Inside the Norman Brokaw Memorial: Tony Orlando Sings, Kim Novak Speaks

Norman Brokaw - Getty - H 2016
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The longtime William Morris agent was remembered by friends who ranged from Regis Philbin to Marlo Thomas.

Vertigo star Kim Novak spoke and Tony Orlando performed — all against a backdrop of a wall of 19,000 red roses — at Monday's memorial service at the Hillcrest Country Club for the legendary agent Norman Brokaw.

The gathering also amounted to a celebration of the history of the William Morris Agency, since Brokaw, who died Oct. 29 at the age of 89, began his career as the first mailroom trainee at William Morris’ West Coast branch and went on to have an almost seven-decade run as an agent, representing talent ranging from Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Loretta Young to Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood and President Gerald Ford — as well as comedian Bill Cosby.

At the memorial service, friends painted a portrait of a man who was a caring father and whose chief skill as an agent was his ability to treat his clients as family. 

Orlando acted as a host for the proceedings and started off by talking about meeting Brokaw during the lowest point in his life — his friend (and fellow comedian) Freddie Prinze had committed suicide, his sister had died and he had had a mental breakdown.

“Norman looked at me and said, ‘What happened to you is shocking!' (a favorite word of Brokaw’s), 'and I’m here to take care of you,’ said Orlando. “And boy, did this man take care of me.”

Orlando popped on and off the stage throughout the celebration, clarifying his words, recounting colorfully how in 1981 the agent nabbed him an audition for the Broadway play, Barnum, to replace the lead actor who was on a vacation and how the role became part of the performer’s comeback. Orlando also performed a song from Barnum, "Colors of My Life."

Sam Haskell, the former head of television at William Morris who now produces television specials, spoke of his time as an agent who was mentored by Brokaw as he worked in the William Morris screening room as a 22-year-old. He also recounted the most important lesson he learned: “When you have all the leverage, all the power to get what you want, leave a little something on the table. Because the day will come when you have no leverage at all. And what you left behind on that table will make a difference.”

Another of Brokaw's clients was Danny Thomas, who went from the nightclub scene to becoming one of the biggest television producers in the 1960s (before going on to found St. Jude’s Research Hospital). Thomas worked with Sheldon Leonard to create The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show and with Aaron Spelling on The Mod Squad.  

Thomas’ daughter, Marlo Thomas, was on hand to speak about the friendship between Brokaw and her father, mentioning how Brokaw’s favorite place outside his home was the Hillcrest. 

She also remembered Brokaw as a great storyteller. "You asked one question, he’d take you back to 1945 and go from there,” she said. “You had better snuggle up for the night.”

Novak met Brokaw through Frank Sinatra after shooting 1955's The Man With the Golden Arm and told of how the agent convinced her, through his gentle and caring manner, to return to work in Hollywood after she fell deeply in love with a European count. Later, “whenever I got that romantic urge, he would talk to me and kept my mind on the right page,” she said.

Regis Philbin recalled how he consulted with Brokaw when he was offered talk show opportunities in New York in the 1980s. “’Whaddaya think? Should I do it’” asked Philbin, who was then doing local morning TV in Los Angeles.

“If you can hit a homerun in Dodger Stadium, you can hit a homerun in Yankee Stadium,” was the response from Brokaw.

The lengthy celebration also featured Motown founder Berry Gordy, who said Brokaw had the uncanny ability to know what clients wanted before they themselves knew; TV personality Mary Hart; and agent Jennifer Craig, as well as words from Brokaw's son Joel Brokaw and daughter Wendy Brokaw Kretchmer.

Bringing a distinct nightclub act vibe was Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, who performed their 1967 hit, "Up, Up and Away." Vienna Dohler, the grand-daughter of Donna Summer, whom Brokaw once represented, closed out the memorial service with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah."