Remembering Jerry Weintraub
This interview with the late Jerry Weintraub ran in the February, 2013 issue of emmy magazine.
Jerry Weintraub's no name-dropper.
But when you've managed tours by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and John Denver; promoted concerts by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Moody Blues; collaborated on Broadway with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Frank Loesser and Jerry Nederlander; made TV specials with the Carpenters, Neil Diamond and Dorothy Hamill; and produced more than a dozen movies, including Nashville, Oh, God!, Diner and The Karate Kid, there's no avoiding some heavy-hitters.
Indeed, Weintraub — with his endless reserves of ambition and moxie, plus a world-class gift of gab — is an impresario and raconteur of legendary repute.
Though he now spends most of his time in Palm Desert, California, some of his best (and best-known) stories involve Las Vegas. It was there, for instance, that Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a man as feared as he was revered, gave Weintraub, then in his 20s, his blessing to take the King on tour — but only if the Bronx-born kid could come up with $1 million overnight. (He did.)
It was in Vegas that Weintraub hobnobbed with Frank, Dino, Sammy and the rest of the Rat Pack while they were filming the 1960 caper flick Oceans 11 — experience he drew upon four decades later when he produced the 2001 version of the film starring a 21st-century Rat Pack led by George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon (followed by two sequels, Oceans 12 and Oceans 13).
And Vegas is where Weintraub first befriended Liberace, the piano virtuoso whose garish stage decor, gaudy wardrobe and grandiloquent keyboard stylings made him one of the brightest stars ever to light up the Strip.
Liberace's flamboyant image led to frequent speculation that he was gay, but he managed to keep his private life private until Scott Thorson — his chauffeur, assistant and lover from 1977 to 1982 — filed a $113 million palimony suit after their relationship ended.
The case was settled out of court in 1986 and Liberace, who continued to deny rumors about his sexuality, died the following year, of complications from AIDS.
Weintraub's acquaintance with Liberace was one of many reasons he was drawn to his latest project, the HBO movie Behind the Candelabra, based on Thorson's 1988 memoir of the same name.
The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Richard LaGravenese and starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson, transcends sexual orientation in its unflinching depiction of an intimate relationship at its most tender and tragic.
For Soderbergh, who directed the three Oceans films, reuniting with Weintraub for Candelabra — which received a rare distinction for a television movie when it was chosen to compete at this year's Cannes Film Festival — "seemed to be a no-brainer," he says.
"Not only because Jerry knew Liberace, but the requirements of getting the film together really fit his skill set. It was going to be an act of will to get it going, and when Jerry decides he's going to do something, it usually gets done."
Originally conceived as a theatrical feature, Candelabra — despite the prodigious talent on both sides of the camera — proved a tough sell when they pitched it to the studios.
Instead, Weintraub approached HBO, which had aired His Way, the 2011 documentary about his life, and 41, the 2012 documentary he produced about former President George H.W. Bush.
"HBO didn't hesitate," Soderbergh says. "When we brought it to them, it seemed like the deal was done in minutes."
Once the project was a go, Weintraub set out to borrow personal memorabilia — including pianos, cars and costumes — from the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. "That's where Jerry really doesn't have many peers," Soderbergh notes. "His ability to walk into a room and talk people into things is exceptional."
Weintraub, who won a Primetime Emmy in 1975 for the variety special An Evening with John Denver, would love to be in the running again with Candelabra, but not because he wants another statue for his mantel.
"I don't do things to get awards," he says. "The reason I'd like to see this one get an award is because I think it's an important subject.
"It's a story that should be told because of everything that's going on now in the gay world. I'm not trying to send a message to people, I'm just trying to educate them a little bit. That people are people no matter who they are, or what their sexual persuasion is."
Persuasion is clearly a word that matters to Weintraub — the title of his 2010 memoir, with a wink at his penchant for prolixity, is When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man. But ask him the secret to his silver tongue, and he demurs.
"There is no secret," he insists. "I never know what I'm going to say before I make a speech. I never know what I'm going to say when I teach, and I teach all the time in colleges. I don't prepare anything. I just talk."
How did Beyond the Candelabra originate?
Steven [Soderbergh] called me and said, "You knew Liberace. Do you want to make a movie about him?" I said, "What's the movie?" He said, "There's a book that his lover Scott Thorson wrote, and Michael Douglas has expressed interest in it."
So I read it, and I called him and said, "Let's do it." After that, I bought the rights.
How well did you know Liberace?
I knew him in the '60s in Las Vegas and Palm Springs and Los Angeles. I used to go watch his show in Vegas. I had Frank Sinatra then, and Elvis Presley. Presley was working in the same place as Liberace at the Hilton. I got to know him, and he was a great host and a good guy and a friend. He opened his home to his friends and had great dinner parties. He was a lovely guy.
Having known him, what do you think of Michael Douglas's performance?
I think Michael did an extraordinary job. I think it's the best thing he's ever done on film. But I think the entire film is brilliant. It was originally planned as a feature, but...
