Before #MeToo and Time’s Up, Talent Agent Toni Howard Did It Her Way

Christina Gandolfo
 Toni Howard in her offices at ICM, where she has worked for 28 years.

At 75, the tenacious and unfiltered ICM rep for Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee reflects on using wits to conquer an industry dismissive of women in power. But today, in defense of Louis C.K. and Woody Allen, she finds the movement can go "too far the other way."

For years, ICM partner Toni Howard has dined out on a line: "Sherry Lansing slept her way to the top, and I slept my way to the middle." It's the kind of cheeky comment the 4-foot-10, 75-year-old agent drops to disarm someone in the midst of a negotiation or to make a client chuckle. Lansing, one of Howard's closest friends, has heard it umpteen times, as has Howard's husband, producer David Yarnell.

When pressed recently — does she really attribute any of her career success to well-chosen trysts? — Howard looks up from a framed photo of Yarnell she's holding, one of about a dozen of him displayed around her Century City office. They sit beside pictures of her with some of her clients, like Samuel L. Jackson, the highest-grossing actor in the world, Oscar nominees Laura Linney and Michael Keaton and newly minted Oscar winner Spike Lee.

"That is a pure joke," Howard says, pausing for a beat. "Because I wasn't that ambitious."

Of course, that, too, is a joke. "When I was 7, I sold Christmas cards in Jewish neighborhoods," she says as evidence of her drive. When it comes to her clients, Howard is an unbridled advocate, but it when comes to her own story, it can be hard to get a straight answer out of the spirited Beverly Hills native. Fortunately, Lansing, who has known her since the 1970s, when Howard was a casting director working with Lynn Stalmaster and Lansing a rising executive, is willing to fill in the blanks. "We were a generation that were told success in life was getting married and having 2.2 children," says Lansing, who went on to become the first female studio chief. "We learned to repress publicly stating our dreams, which was that we really wanted to work. You don't get where Toni is without an incredibly hard work ethic and a certain amount of healthy ambition."

Some of Howard's ideas seem old-school and, to some, out of touch in contemporary Hollywood, including her skepticism about aspects of the #MeToo movement, but she has been a trailblazer since before most of the founders of Time's Up were born, navigating a man's business using a mix of wit and wiles. And she shows no sign of slowing down.

Howard began her agenting career at William Morris in 1984 when she was 40, and she has evolved along with industry trends, embracing the rise of indie films in the '90s and a business driven by intellectual property and streaming in the aughts. After a breakfast with Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos in 2013, she bought Netflix stock — "I said to my husband, 'I want to invest in this guy,' " Howard says. But there are some changes to the town that Howard doesn't approve of, like the rise of the smartphone. "I'll tell you what drives me crazy, you could see a phenomenal movie and it used to be, people would talk about it there at the screening," Howard says. "Now everyone takes their email out, like, 'What's out there that's better than this?' "

She knows it can be an impolitic position to express in certain circles, but she's leery about some of the side effects of #MeToo. "I think it's gone too far the other way," Howard says. "Some of the women I really admire. But I don't understand women being sexually abused and then going and having a relationship with that person." Woody Allen, a longtime client of Howard's ICM colleague John Burnham, "is being unfairly treated," she says. "What's happening to Louis C.K.," she says, "it breaks my heart. Somebody could say, 'Don't jerk off in front of me, Louis.' But I guess it's not really appropriate to talk about Louis in The Hollywood Reporter women's issue …"

Howard expresses herself unreservedly. "She's got no edit button," says Lansing. In an air-kiss town, that candor is often appreciated by her clients and by those on the other side of a deal. "It shouldn't be hard to tell the truth, but sometimes it is," says NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, who met Howard when he was an agent at William Morris and she was a casting director. "Toni tells the truth. She's always been unafraid and forthright."

Before #MeToo or Time's Up or #OscarsSoWhite, Howard often was doing progressive things by virtue of being an enterprising agent. "If they say, 'I don't think they're right for the part,' I have to turn it around," Howard says. She has morphed male roles into female ones, and vice versa, something that has gotten easier "since the #MeToo situation," she says. And Howard was an early proponent of color blind casting before Hollywood had a name for that, particularly in representing Jackson, whom she's handled since seeing a screening of Pulp Fiction in 1994. "It used to be, 'Oh, we can't use an African American for this,' " Howard says. "Sam is competitive with Harrison Ford. He's not competitive with Morgan [Freeman] or Denzel [Washington]." Says Jackson: "Toni will stand toe to toe with anyone in a room and articulate herself, and will tell you why her client is the right person for the job. We trust each other's judgment. I've taken roles that she didn't necessarily like or understand, but she trusted my judgment, and I've trusted her to consider projects I wouldn't have necessarily thought to do as well."

Howard loves a Stoli martini with a twist of orange and no vermouth, and a competitive poker game. But one of her absolute favorite pastimes is working her call list. "Behind the phone, nobody knows your height," she says. She doesn't understand why anyone would use the inferior communication method of email. "You can laugh and tell jokes, gossip a little bit," Howard says. "Then you get the information you want. People will email me saying, 'I want to call you.' So call me!" So legendary is Howard's phone voice that when Alexander Payne (not a client) wanted an agent on the phone with Paul Giamatti in his 2004 movie Sideways, he recruited her. "He said, 'I want to use your voice,' " Howard says. "I said, 'What is it? Some old Jewish voice or something?' And he said, 'No, no, no, no.' But her name was like Esther such-and-such Silverman." (The character is named Evelyn Berman-Silverman.) "I said, 'I can't take a job away from an actor.' And then my husband said to me, 'How are you going to feel when you hear [UTA partner] Tracey Jacobs' voice?' I went, 'OK, I'll do it!' " Howard donated her fee for the job to the Motion Picture & Television Fund. On a wall in her office is a certificate the Screen Actors Guild sent her when Sideways won the SAG ensemble award.

