‘Take Your Violin and Go Back to Vienna!’
Entertainment lawyer Eric Weissmann, of Weissmann Wolff Bergman Coleman Grodin & Evall, on fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, becoming friends with Gene Wilder, and being called ‘a rotten son of a bitch’ by Burt Lancaster
Published in 2011 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2011
Updated on March 10, 2021
To what extent do you represent your clients? Are you an agent, too?
When I have a client, I am in charge of all of his legal matters. But if it’s a matter that’s not an entertainment matter, and it is within the province of what my law firm does, like real estate or corporate matters, then it will be handled by one of the people in my firm. If it’s—God forbid—divorce or personal injury, then I’ll refer it to a specialist at another firm, but since it’s my client I’m in charge and I supervise.
Most of the clients have agents. A few do not have agents, and then I would represent them in making the deals. But my preference is [that they] have an agent.
Who have you represented as an agent?
I’ve represented Gene Wilder [as a lawyer] since 1971 or ’72. After a while, he had no agent and I did everything. But for several years he was the No. 1 actor in the world, so I didn’t have to sell him. And he became my best friend.
How did you two hook up in the first place?
I can tell you. I used to have dinner every once in a while with Mel Brooks. Mel would always bring somebody in addition to his wife, Anne Bancroft. “Can I bring Carl Reiner?” and so on. When I was leaving [as head of worldwide business affairs at] Warner Bros. to go back into the private practice, I tried to see if Mel would become my client, which was stupid because he’d been with the same lawyer forever. He invited Gene. I had never met Gene. [But when I was at Warner Bros.] I hired him for Blazing Saddles.
I went on a one-week vacation between Warner Bros. and my new job, a law firm, and on vacation I got a call from Gene’s business manager, saying, “Gene thought a lot about what you had to say to him at dinner and he decided to become your client.” Well, the truth is during the entire dinner I never looked at Gene or talked to Gene. But Gene did become my client—basically because Mel, sort of the patriarch of the family, ordered him to become my client. He felt we would be a good match. I guess he was right.
How did you become friends?
These things are gradual. We played tennis together, then he met Gilda Radner, I became friends of both of them, and I arranged for their wedding here, their engagement dinner; and then, you know, it just got solidified.
Some lawyers feel it’s important to keep the desk between themselves and the client, so that they have respect from the client. And I feel that to know me is not necessarily to disrespect me.
So what kind of work do you do for your clients?
It ranges from negotiating a literary purchase option deal to negotiating a deal with a financier and a distributor to drafting a contract or reviewing a contract when a client is hired. I don’t do everything myself. In a firm, you have people who help you. And when you get to a certain age you don’t do floors and windows so much.
[Laughs] So what are the floors and windows of entertainment law?
Well, they might be drafting contracts.
So do you do more negotiating then?
Negotiating and advising and counseling and strategizing.
What kind of advice do you give?
I have a situation now where one of [my clients] seems to have gotten angry at one of the other [of my clients]. My advice—and this is kind of tricky—is to settle down. The enemy is not your partner; the enemy is the other side. It’s almost psychiatric advice.
Or, for example, if you’re a producer, and you have a chance to hire two directors, and one of them is talented but difficult to deal with, or he has a tendency to go over budget, and the other one is nice to live with, then I may advise that life is too short and you may want to go with the nicer one.
Your advice is not always correct. It’s a fluid business. But if you’ve been with somebody long enough, and you’ve built up enough brownie points, you can make a mistake. And you’re forgiven.
A lot of your advice seems to relate to calming down.
Some of it, yes. I will tell you an anecdote—I don’t know if it’s fit to print.
I represented a director, John Schlesinger, who is now deceased. And an agent represented a writer, Waldo Salt. And I offered Waldo Salt whatever I felt I could. And the agent was not happy with that. He was a very emotional guy. He said, “You tell John Schlesinger that the only good movie he’s ever done was Midnight Cowboy and he had nothing to do with that; it was all because of the script that Waldo Salt wrote.” And not being satisfied with that, needing to let off more steam, he said, “You take your fucking violin and go back to Vienna where you came from.” Which was highly insulting because I’m not a violinist and I don’t come from Vienna, despite my accent.
So years later, I met this agent, now a producer, at a function—he actually recommended a client to me to negotiate against him—and it was a very protracted and long and difficult negotiation. The client flew in from out of town and we had a signing ceremony at a restaurant. This agent is Sicilian. And I borrowed my secretary’s granddaughter’s violin case and I brought the contracts in the violin case. He was a little aghast at that, because, you know, that’s what gangsters use. But we had a signing ceremony with the violin case.
How long between meetings?
Maybe 10 years.
Did he remember his earlier reference?
So, if not Vienna, where are you from?
I was born in Zurich, Switzerland.
Exactly. But you don’t have to underline that.
Where were you on Sept. 1, 1939? Were you still in Switzerland?
