“Oceans Eleven” producer Jerry Weintraub died on Monday of a heart attack in Santa Barbara. He was 77. His film credits include “Diner,” “The Karate Kid,” “Oh God!,” “Nashville” and “National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation.” He won Emmys for 2014 climate change documentary “Years of Living Dangerously” and Steven Soderbergh’s HBO Liberace biopic, “Behind The Candelabra” and recently pushed forward HBO’s “The Brink,” along with a “Tarzan” remake set for 2016.
Weintraub was one of those larger-than-life Hollywood figures who helped to define the image of what a movie producer is. Well into his 70s he was enjoying a resurgence that began with Soderbergh’s “Oceans” series and continued with Weintraub’s bestselling autobiography “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead” and the entertaining 2011 Doug McGrath HBO doc “His Way
.” “I’m an event guy,” Weintraub told me on the phone
from his Palm Springs desert hideaway. “Billy Friedkin used to call me ‘Presents.’ I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get it done.”
McGrath highlighted Weintraub’s skills as a storyteller by working without a script. He asked everyone he interviewed (80 hours worth) to answer the same questions and tell part of a series of stories. Where Matt Damon left off, Ellen Barkin, Don Cheadle and Andy Garcia picked up, and so on. The doc included the likes of Bruce Willis, James and Scott Caan, Sly Stallone, Elliot Gould, Jeff Garlin, Lee Majors, Joan Collins, Carl Reiner, Larry David, Billy Crystal, Sharon Stone, Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Cindy Crawford, Anne Heche, Universal chief Ron Meyer, CBS’s Les Moonves, ex-Warner Bros. chairmen Bob Daly and Terry Semel, UTA’s Jeremy Zimmer, CAA’s Kevin Huvane, ICM’s Jeff Berg, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Jack Rapke.
Which gives you some sense of the scope of Weintraub’s Hollywood ambitions. Weintraub called his pals to do interviews for the movie, which covered the agent-turned-manager-turned-producer’s 53-year career, moving from his Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn and the Bronx through his early years working for MCA, where at age 22 he was called on the carpet by Lew Wasserman for arguing with his girl friend for three hours on the company’s Wats line–and was rewarded for telling the truth.
“I have tried my whole life and continue to this day to do everything honestly and tell everybody the truth,” Weintraub said. “My family tried hard to live by that credo. I can’t stand lying, or trying to remember what I said.” Admittedly, Weintraub stretches the truth a little when it’s in his interest to wrangle movie stars, for example, by telling them others are on board, as he did when putting together “Oceans Twelve.”
“In the heat of battle, getting arguably the biggest stars in the world to do what I wanted them to do, I was talking a mile a minute,” he said. “Like I knew with Colonel Parker, ‘The Karate Kid,’ ‘Diner’ or ‘Nashville,’ I’m going to be persistent enough to explain to everybody why it’s the right thing to do–and get them to do it.”
When Frank Sinatra was depressed late in his career and wanted a Big Idea, Weintraub off the top of his head concocted what would become The Main Event, a live broadcast from Madison Square Garden. The first time he met Sinatra, in fact, he challenged him by asking him if he planned to show up for every concert. That forthrightness not only landed him Sinatra, but a prompt Sinatra. “I didn’t know it was so important, but when I look back on it, it set the tone for the whole relationship. When we made the deal, our contract was: ‘I’ll never disappoint you, you’ll never disappoint me.'”
Refusing to accept a turndown from Colonel Tom Parker when Weintraub proposed taking Elvis Presley on the road eventually landed him the gig when Parker and Presley were finally ready to tour. “Parker taught me that not everything happened in New York and LA,” said Weintraub. “There’s a big country in between with a lot of people interested in consuming movies, music and food. He taught me how to sell, how to communicate with people different from the people in Brooklyn.” (My fave bit in ‘His Way’ is rare archive footage from the old Timex Show: the only duet between Sinatra and Presley, singing each other’s songs.)
Soderbergh, who directed “Behind the Candelabra” in Las Vegas with Weintraub producing and stars Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, relied on Weintraub’s Las Vegas connections to get the “Oceans” movies made. Soderbergh counseled the producer that if he were going to participate in the documentary, he’d have to open up about his open marriage. Weintraub was happily married to his wife of many years, singer Jane Morgan, and openly lived with a younger woman, producer Susan Ekins, as well. Everyone got along, and the whole family knew about it.
“Once I gave myself up to that concept,” said Weintraub, “I gave my whole self to it and let it go…I haven’t slept with Jane for 26 years but I love her with all my heart. That doesn’t mean I have to get divorced. We got to live another way.”
Looking at what bedevils the movie industry these days, Weintraub blamed technology. “Everything is too fast,” he said. “When I have a movie now and we want to edit something, we change it instantaneously. We don’t think about it. We don’t send the film out, sleep on it, take a look at it in three days. Kids are into instant satisfaction. It all moves so quickly that we don’t have time to make it as good as it can be. Movies are an art form at the end of the day. A lot of our work suffers from the immediacy of delivering our product.”
Although Kerk Kerkorian appointed Weintraub as chairman of United Artists, the stint was short-lived–three months. He then raised and borrowed some $500 million to launch his production company Weintraub Entertainment Group, which went bankrupt three years later. That didn’t stop him from producing movies at the studios, often Warner Bros. He was better off running his own show.
Weintraub explains in the book how he became connected to the mafia, reports that have dogged him ever since he repped Sinatra. “I was not in the mafia,” he insisted, although he once met with the head of the mafia and told him “I do not want to be involved.” It had nothing to do with Sinatra, he said. Back in the 50s and 60s the music business was tied to the mafia. But Weintraub’s supposed ties stemmed from a New York Times report about how he was able to open a Uris Theater event on Broadway with Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie in the midst of a musician union strike. After trying to call every judge and senator he knew, Weintraub sat defeated in the office of the American Federation of Musicians on the afternoon before the show was supposed to open, ready to argue his case that it was a touring show. A woman came out to him and said, “Jerry is that you?” He had known her back in kindergarten. The woman made a call and got him a waiver. And the New York Times reported that the Sinatra show was able to open thanks to “Mr. Weintraub’s mafia connection.”
“It doesn’t matter,” sighed Weintraub. “That’s the legend.”