What can I write about Bernie Brillstein, who died on August 7, at 77, that hasn’t already been written in obituaries and remembrances too numerous to count? His career was covered, from the William Morris mailroom in 1955 to personal management (Jim Henson, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Lorne Michaels, Norm Crosby, Rob Lowe, Martin Short, ad infinitum), to running Lorimar Film Entertainment, to Brillstein-Grey Entertainment with it’s stunning roster of clients, to selling out to Brad Grey but staying aboard and never considering retirement even after Grey moved on to Paramount and the company re-branded itself as Brillstein Entertainment Partners in his honor, even though he no longer owned a piece of the action ....
I guess, having been the lucky guy he trusted to help him write his 1999 memoir, “Where Did I Go Right: You’re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead,” and the 2004 collection of his “Bernie-isms” (which I wanted to call “The Pocket Bernie” but he wisely overruled me), “The Little Stuff Matters Most: 50 Rules from 50 Years of Trying to Make a Living,” I can safely repeat what I told Variety reporter Cynthia Littleton: “Bernie was the man who loved show business.” I should have added, though I wasn’t thinking too clearly after he was gone, that Bernie being Bernie, show business, that most fickle of mistresses, returned his affection unreservedly, with all her heart.
Bernie and I first spoke the year "Ghostbusters" was made. I did a story on Harold Ramis for Vanity Fair. I got a quote over the phone and moved on. Next, we spoke in the early 1990s when I did a Playboy Interview with “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels. I got a quote and moved on. In 1995, when co-writing a book with Jeff Foxworthy, whose TV sitcom was a Brillstein-Grey production, I ran into Bernie backstage in Las Vegas. Knowing something, but really, hardly anything about him -- except I had a feeling -- I pitched him the idea of doing a book. He said nah. A few months later I ran into him again in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton in Aspen, at the HBO Comedy Festival. I reintroduced myself, told him I was there doing a Playboy Interview with Dennis Miller, pitched my creds as someone who’d interviewed many of the company clients, including collaborating on the biography of faux talk show host Larry Sanders with a pre-Brad Grey-lawsuit Garry Shandling – ie, I was comedy friendly – and mentioned the book again. He surprised me by saying he’d tried recently but dropped it. (Hmm. I thought he’d said he wasn’t interested?) Why? The potential collaborator had too soon asked him if he had any good Brad Pitt stories. “I threw her out.”
I settled for hanging out with the BGE crowd, courtesy of Dennis Miller (before he came out of the Republican closet), and their circle of powerful friends and performers. Fun times. A few days later it was all over and I approached Bernie in the big theater and thanked him for including me when he could have easily said, "Who's this chump?" I didn’t mention the book. “Come see me in my office in L.A.,” he said, completely surprising me “and we’ll talk.”
My life was about to change.
Later he told me that “Outcomes rarely turn on grand gestures, high-flying concepts, or the art of the deal.” That was one taste of an incredible spontaneous stockpile of wisdom I for years attempted to absorb directly through my skin, like an application of Head-On. “More often it’s all about whether or not you’ve sent someone a thank-you note.”
I’m no Eddie Haskell, but my politeness had turned his head. After a while – and after scrupulously avoiding asking for Brad Pitt stories (until Bernie offered) – I stopped worrying about getting thrown out, too. In fact, the complete opposite happened.
The next year, and the year after that, I was on his rented jet flying to Aspen, and a constant at his side, invited to sit with him in the hotel lobby as he held court, or at a meal with players young and old and so powerful that I couldn't get them on the phone even if I booked the call a year in advance (though thanks to Bernie it was never a problem), or just walking the snow-packed streets together, window shopping, getting coffee. I am – was – only one of his thousands of friends, and certainly not a particularly important one, and yet in those moments I knew he enjoyed being able to let down the Bernie Brillstein mask -- even though he was always Bernie through and through. We'd talk about our families, or he'd regale me with great gossip about Hollywood types and trusted me never to repeat any of it, or tell tales from the old days and bemoan -- though not too much; after all, he was still in the thick of it and not "some old Jew playing golf in Florida" -- how the business had changed and how very few were in it anymore for the fun and glamour and "show." For a guy so beloved behind the scenes, he always cared more about the show, and was only in the business to help the talent he respected make the shows. In this memory we were bundled up in Aspen, but could just as easily have been two Jews in the schvitz. We did this in New York, too. And L.A. Wherever and whenever the opportunity allowed.
