How Steven Spielberg Turned the Nicest Guy in Hollywood into a Shark
Bruce Ramer may be the loneliest Republican in America
Published in 2009 Southern California Super Lawyers Magazine — February 2009 on June 10, 2009
Updated on December 16, 2019
"I learned that the ball never lands where you expect it. This helped me in life."
This framed quote by Albert Camus is a treasured objet d'art in the Rodeo Drive office of Bruce Ramer, a former soccer goalie from New Jersey who, lean and fit at 75, still looks ready to take the field at a moment's notice. The senior partner at Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown stands working at his computer, surrounded by careening piles of paper and walls of bold, colorful art. He has to finish something before he's ready to sit and muse about the unexpected trajectory that landed him in Hollywood and gave him access to leading roles on a world stage.
After four decades, his client list is certainly star-studded—Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Robert Zemeckis, Milos Forman—but it wasn't star gazing that brought him here. And while he has been called an "elite deal maker," Ramer hardly confines his performance to tending the rich and famous. As national president of the American Jewish Committee, he testified before Congress on terrorism matters. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and member of the board on the Pacific Council on International Policy. He is the chair of USC's Institute on Entertainment Law and Business, the co-chair of the executive committee of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the founding chair of the Geffen Playhouse, and he has been confirmed by the Senate as a member of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He also prefers galloping up the stairs to taking the elevator.
So what brought him here?
"Serendipity," he says, with an easy grin.
Growing up in the 1940s with an older brother, pharmacist dad and homemaker mom, Ramer never considered pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. He did read a lot, though, and law made an early entrance—and stuck, for reasons he still ponders, since the only lawyer he knew was a distant relative. When he was in the third grade, he wrote a letter to Harvard Law School and asked what he might do to get in.
"Harvard, in their infinite sensitivity and wisdom, sent me a three-inch-thick catalog," he recalls, eyes rolling. "I went anyway."
A self-described journalism junkie, Ramer began laying a foundation in communication long before he got to Harvard. He was paid—not much—by the column inch to write about sports for a local newspaper. He served as associate editor for The Princeton Tiger, a humor magazine. At Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, he wrote a thesis on broadcasting in what was then Czechoslovakia, analyzing the content of Radio Prague and Radio Free Europe. He has long ascribed to Thomas Jefferson's view that if one has to choose between a free press and a strong government, free press is the better choice.
Presumably, he made no study of the National Enquirer. But after finishing law school and completing military service, he did visit Los Angeles and thought it was a great city. A friend alerted him to an opening at a firm that did tax work, but that didn't appeal to him. In that case, might he like working for a little firm in Hollywood? Absolutely.
"Little firms are what I love," Ramer says. So he joined the seven-attorney, 34-year-old firm in 1963—despite the fact that his entertainment background consisted solely of watching movies and listening to music. But he loves to learn.
"We were doing litigation then, and in one of my early cases, I sat in the files at 20th Century Fox for about three weeks, doing discovery. I learned how studios do things and how they don't do things, and how they accomplish their goals," he says. Apart from internalizing such experiences, his education came from on-the-job training and mentors who showed him "patience, forbearance, understanding, and I'd even say love."
"We truly are a unitized practice here—I'd use the word ‘family.' We work together. When I was a pup lawyer and somebody new came in, they'd say, ‘Can you take care of this person?' I was happy to take care of anybody," he says.
One of those early clients was a young unknown named Steven Spielberg, referred by someone Ramer is embarrassed to admit he can't remember. But the chemistry worked—so much so that Spielberg bestowed Bruce's name on the shark in Jaws, a joke that still makes Ramer chuckle. His description of the relationship is succinct: "He came in, we clicked, he stayed. We've had a great, fun time. He was a wonderful guy then, and he's never changed."
But is Ramer, whom California Business Lawyer once named one of the 100 most powerful lawyers in the state, really a shark?
"Only if it's a positive thing to be," he says, a hint of the chuckle still in his eyes. "I think sharks serve their purpose. But it still has a slightly pejorative ring to it, don't you think?" He sinks the shark subject, but he also ducks the question of what makes him outstanding in the eyes of his peers. "I think a lawyer's standing is reflected by his clients and lawyers reflect their clients."
He will, however, describe one of the toughest challenges he has faced in his career: keeping his firm "very, very small" in order to maintain its integrity and high standards and protect its culture and traditions.
"About 15 years ago, our litigation practice was so excellent that we would have had to grow incrementally. It was a hand-wringing, heart-rending decision to abandon that part of our practice—very difficult and very important," he says. He misses certain aspects of litigation—"There's something nice about winning"-but not others, like yielding control of one's life to the court system. He is still in a position to do what he loves best, on his own terms: solve problems and help clients accomplish their goals.
"There are cold lawyers and hot lawyers," Ramer says. "And cold lawyers find it easy to say no. Hot lawyers find a way to accomplish appropriately, and of course legally, what is in the best interest of the client." His firm has hot lawyers—who Ramer says work to find a way to accomplish those goals properly, honorably, and obviously legally, and not to take the easy way out.
Ramer takes neither the easy road nor the well-traveled one. While afloat in a sea of Hollywood liberals, Ramer is a "capital ‘R' Republican" who displays a picture of himself with President George W. Bush on his coffee table. He once was instrumental in the Wednesday Morning Club, a klatch of individuals seeking to open the community to different points of view and who met for discourse and camaraderie. After Sept. 11, he hosted a confab of Bush administration and entertainment industry leaders to see what Hollywood could do to help defend its country.
While his support for presidential candidate John McCain was steadfast, he claims an open mind. "I don't consider myself a fanatic. I'm not a person who is a dyed-in-the-wool partisan," he says. Nor is he a lonely outsider. "I am beginning to sense an opening up of—let's call it ‘Hollywood'—in terms of being willing to listen, discuss and consider. I can't quantify this, nor have I any viable evidence, but I believe that more people are willing to say, ‘Yeah, I'm a moderate Republican' or ‘I'm an independent.' And I think that's good."
A member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and friend of former FBI director Louis Freeh, Ramer has been deeply concerned about terrorism since the early 1990s, long before the twin towers went down. His commitment to community causes so energizes him, he says, that he is much more productive than he might otherwise be.
But he has also discovered that the entertainment industry itself offers a larger window on the world than he might have imagined had someone suggested it back in third grade. It is, after all, media. "Popular culture is a form of communication, and communication is important to all of us. If we don't, won't or can't communicate, then there is no community—there is nothing," he says. "For me, it was kind of a gestalt thing. What didn't attract me, then or now, was its so-called glitz or glamour."
The things that do attract him are several. First, the people: He characterizes those on both sides of the table, not to mention his clients, as "smart, good and wonderful to deal with." Second, a firm he continues to take pride in for its ability to deliver superb service to clients while maintaining its quality, integrity, decency and honor—all principles he holds dear. Third, the final product: creative works that are exported to a grateful world but sometimes underappreciated or even denigrated by fellow Americans. "Nobody else has done it as well as we have," he says.
Last but far from least are the omnipresent challenges inherent in change. From new media to innovative financing to ever-fresh content, facing evolving challenges is what makes him love getting up and going to work every morning. Change is always there, waiting, and "sometimes we even invent it," he says. "With the problems we confront, there is always something going on that makes it different from what we did the last time. This is not a cookie-cutter business."