"Reading this juicy oral history is a lot like going to work in the
mailroom of William Morris, CAA, or any of the other talent
agencies whose veterans speak here with exceeding frankness
about their experiences in the entertainment industry's
trenches. Rensin, who honed his ability to tell a story in
someone else's voice as co-author of memoirs by Tim Allen,
Chris Rock, and a host of other celebrities, skillfully weaves
together dozens of first-person narratives in a deceptively
casual structure that justifies the book's subtitle. This is indeed
Hollywood history, more specifically a cogent account of how
talent agencies have evolved since Morris was ruled by
executives in size 36-short suits. Rensin's clever use of
personal memories as mosaic pieces, arranged in patterns to
form an industry-wide portrait, is history for grown-ups:
entertaining, instructive, and irresistible."
PRAISE FOR THE MAILROOM
"THE MAILROOM is a terrific book. Loaded with great stories,
unusual insights, and laugh-out-loud humor. You will love this
"Coming from the William Morris mailroom as I have, this book
is the truth of what I experienced, and it reminded me of all the
fun and craziness and fake drama that trained me for this
profession. It's hilarious, a bit crazy, and it should make anyone
wonder why people put their careers in the hands of these
idiots…and remember I'm one of them. If you have a child,
make sure he or she reads this before starting at the bottom—
--BERNIE BRILLSTEIN, William Morris Agency 1955, manager,
producer, founding partner of Brillstein-Grey
"THE MAILROOM is a blast to read. This is the way Hollywood
operates—the fun, the giddy high, the espionage and the
wrenching twists of luck and disaster. David Rensin is a master
at eliciting the truth nobody else captures."
--CAMERON CROWE, director, author
"A worthy successor to Studs Terkel, Rensin delivers not only a
riveting history of one of the most powerful springboards in
Hollywood but a must-read for anyone with grand ambitions.
--CATHERINE CRIER, former judge, author of The Case
"Here is the quintessential Hollywood Roshomon, boldly baring
all that is ugly and romantic and instructive about the universal
ambitious human life form. Here, too, are the show-business
stories only the most privileged and powerful love to privately
share, and share alike. David Rensin has impossibly and
heroically channeled Studs Terkel and Harold Robbins all at
once. This is a pinball machine clanging secret truths that
move and careen as brashly as the movers who blurt their guts
onto every shockingly entertaining page.And the best part is
that we learn that people who are now very, very rich were
forced to do very, very humiliating things to achieve such.
What a refreshing equalizer for all of us."
--BILL ZEHME, Esquire magazine, author of The Way You
Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Livin' and Lost in
the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman
|LA TIMES BOOK REVIEW
JULY 27, 2003
Scramble of the underlings
The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up, David
Rensin, Ballantine Books: 440 pp., $24.95
By David Freeman, David Freeman is a screenwriter and author
of "A Hollywood Education," "One of Us" and "It's All True,"
which will be published in March.
THE mailroom at the William Morris Agency is famous as a boot
camp for nascent hustlers. Stories of shenanigans there and at
other agencies have long been known to people in the movie
business, passed around and kept close. Now that agents
themselves are celebrities, it's probably inevitable that David
Rensin's "The Mailroom" should appear. Compiled in the
manner of oral histories, it's a collection of agency war stories.
Wide interest in such an undertaking is assumed here, probably
because Hollywood movies have become so mind-numbingly
predictable that the weekly grosses have more drama. As a
result, the public has developed a taste for the personalities on
the business side. Michael Eisner's corporate troubles are more
say, Ashton Kutcher's movies.
I wouldn't be surprised if some punter started selling Agent &
Executive cards, a version of the baseball cards that come with
bubble gum. I'll trade you a Jeff Katzenberg and a Barry Diller
for your out-of-print Mike Ovitz.
Being a "trainee" in the mailroom is an opportunity to work
astonishingly long hours, racing from Pasadena to Malibu
delivering scripts and checks or pulling a mail cart through the
offices of a big agency. All this is endured with little pay in the
hope of "getting on a desk," which means answering phones
and, crucially, being allowed to listen silently to conversations
with clients and buyers and run endless menial errands.
Trainees half expect some drill sergeant agent, angry that his
diet soda has four ice cubes instead of three, to shout, "OK,
Missy, drop down and give me 50 push-ups." Rensin tells how
one trainee had to take an agent's stool sample to the doctor,
another had to get ice to Johnny Carson when he was traveling
on the Nile. Agents live by a code: Never say no to the talent.
Consequently, they tend to be very
demanding of their own servants.