And, as the years passed, he was always ready with a kind word, or the blunt truth, or a "fuck 'em" attitude. He never wanted less than the best for me. He recommended me for books and always touted my writing. He knew me inside and out -- "You never think you're as good as you are, kid; but maybe for you that's a good thing" -- and he was there for me whether I had issues with my teenaged son (who doesn't?), or was celebrating my new books, or my wife's successes, or we were simply sharing stories about our vacations. He talked about his real life, too. Celebrated his milestones. Worried about his kids. Loved them more than anything. And, this I loved: Whenever a headline or business development or hiring/firing reflected something he'd suggested or predicted in the book, he'd call and say: "Can you believe it? We were right, in the book. This is what we said would happen/they should do." Not "I". We.
(Excuse me. I'm a bit verklempt.)
Doing the first book was a Hollywood education for me, a master class taught by the master. And for Bernie it was a way to confront the depression, at 65, and find his place in the world after a divorce that included him selling his half of the company to Brad Grey and “no longer being king.” He opened up about that transition publicly, to his credit, in a business where appearances seem to be everything.
And then the book came out and it was a rebirth. Great reviews. Much love. A new wife, the wonderful Carrie, who was finally the right match. ("One out of four. I'm batting .250" he'd say. "Very respectable.") And when the book was acknowledged as a mile wide and more than the standard inch-deep package of Hollywood glad-handing and self-aggrandizement, and reviewed well in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and everywhere else, he was thrilled. He used to joke that I'd lied to him about how easy doing the book would be, only to discover that we taped sessions for a year. But it was worth it, he said. The book had given him a much needed second wind. (Well, perhaps fifth or sixth wind.)
The greatest compliment? When he finally read the first draft on a plane to England, he called to say that even though he knew the story by heart, the book had, to his surprise, kept his interest. Believe me, it wasn't the writing; it was the life I had written about. It was the joy of a collaborator who could crawl completely into the skin of his subject and speak in his voice. Of course, I was lucky. Voices like Bernie's come along rarely.
Afterward he never tired of telling me about all the letters that rolled in, and about all the chance encounters in unusual places, with people who'd read the book and recognized him. Then he'd ask if I had any books left over in my stash because he needed a few. For a few years the company gave his book to all new employees. And why not? Bernie let it all hang out, including starting the book by cutting short the standard "I started in the mailroom" opening to tell a graphic and hilarious story instead, about going to the proctologist in 1955. That he began there let readers know they were in for not only a ride, but a bracing level of honesty. After all, instead of being humiliated and slinking home after opening his eyes in a cold sweat and discovering his mother, father, aunt, and uncle unexpectedly crammed into the the doctor’s examination room while he was lying sideways on the metal table, pants off, knees to his chest, a tube up his ass -- "Here, have a look" -- he went back to the office and told everyone. That was Bernie. "If you have a great story, tell it."
Now, here I am, twelve years, two Bernie books and other little writing tasks that I did for him because it was him, later – and he’s gone. I can’t just call the office and have the ever-faithful and wise Christina put me through. I will never again hear the, “Hiya, kid,” when he came on the line, or when I walked into his office, or feel his big arms around me and hear an “I love ya, kid” whispered in my ear. Never again will we sit and talk for hours, Bernie in his chair, myself spread out on the couch, a tape-recorder sometime between us, Bernie making a point and punctuating it with, “It’s the truth.” Never again will he joke about a third book, which he had tentatively titled, “Now Let Me Tell You The Truth About These Assholes.”
Through it all Bernie never made me feel like an anything other than a friend whom he incidentally trusted to make him sound on paper like he sounded in person. I could do that -- and here's a tip to other heavyweights of all kinds who ever contemplate a book -- because he fearlessly let me get to know him (yes, I, too, watched him drop trou on the golf course and pee when nature called), and he had the courage to tell me everything. Want a good book? Do what Bernie did.
He was that way with many. Whether roaming the company floor, chatting with the associates and assistants, or working in his corner office, Bernie’s door was always open, both literally and figuratively, to welcome those who needed encouragement, mentoring, or just wanted to enjoy his company. Bernie was renowned for his ability to connect with everyone who worked there, no matter who they were, and make them feel special and important.
When I moved on to other writing projects, Bernie read everything early. He understood when I did something for the money and made sure to make sure I would also do something for the heart. He made “The Mailroom” possible by inspiring me with his own mailroom stories, making early connections for me to help get it off the ground, and after the success of his memoir, mostly by his unstinting habit of giving me all the credit.
