One of the perks of working for Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, who died yesterday at the age of 77, was that he sent his convertible Rolls-Royce Corniche to pick you up at the airport, complete with immaculately uniformed chauffeur.
Jerry was a movie mogul in the old style, a throwback to the kind of larger-than-life character who once ruled the movie business, but who had become an endangered species.
There was nothing endangered about Jerry. When I met him, he had produced hits like Nashville and The Karate Kid. He was considered to have the magic touch when it came to choosing movies, so magical in fact that he had decided to establish his own independent production company, the Weintraub Entertainment Group, with hundreds of millions invested by such stalwart brands as Coca-Cola and the Bank of America. The largest privately funded startup in movie history, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Everyone believed in Jerry; Jerry produced hits.
In the midst of establishing his company and getting something like six productions off the ground, Jerry was celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and writing his memoirs. Well, he wasn’t actually going to write them. He hired me to do that. Jerry would talk. I would write.
The Rolls-Royce Corniche was at the airport to pick me up.
Jerry was impossible not to like. He yelled at a lot of people while I was around, but he never yelled at me. Not that there was a lot to yell about. One of the problems of writing Jerry’s autobiography, it turned out, was Jerry. He wanted to do the book, he said. He just didn’t seem to have a whole lot of time to do it.
Initially, there was the preoccupation with that fiftieth birthday party. Jerry’s original success had come in the music business where he had promoted concerts for everyone from Sinatra to Elvis to Bob Dylan. He was already rich by the time he got into films, thus fulfilling the maxim that if you want to make a little money in the movie business, you should start out with a lot.
He owned homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu, New York, and in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he could be close to his friend, Number Forty-One himself, President George W. Bush. However, since Forty-One could not be there, it was decided to throw the birthday party at Jerry’s twenty-two acre seaside estate in Malibu.
I have been to a lot of celebrity-studded parties, but it’s safe to say I have never been to a party with the number of celebrities who turned out to celebrate Jerry that night. Everywhere you looked as you strolled around the grounds, there was another A-lister.
Sidney Poitier embraced Jerry. Dallas’s Larry Hagman wandered past, followed by director Sydney Pollack, still basking in the Oscar-afterglow of Out of Africa. Neil Diamond was there, and so was James Caan. Jacqueline Bisset danced with her then-boyfriend, ballet dancer Alexander Godunov. I ended up standing in the dinner line chatting with Johnny Carson and his wife Alexis Maas. Ed McMahon came along to say hello.
It was that kind of party.
By this time, guests had been drinking hard for over two hours, so that as we finally got seated, everyone was—no other way to put it—drunk as a skunk. The actor Lee Majors, whom I had known from Toronto, weaved past, squinted at me, and made noises that sounded like, “Don’t I know you?”
Like I said, it was that kind of party.
The next day, Jerry, looking fresh and unaffected by the previous night’s revels, entertained me in his office, his leg propped up on his desk, foot bared, each of his toes separated by tufts of cotton batting. Jerry was having a pedicure.
As the manicurist worked on his foot, he began to talk about his early life, his time in the U.S. Air Force in Alaska, always hustling even way back then. Pretty good stuff; Jerry was never less than interesting. After a few minutes, he stopped, and looked perplexed. “Jeez, Ron,” he said. “How long is this book gonna take?”
I gently pointed out that we had only nicely started. He didn’t look happy but he did talk for a few minutes more before he had to go off to a meeting. I retreated to the office they had given me, a vast space across the street from Jerry. This was supposed to be where the writers Jerry hired would work. Except there were no writers. Only me. Everyone else had gone on strike. Sitting all alone amid the emptiness, I had my first inkling that all was not right with Weintraub Entertainment.
I began to wonder what was going on. I continued to wonder as I lay around the pool at the Beverly Comstock, the Beverly Hills apartment hotel where I was being put up in great comfort. Every so often I would phone Jerry and say something like, “Gee, Jerry, we’re never going to get this book done.”
He would say something like, “We’ll get it done, Ron. Don’t worry.”
And every once in a while, Jerry would start to feel guilty about me getting sunburned in Beverly Hills, so we would sit around his pool and he would talk. Not for long. He had an empire to run, movies to release.
Ah, yes. The movies. The hit movies. The first of those hits rolled out: Le Grand Bleu, a French film Jerry recut and released in the U.S. as The Big Blue. It was not a hit. The second movie, the first original production out of WEG, starred Molly Ringwald and was titled Fresh Horses. It was not a hit, either.
There were a couple of other releases and they also came and went with hardly a ripple at the box office. Everyone at WEG said not to worry, there was a movie in the can that was a surefire hit. It starred Dan Aykroyd and Kim Basinger, a comedy titled My Stepmother Is An Alien. Kim Basinger was the alien. It couldn’t miss.
The next thing, I couldn’t get hold of Jerry. Everything was fine, I was told. Fly to Kennebunkport. Jerry will talk to you there. I flew to Kennebunkport. This time there was no Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur at the airport. I checked into a rustic hotel just down the road from George Bush’s place that didn’t have a television in the room. The guy behind the desk looked unhappy when I insisted on one.
I lay around the pool at Kennebunkport. Waiting. And waiting. Finally, I got a call from Jerry’s wife, the singer Jane Morgan. Jerry wasn’t in Kennebunkport. Go home. Jerry will be in touch.
Jerry never got in touch. My Stepmother Is An Alien, the surefire hit, wasn’t. Instead of making hits, Jerry had produced a series of bombs. Cola-Cola unceremoniously pulled the plug on its financing, so did The Bank of America, and Weintraub Entertainment Group was gone.
As was Jerry’s autobiography. After all, who wants to read a book about a guy who makes a bunch of bad movies and whose company has just gone bankrupt?
I worried about what would happen to Jerry. I should have known better. Their companies may go under, but guys like Jerry Weintraub always survive. He hung in there, eventually produced the Ocean’s Eleven films and was more or less back on top, although I always thought his gift for self-promotion outran his ability to get movies made in today’s Hollywood.
He even finally published his autobiography, although I had nothing to do with it. In interviews promoting his book, he said he previously had considered writing about his life, but decided he was too young.
Well, there you go. Truth in Hollywood. Still, when I heard of his death, I sat in faraway London, England, experiencing a series of complicated emotions about my time with him. Mostly, though, I remembered him fondly. After all, how many people in your life send a chauffeured Rolls-Royce Corniche to pick you up at the airport?