Trainees revel in cheating and tricking their employers. One
example among many Rensin cites: Manager and producer
Marty Adelstein, a trainee at William Morris in 1983, tells how
Steve Rabineau, now a prominent agent, taught him the ropes.
He took me to pick up deli for meetings. He explained how to
doctor the invoices. If you bought three quarts of tuna fish,
you'd change it to five and take two home." Longtime manager
Jeff Wald, a trainee in 1965, explains how he supplemented his
salary: "I sold grass in the mailroom on the side." These former
junior miscreants are now cavalier about dated gossip of their
personal celebrity encounters. It's enough to make a fellow
mistrustful of agents.
There's a fabulous sense of self-importance about all this.
"Working for Stan Kamen (a William Morris grandee of the past)
was like clerking for a Supreme Court Justice," says an
unnamed producer. Kamen was a very good agent, but he was
rarely confused with, say, Justice Brandeis.
The most famous mailroom story of all is about David Geffen, a
William Morris trainee in 1964. Geffen tells Rensin he got the
job by lying about having a college degree, which by then was
required. When it was about to catch up with him, he had UCLA
stationery made and sent a letter to the agency declaring
himself a graduate. Perhaps reflecting on that long-ago
misdeed, Geffen says, "I don't think the rules of ambition have
changed. If you want to succeed, you'd better not care too much
what other people think about what you're doing."
There are few examples of probity, yet Sam Haskell, the head of
television at William Morris, gives this counsel to trainees: "Your
primary power is your character and your integrity." In this book,
at least, Haskell is out there alone. An instructive story comes
from Barry Diller, a trainee at William Morris in 1961. "My great
strategy was to take what was seen as the worst job in the
building — photocopying I'd collect things to copy, along with as
much of the file room as I could carry, and hole myself up
reading through the history of the entertainment business as
seen through every deal, every development, every contract I
read their entire file room."
One assumes that in his youth, Diller got up to at least the
occasional mischief, but now that he's in his 60s, he has the
sense to leave those tales to others. Even if he hasn't told the
whole truth here, Diller's famous focus must have been
apparent 40-odd years ago.
(A note of disclosure: I know many of the people in this book.
Several have represented me, I've worked for some and been in
business with still others.)
The editorial voice in this history is in the selection of quotes.
There's no scene-setting or description. It's all in the spiels,
arranged to suggest a conversation — as if groups of speakers
were in a room recalling the past. Because the only
characterization is in the dialogue, most voices seem
disembodied and often similar. Rensin, who has written other
books, including "Where Did I Go Right" with Bernie Brillstein, is
enterprising and industrious,
but the result this time can feel archival.
Still, patterns emerge, and Rensin gives a sense of the
business over the last 50 years from the POV of the mailroom.
Over and over, nepotism helped smooth
the way and open doors.
Everyone seemed to be somebody's nephew. In recent years,
the Brooklyn-white guy bias has given way to a wider world of
women, minorities and others who don't seem born into show
business. Many have been to fancy colleges.
The ones who went to Harvard mention it frequently.
Just as I was growing weary of prideful tales of half-baked
banditry, Rick Jaffa, who was in the William Morris mailroom in
1982, tells a beguiling story of driving Abe Lastfogel, a
legendary figure in the agency business for 70 years and who
began as an office boy for William Morris himself. The regular
driver was unavailable and young Rick was recruited to take the
elfin Mr. Lastfogel in his big black Cadillac to a movie in
Westwood, to stay with him and, above all, not to let him eat
candy. Rensin gives Jaffa all the space he needs to tell the
story, which is believable (well, maybe tweaked a little). While
Jaffa was parking that Cadillac, Lastfogel got hold of a "Nestle's
Crunch bar the size of a Chihuahua," and the resulting mess
was bound to cause trouble for his earnest young driver. The
story of driving Lastfogel and cleaning him up would make a
small movie in itself. As for Jaffa, he's out of the agency
business. He's a screenwriter now.
|Rensin captures the ambition, manipulative plotting and hustler
mentality in this series of raunchy, realistic interviews, making
(the book) an uncompromisingly truthful tell-all of what it takes
to make it in the movie biz. The stories are amusing, intriguing
and sometimes horrifying, but Rensin, to his credit, never
dilutes sordid details."
-- PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY
"An oral history of a crucial Tinseltown tradition, related by
some folks who make Machiavelli look like a pussycat ... The
talk is fast and frank ... Edgy, frenetic, and entertaining reports
from the room that launched a thousand deals."
-- KIRKUS REVIEWS