A huge crowd of Hollywood players came out to Royce Hall at UCLA to pay their respects to manager-producer Bernie Brillstein. Organized by Bernie’s former partner, Brad Grey, and client, Lorne Michaels, the service played out more like a cross between a roast and an off-color variety show than a memorial, and you get the sense Bernie wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Hosted by Martin Short, one of Bernie’s clients, the night progressed smoothly with a litany of clients and collegues there to reminisce about arguably one of the most powerful and beloved managers in the business. Speakers ranged from some of Bernie’s oldest clients, Norm Crosby and Jack Burns, to Saturday Night Live veterans like Jon Lovitz, David Spade, writer-producer Alan Zweibel, to actors like Jennifer Aniston and Rob Lowe, whose career Bernie was instrumental in reviving.
Lovitz brought down the house, referring to Bernie as “Santa Claus” who had that little elf following him around. “And by elf, I mean Brad Grey.” Comedian Bill Mahr boasted that he had a frequent comparison to Bernie as a father figure…a father who took off when he was four…who owes him money…and complains about the size of the condo he bought him (referring, of course, to his own father).
On the business side, his partner, Brad Grey, had fond words and recollections about his mentor, as did Sandy Wernick, as well as former entertainment titan, Jerry Weintraub. As the night wore on, Dan Ackroyd and Jim Belushi performed, while Kermit the Frog wrapped the show with his trademark “Rainbow Connection.”
I had the incredible fortune of starting my career working at the Brillstein Company back in 1988. For an aspiring comedy writer, this was a dream gig. I was 23 years old in the hub of the biggest comedy management firm in town… and Bernie was like the Wizard of Oz. His personality was larger than life — often loud and uproarious but, at the same time, incredibly approachable. After spending just over a year working at ICM, the norm was to have agents treat assistants more like inferiors. This was the opposite of Bernie; when you were in his company, you felt just as important as Spielberg. In some ways, I think he actually enjoyed the company of the assistants even more, as there was an honesty and innocence instead of the jadedness and insecurity you may find with celebrities.
At the time, the office consisted of a half-dozen managers and their assistants — in a way, a big family. Bernie made sure we all got to come to the staff meetings where Bernie would hold court as the other managers would exchange updates about their clients. Once, a manager spoke up and started into a rant about a client who was trying to dissuade the company from signing a certain individual. Bernie was quick to nip the discussion immediately.
“Wait a minute. You’re actually going to take advice from a client? They’re idiots.”
A smirk came across Brad’s face, sitting across from his partner, as he turned to him, “Our clients are idiots?”
Bernie nodded, “Of course they’re idiots…if they’re giving us 15% of their salary!”
The conference room erupted in laughter. Only Bernie could actually make a joke at the expense of his entire profession and get away with it.
Of course, his clients were anything but idiots. Bernie was formative in carving out the careers of the likes of Jim Henson, Lorne Michaels, and countless stars of Saturday Night Live.
He was first and foremost a consummate facilitator. As a bored assistant, I would often entertain the other assistants with mock articles and sketches I would dream up at my desk. Once, Bernie got ahold of one and came over to my desk and said, “Kid, this is really funny. You should try submitting it to Spy Magazine.”
He told me to call the editor with his recommendation. I did…and miraculously, within two weeks, got my first article published. That lead to writing jokes for Dennis Miller on “Weekend Update,” which started my writing career. I have Bernie to thank for that — a mere assistant within his company who should have been nothing but a blip on his radar.
With only a dozen or so employees at the time, the company had a tradition of celebrating birthdays in the conference room. Even the receptionist would have Bernie, Brad, and each manager gather round to sing “Happy Birthday.”
It was April 26, 1989 — Bernie’s birthday — as all the assistants peeled out at lunch to try to find a token gift to give the boss for the celebration at the end of the day. It turns out this date had another significant meaning — the morning of, Lucille Ball died at Cedars Sinai while recovering from heart surgery. Truly a comedy icon if there ever was one, I decided to make a quick trip over to Cedars and pick up a piece of stationary.
At six o’clock, we all gathered around to sing Bernie “Happy Birthday” and share some cake. One by one, he opened his gifts, finally coming across mine. With my heart beating a mile a minute, I waited as he opened it to find a picture frame containing a letter with the inscription: Dear Bernie, Happy Birthday. Love, Lucy. The ink signature was frail and feeble — and, at one point, trailed off the page, suggesting it was the last thing Lucy signed before expiring.
Bernie looked up at me and let out the biggest laugh. “You’re sick, kid! I love it.” I guess he truly did, as I discovered when talking to his assistant. He kept that framed “autograph” after all these years…
Twenty years later, I looked around the room at Royce Hall to see faces I hadn’t seen in a long time. A virtual class reunion, I was surprised to see many of the faces of former assistants — some who had flown in just to be there. A ‘blip’ on the radar, I’m sure that meant more to Bernie than industry types who came for the networking potential.
As I talked to people after the service, the one common denominator about Bernie you simply could not deny was the man was an original. Fearless, charismatic, confident and, beyond anything, loyal. At a time where agents drop clients quicker than Verizon drops calls, Bernie was the opposite. If you stuck by him, he’d stick by you — period. They don’t make them like that anymore… which is perhaps the saddest commentary on Bernie’s passing.
At one point during the service, I went to the restroom to find a young successful manager-producer, who oddly started his career with me as an assistant at ICM. I walked in to find him standing at the urinal making a joke about how long the service was going on. With a few polite chuckles from the people beside him, I thought of Bernie and mustered the courage to say, “Well, at least you won’t have to worry about filling Royce Hall when you die. They could hold the service in a phone booth.”
And in the back of my head, I heard the biggest laugh ever. “Good one, kid!”