When Jerry Weintraub Threatened to Break My Kneecap
THR's Kim Masters remembers a producer defined by hits ('Ocean's Eleven,' 'The Karate Kid'), flops ('My Stepmother Is an Alien'), an unconventional love life and temper flares that punctured his charm.
This story first appeared in the July 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
With Jerry Weintraub's unexpected death has come an outpouring of truly heartfelt grief from the collective industry. But some veterans also have raised an eyebrow. "Interesting how he's being portrayed as a lovable saint," one top industry figure texted me.
"Care to elaborate?" I replied.
The answer came instantly: "Nope!"
But I didn't need him to paint a picture. When I was new to the Hollywood beat during the late 1980s, Weintraub was kind of scary and not nearly that popular. A trusted source once told me it was common knowledge in Las Vegas that Weintraub had received $1 million in cash — the sum Colonel Tom Parker demanded in exchange for the opportunity to promote Elvis Presley — from Genovese family member Matthew "Matty the Horse" Ianniello, who died in 2012. I also was told Weintraub personally wrecked the office of Artie Mogull, a now-dead music promoter with his own checkered reputation, for failing to make good on a debt.
"There was the charming Jerry, and then there was the other side," says a producer who worked with Weintraub during the bad old days. "The jovial Jerry was more a phenomenon of his movie career," rather than his days as a music promoter, though this producer adds there was a time during the late '80s when Weintraub launched a troubled public company and the tough guy reigned. (That followed a disastrous five-month tenure working for Kirk Kerkorian as chairman and CEO of United Artists; having been fired, Weintraub walked away with millions.)
Around then, I had my one and only interview with Weintraub. As I pressed him with questions about Weintraub Entertainment Group, of which he controlled 85 percent of the stock, he suggested he might break my kneecap. I would say it was not at all clearly a joke.
In 1989, The Wall Street Journal ran a tough take describing the company as "a debacle" that quickly had burned through $461 million in financing, calling into question Weintraub's "skills in managing a corporate organization, answering to a board of directors and even picking motion pictures that people will pay to see." The article described Weintraub getting into a shoving match over one of WEG's many forgotten bombs (among its most memorable failures was 1988's My Stepmother Is an Alien) with one of his executives, who then quit. And it said many in Hollywood were watching the company "with a certain bloodlust," hoping Weintraub would fail.
The Journal also dared suggest a Liz Smith gossip item alleging drug use by a mogul who "makes lousy movies" and has "friends in high places" — Weintraub was friends with George H.W. Bush — was a reference to Weintraub. "If my name's in there, she's got problems," said Weintraub then. "I do not use drugs." (In a variation, he told the Los Angeles Times that year: "I can't say that I never did drugs, but I'm not saying that I did do drugs. I never did drugs on any kind of a sustained basis or anything like that.") A former associate laughs today about the fact that Weintraub committed himself to help Nancy Reagan with her "Just Say No" campaign while he was saying yes. Says this observer, "He was — situational."
Weintraub and his wife of 50 years, Jane Morgan (at Spago in 1991), separated but never divorced. The producer is survived by four children.
How did Weintraub morph from a shark who had the town rooting against him into a charming rogue mourned by top names in the business? Some longtime associates say they loved him all along for his charm, humor and larger-than-life personality, though some allow that loving him became easier as he mellowed during his later years. Some probably are nostalgic for the days when Hollywood players were that big. These days, who lives as ostentatiously as Weintraub did, chomping cigars and living in a Malibu mansion with life-size stained-glass-window portraits of his wife and himself? (He was depicted talking on the telephone.)
"He was one of the great characters of all time — one of the greatest promoters ever," says an industry veteran who worked as an exec on some of Weintraub's most successful movies. "He was also a really bad guy on a lot of levels. But he could befriend anybody."
Another associate marvels at Weintraub's skills: "He was good at getting George Clooney and Brad Pitt to believe that the way they got Ocean's Eleven done was because of his relationships [in Las Vegas]. The reality is, anybody could have picked up the phone and gotten it done because of their names. He was a great self-promoter and a great promoter." What better proof of that, says the former exec on Weintraub's movies, than the final lines of his obituary, which note that Weintraub was survived by his wife of many years, Jane Morgan, from whom he was separated but never divorced, as well as his "longtime companion," Susan Ekins. "I've never seen that before," says this person. "You've got to hand it to the guy."
Another person who worked for and was close with Weintraub says now that he's gone, "people are only thinking about the good things. … He got away with more than any person could get away with. At the end of the day, people loved him."
Weintraub (right) presented George H.W. and Barbara Bush with a puppy at a 1983 dinner.