March 2011

Q+LA Jerry Weintraub

When it comes to delivering groundbreaking entertainment, this Hollywood icon did it first...and he did it best  by Nancie Clare


Jerry Weintraub is one happy guy. Of course, being a rich and famous Hollywood producer and music impresario isn’t always a guarantee of that blessed state, but in Weintraub’s case, it’s a fact. He and longtime girlfriend Susie Ekins (his wife, Jane Morgan, lives in Malibu, but that’s a whole other story) live in the foothills above Palm Desert as much as possible, along with his German Shepherd, Sunny, who turned 14 on Valentine’s Day. Their home has a phenomenal view of mountains and desert and impossibly blue sky that goes on forever. He’s on top of the world and very comfortable being there...which makes his answer of “heights” to the question “What makes you nervous?” rather ironic.

As we sit on a deck that extends seamlessly from the living room, Weintraub makes a sweeping gesture toward the panorama: “I’m a hermit,” he says. “One of the reasons I’m here and not there [Beverly Hills] is because I can get two hours here when I can get into the pool or out on the golf course—or take a walk—when nobody’s driving me nuts. Because I don’t know how not to answer the phone.”

These days, the words legendary and iconic are thrown around like air kisses at a charity fundraiser. Seventeen-year-olds with fabulous hair are legends; winners of reality-show dance contests are icons. A “legend” is a story that is bigger than life. It needs time to develop; its tales need telling to build momentum and enhance the drama. Weintraub understands legends: Before becoming one himself, he worked with some of the 20th century’s biggest. He’s not shy about having his reputation precede him, so if what you hear intimidates, well, that works for him.

If you’ve consumed any media over the past 40-plus years, you’ve sampled part of Weintraub’s oeuvre. He promoted Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Frank Sinatra...(The title of an HBO documentary on Weintraub—His Way—which premieres on April 4, is a nod to his Chairman of the Board connection.) After moving into Hollywood, he produced, among other films, Nashville, Diner and Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen. He doesn’t have a degree in film from USC or NYU, nor an MBA from Harvard or Wharton. As a matter of fact, you won’t find any Latin-inscribed sheepskins among the gold records on his walls: Weintraub did not go to college.

He learned the business through on-the-job training—and he could extrapolate. He divined how movies should be structured by touring with Ol’ Blue Eyes; from his stint with Elvis, he discovered that even the world’s greatest script won’t work if the players refuse to learn the lines; from the first President Bush, he gleaned that it was important to respect the office but be friends with the man. “I was privileged enough to be around the kinds of artists who could [move] an audience,” he says. “I didn’t invent it. I was lucky enough to have those kinds of teachers.”

At 73, you might think Weintraub is content to reflect on his glory days. Don’t. The creative juices are still flowing: “I get ideas every day. Things I want to do, I go do ’em. Now I’m in a situation where I can do what I want, but even when I wasn’t in that situation, I still did ’em.”

Tell me specifically what you learned from Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra was a great, great artist—and a great friend. He knew how to phrase and tell a story better than anyone I ever met. And he could take a live audience for an hour and 15 minutes and make them smile and laugh and cry. When we did The Main Event at Madison Square Garden, he said, “I’m going to sit on a stool for 12 minutes and sing bar songs, cabaret songs, saloon songs.” And I said, “Frank, don’t do that. You’re in the middle of Madison Square Garden. You have 20-some-thousand people around you. The place is going to be rocking and rolling, I’ve got the Monday Night Football crew filming to get that live feeling. You don’t want to stop this show by sitting on a stool.” He just said, “Listen, don’t you go back in the dressing room and drink vodka while I’m singing—I want you to see what I do during those 12 minutes.” And he sat on the stool, took out a cigarette and sang “Three O’Clock in the Morning.” You could hear a pin drop, and then he came right back at ’em and took ’em to the sky like a jet plane. That’s what I do. And I got it from him.

Of the holy trinity—Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles—you worked with two. If you had worked with the Beatles, would they have stayed together?
No. There was a moment in musical history when bands started to become businesses and lose their creativity. I’m not saying the Beatles lost theirs, because they didn’t, but bands started to worry more about the record label: How much are we going to make on this tour? Do we buy a plane? At that time in the business, they were making so much money, but I think [musicians] kinda got lost.

In retrospect, taking music stars into stadiums and sports venues like Madison Square Garden was revolutionary. Did you think that at the time?
There were no rules—we were inventing everything as we went. And everything was new. Every night was something no one had ever done. I think about taking Led Zeppelin into Madison Square Garden [in 1973] and John Bonham stealing my suit, coming out, putting my jacket on, ripping the sleeves off and playing drums and Robert Plant screaming. It was all new. For them, too—they were kids. Here they are onstage with 25,000 people screaming for them. And all the craziness that was going on with the drugs and sex. Why do the entertainment industries—both music and film— have such a conflicted relationship with emerging technology? The thing wrong with today’s communication—and by that I mean machines and computers—doing whatever art is, is we don’t have time to think. And that’s a worrisome thing, because I don’t think our work in film and TV is as good as it was. We need time to censor ourselves, to think about what we are doing. Now everyone wants immediate satisfaction—we have premature ejaculation about everything. But if you ask Spielberg the same question—Lucas, too— they’d answer it differently. They love it [technology].

What is great entertainment?
When you look at my Ocean’s trilogy, it’s about relationships. There’s some depth, too. Even though it’s superficial on a certain level—the robbery is pretty funny—it’s still about people. I am only interested in character pieces. I’m not a guy who wants to go out and make Batman. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to own it! ’Cause I would.

Do you think that had the music industry been a little more visionary, it might be controlling the way music is consumed now—instead of Apple?
I don’t think so. The people who ran the music industry when I was growing up were marketing people and salespeople. We weren’t creative that way. It’s all personal. I just think you were dealing with two villages, two tribes that didn’t understand each other...and the head of this tribe and the head of that tribe think differently.

How was it to be on the other side of the camera for His Way?
A movie about me—that was scary. But I didn’t have to worry about how much it cost. I just had to show up, look pretty and talk. I’ve acted before, so being in front of the camera doesn’t bother me. Doug McGrath, who directed it, did a very interesting thing. He interviewed the people in the movie and asked them all the same questions. Then he went into the editing room, and one person [would] start the story and then they’d go to the next person—but it was the same story! That’s what’s so great. Now if I were a bulls--t artist and my life was a lie, it wouldn’t match up. What was frightening for me was making the decision to do it or not do it. Books are one thing, because not a lot of people read, but when you put yourself out there and you tell your story on film, there will be millions and millions of people who see the movie. And it’s gonna be there forever.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask one George Clooney–related question, so here it is: How many women have asked for Clooney’s phone number or email?

Everybody—really? Have you ever given it out?
No. Women will come up and ask, “Can I meet, can I meet, can I meet?” Not just Clooney and Pitt and Damon but all the actors. And men will ask about Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Is the secret to success hidden in your book, When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead?
One of the biggest lessons in the book is that I never heard the word no. When I got that word, I heard maybe. And when I heard maybe, I got it to yes. So that’s the biggest reason for my success. I’m basically a very nice guy who was brought up the right way...whose father insisted he help other people, whose mother insisted he help other people...and who gets more joy out of giving than getting. And who thanks God every day that I am on the giving end and not the getting end. But when someone pissed me off, I told them to f--k off. I wasn’t just nice to everyone.