Weintraub Talks His Way: from Presley, Sinatra, the Mafia and Soderbergh to His Two Women

by Anne Thompson
April 4, 2011 7:15 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
Jerry Weintraub is one of those larger-than-life Hollywood figures who helped to define the image of what a movie producer is. At age 73 he 's enjoying a resurgence of sorts that began with Steven Soderbergh's Oceans Eleven series and continued with his autobiography When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead (back on top of paperback bestseller lists) and now, the entertaining Doug McGrath TV doc His Way, which debuts on HBO April 4.

Thompson on Hollywood

McGrath highlights 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 leaves off, Ellen Barkin, Don Cheadle and Andy Garcia pick up, and so on. It works. Those Oceans stars showed up last week to HBO's star-studded premiere on the Paramount lot, wrangled of course by Weintraub. "I'm an event guy," says Weintraub. "Billy Friedkin used to call me 'Presents.' I'm not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get it done, as I have for the past six weeks, day and night." Weintraub has been talking up his book and doc to the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Don Imus, CNN News, Piers Morgan, GMA and MSNBC.

Doc producer and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter also helped to lure 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 Boniventura and Jack Rapke.

Weinstraub also called his pals to do interviews for the movie, which covers the agent-turned-manager-turned-producer's 53-year career, moving from Weintraub's 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 says. "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 says. "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," says 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 of rare archive footage is from the old Timex Show: the only duet between Sinatra and Presley, singing each others' songs.)

Soderbergh, who is prepping Weintraub's Liberace with Damon, Michael Douglas, relied on Weintraub's Las Vegas connections to get the Oceans movies made, counseled him that if he were going to participate in the documentary, he'd have to open up about his open marriage. Weintraub is happily married to his wife of many years, singer Jane Morgan, and openly lives with a younger woman, producer Susan Ekins, as well. Everyone gets along, and the whole family knows about it. "Once I gave myself up to that concept," says 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."

One thing the movie does not dig into (the book does) is Weintraub's supposed mafia connections, which have dogged him ever since he repped Sinatra. "I was not in the mafia," he insists, 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 says. 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 Basey 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," sighs Weintraub. "That's the legend."

Looking at what bedevils the movie industry today, Weintraub blames technology. "Everything is too fast," he says on the phone from his desert hideaway in Palm Springs, where he can think. "When I have a movie now 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 lot at it in three days. Kids are into being 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."

Coming up: comedy Matt Helm at Paramount with Jennifer Aniston and Chelsea Handler and four other women, 40 Summers Ago, about Steve McQueen's stuntman Bud Ekins, father of his partner Susan, and a revamp of Tarzan at Warner Bros., he says: "We're hiring a writer."

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