Bernie Brillstein dies

August 8, 2008 5:53:11 PM PDT
Bernie Brillstein, a Hollywood talent agent, manager, producer and studio head who over half a century guided the careers of "Saturday Night Live" comedians and helped package a slew of TV and movie hits, has died. He was 77. Brillstein died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Thursday night at a Los Angeles hospital, according to information provided Friday by Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

Starting in the mailroom of the William Morris talent agency in 1956, Brillstein moved up to become a Hollywood power broker famous for putting together TV and movie deals, often starring talent he represented and with himself as executive producer.

Brillstein helped guide the careers of John Belushi and Muppets creator Jim Henson. He also helped bring "Saturday Night Live" and "The Sopranos" to television.

With partner Brad Grey, he founded the influential management and production company Brillstein-Grey Entertainment in 1991, which later was named Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

Among the successful shows he helped bring to TV were the long-running variety show "Hee Haw" and "Alf." He was executive producer on the hit movie "Ghostbusters."

Brash, sharp and rotundly rumpled, Brillstein exemplified the old-school stereotype of an agent rather than the slick, corporate "Jerry Maguire" operator.

"He had a soul that is often missing in the business, which has taken on much more of a corporate tone," said Jon Liebman, chief executive officer of Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

In his 1999 memoir, "Where Did I Go Right? - You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead," he recalled that early on at the William Morris Agency in New York he helped negotiate a Broadway musical deal for an actress - only to find out that she had been dead for four years.

"Now that's classic agenting," he recalled. "We got a dead person a $250-a-week raise. I knew I was in the right business."

Brillstein had a reputation for caring deeply for his clients. Being an agent, he told CNN in 1999, was much more than cutting deals for clients.

"You're a wife. You really are," he said. "You take care of everything and get them ready for the day."

"How do you take an actor or comedian or a writer and point them in the right direction and go through all that garbage unless you love it and love them and think they're talented and worth it?" he said. "It's an amazing experience."

Belushi's 1982 death from a drug overdose hurt Brillstein deeply. So did contentions in Bob Woodward's "Wired" that Belushi's handlers and associates ignored his drug use because he made money for them.

Belushi, Brillstein argued, was out of control and had refused to get treatment.

Born April 26, 1931, in New York, Brillstein was the nephew of successful radio comic Jack Pearl. He studied marketing and advertising in college before taking the mailroom job at William Morris, where he worked his way up the ranks, then left to join another agency and later formed his own management company.

One client in the 1970s was Lorne Michaels, who created "Saturday Night Live." Brillstein helped pitch the idea to NBC and credited Michaels with bringing him many clients from the show, including Belushi, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd.

Brillstein shrewdly used his clients, including comedy writers, in TV shows and movies he helped package - despite the potential conflict of interest in placing a client in a project in which he had a financial interest.

He was listed as an executive producer on several Belushi movies, including "The Blues Brothers."

Brillstein became chief executive officer at Lorimar Film Entertainment in 1986, but lasted just two years because the studio was sold to Warner Bros.

"I put about 20 films in development at Lorimar and ended up making six lousy movies, two good movies and one great movie," he said in his autobiography. The good one was "Dangerous Liaisons," starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

Brillstein worked with Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz in the 1980s but the two had a famous falling-out. Years later, Brillstein would refer to Ovitz in his autobiography as a scorpion and "gangster."

Brillstein, who was married several times, is survived by his wife Carrie; sons Michael Brillstein, David Koskoff and Nick Koskoff; daughters Kate Brillstein and Leigh Brillstein; and a grandson, Alden.