It is a feature. It's a feature all over the world, and it's a feature here. It cost plenty of money, and it's all on the screen. It was just easy to do with HBO. They were great about it. I work with them a lot, and they're very, very good.
What makes HBO different from other companies?
Well, they have a great executive staff. [CEO] Richard Plepler, [president, HBO programming] Michael Lombardo and [COO and president] Eric Kessler — they're fantastic. They're very supportive of what you do, and they're not as intrusive as the studios are. Also, they don't make that many films, so they get very good filmmakers and they leave them alone.
HBO is a Time Warner company, but Warner Bros, passed on the movie for feature release.
No studio wanted it. I took it everywhere. It wasn't just one.
Why do you think they all passed?
I think they were afraid of the subject matter. And they didn't understand what we were doing. They loved the script, but, you know, they're making movies, and if it's not Batman, Superman or Tarzan, they don't like it.
That's ironic when acceptance of gays and lesbians and support for same-sex marriage has increased so much in recent years. It's much different today than when Liberace was alive.
Yeah, there wasn't any such thing as gay marriage — there was no support for that in those days. I did a movie in the '70s called Cruising [starring Al Pacino as a New York cop who goes undercover in Manhattan's gay subculture to catch a serial killer]. I was crucified for it at the time.
And then I was given an award for it 25 years later. So it's a subject matter that people were afraid of. It's a changed world now. But Liberace was a very flamboyant artist, a great pianist and he was way ahead of his time. He was Lady Gaga and Madonna and Elton John before they were born.
But he went to great lengths to conceal his personal life.
Well, he had to, because of the times. It was a time when you didn't come out of the closet. If he had come out of the closet, he wouldn't have had an audience.
When you see video of him today, it seems obvious.
Well, it was obvious — but not to his fans. They didn't think that way in the '50s and '60s. That's not the way their minds went. They didn't think Rock Hudson was gay, either.
In one interview, Steven Soderbergh compared Michael Douglas and Matt Damon to Thelma and Louise — they held hands and jumped off the cliff together.
They went for it, let's put it that way. And as you watch the movie, you forget that it's two men. Because the stuff that they go through, it's the same thing all couples go through. Heterosexual couples, gay couples — whatever. It's the same issues.
You've been a success in this business since the 1950s, but you've also had significant failures. What have you learned from having seen the highs and the lows?
I've learned two things. First, you have to continue doing what you believe in. You can't listen to anybody else. When you have failures, that's just part of life. Second, if you learn something from your failures, then it's okay to have them. If you don't learn anything, then it's not okay to have them.
There's a saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.
I don't mind. I keep my failures. Some of my failures I have liked.
Because of what you took away from them?
Yep. Also, the movies I made. Some of the movies I made that were failures were the projects that taught me things. We're in an art form, so you can't knock it out of the park every time.
A lot has changed a lot since you got your start in show business. Do you have a favorite era or a moment in time that was a highlight?
Well, in the music world, the '60s, the British Invasion, when I brought the Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues and all those acts over here — that was a fascinating time.
And then I did Broadway for a long time, and then I decided to switch over to television, and I started doing music specials on ABC.
And then I went from that to movies, with Robert Altman and Nashville, and I never looked back. I've been in the movie business ever since.
But I'm doing TV now for HBO.
Besides Candelabra, you recently produced another movie for HBO, the documentary 41, about former President George H.W. Bush. Does politics ever enter into your work relationships?
No. I [just did] a big event with [Newark mayor] Cory Booker, who's a Democrat. He's a great friend of mine, who I think is a great politician and a great public servant. And I love George Bush for the same reason.
I knew George Bush before he got into politics, so we have a long history together. I think he's an extraordinary man.
You had a serious health scare a couple of years ago when you had surgery and got an infection.
I had a number of them. I had prostate cancer 10 years ago. Then I had back surgery. When I was in the hospital I got a staph infection and almost died. In fact, they said goodbye to me. And then I came out of that, and last year I got a new knee. I got another back operation. But I'm okay now. I'm playing golf, and I'm working out and I'm happy. I came through it.
When you were hospitalized, didn't you have a vision or some kind of transformative experience?
Not when I was hospitalized, when I was at home and they told me that they couldn't help me anymore with the infection. They couldn't get rid of it. It was killing me. It was eating up my body.
The rabbi came to my house, and he was standing at the window and he was praying and he was screaming, "God, you can't have him! We need him here! You can't have him yet!" My family was all there.
I finally gave in to it. I said, "Okay, I'm going to die." So they gave me drugs, and I laid my head down on a pillow, and I floated out the window. And I saw that light, you know what everybody talks about?
The next thing I knew, I woke up, and everybody said, "Hi, Dad." And I was okay. I got better right away.
There's no doctor that knows everything. There's a thing called God. He decides who lives and who dies. But I'm not afraid to die anymore. I don't want to die — I like it here, I have a good life — but if I did die, I could handle it. You know, I've had a good run. But I'm not ready yet. I want to make a couple of more birdies.
So that's what you're doing down in the desert?
Exactly. I'm trying to make the birdies.