So I dedicated “The Mailroom” to Bernie.
He was also a relentless supporter of my quest to get the Miki Dora story done, even before it had been conceived of as the book, “All For a Few Perfect Waves.” And just because we weren't working together on some project of his during the four years that dream book took, he didn't just fade away, another Hollywood "friendship" as ephemeral as the town we lived in. He'd take me to lunch regularly at the Grill, where I could follow the storyline of his latest diet and health concern. He'd call me every week, if I didn't call him first. "How ya doing, kid? Did you read about NBC not doing pilots this year? Schmucks! That's what we said in the book. How's your son? What college did he get into? Fantastic. When am I going to see you? Anytime you want. Just tell Christina." And the great thing about Bernie was that he didn’t wait for publication to offer his congratulations. Or even for his own chance to read the first draft. The minute I was done writing, he called. Finishing was the important thing. That, and the journey.
Bill Maher once called Bernie “The last of a dying breed; an incredibly successful Broadway Danny Rose.” The New York Times wrote that he “changed the face of show business.”
“When I got my first Emmy,” said long-time client and friend Lorne Michaels, “I thanked a lot of people, and then I thanked Bernie for being the one person who would listen to me when I complained about all the people I had just thanked. Bernie recognized what was fascinating to people. He watched his generation -- which is the Copacabana -- collide with the Blues Brothers. Suddenly these guys were doing cocaine and wearing silk jackets. It was a very turbulent time, and the constant in it has always been Bernie."
The accolades could go on indefinitely and for years they have – including last Monday night, August 11th's memorial at Royce Hall, as reported by Cynthia Littleton. The 1800-seat house was virtually packed with those wishing to give Bernie the tribute he deserved.
I wasn’t there. I’d been long scheduled to be in Hawaii for a friend’s wedding and had tacked on a book signing in Honolulu. The day before I left, Bernie’s wife asked me to write an obituary for the family that they might use. I did it -- even though it was strange not only because he hadn't yet died, but because writing as Bernie was much more fun than writing about Bernie. Then I left. When I landed, I stepped into the sultry Honolulu dusk, switched on the cell phone, and got the news.
Bernie was gone.
I'd visited him in the hospital more than once and my final memory is of Bernie sitting up in bed, hospital gown askew, many pounds thinner and frankly looking very in the pink, white hair and beard in fashionable disarray, thick-rimmed black glasses perched on his nose, giving me a big wave and thumbs up. The last was both a statement about himself, and a question for me. How was I doing? Me? What about him? I squeezed his hand and told him everything was great and that I loved him. His trachea respirator tube made speech impossible, but his huge smile told me everything I needed to know. A great last and lasting image.
Yet there I was, waiting for the airport cab to take me to the hotel, feeling as if I was on the year’s number one mis-timed trip until I realized that Bernie would have said, in his gravely grumble, “Go to Hawaii, kid. Enjoy yourself. I won’t know you’re not there.”
This reminds me of something. In March, 2004, CNN’s Larry King asked Bernie to contribute to his new book, “Remember Me When I’m Gone: The Rich and Famous Write Their Own Epitaphs and Obituaries.”
Bernie asked me to come in and help him put together something. Here’s what we came up with:
“Once I said that when I'm finally gone, at least I know what I want on my gravestone. Once I wanted it to read ‘From 'Hee Haw' to 'Saturday Night Live' to 'Dangerous Liaisons,' but it’s gone far beyond that now. So maybe this: “He made a difference. He made people laugh. He made people happy. People wanted to be with him. Not now though.”
In 2007, Starbucks put the opening epigraph from Bernie’s second book on a run of its coffee cups. It read: “In a world where celebrity equals talent, and where make-believe is called reality, it is most important to have real love, truth and stability in your life.”
Bernie gave me all three, plus trust. He had the courage to tell me everything, and I gave him everything I had in return.
We opened the proposal for "Where Did I Go Right?" with the words, "Bernie Brillstein is larger than life." The void he leaves behind, as well as the memories, are just as large.
As the Los Angeles Times Book Review said in their cover story review about the memoir, "Bernie Brillstein means being more than a guy with a particular set of clients and wives and deals. Bernie Brillstein is a way of being in work. It is rapture in work.”
And even more so, a rapture in life.
Bernie was my mentor, my second father, my friend. I’ll miss him like hell.
But really, like so many others out there who also knew him, I'll mostly think of myself as very, very lucky to have had the chance to miss him at all.
(Photos by Neal Preston)