Hollywood PR Reps Lower Smartphones to Salute Peers and 'Argo' at Publicists Awards

Kirk Douglas Headshot - P 2013
Getty Images

Kirk Douglas Headshot - P 2013

Hollywood publicists never stop working, but this Friday afternoon, many of them devoted most of their attention to the 50th Annual Publicists Awards luncheon at the Beverly Hilton.

Several publicists and one journalist were honored with special awards, and Argo picked up yet another prize -- its last before Sunday's Academy Awards, as it was ineligible for Film Independent's Spirit Awards, which will be held on Saturday -- when its publicity team won the Maxwell Weinberg Publicist Showman of the Year Award. Warner Bros. EVP of domestic publicity Juli Goodwin and EVP of international publicity Lance Volland accepted the award on behalf of everyone who contributed to the Argo publicity campaign -- which, Goodwin joked, has lasted nearly as long as the Iran hostage crisis itself -- including "partners in crime" Suzanne Fritz, Michele Robertson, Judy Schwam and Cynthia Swartz. The publicists behind Showtime's Homeland won the Weinberg prize for TV.

STORY: Kirk Douglas to Receive Publicists' Lifetime Achievement Award

The event kicked off with remarks by publicist Henri Bollinger, the chair of the awards committee (who received hearty applause when he revealed that he has attended every one of the Publicists Awards luncheons), and Steven Poster, the president of the International Cinematographers Guild. (The Publicists Awards are officially presented by the ICG, which, as I understand it, absorbed the Publicists Guild years ago due to their overlapping membership/interests in terms of on-set unit photographers.)

Then, Universal Pictures chief Ron Meyer took the stage to preside over the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Kirk Douglas, which included a montage of his work narrated by one of his sons, Michael Douglas. The 96-year-old screen legend received standing ovations at the beginning and end of his remarks, during which he acknowledged his two longtime publicists, the late Warren Cowan (noting that he suggested to Cowan that he team up with Henry Rogers, with whom Cowan would form one of the premiere entertainment PR firms, Rogers & Cowan) and Marcia Newberger (who still represents him and taught him that "a PR person doesn't just work to get you publicity that's good, but to hold back publicity that's bad!"). He also acknowledged in the audience the young publicist he married over 60 years ago, his wife Anne Douglas, adding, "I love PR people."

The event's host, comedian Theo Von, elicited a few huge laughs (when he talked about texting strangers and also acknowledged the one black person in the ballroom) but also a few major groans (repeatedly joking about Douglas' mortality) as he emceed the proceedings. One of his funnier lines: "I know you're all on your phones right now even if you're looking at me."

Chris McCumber and Jeff Wachtel, whom Bonnie Hammer hired to head the USA Network two years ago and who have brought to the air 21 new shows since then, were presented with the Television Showmen of the Year Award by two of the faces of their network -- which has been the top-rated cable station for seven years in a row -- Matt Bomer (White Collar) and Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs).

The Les Mason Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes a publicist for adhering to "the highest professional standards," was presented to veteran PMK*BNC publicist Heidi Schaeffer by a surprise guest, her longtime client Sally Field, who laughed that she thought the prize was a French reference (Les Mason) and not the name of a late, revered publicist. Field, who is nominated for an Oscar for Lincoln, said, "Out of everything that has happened this year, nothing has thrilled me more than being able to present this year's Les Mason award to my publicist."

Schaeffer, visibly moved, noted that she began as a secretary at a small PR firm before the legendary publicist Pat Kingsley "took me under her wing." She chuckled at how much about her work has changed since then: She used to feed news items to the late Variety columnist Army Archerd and photos to The Hollywood Reporter's former gossip columnist George Christy; arrange interviews with the AP's Bob Thomas; and book clients on The Tonight Show when it was still hosted by Johnny Carson. She also thanked several of her longtime clients -- among them Field, Jamie Lee Curtis, Candice Bergen, Cybill Shepherd and Chevy Chase -- who she said she's alongside "from the births of their children to the deaths of their parents."

STORY: USA Co-Presidents Jeff Wachtel and Chris McCumber to Be Honored by Publicists Guild

The second surprise guest was Robert Downey Jr., who presented the Motion Picture Showman of the Year Award to Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, which made The Avengers (2012) and the films leading up to it. ("I made you," Downey joked, but, in fact, the Marvel films rebranded Downey.) Feige submitted that, when it comes to his job, "It's all about, 'What does the audience want?'"

The Excellence in Unit Still Photography for Motion Pictures Award went to Jamie Trueblood (but was accepted by his wife because he had to work today) and the Excellence in Unit Still Photography for Television went to Suzanne Tenner. The Bob Yeager Award for "selfless commitment to improving the human condition" went to publicist Linda Weitzler, who collects food for the homeless and sings with a choir at 45 nursing homes each holiday season.

The Press Award, for which THR's senior editor Alex Ben Block was a nominee, went to Deadline's awards columnist Pete Hammond, who marveled that he was receiving "an award for writing about awards."