Galloway on Film: Why No Hollywood Executive Can Be Called Indispensable

Courtesy of Mark A. Vieira
Louis B. Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg at the premiere of 'Strangers May Kiss' in 1931.

Throughout the film industry's history, top-ranking leaders, from the lengendary Irving Thalberg to Fox's Jim Gianopulos, have been considered irreplaceable — until they're not.

On April 3, 1994, Frank Wells, then president and chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Co., died in a helicopter crash while on a skiing vacation in northeast Nevada.

“The group had been heli-skiing in mountains where expert skiers travel for powdery slopes untouched by other skiers,” reported The Los Angeles Times. “Wells, at 6 feet 4 inches, was an accomplished mountaineer who had climbed the highest peak on every continent, and had reached the summit of each one — except Mt. Everest.”

The executive was on vacation with his son, Kevin, who was not on board. Nor was Clint Eastwood, who had joined Wells for the trip, but “had left to return to his Carmel home an hour before the crash,” according to the Times.

Wells’ death, it has often been noted, was the single most transformative event in the modern history of the entertainment industry.

It led Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to quit and form DreamWorks SKG after being passed over for Wells’ job. It prompted Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner to hire Michael Ovitz away from CAA as Wells’ replacement. And it may also have been a catalyst for Eisner’s decision to have Disney buy ABC TV, proving the old lion could still shake his mane.

No second-ranking executive has ever left the kind of vacuum Wells did.

You might say he was the Indispensable Man.

 * * *

Looking around the media landscape, I wonder if the same could be said of anyone today.

Sure, there are towering figures that dominate their respective corporations — from Robert Iger at Disney to Rupert Murdoch at Fox to Les Moonves at CBS. But have any of them created a structure with a deputy so essential that the edifice would topple without him? I doubt it. In fact, even the most talented subordinates seem vulnerable and ultimately replaceable.

I was thinking about that a couple of weeks ago when I read a well reported piece in The New York Times about Iger’s role in salvaging the recently opened Shanghai Disney Resort.

Headlined How China Won the Keys to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the June 14 story by David Barboza and Brooks Barnes was an account of the Disney chairman and CEO’s personal intervention to get the venture back on track and the complications in doing so.

“Disney had pushed China too hard, putting the company’s plans for a new theme park here in limbo,” the article began. “Now, Robert A. Iger wanted to kick the yearslong negotiations into high gear. Mr. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, took a corporate jet to Shanghai in February 2008 to meet with the city’s new Communist Party boss, Yu Zhengsheng. Over dinner at a state guesthouse, Mr. Iger offered a more conciliatory approach, setting the tone for the next phase of talks. After that, Disney substantially dialed back its demands.”

The Shanghai trip, along with a new attitude toward China, the Times noted, “appeased Chinese officials. Before long, they had struck a landmark deal to build the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort, opening China to a singularly American brand and setting the pace for multinational companies to do business in the country.”

The article was fascinating for revealing the inner workings of Disney and Iger’s impressive ability to cut through China’s red tape.

But it was even more intriguing for a completely different reason: The near-disappearance of Thomas Staggs.

Iger’s deputy (until he was ditched in April) was, after all, the man who ran Disney’s theme park operation for five years, and he clearly had done well enough that in February 2015 he was promoted to chief operating officer, making him Iger’s heir apparent. But now he was missing in action.

Just like those Kremlin insiders who were airbrushed from Communist Party photos, Staggs had been almost entirely cut out of the Chinese part of Disney’s history. In a 4,000-word article, his name was found only once, and even then just to mention that he posed for a photo with Iger.

He had gone from being the Indispensable Man to the Invisible Man.

 * * *

Among the many rumblings that have wafted this reporter’s way in the past few weeks is one to which I’ve paid scant regard: That Peter Rice may abandon his perch as chairman and CEO of the Fox Networks Group and move to Disney as Iger’s chief lieutenant.

There are good reasons why I take that rumor with a super-size pinch of salt, beside the fact that Rice is probably bound by an iron-clad contract. Ever since he followed his father into the News Corp. fold, there’s been gossip that he’s about to leave. One day, you hear he’s going to Paramount, the next to Warner Bros. Any studio on life support appears unable to continue without him.

Clever executives trail a string of tossed-aside opportunities in their wake, subtle reminders to their bosses that somewhere else will always beckon if they’re not treated right. And certainly Rice is one of the cleverer executives.