James Spader (a client) once came to visit her at her office and watched as she worked the phone. "[Spader] said to me, 'So basically your job is arguing with people,' " Howard says. "And it is. You're arguing to try to get them the part, and then you're arguing about the deal." Ultimately, Howard is very good at getting yeses, partly because of her tenacity and partly, says producer Scott Rudin, because of how well she knows the business. "She knows exactly what her clients are worth," Rudin says.

Through Jackson, Howard got an introduction to Lee, whom she called after FilmDistrict's 2013 release of his Oldboy remake. "I didn't think it got released that well," Howard says. "I called him and said, 'You should leave. You should come to us.' " Howard knows that just as surely as she swiped Lee from CAA, other agents eye her clients, and she considers the practice a kind of flattery. "I feel like I'm not doing a good job if somebody's not after my clients," she says. After persuading Lee to leave CAA, she then encouraged him to cast another client, Topher Grace, in 2018's BlacKkKlansman, which earned Lee his first competitive Oscar. A photograph of Lee jumping into presenter Jackson's arms onstage at the Academy Awards sits prominently in Howard's office, and the affection seems mutual. "Nothing but love, nothing but love for Toni Howard," Lee says. "She's just been a great addition to my career."

Howard is always on the prowl. In the '90s, after catching an early episode of Judge Judy, she cold-called Judy Sheindlin to offer representation. "She didn't know who I was, but somebody in the room knew who I was, and she was like, 'Nah, I don't want an agent,' " Howard says. Instead they became friends who vacation together annually with Lansing and their husbands to places like Capri, Italy. Howard also calls people when she has no agenda and takes calls from clients at all hours. She is particularly present, clients say, when times are bad, showing up in hospital rooms or calling often when they're in the midst of a divorce. "There are few qualities more admirable than commitment and dedication," Keaton says. "Toni embodies both of these. You can call her at 3:30 in the morning with a question and she'll take the call. Of course, you might have to get her out of a poker game to do it, but still."

Howard's mother ran a dress store in Beverly Hills, and her parents played cards with George Burns and Gracie Allen and socialized with comedy writers. Early on, their youngest daughter displayed an audacity. At age 5 or 6, while walking home from school, Howard discovered that the offices of Hopalong Cassidy were on her route, knocked on the door and got to meet her cowboy hero (actor William Boyd). When she was a little older, she would call casting offices impersonating Bubbles Barton, a fictional burlesque performer from the 1945 movie Delightfully Dangerous. "She was a bit of a devil, but she could always get out of it because she was funny and charming," says Howard's sister, Wendy Goldberg, the wife of Aaron Spelling's longtime producing partner, Leonard Goldberg, for whom Howard did casting earlier in her career. (He died Dec. 4 at 85.) At 16, she got a job working the concessions counter at the Warner Beverly Hills Theater. When a patron asked for a frozen candy bar, she offered to freeze one and have an usher deliver it during the movie. "Then the manager came over," she says. "He was like, 'We're not in the to-go business.' And I said, 'Well, you should be.' "

She would apply that same dedication to her first real job in the business, working as a secretary for her sister's then father-in-law, producer Harold Mirisch, and then for CMA founder Freddie Fields. "I was probably the greatest secretary," Howard says. "I was fantastic. I was in charge of [Fields'] checkbook. I was in charge of who would come to his house. He'd say put a screening together and I did it. I didn't think at the time I wanted to be an agent, but I learned a lot." Some of this vim came from an external source. "I was on diet pills," Howard says. "At eight at night, I'd go, 'Why are you leaving?' "

While the young women around her were departing the workplace to get married and have children, Howard's life was taking another path. "I wanted to get married, too, but no one was marrying me," she says. By the time she was working in casting, the sexual revolution was in full swing. "In the '70s, we all slept around, and it wasn't any big deal," Howard says. "Whenever I tell this story, David always goes, 'Oh, one of my favorite stories, Toni.' But it wasn't a big deal. I slept with who I felt like."

In 1984, a year before she met her future husband, Howard left casting to work at William Morris and entered the next stage of her career. "I took on too many people," she says of those early days. "It's one thing if you cast them in something, and then it's another thing that you're going to spend the next 20 years of your life with them. A lot of agents said, 'Oh, can you get on this team?' I was like, 'Sure, sure, sure.' And then I realized, it wasn't people that I believed in as actors. When you're really a good agent, you've got to think about them all the time."

At William Morris, "I remember them saying to me, 'We're going to put you on the board and you're going to be the only woman,' " Howard says. It was an era when women were led to believe there was only room for one of them in a power seat. But Howard never felt competitive based on gender. In fact, one of her closest friends was fellow power agent Sue Mengers (she has a baby picture of Mengers in her office). "I don't feel I was ever at a disadvantage being a woman," Howard says. "As a matter of fact, I felt I was at an advantage. You could say things that men just can't say. They get on the phone and — I know this is so politically incorrect — but you can just flirt, 'Come on, give me this.' What do they have? The advantage of playing basketball together on the weekends?"

In 1991, Howard moved to ICM and nearly three decades later, she is still flirting, cajoling and arguing on behalf of 30 clients. "It can be a very gratifying job," she says. "I don't have children, so it's nice to be needed by 30 people."

This story first appeared in the 2019 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.