Piers Morgan Pens Emotional Tribute to Late Rep John Ferriter: "Magnificent Friend, Mentor and Drinking Buddy"
The broadcaster pays respect to the "brilliant agent and manager," who died at 59 last week and who persuaded Morgan to appear on 'Celebrity Apprentice,' helped him replace Larry King at CNN and once apologized for giving the world 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians.'
On July 25, manager, agent and former William Morris Agency board member John Ferriter passed away from complications of acute pancreatitis at age 59. Among Ferriter’s clients over the years were Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Kimmel, Dick Clark, Garth Brooks, Arsenio Hall, Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly, Nancy O'Dell, Marie Osmond, Drew Pinsky, Erin Burnett, Emmy-winning producer Glenn Weiss, and Piers Morgan, who has written the following tribute as a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter:
Ten years ago, John Ferriter’s heart stopped beating for three minutes.
He’d gone into Cedars-Sinai hospital for treatment to a blood clot in his leg, suffered a serious staph infection and then flatlined.
In fact, for those three minutes, he was technically dead. But John was never one for technicalities getting in the way of a good result. Somehow, aided by the brilliance of Cedars’ medical staff, his heart began beating again, and John sprang back to life.
"I fought death, and I won!" he’d later say, delightedly.
The experience gave him a new perspective on life and its fragility.
"Live every day as if it’s your last," John used to chuckle, "because one day you’ll be right!"
He developed sudden pancreatitis, was admitted back to Cedars, and suffered a massive toxic shock from which he never recovered. For the man who regularly spoke of being "the luckiest man alive," luck finally ran out.
I was John’s client and close friend for 12 years. We bonded during the extraordinary aftermath of that health crisis in 2009.
John, then a William Morris superagent as worldwide head of nonscripted television, had been the only member of the company’s board to vote against the proposed merger with Ari Emanuel’s Endeavor, just before he fell sick. He finally came out of a lengthy two-month coma to discover the merger had gone through. And while John was still barely able to walk, Emanuel fired him, ending his 19-year William Morris career.
So he nearly died and lost the job he loved all in the same summer.
In such moments, as he was to often recall, you really do find out who your friends are. Of the 1,000 or so clients that John had represented over the years — including everyone from Jerry Garcia, the Beach Boys and Garth Brooks to Carson Daly, Donny and Marie Osmond, and Dr. Drew Pinsky — he said just 10 made any attempt to contact him during the darkest period of his life.
"When I came out of the hospital, I learned that most of my clients had left me," he said. "Ryan Seacrest, Chelsea Handler and others departed when I was in a coma. I’d ceased to be of use to them. You see, your value is greatly diminished when you die, or when you are left for dead. You learn about loyalty."
The very few who stayed loyal included Oscars producer-director Glenn Weiss and comedian Tom Green, who both sat by his bedside, and Nancy O’Dell. As for me, I watched in disgust as most of John’s WMA clients fired him, and decided instead to fire WMA.
"If this is your Jerry Maguire moment, then I’m going to be your Rod Tidwell," I joked.
He was massively grateful, but the truth is that I liked John enormously, thought he was a great agent, felt angry at the way he’d been treated, and knew if I stayed with him, at least I would now get straight through on the phone every time I called. I also believed he’d want to prove a point to those that had betrayed him.
One of the clients who dropped him after 10 years working together was Larry King. A year to the day later, John and I sat in Cut restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire and waited for a fax to arrive with my four-year contract to replace Larry at CNN.
"Land this deal, and we’re drinking the best wine ever made," I’d promised.
The moment the contract was delivered to the table, I signed it and we opened a bottle of 1961 Chateau Latour. It was every bit as delicious as the karma the contract signified. John made two toasts: "To the doctors who saved my life," and, "To loyalty!"
Then he said to me: "Always remember that you will be the same guy tomorrow that you are today and that you were a year ago; the same father, the same brother, the same son and the same husband. Never lose track of what really matters."
That CNN deal — which seemed so preposterously unachievable to me when John first mooted it — summed up his can-do mentality. His relentless six-month battle to make it happen against a lot of seemingly insurmountable obstacles epitomized the spirit of Nelson Mandela’s famous quote: "It always seems impossible, until it’s done."
"All through life," he explained, "you’re going to run into temporary people who make permanent decisions. Don’t let them get in your way. When they say ‘No, no, no, can’t be done,’ that means they can’t get it done. So find a way to turn the no into a yes."
As his great friend Jon Finseth, lead singer of The Tearaways — the terrific band that John played in and was due to tour the U.K. with in a few weeks — put it: "John instilled in us that there is a solution to every problem; that if there’s no solution, we don’t have a problem."
I first met John at a London dinner party in the spring of 2007. We sat next to each other, and he made an immediate impression as a quite extraordinary life force: fiercely intelligent, crackling with infectious energy, and a teller of endless hilarious anecdotes — some of which even had the ring of truth to them. At the time, I was a judge on America’s Got Talent, which was the No. 1-rated summer TV show, and yet I was earning a relative pittance.
