From Mailroom to Mogul: Former Fox CEO Shares Hollywood Tales in New Memoir

Rosetta Books

In "You Can't Fall Off the Floor and Other Life Lessons From a Life in Hollywood," Harris Katleman and his grandson share what really happened in the early careers of Hollywood stars and the development of iconic programs such as 'The Simpsons.'

Harris Katleman is ready to give readers a glimpse into the business side of entertainment. 

In his new memoir out Tuesday, You Can't Fall Off the Floor and Other Life Lessons From Life in Hollywood, the former studio head of MGM and 20th Century Fox and his grandson Nick Katleman chronicle his hilarious accounts of starting in the industry as an "office boy" to later becoming a TV producer, all the while having encounters with distinguished industry giants such as Rupert Murdoch, Bob Iger, Barry Diller and Lew Wasserman. "This goes beyond the story of a life in Hollywood. It is the story of crucial developments — how motion picture film libraries were opened for television licensing and how The Simpsons was birthed and much more," Katleman writes. 

From dealing with "temperamental client" Marlon Brando to taking on Alfred Hitchcock and yachting with Adnan Khashoggi — billionaire uncle of slain Saudi journalist Jamil Khashoggi — The Hollywood Reporter shares exclusive excerpts of a few of Katleman's recollected accounts.

An Agent Is Born (1951-1962) 

As luck would have it, Harry Friedman, the MCA agent who covered MGM, suffered a nervous breakdown in Los Angeles. With the New York office's television department back on track, Lew summoned me to Beverly Hills to tag in for Harry. I was still the vice president of television but at the age of twenty-six, my client list was about as short as my bank statement. 

"I'm putting you on the team of my most temperamental clients," Lew told me. "That'll give you incentive to start signing." 

That included a number of A-listers, including Grace Kelly, Fred MacMurray, Howard Keel and future president of the United States Ronald Reagan. But the most notorious was none other than Marlon Brando, Hollywood's favorite mumbler. This wasn't the Marlon who waddled into the jungles of the Philippines one hundred pounds overweight to shoot Apocalypse Now, but he was certainly on his way. All the rumors about Marlon Brandon's craziness are understated. He had a heart of gold and warm intentions, but the man couldn't sit alone in a room for five minutes without posing potential harm to his career. Marlon had recently come off the universal acclaim A Streetcar Named Desire and was preparing to shoot a film called The Wild One. Along with my colleague Jay Kanter, I had to keep him out of trouble until principal photography commenced. Then it would be up to the director to wrangle him. Every evening after work, Jay and I babysat Marlon Brando at his house in the Hollywood Hills. Carole wasn't thrilled about me staying out past my bedtime, but I didn't have much of a choice.

Marlon, Jay and I spent one evening — like most of the others — drinking mineral water and watching football. Around nine o'clock, he decided to turn in. 

"I'm beat — gonna practice my lines in the mirror."

I figured that I'd wait a half hour before hitting the road, just to be safe. Within fifteen minutes, Marlon's house line rang. Lew Wasserman was at the other end of the line. 

"Do you know where Marlon is?"

"Sleeping like a baby," I replied.

"Unless he's got a long-lost twin, I think you're mistaken. He just stumbled into Chasen's piss-drunk, with three women on his arm." 

Jay and I bounded up the stairs and found a warm breeze pulsing through Marlon's bedroom. It was a scene out of a prison break movie. Marlon's bedsheets had been woven into a rope, secured to a radiator, and dropped out the window into the hedges below. I poked my head outside to find Marlon's vacant parking spot. When I thought about the wrath I could expect from Lew, I contemplated jumping from the window. But it was only the second story — I figured the fall would break my legs without killing me. 

"Thanks a lot," Jay told Marlon the next day. "You're gonna get me and Harris fired." 

"If those squares fire you, I'll leave MCA. Then you two can start your own agency with me as your first client." 

"No, thanks," I said. "Then I'd have to watch after you for the rest of my life."

