The Agency

William Morris and The Hidden History of Show Business

"A cram course on the modern entertainment business as seen not from the cus­tomary perspective of the talent, but from the point of view of the humble appa­ratchiks who doggedly tried to prevent the lunatics from wrecking their asylum."

— Peter Bart, The New York Times Book Review

"This juicy narrative reveals the shark tank at its most lethal and hilarious. The anecdotes come at us at assault-rifle speed, but it's Rose's deft use of show-biz vernacular that keeps the pages turning."

— San Francisco Chronicle

"'The Agency' is more than just a titillating string of bold-face names, though; Rose uses the saga of the Morris Agency's rise and fall as a prism through which to examine the con­stantly evolving nature of show business itself."

— Gregg Kilday, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"A fascinating history of William Morris. It's not about the stars as much as . . . the 'star-making machinery' as Joni Mitchell sang in 'Free Man in Paris,' her ode to David Geffen. . . . Classic stuff, this book."

— David Rensin, author of "The Mailroom"

"An encyclopedic account of the development of the modern entertainment business . . . how deals were made, bluffs called, booze guzzled, pills popped and stars born."

— Chicago Tribune

"A brash, sometimes funny, often poignant and engaging story. . . . It's a darker side of show biz than one sees on 'Entertainment To­night.' But serious students of popular culture and fans of smart storytelling will find a lot to enjoy."

— USA Today

 

The unauthorized account of the rise and fall of Hollywood’s greatest talent agency

FOR DECADES, hidden from the public eye, William Morris agents made the deals that determined the fate of stars, studios, and television networks alike. Mae West, Frank SinatraMarilyn MonroeElvis Presley, Barbra Streisand—the Morris Agency sold talent to anyone who would buy it, from the Hollywood moguls to the Madison Avenue admen who controlled television to the mobsters who ran Vegas. While the clients took the spotlight, the agency stayed behind the scenes, providing the grease that made show business what it’s become.
Sue Mengers

Sue Mengers—portrayed by Bette Midler on Broadway in “I’ll Eat You Last,” shown here at the height of her power—was the most glamorous seller in Hollywood during the 1970s.

The story began well over a century ago, when a fiery young German-Jewish immigrant named William Morris (birth name: Moses Zelman) opened a vaudeville-booking office on Fourteenth Street in New York City and went up against the trust that ruled the leading entertainment medium of the day. Led after Morris’s death by by Abe Lastfogel, a cherubic little man who treated agents and clients alike as fam­i­ly, the Morris office trans­formed the talent agent’s image from garish flesh-peddler to smooth-talking pro­fessional. But in the 1970s, when Lastfogel’s pro­tégé bru­tally sac­rificed his own best friend—the man who’d brought Barry Diller and Michael Ovitz out of the mail­room—Mor­ris gave birth to its own nem­esis: Ovitz’s new shop, Cre­at­ive Art­ists Agency. Through­out the ’80s and ’90s, as Mor­ris made, and lost, such major stars as Kevin Cost­nerMel GibsonTom Hanks, and Julia Rob­erts, Ovitz’s power grew in­exorably as Mor­ris’s waned. Lulled by the phenomenal success of Bill Cosby on television and the upward spiral of the Beverly Hills real estate market, Morris’s board failed to act as death and defection thinned the agency’s ranks. Not even the last-minute hiring of the legen­dary Sue Men­gers—“the superagent who ruled Hollywood with sex and booze,” as a New York Post headline once put it—was enough to re­vive the Mor­ris office. Finally, with its flag­ship motion-picture depart­ment at the brink of collapse, Mor­ris was faced with the stark reality of having to buy its way back into the busi­ness it had once owned.
CAA

Michael Ovitz (seated, center) and Ron Meyer (standing, center left) exited William Morris with their partners to form CAA, a move that would alter the balance of power in Hollywood.

THE AGENCY began when Frank Rose was interviewing Mengers at her home in Beverly Hills for “The Case of the Ankling Agents” — an article for Premiere magazine on the latest exodus of motion picture stars and agents — and she told him he had to write a book about it. What followed was four years of writing and research — interviews with the cofounders of CAA, with ex-Morris agents like Bernie Brillstein and David Geffen and the managers of one-time Morris stars, with retired mobster Vincent “Jimmy Blue-Eyes” Alo and with the New York detective who led the investigation into the agency’s Mob ties in the ’50s; sifting through the original William Morris family scrapbooks in the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division; digging into the archives of the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and the Shelby County Clerk’s Office in Memphis, where the Morris office’s deals with Colonel Tom Parker were recorded; and poring over documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and both the antitrust and criminal divisions of the US Department of Justice.
By the time THE AGENCY was pub­lished, in 1995, Mor­ris was in the midst of a long transfor­mation that would even­tu­al­ly see it recon­sti­tut­ed as Wil­liam Mor­ris En­deavor, a rad­ically different firm led by Ari Eman­uel, the agenting powerhouse who served as the inspiration for the hard-driv­ing agent in the HBO television series Entourage. All al­ong, the book has re­mained re­quired read­ing for new gen­era­tions of Holly­wood mail­room train­ees, in­deed for any­one with a hun­ger to un­der­stand how show busi­ness works and how it evolved, gradually yet inexorably, into what it is today. ♦

Read the Los Angeles Times excerpt on Michael Ovitz and the founding of CAA — and the companion piece in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on Lew Wasserman and the deal with Seagram that created Universal.

 

Read the followup articles in Fortune on the fall of Michael Ovitz and Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s colossal bet on Universal.

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— Library Journal

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