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Kurt Langdon is the name William R. Wilkerson III chose to use in the late 1970s in an effort to distance himself from his father, also named William Wilkerson but better known as Billy, the founder and longtime publisher of The Hollywood Reporter.
The younger Wilkerson was having trouble finding work in the music business and was convinced it had everything to do with his father’s reputation and the sometimes controversial decisions he made steering the Hollywood trade publication from 1930 all the way through his death in 1962. Even though he was only 10 when his father passed away, he believed that it followed him like a black cloud from Los Angeles to London (where he moved as an escape in 1978) and back again several years later.
It would be decades before he realized that what would be the most difficult thing to shake was the desire to fully commit to digging into his father’s complicated personal and professional history with the intent of publishing a no-holds-barred biography. Now 65, Wilkerson has fully leaned into the family legacy — he’s even known to friends and associates these days as “Billy” — with the new book Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson.
And he pulls no punches.
The book jacket reads, “Perhaps nobody in Hollywood history has ever ruined so many careers or done so much to reshape the movie industry as Billy Wilkerson, yet there has never been a solid biography of the man.” Now that there is, THR caught up with the author — now living in Washington and the author of a book about his father’s Sin City exploits The Man Who Invented Las Vegas — to get the full story on how the book came together, the shocking suicide of his father’s longtime secretary and what he wants to write about next.
Congratulations on the book. It’s one hell of a story, but it should be noted that your journey of working on this book is quite a tale as well.
Yes, there’s a lot of me in the book as well.
You never really knew your father. He passed away when you were 10 years old and that decade, you write, was filled with “painful memories” due to his emphysema and dementia. Were there any good times?
I loved playing cards with him. I was told never to disturb him when he was playing solitaire alone in the den, but my curiosity got the better of me. We use to play card games for toothpicks. Those were wonderful moments.
Speaking of his death, it’s how you kick off the book, describing in detail his last hours and moments. What was it like for you, as a son and as the author of his story, to report out how he died?
It was hard retelling that incident but I need to tell it in the very beginning just to get that out of the way. It was very grim, even surreal.
It’s interesting, too, that you reveal that the first man you ever loved was actually not your father, it was his longtime and devoted secretary, George Kennedy, a man without whom there would be no book. What was the greatest lesson you learned from George?
George taught me many lessons. I think the lesson I always remember is “Go where you’re loved.” He said never waste time on people or places that aren’t welcoming. Sage-like advice that has stood me in good stead.
George had the closest connection to your father and witnessed all the good and bad of his business and personal life. You write that these memories finally caved in on George, causing him to commit suicide, which I was so shocked by. Do you have any idea what it was that drove him to such a tragic ending?
I think first of all, isolation. After my father died, George became a real loner. He was also plagued by his own demons. He came from an era where “coming out” out for gays was literally a death sentence. So he hid his homosexuality behind the barbed wire of his Catholicism. Alcohol unfortunately exacerbated the isolation and alienation. These, I think, were parts that fueled his end. But I also blame myself for his death. We talked often by phone and I didn’t realize how much those phone conversations meant to him until a mutual friend told me after his death.
There was a period of time when my marriage ended and their were other personal events that contributed to a depression I fell into around the time of George’s death. I basically closed myself off from the world for months, which I’ve leaned is the worst possible thing you can do. I stopped talking to a lot of people, including George. I think therapy would have helped me understand at the time what I was going through. But certainly it was George’s death that propelled me into therapy. His death became the catalyst for that. Who knows, perhaps if I had gotten help and continued to be in contact with George, his life would have had a very different ending. But for years I blamed myself. It was one of the worst moments of my life, even worse than losing my dad.
You started writing about your father while in college at USC for a film paper. And it took decades to finish it and you overcame what I think is every writer’s worst nightmare — all of your research and notes were stolen. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. You also write in that section that your mother, Tichi, didn’t really want you write about your father. Do you think she had anything to do with it?
