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A headline in last Tuesday’s Hollywood Reporter stated: “Phyllis Carlyle, Influential Talent Manager and Producer, Dies at 80.” For those who worked with Phyllis, this description is somewhat simplistic.
There are many successful female managers today. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, there were very few.
From 1990 to 1993, I was Phyllis’ assistant. That she died this September of leukemia, but the news came out two and a half months later, reminded me of the famous Beatles lyric, “Eleanor Rigby, died in a church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.”
Phyllis was the first person in the business who believed in me. I had just graduated from AFI. I didn’t want to be a manager, but I did want to learn how to navigate the industry. Mastering how to handle the non-stop agenda of her workday was sturdy preparation for the interactions I would experience as a producer. In the beginning, I knew nothing about management, agenting, studio executives, the favorite Hollywood restaurants, industry politics, and how men in power felt women with power should behave.
Phyllis had a great eye for young talent, and for representing gifted actors like Andy Garcia, Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich. I interacted with dynamic industry leaders early in their careers, such as Ari Emanuel and Kevin Huvane, because Phyllis would frequently ask her callers to hold, looking to avoid long phone tags. I’d talk to them while they waited. Long before Zoom existed, stature in Hollywood was often defined by whose office a meeting would occur in. With Phyllis, everybody came to her, because she had what they wanted: the talent.
I’d been warned Phyllis was intimidating before my initial interview at her Laurel Canyon home. We ended up talking for several hours. Her infamous poodles kept barking and leaping around. Phyllis was ambitious, persistent, with a wicked sense of humor, and a small group of friends.
She loved shopping for antiques, El Pollo Loco chicken, iced tea, travel, the British Royal family and gossiping. I witnessed many moments of her being vulnerable, a word few would use to describe her. Phyllis lived for her clients and the clients listened to her advice.
Phyllis was ahead of her time in seeking genuine parity, resulting in a turbulent mission to break into the powerful “Boys Club” of high-level executives who often viewed her as too aggressive. In her mind, she was fighting for her clients, but those on the other end of the phone felt she was fighting with them. She struggled with the perception that women could be firm, but not “too firm,” when dealing with men she viewed as slow on the uptake.
Phyllis biggest professional Achilles heel was turning on the managers she hired. Her patience level was low. Many reps who started with enthusiasm at “Carlyle Management” ended up angry and made no secret of their feelings to the community. Being a spectator to mutual animosity was draining, and the turmoil was destructive for the company’s long-term viability.
Phyllis had a first look production deal at Paramount, and her desire to be a manager/producer yielded some success, the most notable being the movie Seven. But that film didn’t have a client in it. As her star clients ascended, Phyllis also wanted to produce for them. This is when her career began to change. I will never forget listening to a call when one of those stars yelled at Phyllis, stating “You can be my manager or my producer, but you can’t be both!”
Growing tired of that conflict, Phyllis began trying to raise her own film financing. This pursuit went on for decades, with no takers. It was hard to hear her hopeful expectations of funding when the odds were so low. The people she believed would invest in her always seemed untrustworthy to me. She lost sight of staying true to her natural gift for recognizing young talent early.
After years of hosting well-attended Christmas parties at her large home, she ended up in a small apartment. I didn’t know Phyllis was sick. If I did, I would have come to her small apartment, with a glass of iced tea. We would have laughed about all the silly little things she had me do. I would have felt the same thing I do now that she’s gone: grateful — and sad, knowing she became, like Eleanor Rigby, one of the “lonely people.”
There are flawed people in our industry. Always have been and always will. Fortunately, those who’ve demonstrated the most reprehensible behavior are now being exposed. But if you had someone looking out for you early, flaws and all, remain grateful for that support. And make sure you tell them. I did.
Matthew Baer has produced numerous films, including Unbroken, City by the Sea, Jack Frost and Maggie.
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