"That's the business you signed up for," Marlon said, shrugging. 

Needless to say, I was eager to relieve myself of babysitting duties. 

Saving Hitchcock

Months later in one of our staff meetings, a colleague mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock's new project was in shambles. Hitchcock had hired and fired three different writers to crack the story. He didn't know what he wanted until someone brought it to him in silver wrapping paper, and the producers were beginning to think he was inconsolable. I pitched a young writer called John Michael Hayes, who was penning a radio show called Johnny Dollar. The senior agents laughed me out of the room for suggesting I set a meeting with Hitch, but I didn't care. 

"It seems like you've all failed to date. I'll take the shot," I said. After the staff meeting, Lew grabbed me. 

"You're on your own with this one. Hitch can go off like a loaded gun."

But I believed that John Michael Hayes could be the little writer that could, so I set the meeting with Hitchcock. To everyone's surprise, Hitch gave John the assignment to write a film called Rear Window at $1,000 per week. As John was used to writing one-hour radio shows in seven days, he finished the script in six weeks. Hitch refused to read it, insisting that John spend more time on it.

"Why don't you go to Palm Springs for three weeks and lie by the pool?" I suggested. "Submit the same draft once you get back." 

John deemed the whole production silly, but he understood that Hitch had a challenging personality and willingly obliged. Hitch fell in love with John's draft and pushed it into production. After wasting a quarter-million dollars on three established writers who demanded competitive fees, Alfred Hitchcock got his script for $10,000 from a writer without a name. I requested a bonus for John, but Hitchcock glowered at me. 

"Sonny," he said, "that's the price of admission to the movies." 

Months later, Hitch approached me with an offer of $1,500 per week for John's writing services on To Catch a Thief. I responded that I wanted $100,000, plus a bonus of $50,000 if no other writer received a credit on the movie. Hitch went crazy and called Lew to complain about me. For the moment I thought I was toast, but Lew backed me up, and Hitch paid. Then came The Trouble With Harry. I asked for $250,000, and Hitch coughed it up. Just like that, a star writer was born. John Michael Hayes racked up two Oscar nominations and a mountain of money throughout his career. The truth is, Alfred Hitchcock couldn't tolerate the writing of anyone but my guy. I had the leverage, and it was my job to take advantage of the circumstance. 

A Casino Man's Big Gamble (1972-1977) 

"Is this Harris Katleman?"

"Sure is." 

"You have violated the covenant of the MGM loan," the man declared. "We have no choice but to foreclose."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"We made it expressly clear that you could not reduce the assets of MGM until you paid back our loan."

"Who said we're reducing the assets of MGM?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.

"You think we'd let you $5 million check slide past us? We handled your accounts." 

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Based on the circumstances, we've concluded that you sold part of MGM in an effort to remain financially afloat. Where else would $5 million come from?" 

To reiterate, I hadn't the slightest clue what the bank was talking about. No one had told me anything about selling a portion of the company. I told the head of accounts that I would call him back and reached out to Al Benedict, the president of MGM Grand. 

"Al, did we sell a piece of MGM?" I asked.

"Of course we didn't. What's the question?" 

"Chemical Bank's about to renege on our loan. Supposedly Kirk [Kerkorian] cashed a check for $5 million, and they smell a rat." 

"Oh, that check? Came from Adnan Khashoggi. He had a bad night at the baccarat table, let me tell you." 

