A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Howard West, president of management/production company Shapiro/West and an executive producer on Seinfeld, died Dec. 3 of a stroke. He was 84. His longtime friend and business partner George Shapiro spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the “amazing connection” they shared for 76 years.
We were best friends and partners since we were 8. Old people don’t usually remember things so well, but I still have a vivid memory of him sitting alone in the schoolyard on his first day at P.S. 80 in the Bronx. I asked him to play basketball, and we just stayed as friends. We went to the movies every Saturday, we read comic books together and we chipped in to buy one car, a 1940 Olds called the Cream Puff. It needed a lot of work — that’s why we had to work so hard as busboys and waiters, always together.
When we were in college we worked as lifeguards at Tamiment, a resort in the Pocono Mountains. This place had a history of show business and created revues every week by Max Liebman, who would go on to do Your Show of Shows. Howie and I also worked as stagehands and ushers at the theater, which was a rich connection for us: Dick Shawn would do stand-up and Barbara Cook — she was just an ingenue then — would sing, and Tamiment had choreography by Herb Ross and big composers like Sheldon Harnick and Larry Holofcener writing music. When Howie and I were there, the head writers were Neil Simon and his brother, Danny. They used to interview us at the lifeguard stand about what was going on, what the girls were saying, and then they’d write sketches based on our experiences.
The only times Howie and I were separated was when we both went into the Army during the Korean War, and right afterward, when Howard left our William Morris mailroom program because he got impatient with the tedium. Still, we spoke every day, and we soon moved to Manhattan and got an apartment together, at The Royal York at 425 East 63rd Street. We were like peasants; we put our chairs and a couch in a U-Haul and pulled up to this apartment house with a doorman, and as we were bringing our stuff in, people were looking out their windows, like, “What’s happening to this neighborhood?” We roomed together for two years and had an incredible time being bachelors in New York City in our 20s.
Then William Morris transferred me to Los Angeles, and once I got established I told Howard, “You’re smarter than all the people out here,” and set a meeting for him. Soon he was running the television department because he was so smart. Since he’s more corporate-oriented, he thrived at William Morris more than I did, because I was more of a maverick. I left in 1974 to start my own business and asked him to join me, because I knew I really needed a business partner. It’s like having an inside man and an outside man: I do creative work and I’m more social, while Howard was to me the greatest negotiator. If I was going to cast someone to co-star with me in Shapiro/West, it was West. Howard went for a walk to think about it, then came back and said, “I wouldn’t do this with anyone else but you.”
We met Jerry Seinfeld at The Comedy Store in 1980 and both loved him right away. Howard was very involved in the negotiations of Jerry’s deal with NBC for Seinfeld and our deal as executive producers. After nine seasons we were the No. 1 show, and we had a meeting in NBC president Bob Wright’s office, and GE chairman Jack Welch wrote an offer on a little slip of paper and gave it to Jerry. Then Jerry, Howard and I went for a walk around the block, and he showed us the paper — 22 episodes for season 10, $5 million an episode — and said it was the right time to go. I was thrilled — a stand-up comic knows that you get off the stage during the standing ovation — but Howard said, “Oh my God, Jerry, that was only their opening offer!” So he was a little upset, but in the long run the aura of leaving at No. 1 worked out and he was pleased.
The Monday before he died, we had a very stimulating meeting at Sony, and Howard was at the top of his game. His mind was sharper than it was 30 years ago. Jerry said there’s nothing better than going out doing what you love. Howard was doing what he loved. He had the respect of so many people in this town, and it’s not going to be easy to replace the business acumen that he had. So we just framed a little picture in our office with the words, “What Would Howard Do?”