The theft of that material is unquantifiable. Without sounding conspiratorial here, I think she did. She and I did not have a close relationship, coupled with the fact that I would be unleashing family skeletons she firmly wanted bolted behind the closet door.
If you had to guess, what would your mother think about this book?
She wouldn’t have approved. Again, family skeletons here. She had a less than idyllic marriage to my dad, and she would not have wanted any reminder of that past made public.
Your father is credited with so many accomplishments in Hollywood and Las Vegas, from establishing The Hollywood Reporter, some of the Sunset Strip’s most iconic destinations and the Flamingo Hotel, and the list goes on. What are you most proud of?
The general theme of the book is that it’s David and Goliath on steroids. He was a nobody who took on the movie tyrants (the robber barons of the film world). That took guts. He railed against their illegal film monopoly. At that time, they owned everything. This means nothing to us today. Today, you and I can make a film, throw it on YouTube and begin making money immediately. But in my dad’s day, if you were an independent studio or an independent filmmaker, without the connection of the massive movie theater chains the studios owned to distribute and exhibit your film, you were sunk. Unless, of course, if you owned your own theater chain. The fact that he busted that monopoly in 1949 is a miracle all unto itself. All of us in the industry owe him a debt of gratitude for making that his life work so that independents could finally realize fair competition. Without his efforts, who knows? There would probably be no YouTube.
But along with those accomplishments there is a very dark history, which includes crime and many shady dealings with mobsters and organized crime. While writing this book and doing a deep dive into his life, what did you find most shocking?
That he was so heavily involved with organized crime. I now see why he was. He needed their muscle to go up against the movie titans, and it worked. Without their participation, he could have never busted the studio monopoly. Nonetheless, it was still shocking.
People go to great lengths to protect family legacy and shield friends or peers from family secrets. But you do the opposite here. While you were investigating his story, did you separate yourself at all? Or how did you approach the work?
Good question. I had to ignore all the family advice to stay away from the subject. The next thing I did was to look at the material from a purely historian’s objective. While my dad’s tactics may have been heavy-handed, in the end did he help or hinder Hollywood? Was he a nuisance or a crusader for fairness? All his life my dad lived by a code of fairness and he did a lot of terrible things in the name of good. There was a lot of unfortunate collateral damage. But by destroying the studio monopoly, he had achieved his goal of opening up the doors to fair competition for independents — both filmmakers and studios. That’s big stuff.
Having said that, I think there was a lot of wasted energy concerning his crusade, misdirected energy. This man had an almost supernatural gift when it came to the creation of nightclubs, cafes, bistros and hotels. Had he focused purely on that, instead of his revenge motive, he could have been the restaurant baron of America.
If you could pick one person — one person who has already passed away aside from George — whom you could interview from the afterlife about your father, who would it be?
Joe Pasternak, the film director my dad discovered. In his book Easy The Hard Way, Joe tells some charming stories which I quote in my book, of the two of them together. I loved Joe. But there were also secrets that he kept of the two of them that he told me he would never tell anyone. Sadly he took them to his grave, as did many I interviewed. I’m guessing these were stories of a highly personal nature. I think he, like the others, we’re trying to guard me from bad stuff. But still, they would have been fascinated to hear.
And is there anything you left out of his story?
We unfortunately had to cut roughly 100 pages of stories from the book in an effort to avoid redundancy. There were a few stories I would have liked to include. Perhaps they’ll wind up in another volume. Who knows?
He was the publisher from 1930 to 1962, and I love that you went back and read more than 8000 editorials that your father wrote. It’s hard to summarize all that work into one question, but is there one piece of writing that really stood out to you or that you’ve kept?
You know the thing that most impressed me? In all my reading of those back issues, not a single typo! And these were the days before spellcheck. Wow, talk about amazing copy editing! But there were some personal pieces he wrote in the paper that I thought were charming that I still have. They were very rare. I included a few of those in the book.
