Jack Valenti dies at 85; led MPAA for four decades


WASHINGTON -- Jack Valenti, the eloquent, high-level power broker who reigned as head of the MPAA for almost four decades and was responsible for the institution of the movie ratings system, has died. He was 85.

Read MPAA chairman Dan Glickman's statement (PDF)

Valenti died Thursday evening at his home in Washington surrounded by family and friends. He had a stroke in late March, and had checked out of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on Tuesday after about month there.

A diminutive Texan who used big words and wielded even bigger clout in the corridors of Hollywood and Washington, Valenti became one of the most powerful and respected men in Washington even as he defined a trade -- lobbyist -- that often has lacked respect. He joined the MPAA in 1966 and retired in 2004.

Upon learning of his death, the outpouring of respect for Valenti was tremendous.

Said Warner Bros. chairman & CEO Barry Meyer, a friend who served as the family spokesman when Valenti had his stroke: "Today, my heart is truly heavy. I have lost a dear friend and mentor -- someone who not only made a mark in history, but also had a profound impact on my life."

Meyer described Valenti as "a true leader and gentleman whose wit, fire and passion for our business inspired everyone regardless of politics or opinion, background or belief."

A private mass celebrating Valenti will be held in Washington, with the family to announce details in the coming days.

Valenti was a special assistant and confidant to President Lyndon Johnson and living in the White House when he lured to Hollywood in 1966 by movie moguls Lew Wasserman and Arthur Krim. He was immediately embroiled in battles over the racy content in what was then a new way of making more realistic movies.

In an interview with the The Hollywood Reporter in 1998 to mark the 30th anniversary of the MPAA ratings system, Valenti recalled finding himself arguing with three of the most powerful men in Hollywood about Mike Nichols' 1966 movie, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

They weren't arguing the merits of the dramatic portrayal of the destructive, sadomasochistic relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They were arguing about "humps" and "screws."

Warner Bros. chairman Jack Warner, his right-hand man Ben Kalmenson, attorney Louis Nizer and the newly appointed MPAA chief were locked in battle over the "hump the hostess" line that Burton recites in the Edward Albee classic. Another point of contention: the word "screw."

Those bits of dialogue, violations of the Hays Production Code that had been in place since the 1930s, prevented the MPAA from affixing its seal of approval on the film, meaning the film could not be released.

"Kemelson was a foul-talking guy, every other word he uttered had four letters. They played the good-cop, bad-cop on me," Valenti reminisced. "I got out of that meeting and said to Louie, 'This is ridiculous. We've got to do something about that.'"

"Hump the hostess" was left in, "screw" was deleted, and the film went out.

But two months later, another movie, Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blowup," presented a similar problem. This time it was brief nude scene. MGM wounded up distributing the film through a subsidiary in order to evade the Hays code.

"I knew we couldn't go on like that, so out of that came the idea for a classification system," Valenti said. "We had to have some system in place to allow parents to decide what their kids could see."

In 1968, the MPAA ratings system was adopted, initially using four ratings: G for general audiences, M for mature audiences, R for restricted and X for adult-only. The M rating later became today's PG. In the 1980s, the PG-13 rating was added, and the X rating, which had become synonymous with pornography, was changed to NC-17 in the 1990s.

Valenti never stopped fighting for free-speech rights, years later becoming the point man on the TV ratings system that was set up to work with the V-chip content-blocking device. While he fought establishment of the V-chip, once Congress approved the law, he threw himself into making something work.

Both the movie ratings system and the TV ratings system generate controversy to this day. On Wednesday, the FCC issued a report asking Congress for more power to regulate TV programming because, in part, the V-chip is a failure.

Valenti stay at the MPAA was also marked by his colorful attacks on Sony's Betamax VCR, which the MPAA feared would ruin the exhibition industry: In 1982, he told the House Judiciary Committee's copyright subcommittee: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

The battle went to the Supreme Court, which ruled for VCR makers.

As his MPAA reign came to a close, Valenti was occupied with movie piracy, both on the Internet and on bootlegged videos. He sided with the studios' proposal to ban distribution of movie screeners to critics in an anti-piracy measure, a plan derided by some as being a David vs. Goliath scenario, under which the indies, who counted on critics' votes to win attention for their films, were being unfairly penalized.

Valenti's professional attainments were vast: He wrote five books, including one work of fiction, a political novel entitled "Protect and Defend." His nonfiction books include "The Bitter Taste of Glory," "A Very Human President," "Speak Up with Confidence" and "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood," which is due out in June. He was preparing to promote the latter when he became ill.

Valenti also wrote and placed numerous essays in major newspapers as well as such periodicals as Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek. He was a popular graduation speaker at university ceremonies and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oklahoma (and no doubt many more).

France conferred on him its Legion d'Honneur, and he was accorded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A sculpture of Valenti was unveiled in February at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

Jack Valenti was born in Dallas on Sept. 5, 1921. A go-getter, at 15 he was one of the youngest high school graduates in the city's history. As a teenager, he served as an office boy at Humble Oil (now Exxon), then distinguished himself in World War II as an ace pilot-commander, flying more than 50 combat missions with the 12th Air Force in Italy.

He was frequently decorated, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with four clusters, the Distinguished Unit Citation with one cluster and the European Theater Ribbon with four battle stars.

Valenti returned from service to attend the University of Houston, working during the day and attending class at night. He went on to take his MBA at Harvard's School of Business.

Valenti began his professional career in 1952 as co-founder of the advertising agency and political consultancy Weekley & Valenti. The firm was extremely successful, and he cultivated contacts and favors, impressing among others including Johnson, who tapped him to handle the media for President John F. Kennedy's trip to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. He was riding in the Dallas motorcade when Kennedy was assassinated.

Valenti flew with Johnson aboard the plane carrying the late president from Dallas to Washington where he appears in the famous photograph of Johnson's swearing in on Air Force One. Of that fateful day, he told Vanity Fair:

"(Johnson) leaned down in my ear and said very softly, 'The president is dead, you know.' When I came up to Johnson at Love Field, he said, matter-of-factly, 'Jack, I want you on my staff, and I want you to fly back to Washington with me.' "

Valenti is survived by his wife of 45 years, Mary Margaret; their three children, Courtenay, John and Alexandra; son-in-law Patrick Roberts; two grandchildren, Wiley Willis Valenti Roberts and Lola Lorraine Valenti Roberts; sister Lorraine Valenti Dinerstein; and brother-in-law Ted Dinerstein.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be directed to the Jack Valenti Macular Degeneration Research Fund at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Stroke Research Fund, also in Baltimore.

Duane Byrge in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Read about Valenti's career
ShowWest Medal of Honor Awardee
Dialogue with Jack Valenti
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