"I can fix your money and make you the biggest star on U.S. TV!" John declared, with what I soon came to know was classic Ferriter hyperbole.
Obviously, this was music to my ears, and I left CAA to sign with John a few months later. So began one of the most important and transformative relationships of my life.
I soon nicknamed him "Ferret" because ferrets are "intelligent, lively, youthful, playful carnivores that adjust their sleeping schedule to yours so they are eager and ready to play when you are. They’re also quite ferocious when they need to be, with a nasty nip if challenged." (Our production company is called Ferret Productions.)
"Without a good agent in this town," he said, "you’ll be swimming uphill in a river full of piranhas. Your job is to look pretty, smile a lot, and do your work well. My job is to screw the bastards into the ground."
And screw them he duly did.
I didn’t become the biggest star on U.S. TV, but like so many of John’s clients, he helped me achieve so much more than I ever thought possible, and the way he did was fascinatingly strategic.
One of his first moves was to persuade me, against my reluctance, to appear on NBC’s inaugural season of Celebrity Apprentice, hosted by Donald Trump.
"You need leverage," he said. "Do well in this show and you’ll get it."
Thanks largely to John’s wise counsel throughout the filming, I ended up winning it, and in the process cemented an enduring friendship with Trump that was to later prove very beneficial.
John used our new leverage to instantly quadruple my AGT deal.
"This town only reacts to two things," he said, "success and fear."
He then asked me what I really wanted to do with my career.
"I don’t want to judge piano-playing pigs all my life," I said. "I want to be a global interviewer."
"OK, let’s make it happen."
John was a man who liked to make dreams come true, and he made my dream come true with the CNN gig, which allowed me to interview the world’s biggest names, like Oprah, Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama and George Clooney, on a show that broadcast to over 150 countries.
John was all over that show for the three and a half years it aired, helping to recruit staff, book guests and often travel with me to far-flung locations. He felt as personally invested in it as I did. He also managed my inflated anchor ego with commendable brevity.
When I rang him in a spewing rage from the 2012 Republican National Convention to say I was immediately quitting CNN because they hadn’t used me enough, John sighed: "Piers, I say this with great respect, but calm down and stop being such a fucking dick."
John’s much-needed brutal honesty with clients was only matched by his limitless loyalty. He once said in an interview that he would ‘take a bullet" for me. I reminded him of this pledge when the possibility became all too real after I took on the NRA and began receiving death threats.
"I’m ready," he vowed.
And I believed him. I’d have taken one for him too.
When a petition was started by lunatic shock jock Alex Jones to have me deported for allegedly being "engaged in a hostile attack against the U.S. Constitution by targeting the Second Amendment," I asked John if it might be successful.
"Well they tried to deport John Lennon, but failed," he said, encouragingly. "Mind you, he did write 'Imagine.'"
Speaking of guns, John instantly knew what would suit — and more importantly, not suit — his clients.
Dancing With the Stars once made me a big offer to strut my very ungainly stuff. (Think Jerry Springer without the elegance.)
The invitation gushed: "This show will change his life. Piers will learn and grow more from being on DWTS than anywhere else and it is such a major platform to help launch his future endeavors."
John forwarded it to me with a note saying: "If I ever recommend that you do Dancing With the Stars please get a handgun and shoot me twice. Once in the heart, and once in the head to make sure that I never do career harm again. America will forgive you."
America, he feared, might be less forgiving of his involvement as a packaging agent in another cultural phenomenon, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
"I will probably go to hell for that," he confessed. "I apologize for this scourge of Western civilization."
John coped admirably well with clients when we rejected apparently great jobs. I once turned down a lucrative offer from Donald Trump to host his Miss USA pageant because it clashed with a big cricket match in England.
"You’re turning down the chance to spend four days with 50 beautiful women, to watch cricket?’ he exclaimed, incredulous. But then he laughed. "You Brits are nuts, but OK."
He was less understanding if clients failed to show enough moral fiber. When I broke five ribs and collapsed a lung falling off a Segway on Santa Monica beach (yes, I’m well aware how humiliating that sentence sounds), I didn’t think I’d make the finale of America’s Got Talent five days later. John wasn’t impressed.
"The show goes on," he said. "If you’re alive, you’re doing the show."
When I arrived at the studio, John was waiting for me with a giant bag of … spare ribs.
He understood the business of show business better than most, and had great advice for those wanting to be stars:
1) "Know where you want to go and be fabulous when you get there."
2) "Remember, the outcome of most auditions or meetings is determined in the first 90 seconds."
3) "Shy doesn’t play."
4) "There are no shortcuts, people will soon find out if you can’t do it."
5) "Don’t let desperation kick in and compel you to make bad decisions. Let your rep handle it."
Those last words resonate most strongly with me.
My favorite emails from John would simply read, "OK, I’ll handle it," when problems arose. Or when deals were done: "We’re closed, congratulations."
