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Murray Weissman, the dean of Oscar consultants who spearheaded the awards campaigns for seven best picture winners in a half-century of pressing the flesh, died Monday. He was 90.
Weissman, who spent 14 straight awards seasons in the employ of Academy Awards stockpiler Harvey Weinstein, died of pancreatic cancer at his apartment in Studio City, Leonard Morpurgo, vp, Weissman/Markovitz Communications, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Weissman most recently was involved with Emmy Awards campaigns for such networks as AMC and FX as head of Weissman/Markovitz, the firm he co-owned with his son-in-law, Rick Markovitz.
On Nov. 17, with news that he was ill, Weissman was toasted at a party to celebrate his 90th birthday a bit early. Dozens of friends and colleagues came to Sadie Kitchen & Lounge in Hollywood for the bash, organized and sponsored by many of the publications, publicists, studios and networks with whom he had worked. The music of the late Frank Sinatra — a client — played, and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike was on hand to sing “Happy Birthday” to Weissman.
The next morning, each guest received an email from Weissman, thanking them for coming. He turned 90 on Dec. 23.
In an era before studios used outside awards consultants, Weissman celebrated his first best picture Oscar triumph in 1974 when, as the executive in charge of Universal’s motion picture press department, he saw The Sting reel in the top honor, one of seven Academy Awards for the film.
“We had two charismatic stars [Paul Newman and Robert Redford], and one of the things that I learned then was that we were the lead movie, so I didn’t let anybody outspend us,” he told THR’s Scott Feinberg in a May 2013 interview.
Weissman also had a hand in procuring the best picture Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Dances With Wolves (1990), The English Patient (1996), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Chicago (2002) and Crash (2005).
The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago were all released by Weinstein’s Miramax Films.
“I saw Chicago at the Academy, and what was amazing to me was that the picture was so well received; people broke out in applause at least three or four times during those great numbers,” Weissman told Feinberg. “I called Harvey the next day and said, ‘You’re going to win the Oscar, but you’re not going to win it unless you hire me.’ So he did the next day.”
Weissman campaigned for about 40 best picture nominees, starting with Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and including recent releases Lincoln (2012), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Nebraska (2013).
Born in Brooklyn, Weissman came to Los Angeles with his family in 1936 as a teenager and attended Fairfax High School. As a youngster, he carried flashbulbs for his older brothers Art and Len, who were celebrity photographers in Hollywood.
“At that time, paparazzi was welcomed into the nightclubs of Ciro’s, The Mocambo, The Brown Derby and all those famous places because they wanted to publicize stars eating there and having fun,” he said. “And as a kid, 11 years old or something, I would follow.”
Weissman graduated from USC’s School of Journalism, served as a radio operator for the Navy during World War II and then did promotional work for TV Guide before landing a job at KABC-TV and then ABC in the 1950s. He shifted to CBS as assistant director of press information, then handled publicity at Universal for its films and TV shows from 1966 through 1976.
Weissman then spent several years at ICPR, where he was a partner and where he handled such films as The Mountain Men I(1980), starring Charlton Heston. After then serving a short stint at Rogers & Cowan, he went on to open his own firm Murray Weissman & Associates in the early ’80s. In late 1988, Tony Angellotti joined him as a partner at that company, and in 1989, the two formed Weissman/Angellotti, which ran until 1997. Weissman subsequently headed Weissman/Delson and his current firm Weissman/Markovitz, which he launched in 2006.
In a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Weissman said he learned not to discount even one Oscar voter back in 1969, when Barbra Streisand of Funny Girl and Katharine Hepburn of The Lion in Winter tied for best actress.
“I took the attitude to go after every vote,” he said. “I remember one time when an Academy voter said to me toward the end of a balloting period that he hadn’t seen a movie. So I sent a limousine for the guy” to carry him to a screening.
In addition to his son-in-law, survivors include his second wife, actress-dancer Kay Friedman Weissman (whom he married after the 1995 death of his first wife, Gracia Lee Weissman); daughter Julie, whom he introduced to Markovitz; son Benjamin; daughter-in-law Amy; and grandchildren Ethan, Jonathan and Elizabeth.
A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Mulholland Tennis Club in Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
“Murray Weissman was an essential part of Mad Men,” that AMC series’ creator, Matt Weiner, said in a statement. “His understanding of creative people, his patience, his cleverness with gatekeepers and his unflagging taste served as an example to me and to generations of artists.
“Murray’s belief in the show, in the network’s commitment and in me personally — expressed by clever, persistent and always polite persuasion — enabled our success. Murray Weissman was a Zen warrior, proving how belief in yourself and your work can overcome all obstacles. I will miss him and I feel so lucky to have been part of his personal and professional life.”
In 2003, Weissman, then consulting for Miramax, ran into trouble when it was reported that a column written by director Robert Wise in the Los Angeles Daily News that praised Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York actually had been penned by the publicist. He was booted from the Academy’s PR peer group, and a rule prohibiting quotes by its members in Oscar ads was quickly enacted (he laughingly called that “The Murray Rule”).
He denied doing anything wrong. “I’ve been writing speeches, letters and statements for filmmakers, executives and actors for more than 40 years,” he said then. “It’s what the men and women in my profession do all the time.”