He’s a master at allowing his superiors to hog the limelight. The English exec is so adept at lying low that he was ranked last in terms of the number of times he appeared in this publication over the past year among those on THR’s recent Power 100 list.

He’s bounded from one job to another, always upward, ever since he started as an intern, with stops at the main 20th Century Fox feature division and Fox Searchlight along the way. In each case, he’s done his job without alienating either Murdoch or his two ambitious fils, Lachlan and James.

But is he indispensable? Not if Fox tradition is anything to go by.

Barry Diller (arguably the most brilliant executive of his generation) was once considered the Indispensable Man after helping Rupert create a fourth television network, but he was gone in 1994 and somehow Fox survived.

Joe Roth looked unassailable when he was running the Fox studio and green-lighting such hits as Home Alone, but he left in 1993 and Fox did OK without him.

Then there was Peter Chernin, the most polished of all the Fox players, who was named president and COO of News Corp. in 1996. When he moved on in 2009, the company’s lights didn’t go out.

All this makes you wonder what would have happened if Wells had lived longer? Would he also be gone, just as his great friend and colleague Eisner would go later, pushed out after a board room coup despite his towering achievements?

Soon Jim Gianopulos is stepping down from his post, to be replaced by Stacey Snider as chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. He’s done a terrific job for more than a decade, managed to be liked as well as respected, delivered hundreds of millions in profits almost every year. He’ll go down as one of the more talented studio executives in recent memory.

But indispensable?

Seriously, folks.

 * * *

Only one executive was ever deemed genuinely indispensable during his lifetime and that was Irving Thalberg.

In September, it will be 80 years since Thalberg’s premature death of heart failure at the age of 37 in 1936. His legend lives on: He’s still the only executive who has an honorary Oscar, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for producing, named after him.

No executive before or since has ever matched his brilliance, nor has any been the subject of a roman-a-clef as dazzling as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, whose hero, Monroe Stahr, is a thinly veiled copy of Thalberg.

“Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads,” Fitzgerald famously wrote. Thalberg was among that half dozen.

A sickly kid (he spent a year in bed with rheumatic fever at age 17), the young Irving got his break when he was introduced to Universal’s Carl Laemmle, known as “uncle” by his employees, a term of affection that isn’t overused today.

Laemmle was so impressed by the young man that he quickly promoted him, and at age 19 Thalberg was shipped from New York to Los Angeles, where he was placed in charge of the studio’s ongoing film productions. He was too young to sign his own contract, says his biographer, Mark A. Vieira (Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince).


Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer in August 1928.

From that point on, Thalberg, married to actress Norma Shearer, was Hollywood’s golden boy, first at Universal and later at MGM, where he ran production under Louis B. Mayer and where his pictures included such classics as The Crowd (1928), The Champ (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), A Night at the Opera (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Camille (1936) and The Good Earth (1937).

“I used to go into his office with the feeling I was addressing a boy,” said actor Lionel Barrymore. “In a moment, I would be the one who felt young and inexperienced. I would feel he was not one, but all the 40 disciples.”

“There are many people like Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith — great directors — who understood the language of film, but couldn’t make a deal to save their souls,” says Vieira. “Thalberg understood everything. He brought the literacy of a learned man to a business where no one read. He understood how to tell a story in pictures. And he said: ‘I have a responsibility to this audience.’ He had a conscience and felt, ‘This is a product, but the product has to have quality.’ ”

And yet not even Thalberg was indispensable.

His success chafed at Mayer, and when the younger executive fell sick, the man who had once considered him a “son” fired him, shocking Hollywood.

“Mayer had a big fight with him in late September 1932,” says Vieira. “Thalberg said, ‘You’re not paying me enough. I’m going to leave.’ And Mayer, who was stunned by an article that appeared in Fortune magazine more or less implying that the success of MGM was Thalberg’s work, was vain and proud and vindictive. When Thalberg had a heart attack, he took advantage of his illness to unseat him. When the coup de grâce was delivered, Thalberg was in the south of France and got a telegram saying, ‘I’ve eliminated your position.’ ”

So did the studio go into its death throes?

Not at all. It continued to flourish under Mayer and did so for a decade or more, delivering such classics as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz and the film Thalberg believed would be a flop, Gone with the Wind — and those are the pictures released in 1939 alone.

It was only many years later that the studio went into decline. And then Mayer, too, was given the boot. It turned out he wasn’t indispensable either.

For more Galloway on Film, please check out the archive.

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