No. My family lived in Austria at the time, and we fled. We could’ve stayed in Switzerland, where we also lived, but Hitler did not share his war plans with us. So we fled to Portugal and you tried to get out and bribe your way to Latin American countries. If you had money you went to Brazil, Argentina or Mexico. If you had less money, you went to Paraguay, Cuba. And the problem is you’d buy your visa and you didn’t know if it was real or forged. So sometimes you’d get to that country and they wouldn’t let you in. But in our case we did get in, to Mexico. And then in 1946 … there was a quota system [in the U.S.]. And because my family was originally from Poland we were in the Polish quarter, which was completely open because the Jews were all killed and the Poles couldn’t get out. So we got in, in three weeks. I’ve been here ever since.
Did you leave Austria after the Anschluss?
Yes. At that time we had an Austrian passport; and when Austria was annexed by Germany, we wound up with a German passport with “Jew” stamped on it. That was not a very good thing to have.
Do you have memories of this? Of the Nazis coming in?
Yes. But my memories wouldn’t do you any good because we were privileged so it was just a question of staying in one first-class hotel or another. So I never suffered from the war. The only thing is: I was never in a country where I spoke the language, so I always had to learn a new language. As a result, I speak every single language with an accent.
How long were you in Portugal?
We were six months in Portugal, and then six years in Mexico.
Where in Mexico?
Mexico City. I went to a school run by refugees from the Spanish Civil War, who were not qualified to be teachers. They were ministers of the government and bank presidents. It was a kind of weird school but I got a very interesting education. We were the same 30 kids for six years, so it’s not like here where your high school is 3,000 kids. It was a very coddled environment. Almost everyone was a refugee from Spain. One person was a Mexican. And then there was me.
Do you remember being frightened at all during this time? Or your parents being frightened?
They were frightened trying to leave Europe, and a little bit of that fright may have been transmitted to me. I don’t remember that very highly. I just remember rooting against the Nazis.
What did your father do?
My father was a doctor. But my father and mother were divorced before I was born or just around that time. I did not know him. And unfortunately he died very young.
A result of the war?
No, no, no. He was in New York. It was a heart attack. He was a doctor but he smoked because people didn’t know you shouldn’t smoke.
Did your mother have an occupation?
No. She was a dilettante.
What drew you to the law?
I can’t tell you I’m going to give you a brilliant answer. At some point I had to do something, and I didn’t like blood so I couldn’t be a doctor, I couldn’t draw so I couldn’t be an architect, and I had no mathematical aptitude so I couldn’t be an engineer. So there’s very little left. But I can say that I’m very, very lucky to have gotten into the entertainment field because it’s so different from the general aspect of law. I remember getting a job at MCA, which was then the largest talent agency, and I remember they had beautiful furniture, beautiful rugs, beautiful antiques, so I said, “That’s for me.” I’m a very superficial person.
What year did you join MCA?
I think ’57.
Did you have any contact with Lew Wasserman?
Yes, I did. But the funniest thing is: I left MCA because they brought in a very talented young lawyer from New York to be the assistant to one of the executives. I figured if they had to get this guy from New York instead of choosing me, there was no future for me there. That was wrong—the job turned out to be not a good job anyway.
So there was an opening at a law firm, Kaplan Livingston, which was the largest entertainment law firm at the time. I was going to be the assistant to the two senior partners; and Lew Wasserman called Leon Kaplan and screamed at him for hiring me. Now bear in mind that I was a three-year-old lawyer, I was nobody, but he was so possessive. And it was a wonderful thing to do because I became Leon Kaplan’s assistant instead of being shared by the other partners. Leon Kaplan was a wonderful, wonderful boss, and it really made my career. So I’m grateful to Lew Wasserman for doing this dumb thing.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
[Pause] I was very lucky to have good bosses. My first boss, the head of the legal department at MCA, whose name was John Findlater, he took me to San Francisco to have lunch with the labor commissioner, because the labor commissioner had a big influence on talent agencies. And he said, “Eric, never take the labor commissioner out to lunch when you need him. Take him a year before.” There’s some wisdom in that.
And applies beyond the labor commissioner.
Yes. This is a very social industry. It’s amazing how many people become your clients through dinner parties.
Do you have an example?
I would say almost all my clients. [Laughs] I make a point of inviting people over and going out. We like people. My wife is very good that way. I feel like I don’t really know someone unless I socialize with them.
In the 1994 book, Dealmaking in the Film and Television Industry, you’re quoted, saying, “In the old days, negotiating was filled with much more histrionics. There was much more ranting and raving and screaming and barring people from the lot …” True?
Yes. You know, studios were owned … by guys. Jack Warner. Now they’re owned by Japanese conglomerates and electric companies. So I think there’s much less tolerance for histrionics. I don’t think there’s that much yelling and screaming like there used to be. Maybe it’s because I’m older and people don’t yell and scream at me so much.
How did you become head of worldwide business affairs for Warner Bros. in the 1970s?
There was a lawyer, Frank Wells, who was negotiating against me, and he was very tough. And I’m not that tough a negotiator. But there was something about him that … pissed me off. And I was horrible.
You were tough.
Yes. And really awful. He became the president at Warner Bros. And [he asked himself], “Who was the meanest, toughest hombre in the West?” It was me. So he hired me. And I wasn’t. It’s not who I am.
