They came for Jack, again

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WASHINGTON -- Jack would've wanted it this way.

Jack Valenti, the longtime head of the MPAA, presidential confidant and inventor of the movie and TV ratings systems, always loved playing the Big Room, and for his funeral Tuesday he played in a doozie.

The neo-Byzantine nave of St. Matthew's Cathedral was packed with movie stars and lawmakers, lobbyists and journalists, family friends and relatives -- including his wife of 45 years, Mary Margaret -- who came to pay their last respects to the diminutive Texan who was bigger than life.

Valenti died Thursday after suffering a stroke in late March. He was 85.

In Washington, St. Martin's is a special place. It is the seat of the Catholic archdiocese, and it is where President Kennedy's funeral was conducted. It was the death of JFK that brought Valenti to Washington as an assistant to President Johnson.

Valenti's desire to play the Big Room predated his time as LBJ's White House confidant. It came before all those congressional hearings and the soundstage for the Oscars. Valenti's son, John, told the assembled crowd that his dad first noticed the urge to speak about 75 years ago in his dad's hometown of Houston.

Reading from his father's soon-to-be-published novel, John Valenti told the crowd that this urge came upon Jack at 10 when John's grandfather hoisted Jack upon a flatbed truck and told him to say a few words at a campaign rally about then-Harris County Sheriff I.A. Binford. The sheriff was a larger-than-life figure -- he wore a pair of pearl-handled six shooters and had as much chance of losing the election as a snowball has of surviving a Texas summer -- but Jack spoke to the crowd and was hooked.

"The thrill ran through me like a twanging wire. Something pleasantly addictive was being done," John Valenti read, asking the crowd to imagine his dad was speaking. "I never recovered from that."

"No," recalled John, "he never did."

Kirk Douglas spoke of how Valenti rescued him from an interminable wait for a government factotum. Valenti took him to the White House because he thought it was a better place to wait.

"In a few hours with Jack Valenti, I found myself in the Oval Office chatting with the president of the United States. Jack could do miracles," he said.

Douglas, also a stroke victim, said Valenti would have to pay an old friend another favor when he joined him. "I expect Jack to finally bring me to the big ranch," he said.

The funeral drew a capacity crowd of about 1,000. Among the political heavyweights spotted were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.; House Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell, D-Mich.; and House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.

Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Gordon Smith, R-Ore.; and John Kerry, D-Mass., also attended.

From the entertainment industry came, among others, Martin Scorsese, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Steven Bochco, Robert Wagner, Clint Eastwood, News Corp.'s Peter Chernin, the Walt Disney Co.'s Dick Cook, CBS Corp.'s Les Moonves, the DGA's Jay Roth, former Disney chief Michael Eisner, former Warner Bros. co-chairmen Robert Daly and Terry Semel and former AOL execs Steve Case and Ted Leonsis.

Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Barry Meyer, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and attorney Lloyd Hand also read from Valenti's memoir, "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood."

While it was Valenti's love of a well-turned phrase and his influence that brought people to him, it was a less obvious skill that might be most missed. Not only could he get people into the Big Room, but he could get them to the table.

Steven Spielberg said he met Valenti during a dispute over the MPAA rating for the director's 1975 film "Jaws," then became friends.

"We've had many professional dealings, but most of my association with him in the '70s, '80s, '90s and the new millennium has been as a friend," he said in an interview. "Jack was a peacemaker. I always wondered why not get Jack, during the Clinton years, for the Middle East. He would've made a great peace keeper."

While Spielberg might have been exaggerating, Valenti did have an ability to get people together, others said. It might not have been with visions of world peace that he did it, but in the grubby, day-to-day life in Washington, Valenti got things done.

"Our biggest problem now, is who is going to bang the gavel?" said CBS executive vp Martin Franks, a longtime business associate and friend. "You went to a meeting with Jack at 9 a.m. not because you wanted to, but because Jack wanted you to. You might hate the guy you're sitting beside, but everyone was there because Jack asked us to be there."

And on a gorgeous spring Tuesday in Washington, everyone showed up for Jack one last time.
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