AMPTP chief Nick Counter remembered

Entertainment journalist David Robb recalls 'fair, decent guy'

AMPTP chief Nick Counter dies

Nick Counter and I started our jobs dealing with Hollywood unions in the same week in the spring of 1982 -- he as president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and me as a labor reporter.

Nick gave me my first big interview. The box office was booming that year, but when I went to interview Nick at his office in the Valley, he pointed out that film rentals -- that portion of box office receipts that are returned to the studios-- were actually declining. And he had the facts and figures to prove it. It was my first big scoop and my first banner headline.

Over the next 20 years, I came to know Nick well professionally, first at Variety and later at The Hollywood Reporter. We never played golf together and we never went out to lunch. But he was always accessible, and he always gave me a straight answer. Nick was honest and dependable, and to a reporter, that's everything.

Those traits also served Nick well in his role as the industry's chief contract negotiator. Union leaders always knew where they stood with Nick: There was no bluff and no bull.

Once I quoted a union leader anonymously saying what a fair guy Nick Counter was. The next day, Nick called me up and said, "Geez, Dave, why'd you print that?"

I was confused.

"Print what?" I asked.

"That thing about me being fair and decent," he said, quite perturbed.

"Well," I replied, "it's what the guy said."

"Yeah," Counter huffed, "but now the studio heads are all going to think I'm being too soft on the unions."

It was the first and only time I'd ever gotten chewed out for writing something nice about a guy.

Counter wasn't too soft on the unions. There were plenty of strikes during his 27-year tenure to prove that. But he wasn't a bully either. He'd been a boxer as a kid and had the distinctive broken nose to prove it. But he always tried to avoid a fight -- to reach an agreement without a strike if possible.

Whenever he couldn't, some angry worker would invariably accuse Counter of being "a union buster." In fact, he was anything but. Unlike nearly every other American industry -- coal, cars, planes -- the modern film and TV companies have never attempted to bust their unions. For whatever reason, Hollywood has been blessed with an enlightened management that understands that unions are a vital component to making a profitable product. And for me, Nick Counter, with his broken nose and all, was the face of that enlightened management.