When I heard John had died, I cracked open a bottle of wine, lit a cigar, put on some music and sat outside in my L.A. garden re-reading every one of the 10,000+ emails we had ever exchanged. They made me laugh and cry in equal measure.
What a ride we had together, full of highs and lows but always full, too, of unconditional support from a man I trusted with my life.
The last time I saw John was in London in mid-June, when I interviewed President Trump during his U.K. state visit.
"John’s the guy who put me on Celebrity Apprentice," I reminded Trump as I reintroduced them down in the bowels of the Churchill War Rooms.
"Then John must be a very smart guy!" quipped the president.
He was. He also never missed an opportunity.
One of my favorite Ferriter stories involved him bumping into Robert Redford at a gas station. The actor was running late and needed directions to some place near Santa Barbara. John, as always, sensed a deal.
"I’ll give you the directions if you give my band’s new album a spin?" he said.
Redford chuckled, accepted a copy of the album, and John gave him directions. John then watched Redford speed off in his open-top sportscar and within seconds hurl the album windmilling into a field.
"So yes," John would recount, "Robert Redford gave my record a spin."
John believed it was vitally important to have at least some fun every day, and most of his fun happened in his favorite L.A. restaurants, like Madeo, Rao’s or Carmine’s. John would rock up with a beaming grin and immediately order the same drink: "Dirty vodka martini, straight up with three olives." The vodka had to be potato-based and the olives stuffed with blue cheese. Then he’d move on to red wine, either Californian or French, and usually have a steak.
In April, a group of us gathered at Larsen’s Steakhouse in Encino to celebrate John’s 59th birthday. (Last Friday, Larsen’s kept his usual table empty apart from a dirty martini, soda back and an espresso.) It was a fabulous night.
"There’s nothing more important than friendship," he said in a speech.
John had many passions, led by music — the greatest moment of his life came when he got to play bass guitar with his hero, Sir Paul McCartney — the L.A. Dodgers and his dogs, Chandler and Carly.
"Whether or not you own a house," he recently posted, "If you have a dog you will always have a home."
John found his dogs a lot more reliable than most of the clients or women in his life (he was married and divorced twice).
"Dogs never whine unless they’re hungry," he explained. "Clients whine even after a 12-course dinner."
He enjoyed canine analogies. I remember sitting with him in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel when a handsome but notoriously intellectually challenged young movie star entered.
"They call him Dalmatian," observed John. "Pretty to look at, but stupid enough to eat his own shit."
Ultimately, John Ferriter was driven by one overriding maxim: "It is far more important to do right than to be right."
From the extraordinary outpouring of heartfelt tributes that have flowed on social media since his death, and from the many calls I have taken from his equally heartbroken clients and friends, it’s clear that John did the right thing by many, many people. As Glenn Weiss — who I know made John so unbelievably proud when he achieved his dream this year of both producing and directing the Academy Awards — wrote in a tribute: "John, you fought the good fight and always stood up for what you thought was right. No matter what the potential consequences."
John Ferriter was an unusually selfless character in a town full of self-obsessed, money-crazed, ruthless and cynical charlatans. He could be tough as hell when he had to be (only last week, an ITV lawyer in London told me how shocked she was when he suddenly slammed the phone down on her during an intense but otherwise courteous negotiation), but at his heart he was an honest, decent, kind and generous man who always had time for everyone regardless of their status — values instilled in him by his large military family.
His father was a U.S. Army colonel, and his brother Mike — John was youngest of five children — is a retired three-star lieutenant-general who now runs the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. (Mike; his wife, Margie; and John’s attorney sister, Pat, were all with him when he died.)
One of the most poignant moments I ever had with John was when I went with him to the Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to see the grave where his parents are buried together. John knelt in the rain to pay his respects, then said to me: "My father always said that whatever you do, leave with your integrity intact, and that you never know what personal battles someone is fighting at any given time, so always be compassionate and patient."
After a five-year stint as managing director of Octagon, John left in 2016 to start up his own talent management company The Alternative with Jamie Gruttemeyer, his incredibly loyal partner. He loved his newfound freedom, was taking on lots of new clients, and was excited for the future.
A few weeks ago, on the 10th anniversary of his earlier brush with death, John posted on Facebook: "I am thankful that at the age of 49 when God made me take an intermission, the review was at least positive enough to pursue a second act. Lord knows no one is perfect, and I am human and far from that and I realize I can never attain that. I just hope I can continue to learn and forgive, accept, understand, love and trust. That’s really what’s all about. Of all the resources we have at our disposal, the one that can never be recreated is time. So make the best of it, try not to waste others’ time and count your blessings."
One of my greatest blessings was to know John Ferriter, a man who enriched my life and the lives of so many others.
You were a brilliant agent and manager. But more importantly, you were a magnificent friend, confidant, mentor and drinking buddy. We’ll all miss you so much.
A version of this story appears in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.