Lois Smith, who died last weekend from complications due to a fall, helped to define modern PR. Back in 1971, she founded, along with Pat Kingsley (who handled Tom Cruise for years), New York’s Pickwick Public Relations, and went on to pursue production at Marble Arch and United Artists before returning to her first love. In 1980, Kingsley’s Pickwick merged with Michael Maslansky and Neil Koenigsberg’s LA press agency Maslansky/Koenigsberg, to become the mighty P/M/K, which ruled Hollywood PR in the 90s under Kingsley, the returned Smith and Leslee Dart.
New York uber-publicist Peggy Siegal (see her tribute below) was nurtured and mentored by Smith, and worked with her at Pickwick, Smith & Siegal and P/M/K before launching her own praisery (as Variety would call it). Smith was a class act with a booming bonhomie who did not stoop to conquer. She was maternal and generous with her knowledge, and protected her clients, who trusted her completely.
“Lois was Mother Earth,” says Kingsley, who cites Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline and Rosie O’Donnell as her closest clients. “She went from being big sister to big Momma. People leaned on that nurturing she supplied. It was special stuff.”
Yes, it’s true: while taking night classes at NYU Cinema Studies grad school, I worked as a publicist at United Artists, M/K and P/M/K, before landing my first journalism gig at Richard Corliss’s Film Comment. (I was envious as hell when Siegal went west for a stint with Steven Spielberg at Amblin Entertainment, but like critic Pauline Kael, who flirted with production at Warren Beatty’s behest at Paramount, Siegal returned to New York in due course.)
While “The Wrap” initially published a photo of actress Lois Smith, reports producer Mike Kaplan (“A Bigger Splash”), he supplied TOH with a few approved shots. “Lois set the standard with her smarts, generosity and professionalism,” he wrote in an email. “Her warmth shines in the second pic (above), which was her favorite. As Sinatra said of Eleanor Powell, ‘We’ll never see her likes again.'”
Boston Herald film columnist Steven Schaefer, who knew Smith well, writes that “although Smith had retired, she continued to be vitally interested in what was going on, not only through her daughter Brooke’s successful career in TV and films but her legacy of lifelong contacts with some of the most important actors of the last 50 years: Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford (he was Brooke’s godfather), Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sean Penn, William Hurt, Martin Scorsese and Whitney Houston, whom she fired when it became apparent that Houston was incapable of being responsible for herself.”
In 1977, Siegal recalls:
“for the entire year I sent my resume to Lois Smith, the actress begging and hounding for a job.
Finally, the actress called me up and said I sounded like a lovely young lady but I have been writing to the wrong Lois Smith. She gave me the other Lois Smith’s phone number.
I called Lois, co-owner of Pickwick Public Relations and told her the story. Lois was so charmed by my perseverance that she instantly hired me. She was my mentor and greatly influenced me with her kindness. She taught me everything I know about actors, directors, the art of promoting films. She knew better than anyone how to coach reluctant actors into doing interesting and insightful interviews.
Lois was best friends with every film critic and sort of “held their hands” as she presented her beloved clients to them. She gave the film makers all the praise and love they so deserved. Talent adored her.
In the summer of 1982 at Pickwick, after I helped on the release campaign of Steven Spielberg’s phenomenon “E.T.” I moved to L.A. to work for the director as one of thirteen assistants.
By September of 1982 my father financed our PR company in New York called Smith and Siegal.
We were known as “Earth Mother and the Hounder”. She was a living legend and I was her hustler.
Our first film was given to us by Larry Kasdan. It was called “The Big Chill”. It opened the New York Film Festival and went on to be a cult classic.
At the time, Lois represented Robert Redford, Kevin Kline, Bill Hurt, Mandy Patinkin, Lisa Minnelli, Bill Murray, Meryl Streep, Robert Altman and Lord Richard Attenborough.
“A Chorus Line” was filmed across the street from our Broadway offices and we were on the set every day watching the difficult transformation of epic theater to film. Lois literally was next to her great friend Attenborough (who at the time was called “Sir Dickie”) encouraging him every step of the way with her devotion.
I worked with Larry Kasdan, Barry Levinson, Brian DePalma, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Amy Irving, Richard Gere and Michael Douglas.
You can say we both represented all those people the day we went into business together. I loved working with her.
The tragedy of her life was the accidental death of her 17-year-old son Scott. He was hit in the head by a surfboard at dawn off Plum Island with his older brother Luke close by. Our entire office went to the funeral and it was like living the horror of “Ordinary People”.
Lois was never the same after that but she continued to mother Hollywood stars. Eventually her daughter Brooke became an actress and that brought great joy to her life.
After about three years together she went back to Pickwick to work with Pat Kingsley. I was distraught and heartbroken but was forever grateful for working with her.
Lois was a guiding angel to everyone who knew her and set a very high bar for every women in entertainment to emulate. She simply was the best.
After her death, Smith’s long-time client Rosie O’Donnell wrote her a poem:
October 7, 2012
when i moved back to new york
in 1996 – with a new born parker in tow
preparing to start a new show
i needed a publicist
i met with only one
a legendary powerhouse
founder of PMK
i walked into her office
looked into her sky blue eyes
and had to catch my breath
she was the spitting image of my nana
we talked for hours
about life and babies and show biz
turns out she lived in the next town
we soon became fast friends
many sundays she would stop by
on her way to salon z at saks
we zip over in her suburau
and scour the sale racks
we had many sunny days on my boat
in the hudson
her husband gene telling us the history of the area
why west point is – where west point is
she loved her clients
with a fierce loyalty
and a huge open heart
that went way beyond show biz
never without her bright red coat
she could be easily spotted in any star studded crowd
she was by my side as i rode the fame roller coaster
holding my hand thru the scary parts
2 weeks ago she called
“ducks” she said – hows the ticker?
she berated me for not coming to visit on plum island
she asked about my kids
she was one of a kind
and her death feels like a dagger
although 85 is a long life
hers was not long enough
returning to the 4 seasons one night in LA
after i hosted the grammys
she opened the limo sun roof
lifted her champange glass and said
“here’s to u world”
she taught me how to live
and how to love
i am not so sure what happens
after we leave the flesh behind
but i hope she is back with marilyn
talking about old times
as nora looks on
lois had so many stories
what a movie that would be
this death thing
is impossible to get used to
i hope my heart can withstand it
sorrow is killing me