Aiming for "Pride Without Prejudice": A Gay Hollywood Agent's Personal Story (Guest Column)
On the 50th anniversary of the NYC Stonewall riots, which launched the gay-rights movement, ICM founding partner Chuck James recounts his career as an at-first-closeted insider, from the William Morris mailroom to repping Regina King.
“Are you gay?” my mother asked me at 25 years old, when I was first working at ICM as an agent trainee. "Yes, Mom, I am, and I have to go. Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling my boss and Gena Rowlands has a hair question. I hope you and dad aren’t disappointed.”
I began my Hollywood career a couple of years earlier in the William Morris mailroom, the true bottom of the proverbial totem pole. I was put in shipping and receiving. Trainees delivered the clients' scripts and packages around town. I was new to Los Angeles, driving a Nissan Sentra with questionable insurance, and was thus thrilled to hear from a friend at ICM that it had an outside messenger service. I only had to survive being a floater, an assistant without an assigned desk.
I will never forget the first day walking into 8899 Beverly Blvd., then the home of ICM. Not only was I feeling complete terror at not knowing anything about the entertainment industry (other than my longtime love of movies), but I was desperate to make a go of it. "Of course I know who Sherry Lansing is!" (I didn't.) "Is your family in the business?" "Who's your dad?" "Ivy League school?" My lack of advantageous answers to these last three questions didn't scare me, though, because my biggest fear, the most daunting issue, was needing to hide from everyone the fact that I was gay. In the late '90s, this wasn’t a great entry point of discussion. (I did have some practice at hiding in the larger world, coming from my family, which is largely unparalleled in that all three kids are gay.)
I never had any gay or lesbian work friends early on. The "out" agents never reached out to, took an interest or gave me any insight, and I have never forgotten it. Very quickly, I learned that while the boys' club wouldn't talk to me, the women's club would, even as they were fighting their own battles. My first boss, Tracey Jacobs, provided the greatest training ground I could have asked for. I survived her desk for almost three years. No one was ever tougher on me, yet no one taught me more. I was "fired" many times, and I remember blurting out to her that I had a dream in which I locked her in her office. I must have proven my worth by then because she was a major force in helping to get me promoted. Tracey was the epitome of strength and protection for me. She rewarded loyalty and front-line dedication.
One day, as the newly minted motion picture coordinator, I was sent down to Ed Limato's office. I suddenly realized that I was traveling down the yellow brick road and was about to reach Oz and meet the wizard. The bright suits, the powerful voice, the incredibly thick Italian hair and the famous saltwater office fish tank: This was a gay man who could represent the straightest male movie stars, from Denzel Washington to Mel Gibson to Richard Gere, as well as the most glamorous female stars, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Ross and Ellen Barkin. I had finally laid eyes on someone I could relate to, someone I could aspire to be. Limato made everyone feel incredibly special.
Ed never asked if I was gay and I never told him I was, but I felt he was protecting me, offering me a shot because he had a sixth sense, a protective, paternal instinct. He raised his hand in agreement for my promotion, and handed me the biggest deals of my young career for Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah. Ed would smile, and say, "Just cc me.” Melanie and Daryl's movie (Two Much) bombed, but I got them paid big time.
At one point, I had to take Marlon Brando to a meeting at Fox, still fashionably arriving in my Nissan Sentra. I was afraid that one of the most macho male stars of the day would report back to someone at the agency about my ostensible lack of masculinity. The opposite couldn't have been truer, as he was among the most sensitive and kind people I've ever met. Thanks to Ed and Marlon, I decided to play to my strengths and surround myself with the people who understood me, my fashion, my unique perspective, and avoid the ones who didn't.
Members of the LGBTQ community, with their disjointed journeys, tend to make great agents. I was unbelievably lucky to get a mentor and a boss like Toni Howard early on. She promoted me again, and, as the head of the motion picture department, eventually had to deliver the news to fire me, saying, “One day, I will be begging you to come back,“ and luckily, she was right. I still learn from her every day, even as I had to grasp how to sell clients that were deemed "not gay enough," "too gay" or "they can't play straight enough."
Such debilitating responses have finally started to wane. Nothing speaks to our industry better than expanded awareness and exposure through representation, and the effect of a heightened community presence. I am honored and humbled to help create opportunity for the strong voices now demanded by society, as more Love, Simons become success stories, clients like Karamo Brown change lives on Netflix's Queer Eye, and Brianna Hildebrand stars as Marvel's first openly gay superhero on film.
Last summer, I was asked by an intern if we had an LGBTQ organization at ICM Partners, and I was so inspired by this young voice that I said, "We do now!" What a difference two decades makes. (When I was an intern, the question might have been, "Do you have an in-the-closet club?”) We are about to embark on our first LGBTQ agency dinner, which will be a celebration of commonality, common purpose, as well as a conversation around how we can move our community forward within Hollywood and beyond. I am so proud that the ICM Partners’ Community Partners Foundation Committee (on which I serve) has supported the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Additionally, as an active member of the Motion Picture Television Fund, I look forward to working with this organization to help aid the industry in bringing education and awareness surrounding the unique challenges that the LGBTQ face as they age.
But as the industry decides who is considered diverse, I have heard from LGBTQ insiders that they are concerned about being excluded from the diversity and inclusion conversation even as the community has struggled historically and still does today.
And as recently as this year's Academy Awards, in the car on the way to celebrate my client Regina King (who won her Oscar hours later), I felt ashamed to drive down Hollywood Boulevard and observe ignorant and bigoted protesters holding up degrading signs painted with anti-gay and homophobic slurs. As a founding partner of a major talent agency, it is my duty and mission to lean in and help empower an often overlooked community, to work to represent and unify those who may be suffering in silence and fear, so that they may find their own voice and be able to walk the halls as I do. We have made progress over the past 20 years, but until LGBTQ people can feel Pride without prejudice, we have significant work left to accomplish.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.