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Bernie Brillstein was one of those guys who you figured would be around Hollywood forever, at least in part because it seemed he’d always been here. But even the incandescent ones ultimately, sadly, flame out, as Brillstein did Thursday night at 77 from heart failure.
The irony is that one of the rare industry power brokers known for having a big heart would succumb to issues afflicting the ticker. Or, as his longtime client and close friend Lorne Michaels said last week, “He never gave up his heart. He somehow kept his balance in a world where people do just awful things to each other.”
Brillstein would no doubt be dismissive ofanything maudlin that might package the coverage of his demise. And he knew something about clever packaging: presiding formore than a half-century as talent agent, manager, producer, studio head and father confessor to his exceedingly loyal client roster.
That list included many of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players at “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd as well as creator/executive producer Michaels. The show’s enduring importance and appeal as a comedy institution serves as a Brillstein legacy in and of itself.
Brillstein’s eye for comedic talent was almost unmatched, but it was in the packaging of his clientsin movies and TV shows that Brillstein’s showbiz skills really stood out.He helped propel the careers of everyone from Brad Pitt to Adam Sandler, from Bill Maher to Dennis Miller, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Jennifer Aniston.
Wearing his producer hat, Brillstein had a hand in steering to the big screen “Ghostbusters,” “Dragnet,” “Happy Gilmore,” “Spies Like Us,” “The Blues Brothers” and “The Cable Guy,” while in TV he exec produced shows ranging from the NBC comedies “Buffalo Bill,” “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and “ALF” to Showtime’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” He’s also credited with having helped bring both “SNL” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” to TV, the latter in partnership with Brad Grey in Brillstein-Grey Entertainment.
“Bernie was a man who lived and breathed our business,” Grey said Friday. “The basics and fundamentals and joy of the entertainment business to him were always contagious.”
But as anyone who dealt with Brillstein in a professional capacity could tell you, it was his personal style that elevated him above even the most successful power players of his generation: He was brash, he was gregarious, he was the proverbial bearded teddy bear.
“I will miss Bernie every day,” Grey added. “Speaking with him and sharing with him was such a meaningful part of my daily life that it’s a huge loss for me both personally and professionally. With Bernie, it was impossible to separate those two.”
Brillsteincame up the old-fashioned way, via the WMA mailroom in the mid ’50s. In 1969 he founded the Brillstein Co., which morphed into Brillstein-Grey Entertainment with partner Grey in 1991 and finally Brillstein Entertainment Partners last year. (Brillstein remained associated with Brillstein-Grey after Greybought out his interest in 1996; Grey sold his own stake in 2005 when he became chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group.)
In his 1999 showbiz memoir, “Where Did I Go Right? You’re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead,” it was also abundantly clear that Brillstein wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is when he felt it necessary — or profitable.Still, he did it with gusto and generosity of spirit.
“Bernie was just the best,” Michaels concluded. “He was one of the most decent and generous people I’ve ever known.”
Brillstein is survived by his wife of 10 years, Carrie; sons Michael Brillstein, David Koskoff and Nick Koskoff; daughters Kate and Leigh Brillstein; son-in-law Abe Hoch; and a grandson.
A memorial will be held 6 p.m. Monday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, with a reception immediately following.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be directed to Barlow Respiratory Research Center, 2000 Stadium Way, Los Angeles, CA, 90026.
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