Elliott Kozak, the 'Go-To Guy' for Bob Hope, Dies at 80

Longtime WMA and ICM agent packaged TV shows, sold legendary Motown special to NBC.

Elliott Kozak, the producer for Bob Hope for more than three decades who also served as the comedian’s agent and manager, died July 23 of complications after recent surgery at Providence Tarzana Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 80.

Kozak, who also worked at WMA and ICM, sold to NBC the Motown 25th anniversary special that aired in 1983 and featured Michael Jackson’s memorable performance of “Billie Jean” and his first televised “moonwalk” move.

Although Kozak crisscrossed between Hope and various talent agencies throughout his 65-year career, he was known primarily in the industry as the “go-to guy" for anything Hope-related.

Born in Brooklyn, Kozak began at the age of 15 in 1945 in the WMA mailroom in New York, and within three years he became a full-time agent in the TV-variety department, booking The Milton Berle Show and The Ray Bolger Show, among others. 

At WMA, Kozak did a favor for Colonel Tom Parker and got a young Elvis Presley an audition on the TV show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Presley and his band were unable to finish the first verse of “Heartbeak Hotel” and were immediately rejected.

In 1959, on a tip from Berle, Kozak learned that Hope’s longtime agent Jimmy Saphier was looking for someone to help book Hope’s NBC specials, so Kozak departed for the West Coast to link up with Hope.

Kozak returned to WMA in 1969 — specifically the TV-variety department — for a three-year stint, helping shepherd a young Michael Ovitz as well as Kozak’s assistant, future mega-manager George Shapiro.  Kozak packaged talent for NBC's Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in and booked the syndicated Merv Griffin Show, among other TV shows.

In 1972, Kozak rejoined Hope, this time partnering with Saphier, and would become Hope’s main agent after Saphier’s death in 1974. Kozak was soon producing Hope’s many NBC specials, coordinating his appearances and running his production office.

Kozak was hired by ICM in 1979 to run its TV-variety department, and he brought in such A-list producers and directors as Gary Smith & Dwight Hemion (Baryshnikov on Broadway) and Steve Binder, a veteran Emmy Awards producer. However, it was the show that Motown’s Suzanne de Passe brought him in 1982 that would become Kozak's crowning achievement.

Kozak sold to NBC the two-hour special and ICM package Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, which marked Jackson’s first TV appearance since the release of the huge-selling Thriller. It won an Emmy for best TV special as well as an NAACP Image Award and a Peabody Award and became one of the highest-rated shows in TV history.

Following the Motown project, Hope asked Kozak to return for what would be his final run with the comedian, where this time he also served as his manager. In 1991, Kozak opened up a West Coast office for Nashville’s Buddy Lee Attractions, where he would remain throughout the 1990s. He entered “semi-retirement” in 2000 and spent the last decade of his life booking personal appearances.

Survivors include his wife Marie, a former executive secretary at the agency General Artist Corp.; sons Robert and Steven, a clearance coordinator on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno; and daughters Heather and Julie, a wardrobe supervisor on Extra.

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Motion Picture & Television Country Home in Woodland Hills.