You write at length about your father’s role in the Hollywood Blacklist, something you also focused on in 2012 when you published an op-ed in THR, effectively apologizing to victims. In that piece, you write that if he were alive, your father would’ve apologized as well. How did it feel to step forward with that, and is it still emotional for you to look back on his role in this controversial time in Hollywood’s history?
Actually it was an easy decision to make on my part to come forward back in 2012. But I think what has to be remembered is that my dad’s anti-communist campaign was really an attempt to force the studio moguls back to the bargaining table over their illegal monopoly. The writers my dad named in his editorials were never the intended target — the studio chiefs were. My dad believed that by maligning their best talent, it would succeed in diminishing their (the studio bosses) revenue. In the end, the scheme backfired. What my dad did not foresee was that the studio bosses themselves would end up firing everyone my dad named in his editorials.
We also have to keep remembering that for close to two decades these men (my dad and the studio brass) were brutally beating each other with any clubs they could get their hands on. Anti-communism was just one club. When my dad realized the studio owners weren’t going to play fair (or fight fair, for that matter) he wound up employing their dirty tricks. For heavens sake, the studios were actually burning my dad’s newspapers (THR)! You didn’t do that to my dad. There’s still a lot to come out about this period, which we’ll address in our TV series, Dreamland.
Hollywood is in a new era now with the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. Your father witnessed so much bad behavior, what do you think he would think about what’s going on here today?
He was very conscious about keeping a clean image to protect his credibility. He wanted to be known as the go-to person in Hollywood that everyone came to to kiss his ring. If clouded by sex scandals, he would not have had the clout and credibility he had. I’m personally thankful for the two movements. It’s been a long time coming. But what’s the saying, “If you don’t want to repeat the past, make sure you never forget it?” That’s why I think the history in my book is so valuable, because it’s a vivid reminder of these terrible practices that originated during my dad’s time and an important example that should not be repeated moving forward.
You have a son now, and you write that you wanted to be the father to him that your father never was. How old is your son now and what does he know of his grandfather?
My son’s 33. Oh yes, he knows about his grandfather. The Man Who Invented Las Vegas was required reading in our home. He put together the Wikipedia page on my dad. Yes, in our house we’ve definitely released all the skeletons from the closet.
Looking back on your own story, is there anything you would do differently? Are you still writing songs?
There’s nothing I could have done differently. Apart from changing your name, what else can you do? I still love music, play it everyday. I would have loved a music career, but again family politics prevented that. The good news is that I found a sanctuary as an author I didn’t feel in music or in films because of my family name following me around. But I think a lot of that’s burned off now. I do more book writing these days because I realize that it’s finally okay to tell family secrets. There are two more books yet to come, so that keeps me pretty busy.
I have to ask: Do you still read The Hollywood Reporter?
Yes, online. I’m sorry to admit this, but I do the majority of my reading on my iPad now. Even reading books is more enjoyable. I can adjust light and font size. Can’t do that with normal print books or magazines unfortunately. It’s really spoiled me.
You also have the same name as Aretha Franklin’s partner. Any funny stories about being mistaken for him, or even for your father?
Wow, yeah. That was a scene! In 1988, People magazine ran a photo of Aretha and her fiancé, who happens to have the exact name as me. The problem was her fiancé was wearing a mask. I got tons of calls congratulating me. I had the chance to meet Aretha years ago but I passed. At the time she was on the outs with her fiancé, the other Willie Wilkerson. How would it have gone down if I had strolled up to her and said, “Hi, I’m Willie Wilkerson. I’m such a big fan!”?
You’ve published many books. What’s next for you now that this one – the most personal and the most epic – is done? Where do you go from here?
There’s still plenty of family material to cover beginning from my dad’s death in 1962 to my mom’s passing in 2004. This is an even far darker period than what’s portrayed in Hollywood Godfather.
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