Tribeca: 'Supermensch' Shep Gordon Talks Maui Parties, Rap Music and Advice for Today's Managers
Shep Gordon is a man who got punched by Janis Joplin while she was making love to Jimi Hendrix, shared custody of his cat with neighbor Cary Grant and smoked pot many times with Willie Nelson – just a few of the compiled stories that make up the documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Mike Myers’ directorial debut that zooms in on the veteran music manager who also launched one of the first independent film companies and the category of the celebrity chef. His diverse career includes paying back “coupons” that kept Groucho Marx afloat, using “guilt by association” to make Anne Murray notable, and trying everything from bloody chickens to money swords to make Alice Cooper hated by parents and loved by everyone else.
“I think the more I would’ve known, the more scared I would’ve been to make the journey -- not knowing was a huge advantage, for what I ended up doing,” Gordon told The Hollywood Reporter of his career, upon arriving at New York City’s SVA Theatre on Saturday for the Tribeca Film Festival screening of Supermensch, adding that “it’s bizarre” how the cameras are focused on him for once. For those stepping into the manager role today, he advised, “Don’t chase fame for the sake of fame. Work really hard, and if you get famous from how well you do your craft, it’s a burden that’s worth taking on. But if all you care about is fame, then you’ll destroy it.”
Gordon noted that of all his famous friends’ segments in Supermensch, he found Steven Tyler and Tom Arnold the most hysterical. Longtime friend Michael Douglas told THR of Gordon, “He has a joie de vivre that’s nice to see, and he’s an unbelievable cook – I mean, he dreams about food most all the time,” adding that he prefers Gordon’s pastas and fish dishes most. “You’re not born a mensch, you’re made one. He wasn’t always like that, so at some point in his life, certain things happened and he succeeded. He has lived a very good life, and one a lot of us should aspire to.”
Mike Myers introduced his directorial debut quickly, telling the audience that he had to return home (around the corner) to help care for his newborn. “For twenty years, I have begged him, ‘Please let me do a movie on you, you are so fascinating, the nicest guy in the world and an inspiration,’” he told the audience. “I loved him before having made this film, and I love him even more now, and he just continues to inspire me and teach me, and he’s just—you’ll see.” He closed by saying, “It’s a labor of love, and about loving somebody and wanting their story to be told.”
Douglas moderated a post-screening Q&A with Gordon, who greeted the audience with a carefree ‘aloha.’ Douglas said, “Mike really caught Shep, warts and all,” before first asking what the Yiddish word “mensch” means to the veteran manager.
“Growing up in a Jewish community, the word wasn’t used often,” said Gordon, whose father was often associated with the term. “I got a letter from Norman Lear, and he called me a mensch, and it’s one of the highest moments of my life! … [My father] was very gentle, always kind to everyone, compassionate, put other people before him. I think a mensch walks into a room and has an awareness of where there’s need, and plays into that. If someone is sick, you bring them chicken soup.”
Gordon said that the film triggered “a wide range of emotions” for him: while he was humbled by all of the kind commentary, it was tough for him to talk about his mother, and awkward to discuss the value of his Maui home. He also clarified, “It’s Mike’s story of me – and it’s sort of a love story, so none of the blemishes are really there,” noting that he had a card added at the end for his early manager partner Joe Greenberg and that Douglas was the key Hollywood boldface in launching the celebrity chef category, after Gordon fell in love with cooking due to a meal from Roger Verge. “One of the things I wanted to mention tonight is in this movie, I get credit for everything, but everything I get credit for was part of a team effort.”
Gordon offered commentary on the film’s opening timeline, which showed how he stumbled into management positions. “In those days, the entertainment business had two categories: the entertainers, and the Jewish hierarchy!” Of his strategy for his first and last-remaining client, Alice Cooper, he said, “I knew that if I could get parents to hate them, people would love them … I tried to think, what would really disgust my parents? So, here comes the chicken!”
Of all the music acts he managed -- also including Raquel Welch, Blondie and Pink Floyd (for only nine days) -- Gordon said that “Luther Vandross was my most difficult, but he was a great artist,” while Teddy Pendergrass was his favorite, but explained that his experience managing him and dealing with the Chitlin' Circuit performance venues “had a violent backdrop to it,” as he had a gun held to his head many times: “They didn’t want some white Jew from Long Island getting in their way.”
But Gordon, who later shifted to produce independent films and launch celebrity chefs (amidst various romances and a budding friendship with the Dalai Lama), explained that his disenchantment with the music industry came with the rise of rap. “When I started, I was in the white, rock ‘n’ roll entertainment business, which was fairly benign. It was really kids on acid, having a good time. There was no violence, a lot of dishonesty, a lot of bullshitting and a lot of lying, but there was no violence,” he said. “With rap, it changed because everybody had a gun, so you didn’t know who your enemy was. I had cut a fairly big path in the Afro-American music world, so I was immersed in it … every word coming off the stage was a four-letter curse word … it just became part of a game that I didn’t want to participate in. I think it’s mellowed out now, I don’t really know.”
The two also celebrated Gordon’s family happenstance in adopting four kids (“I got lucky. I hope they think they got lucky too,” said Gordon), how they first met at one of Douglas’ parties in Santa Barbara (“I look out in my backyard, and there’s a rock ’n’ roll bus. Look at this, this guy is full service!” laughed Douglas), and Gordon’s own Maui get-togethers, one of which, at 3 a.m., the only person left was Jack Nicholson. “He says [to Gordon], ‘Which one of us has to go home?’”
So what is the retired Gordon up to lately? “I’m on the Harvey Weinstein rat wheel of festivals and questions and interviews! But I’m living in Maui and cooking a lot, trying to be happy.”