When Kirk Kerkorian Hired the Most Hated Man in Hollywood

Kirk Kerkorian - S 2015
AP Images

Kirk Kerkorian - S 2015

In 1969, the MGM owner needed someone to run his company. He found James T. Aubrey, a former CBS executive who was widely known as the Smiling Cobra.

In 1969, Kirk Kerkorian entered into an unholy alliance with the most hated man in Hollywood.

The Las Vegas investor had just gobbled up MGM following a series of stock purchases that took many in Hollywood by surprise. Now he needed someone to run it.

Twelve years after the death of Louis B. Mayer, the man who personified the studio, the fabled company was a mess. With one glittering exception, 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, most of its movies had flopped; it was hemorrhaging money, and many insiders questioned Kerkorian’s wisdom in buying the studio at all, not knowing that the parts were worth more than the whole.

But a collection of used parts was hardly the most enticing prospect for a high-ranking executive. Nor was the idea of working for a man reputed to have mob ties. And so Kerkorian’s first choice, United Artists’ Herb Jaffe, said no, and so did his second, producer Mike Frankovich. Who could he turn to next?

Attorney Greg Bautzer, one of Hollywood’s most famous eminences grises, came up with the solution: James T. Aubrey, 50, a former CBS executive who was widely known as the Smiling Cobra.

Handsome and polished, Aubrey was a Princeton graduate with perfect Ivy League manners and a street fighter’s willingness to brawl. He knew nothing about film, having spent much of his career in television, most notably at CBS, which he had helped lift to the top of the ratings with such hits as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island, the sort of low-brow fare that made network president William S. Paley blanch.

So what if Aubrey was an outsider to the movies? And so what if journalist Murray Kempton compared him to Caligula? (He was “the fourth president of CBS-TV as Caligula was the fourth of the twelve Caesars,” wrote Kempton.) He knew how to manage a budget, he knew how to be tough, and — four years after being fired by Paley for reasons that were unclear — he was eager for the job.

Aubrey in many ways was Kerkorian’s opposite. Where one was suave, the other was rough-hewn; where one was upper class and Ivy League, the other was blue-collar and an immigrant. Their sex lives were even more different, and Aubrey’s has become the stuff of legend.

“The face Aubrey presented to the world was that of the controlled tactician, the master of cool,” wrote Peter Bart in Fade Out: The Calamitous Final Days of MGM. “The after-hours Aubrey was a whole different animal — hard-drinking and feral. Jack Gould, the eminent television critic of The New York Times, had written of ‘the jungle that prevails at the executive level of TV programming.’ And Aubrey had become its ultimate product; he had become the fabled ‘Jungle Jim.’ ”

In William Froug’s How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island and Other Misadventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer, the writer-producer paraphrased an unnamed actress who told him: “[Aubrey] took me down to Acapulco for a weekend with him and his friend, Greg Martindale, the lawyer [likely a pseudonym for Bautzer]. Greg had his own girl. I thought I knew what I was in for, some drinks, some sex, some laughs, what the hell. But honestly, there’s no way I could have expected what I got from James T. Aubrey.” Outlining his ice-cold requests, the actress said: “I felt a chill go over my entire body. I was speechless.” He allegedly threatened to break her arm if she did not comply.

None of this mattered to Kerkorian, who wanted an executive to add value to his company — which Aubrey did, brilliantly, ruthlessly and tragically.

After canceling some of MGM’s more expensive projects before they could be made (including an adaptation of Andre Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate, to be directed by Oscar winner Fred Zinnemann, who was left with the bill for what already had been spent), he mandated that the studio make no movie that cost more than $2 million. He then proceeded to slash the studio’s workforce and sell off big chunks of its land.

“Even before Kerkorian bought MGM, the company had been selling off parcels of real estate to raise cash,” wrote B. James Gladstone in The Man Who Seduced Hollywood: the Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown’s Most Powerful Lawyer. “But the company he purchased was in worse shape than he had imagined. MGM had posted losses of $35 million, was $80 million in debt, and faced write-offs of $75 million because of box-office failures. Kerkorian told Aubrey to slash costs. Drastic measures were necessary to keep the company afloat. The cobra bared his fangs, terminated thirty-five hundred employees — half the studio’s work force — and canceled twelve projects. In fact, Kerkorian authorized Aubrey to sell everything but the film library.”

What made Hollywood gasp, more than Aubrey’s cold-bloodedness, was his decision to dump much of the studio’s archive.

In what one writer has called “a watershed moment for film scholars and the auction business,” Aubrey allowed auctioneer David Weisz to sell everything from the wedding gown worn by Elizabeth Taylor in 1950’s Father of the Bride to Johnny Weissmuller’s loin-cloth from the Tarzan films to a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, which sold for $15,000. “They had no intrinsic value,” said Aubrey.

Some 5,000 people showed up for the May 1970 auction, which lasted three weeks, The Los Angeles Times reported. Several hundred thousand items were sold, never to return to the studio.

“After the auction,” The New York TimesAljean Harmetz reported, “truckloads of costume sketches, movie stills and other memorabilia were sent to the M-G-M Grand Hotel in Las Vegas to be sold in the gift shop and used as hotel decorations. ‘The tragedy of the movies is that they have trashed their history,’ said Michael Webb, curator for the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition on Hollywood ... ‘At least Warner Brothers and Paramount have preserved much of their heritage and carefully saved some of the best costumes.’ ”

Aubrey remained at MGM for three years after the auction, slashing the studio’s losses along with its creative reputation. But in the end, he was ditched, just like some of the studio’s historic objects.

When profits fell after a series of flops, Kerkorian fired him without warning and without severance. Aubrey was stunned to be let go without a contract, as Kerkorian had hired him with only a handshake.

He would never work for another studio again.