Fay Vincent Remembers Jerry Weintraub: "He Was a Born Risk-Taker" (Guest Column)

Fay Vincent - H 2015
AP Images

Fay Vincent - H 2015

The former Columbia Pictures CEO, who also served as Commissioner of Major League Baseball, recalls his old friend, the irrepressible producer.

Former entertainment lawyer Fay Vincent, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992, served as president and CEO of Columbia Pictures beginning in 1978. When the Coca-Cola Company acquired Columbia in 1982, he was promoted to president and CEO of its Entertainment Business Sector and later became executive vice president of the Coca-Cola Company. Here he recalls the dynamic producer Jerry Weintraub, who died July 6 at age 77.

If opposites attract, as I believe they do, that may explain why I so loved Jerry Weintraub, whose death at 77 has left me so bereft. A true Hollywood mogul, he had been a music and event promoter of such notables as Elvis Presley, John Denver and Frank Sinatra but I knew him after he moved into the film business as producer of hits like The Karate Kid.

He was all the many things I am not. He was handsome, preternaturally dynamic and self-confident. He was effortlessly charming and witty. He was a born risk-taker and his driving energy forced the rest of us to yield to him just as he intended. And, above all, he was a showman who enjoyed attention, and whose refusal to admit defeat helped him recover from serious financial mishaps. Stories about him help me to dispel my loss.

The last time we met was a surprise. Both of us happened to be in Cannes, France at the same time a few years ago. He was touting his film Behind the Candelabra while I was vacationing. At lunch one afternoon in a small seaside bistro, I felt someone crouch over my left shoulder. A voice asked, "Did you used to be Fay Vincent?" Of course it was Jerry. We had a hugging and happy reunion. Later a waiter appeared with a magnum of champagne for my table and Jerry waved from across the room to acknowledge his gift. As we were leaving, he told me not to be too grateful for the wine — he had charged it to the film. My reply was I had been his partner and knew he had long ago stopped paying for anything out of his own pocket.         

One other Jerry story comes to mind because he told it often. It explains his brief attempt to retire after his success with The Karate Kid in 1984 for Columbia Pictures during my tenure with that film company. Jerry had just turned 50 when he and his wife, Jane Morgan, the singer, decided to move to Hawaii and test their ability to turn their backs on Hollywood. He was worth $100 million, which they believed was enough, and so they rented a lovely home on the beach in Maui and told their friends they would try the new life for six months and if they liked it they would never return.

Jerry explained: "Every morning for the first few weeks, I would get up, get into my Jeep with a surfboard and a magnum of wine and head off down the beach. I was a kid from Brooklyn, so I had no idea what surfing was like and I hardly could swim. In a few days though I met a gorgeous girl and soon was in love. Every day was the same. I would head down the beach, meet her and enjoy the blissful life. Then one day it ended.

"I remember this lovely girl and I were having a drink in a bar at the end of the day. The sun was setting over the water. I had my arm around her waist, and she was so young and so tanned. I was sure I was in paradise. Then there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Jane.     

" 'Jerry. Is that a $50 million dollar drink you are having?' "

" 'No, dear, it is not.' "     

" 'Then Jerry, say good night and come with me. We are going home tomorrow and you are going back to work.' "        

That was it. They went back and Jerry soon was at full power. I worked with him to raise $500 million to fund a new company he wanted to start, The Weintraub Company, so he could make the films he wanted to make. Columbia put up the lion’s share of that money because we saw the opportunity to distribute his films and we believed in his abilities. But I made a bad mistake as did Jerry. The venture went badly from the outset and he eventually had to take it into bankruptcy. The mistake was that Jerry was a superb producer but, like many others, his ability to select new projects was not terrific. In addition, Jerry was unable to control the expenses at the new firm and an overly large cost structure dragged him down.       

But Jerry bounced back. He briefly became the head man at MGM working for Kirk Kerkorian but he was soon pushed out by Kirk. He then made a deal to produce for Warner Bros., where he made the successful series of Oceans Eleven films. Terry Semel at Warners told me they saw Jerry as a wonderful producer of films that Warners wanted to make. He was superb with talent, stayed on budget, and came in on time. Jerry had a good run with Warners.         

What made Jerry so special was that he loved his friends and was open with his affection. One of his closest pals was President George H.W. Bush. He worked at friendship. He cared about those he liked and we knew it. We cared for him as well and I am sure he relished our support. The sadness of age is the loss of old friends. The loss of Jerry will sting for a long time.