell Crowe, Eddie Murphy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James McAvoy and Michael Douglas.
In 1999, I had been poised to become the next president of William Morris; I had been promised the position by my partners on the executive committee. It was a big deal, because TV agents rarely held that job. No one denied that I had earned it, but suddenly several members of the committee decided that we needed to poach a fierce competitor with big clients to shore up our flagging movie division.
Jim Wiatt was the co-chairman of a rival agency, ICM. But he would only join us if we named him president of the company. Needless to say I was disappointed, but my partners promised that he’d hold the title for two years, max, then move up. I would then be made president. This scenario was fine with me, as the title didn’t mean as much to me as the opportunity that came with it to influence the character and direction of the company. I’ve never been a slave to titles. Once before, I had been asked to defer a promotion “for the good of the company,” and being a team player, I did. And for the most part, it had worked out fine.
However, this time I had a bad feeling that we hadn’t hired a team player. I had now been at the company for over 20 years. Walter Zifkin, the man who had hired me, I knew was wary, and he asked me to trust him.
Zifkin wanted a unanimous vote from the executive committee to show the entire company that this was a group decision. He also wanted my solemn promise that I would become Jim’s friend and help him in every way I could. “Jim will need you,” he said. I promised, hoping we were doing the best thing for the company and that we’d all be happy in the end.
I also agreed because I was committed to being a peacemaker. My mother first told me that I was a peacemaker when I was 10 years old, because she had noticed how I’d settled a problem between a couple of school friends. She took it as a sign of my character.
“God puts certain people on this earth to calm the storms of life, to bring peace to disturbing or hurtful situations,” she explained. “But being a peacemaker comes with great res-ponsibility and reward.” Then she quoted a verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
For the first six months I made it a point to be our new president’s friend and confidant. I would never say anything negative about him or listen to negativity from others. It was hard, because not everyone was happy, and my office had become a place everyone came to complain. Morale was in the toilet and the office was steeped in drama. But I thought I had things under control.
One day, Steve Kram, one of my best friends at the company, confronted me about my “Wiatt cheerleading.”
“Why are you supporting this guy? Don’t you know what he is saying behind your back?”
I hated to ask: “What?”
“Sam Haskell is a Clydesdale horse, trudging along with blinders on, supporting mediocrity, carrying everybody on his back.”
“Carrying everybody on his back”? Well, I wasn’t in the habit of dropping people—agents or clients—when the chips were down, especially when they’d proven themselves by making money for the company. And wearing “blinders” in Hollywood isn’t necessarily a bad thing; without them, you might lose sight of what’s really important—like your work, your word, loyalty, friendship and respect.
Wiatt was a quick study, and as soon as he discovered that I was sensitive, he began to push those buttons to my face on a regular basis. And behind my back.
Clearly, Wiatt and I were from different planets. When I discovered that he had undermined me not only with people in the company, but with those outside, I felt sickened. How could this happen?
I realized in that moment that in order to be a team player I had become willfully blind and ignored the truth. I’d tried to be positive and make the situation work, but now I felt as if my world had been turned upside down. But I needed to keep walking straight, to focus on the principles I lived by, to stay in the light.
Though I never let Wiatt know that I knew about what he was saying behind my back, I got smarter in how I handled him. He would tell my agents: “Your client list is not good enough,” “Your appearance is not suitable,” “You report to me, not to Sam,” etc. He constantly pushed the executive committee and tried to take control of the television department, but I wouldn’t give it up. We had a strict hands-off policy. And besides, why fix what’s not broken? But his criticism of me and my staff continued. “Sam should have a more impressive client list,” he would tell people. “He should have Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”) as a client. Why can’t he sign Steven Bochco (“Hill Street Blues”)?”
He went further: “Sam spends too much time trying to nurture his agents and clients. He’s too nice.”
I listened to each suggestion (criticism?) he offered. If it made the least bit of sense to me, I would try to address it; otherwise, I dismissed it. But I would not and could not give him control. Nor did I feel I ever had to defend myself or my client list. My success at the William Morris Agency spoke for itself.
The next several years were excruciating. Wiatt did not move up the corporate ladder and allow the board’s promise to me to be fulfilled. But I could not give up. I had promised my mother to never let the dark side prevail. I loved William Morris, and I loved almost everyone who was a part of it. I told myself that it just had to get better. But it didn’t.
By the beginning of 2004, the atmosphere at the office had deteriorated so much that I had to stop at my church on the way to work to pray for the strength to get through each day—especially Thursdays, when we had management meetings. Battles were constant; issues of titles and control were prevalent; and the random hiring and firing of employees was getting worse. I went to bed every night with a headache and work up every morning with a stomachache. My presidency of the company was delayed over and over again.
When summer arrived, I switched to a different prayer at church. Instead of asking for strength to get through the day, I asked God if this was what He wanted for my life.
I hung in while I waited for God’s answer. In September 2004, I agreed to become vice chairman of William Morris, and one of our motion picture partners would be named president. Then I left town to stage another “Stars Over Mississippi” concert in Amory, Miss.
After I returned, and the insurrection had been squashed, a huge argument erupted in our Thursday management meeting. We were discussing whether to hire a new agent for a huge salary, even though he had only one profitable client. The management committee was split. After we explained that hiring this agent did not fit our business model, several members of the “opposition” got quite upset. Then one of them threw his luncheon plate of pasta against the boardroom wall. Everyone froze. I quietly picked up my plate of food, and asked, “Would you like to throw my plate, too?”
I’d hoped my comment would inject a little humor into the foul mood of the room, but it didn’t work. He exploded and started banging his hands on the table, saying, “I have to have complete control, I have to have complete control.”
To have any hope of winning this battle of values and culture, I realized, I’d have to cross a line—one I knew I couldn’t, because I kept hearing my mother’s voice in my head: “Stand in the light.”
After many sleepless nights, the time had come to decide. It was them or me. I chose me. The decision was God’s answer to my earlier prayers. I saw both forks in the road clearly and chose the one that took me into the light. I could be at William Morris right now, making loads of money, fighting the good fight, but it was no longer a war I wanted or felt I had to win, because winning meant losing what was most important to me: my self-respect.

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