I didn’t like it that much. When you work in a company, your fortunes ebb and flow depending on the success of the company, and you may not have anything to do with that. I’m not the one who chose to make The Exorcist, or not to make it, it’s the production people who do that. So your destiny is not in your own hands.
How long were you there?
I read somewhere that you were involved in green-lighting All the President’s Men.
At Warner Bros., there was the question of whether we could do this movie.
In terms of legal issues?
In terms of not irritating the president of the United States. I had one night to read the script, and I said, “No, you’re safe in doing it.” Because I felt Nixon would never sue. Not only did he not sue, but when he published his memoirs, Warner Books published it.
Your advice often involves calming down, yet you got the Warner Bros. job because you got angry. Do you ever give that advice—to get angry?
No. I think the best advice I can give is to be yourself. I had an experience: I was at a very big meeting in the boardroom of MGM—in the good old days when you could have big meetings at MGM—and my receptionist in the firm said, “You can’t go to the meeting with that ratty briefcase that you have.” So I went to my boss, Leon Kaplan, and I borrowed his briefcase, which was a beautiful thing made of the skin of some extinct animal that Yul Brynner had given him with a beautiful combination lock. And in my nervousness, at the meeting I twiddled with the lock and I couldn’t open it. In front of all of these people I was trying to impress. I called Leon Kaplan, his secretary wouldn’t let me talk to him because I wasn’t that important. I said, “This is in the nature of an emergency.” And she said, “What could be an emergency?” and I said, “I can’t open the fucking briefcase!” I decided never to put on airs again.
The other advice, if I can be philosophical, would be: Don’t get too angry. The other guy is just trying to do his or her job.
What did you do after Warner Bros.?
I went to the law firm which I had left. I became the head of the entertainment department.
Why start this firm in 1981?
The Kaplan office was unfortunately unraveling. They lost some clients, lawyers were leaving, and some of the lawyers decided to leave and form their own firm and they asked me to join them.
What was difficult about forming a firm?
Well, first of all, leaving the Kaplan office, because it was a wonderful office. It was a very nervous experience because you didn’t know if you would survive. You borrowed money from the bank, it was maybe enough to last for three months, but you didn’t know if you could go beyond that.
But you brought along clients?
Yes, but when you left you didn’t know who would come with you, you didn’t know how successful they would continue to be, you didn’t know how many new clients you’d get.
Who are some of your biggest clients?
I think with that one, if you don’t mind, I’d rather not. Some don’t want to be mentioned, some do want to be mentioned, some may leave me tomorrow.
I would say pretty much what everyone says: Casablanca. My Fair Lady. A lot of the Burt Lancaster movies.
Did you represent Burt Lancaster?
As a matter of fact, at the Kaplan office he was a client and I did all of his work. But I never met him. He was the one client that I never met—he was Leon Kaplan’s client so I never socialized with him. When I left the Kaplan office, I was at a Cannes Film Festival in a hotel. And in the elevator comes Burt Lancaster. I said, “Mr. Lancaster, forgive me for intruding but I should introduce myself. I’m Eric Weissmann; I used to do your work.” And he says, “You rotten son of a bitch.”
Now Burt Lancaster was a pretty imposing figure and my wife kind of cringes. And he says, “Let me explain. I asked Leon Kaplan, ‘What’s going to happen to me when you retire?’ And Leon says, ‘Don’t worry, Eric does all your work anyway.’ I felt pretty good and then two weeks later you left to go to Warner Bros.”
He was a bigger-than-life person. And a very good, very unrecognized actor.
What’s the perception of Hollywood that people outside Hollywood have that you feel isn’t true?
They think we’re all Jewish. [Laughs]
They think it’s a real cutthroat business, and my experience has been otherwise because it’s still a relatively small business, and if you deal with the same people over and over again you get to know the ones you cannot deal with.
They think all the people in it are crazy and drunk and drug addicts and eccentrics, and that’s not necessarily true. I’ll tell you another anecdote. May I do that?
I represented David Carradine, who’s now deceased, and Warner Bros. was one of our clients. Time Warner owned a magazine, Who, in Australia, which was a cheap version of People magazine, and they published a picture of David Carradine and his then-wife with the caption, “David Carradine and his bride, porno star So-and-So, at the Erotic Film Festival on the Riviera.” Now. The picture was taken at the Cannes Film Festival and the wife was a born-again Christian. Because we represented Warner Bros., I had a conflict of interest and another lawyer had to handle this. There was a settlement and the general counsel of Time Warner said, “Eric, please, forget the conflict [of interest]. Please intercede and try to bring about a settlement.” And the settlement was they would bring him to New York, wine and dine him, and have a very nice article written about him in People magazine, which is much bigger than Who. Plus money. Unfortunately, they didn’t tell the journalist what the rules were. The second article came: “David Carradine, draft dodger, drug addict …”
There are many experiences like that. You never know generally. What seems to happen is I drive to the office, say, “Today’s going to be a peaceful day. I can catch up.” And a bolt of lightning comes in.