If you know anything about the international weapons trade, you'll recognize Adnan Khashoggi's name. He was the world's biggest arms dealer from the 1960s through the 1980s, brokering monstrous deals between America and the Middle East. A bald, paunchy man of Turkish descent, he wore a trimmed mustache and fine suits. Khashoggi built his $14 billion empire on the principle of extravagance. In a 2009 interview with the New York Times, he stated about his spending habits, "It is all part of the mechanism for impressing people, with your talk, with your views and with your appearance." At Khashoggi's peak, he spent $250,000 each day to maintain his style of living. Once, he held a party at his villa in Marbella that spanned five days and has since been considered the most extravagant event in European history. I didn't make the guest list for that one, but years prior I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon on the Nabila, Khashoggi's 281-foot yacht named after his daughter. In addition to being featured in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again, the $100 million boat has passed through the ownership of the Sultan of Brunei, Donald Trump, and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

Khashoggi had cruised down the coast of the French Riviera for the Cannes International Film Festival and invited Kirk abroad. He didn't object to Kirk's plus two: myself and Cary Grant. The boat was unbelievable. The top deck had more beautiful woman than a party at the Playboy mansion. Khashoggi gave me, Kirk, and Cary a private tour of the vessel, through the A-plus kitchen and dining hall, the lavish rooms and ornate lounges. 

"Why don't you show Cary and Harris your stateroom?" Kirk suggested. 

Along with a particularly stunning French girl, Khashoggi led us to the stern, where double steel doors stretched from the floor to the ceiling. It had a turnstile on it: a massive safe. 

"Would you mind?" Khashoggi said softly, and we all turned our backs as he spun the knob. 

Khashoggi swung the doors open to illuminate a wall of metal drawers, each one individually labeled. Cartier, Harry Winston, Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels — the arms dealer had a bank of jewels aboard. He caressed the woman on his arm. 

"Which one would you like today?"

"I don't know," she chimed. 

"Close your eyes and point your finger," he said. The girl obeyed with a smile on her face, letting her pointer finger wander over the drawers. It hovered over Piaget, and she opened her eyes. Khashoggi opened the drawer and offered a diamond necklace to the girl. 

Luckily, I only got to witness the fun side of Khashoggi — not the ruthless side. He has been involved in every major military scandal of the century, most notably the Iran-Contra affair, in which he sold arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages. Khashoggi worked for anyone with money, regardless of political standpoint. "My personal philosophy," he has stated publicly, "is I don't regret matters that happen, good or bad." 

Knowing Adnan Khashoggi as a die-hard adrenaline junkie, Al Benedict's story made all the sense in the world. Khashoggi had lost $5 million to Kirk's casino, and when the accountants deposited the check, Chemical Bank had assumed that Kirk sold a portion of the hotel. In other words, the bank's threats were founded on hot air. I called back the head of accountants to set the record straight. 

"If you foreclose on us, you better have $10 billion in assets," I told him when he answered, "because that's what we'll sue you for." He apologized sincerely after I explained the circumstance to him. "Next time, take a look at the check before calling me with idle threats. It has Adnan Khashoggi's name on it." 

Over the years to follow, the Khashoggi name would encompass more than weapons trade. Adnan's nephew, Jamal Khashoggi, became a prominent journalist for The Washington Post before being murdered at Istanbul's Saudi Arabian consulate in 2018. I think it's safe to say that Jamal lived a more honorable life than his uncle. 

Reflecting back on the licensing deals I made during my days at MGM, we really did liquidate the company. Kirk used the studio as a means to source his real legacy: the resort business. Hollywood gave him a lot of heat for his impact on the industry. I think his detractors lack perspective. Like all great moguls, Kirk threw out the rule book and made decisions that benefitted himself and his stockholders. If that meant selling his eighty-year-old studio to a massive conglomerate, then so be it. I think his utter disregard for material possessions stemmed from his upbringing; he had gotten along just fine without life's bells and whistles. He chose a Pontiac Firebird over a private chauffeur and bought movie tickets to films he financed, maintaining that he didn't want to owe any favors. Kirk was never sentimental and never nostalgic — he had no problem selling a prized asset, whether it be the 1945 Cessna that kickstarted his career, the MGM Grand, or Dorothy's ruby slippers.

Excerpts adapted from the book You Can't Fall Off the Floor and Other Life Lessons From a Life in Hollywood by Harris Katleman and Nick Katleman, published on June 25, 2019, and is printed with permission from Rosetta Books. Copyright © 2019 by Harris Katleman and Nick Katleman.