Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sam Haskell, The Agency Business

As time has passed, friends in the network and studio business have told me that the day I retired, the heart and soul of William Morris retired with me.
Sam Haskell
Sam Haskell and his mother
Sam Haskell and his mother

Now this is a thrill.

This is an honor.

Today, we begin a two part series with Sam Haskell, including an excerpt from his amazing memoir, Promises I Made My Mother.

"Who is Sam Haskell?" you ask?

"Where should I begin?" I answer.

Let's start here:

In 2007 Television Week Magazine named Sam Haskell, III "One of the 25 Most Innovative and Influential People in Television of the Last 25 Years," an honor he shared with Bill Cosby, Ted Turner, Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, Walter Cronkite and other television legends. Haskell earned his ranking among the industry's best through his 26-year career at the renowned William Morris Agency where he was one of the most powerful agents and dealmakers in the business.

Originally from Amory, Mississippi (population 7000) and a 1977 graduate of the University of Mississippi, Haskell's career began in the Fall of 1978 when he moved to Los Angeles and fought his way into the renowned William Morris Agency mailroom, about which David Rensin wrote extensively in his 2003 bestseller "The Mailroom: Hollywood History from the Bottom Up." By May 1980, Haskell was promoted to agent in the TV Variety Department where he packaged specials starring Lily Tomlin, Lynda Carter, Debbie Allen, David Frost and Diana Ross. In 1990, he became the Agency's youngest Senior Vice-President, and in 1994, was elevated to the position of West Coast Head of Television. In 1997 he was named Executive Vice President and a member of the WMA Board of Directors, and, in 1999, he was appointed to the esteemed position of Worldwide Head of Television.

Haskell oversaw the "packaging" of all agency-represented network projects, including such mega-hits as "The Cosby Show," Fresh Prince of Bel Air," "Mad About You," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Lost," "Murphy Brown," "Sisters," "Suddenly Susan," "Live with Regis & Kathie Lee," "Diagnosis Murder," "King of Queens," "Las Vegas" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," among many others.

Prior to Haskell's retirement from WMA in late 2004, his clients included the inimitable: Bill Cosby, Kathie Lee Gifford, Ray Romano, Whoopi Goldberg, Debbie Allen, Delta Burke, Dolly Parton, George Clooney, Sela Ward, Marilu Henner, Martin Short, Kirstie Alley, Tony Danza, Sean Hayes, Michael Feinstein, Emily Procter, Lily Tomlin, Brenda Hampton, Marilyn McCoo, Joan Van Ark, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Swoosie Kurtz, Lucie Arnaz and His Royal Highness The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

Sam Haskell and Ray Romano
Sam Haskell and Ray Romano

Widely known as "the nice guy in Hollywood," Haskell is revered for rising to the top of a turbulent and often conscienceless business with his character, integrity and value-system intact. His reputation for honesty, integrity, loyalty and fairness made him a consistent force in a sea of inconsistency and someone with whom actors, writers, directors and other industry professionals were eager to work. He is equally well-known for his far-reaching philanthropic endeavors, notably serving as executive producer of "Mississippi Rising," a three-hour, MSNBC special hosted by Morgan Freeman which raised over $30 million for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. As Chairman of the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation founded in his mother's memory, Mr. Haskell's biennial "Stars Over Mississippi" benefit concerts in Amory have raised millions of dollars in college scholarship funds for Mississippi youngsters in need of financial assistance to further their education. In addition, Mr. Haskell serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Miss America Organization and Executive Producer of the Miss America Pageant telecasts. Over the last 15 years Sam and his wife, Mary, have helped to raise over 55 million dollars for charitable causes.

Sam Haskell with cast of 'Stars over Mississippi'
Sam Haskell with cast of "Stars over Mississippi"

His memoir is about life lessons his mother taught him that he incorporated into his day-to-day life as one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood. He never changed who he was or his core values. Those who worked with him - yes, all those egos - had to adapt to his southern manners and approach. And Sam being the man he is, they were more than happy to do so.

Sam is married to his college sweetheart Mary Donnelly Haskell, a former Miss Mississippi. They have two children, Sam IV - age 24, and Mary Lane - age 23.

I encourage all Stage 32 members to leave Sam a question in the Comments section below. Sam has agreed to choose 5 questions that he will personally answer, and reward those 5 Stage 32 members with an autographed copy of his book,Promises I Made My Mother.

In addition, Sam has generously offered the proceeds from the sales of his book through Stage 32 to the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation.

A more decent and generous soul you cannot find. I thank Sam for giving us this gift.


When I was a little boy, my mother taught me a lot about character, principle, integrity, and honesty...lessons that are simple in their explanation, but lessons that are profound in their execution.
I retired from the agency business as the Worldwide Head of Television at the William Morris Agency seven years ago. Some of my old friends and colleagues have said that my departure signaled a shift in the agency business. When I decided to make a change, I left a legacy of honest dealings, giving both sides of a negotiation the feeling that they both had accomplished something, and honoring a handshake.
As time has passed, friends in the network and studio business have told me that the day I retired, the heart and soul of William Morris retired with me.
Understanding the ripple effect of every decision no longer exists. I spent as much time trying to handle the results of each and every decision that I made, as I did actually making the decision. Through many conversations with the agents, managers, actors, directors, writers, and executives who I remain close to today, I have learned that the "shift" I referred to above has resulted in no more hand shakes, less trust, more greed, no accountability, and absolutely no concern about the "ripple effect" of daily decisions.
This doesn't mean that there aren't good people in the agency business. I have friends who are the "good guys" at every agency in Hollywood. What it means is that more attention needs to be paid to doing the right thing. Instead of an agent saying they'd do ANYTHING to make a deal for their clients, I would hope that agents will shift their focus on doing the RIGHT thing to make a deal for their clients. That's the way to know, like, and maintain who they are as business men and women, but ultimately the answers can only come from those looking back at us in the mirror!
I long for the day when simple life lessons in character and integrity will allow a deal to once again be closed with a handshake.
EXCERPTS FROM Promises I Made My Mother:
"Think about what you want, think about who can help you get it, and think about how to make them happy about giving it to you."
Each of us has our own goals and dreams, and our own visions of what we want to achieve in life. No one else can provide that for us. The question, though, is how do we make those dreams come true? How do we get there? Library shelves are stuffed with books containing "surefire" strategies and suggestions. But because of my mother's encouragement and wise example, the question for me has never just been about how to get what I want, but how to create an atmosphere in which others are genuinely happy to help because we can all be rewarded in the end.
During my twenty-five years at William Morris, as I rose through the ranks from the mailroom, I refined this idea and created a concept I call being "thoughtfully political." I've lectured on it around the country, from boardrooms to churches to school assemblies. The response has always been enthusiastic. Afterward, people always want to know how to best apply the concept to their own lives. I realize that some people might focus on the word "political" as a negative, as if being conscious of what you want and figuring out how to get it means doing something dishonest. Not at all. Being political is simply having a thorough sense of the big picture so you can see the people and issues involved in three dimensions, including the other people's points of view.
And to me, "thoughtfully" has always been the more important word. To be thoughtful means to "think" about what you want. If you're thoughtful, you understand that we are all related, and that to achieve a positive outcome for everyone involved, there's an absolute need for give-and-take. Being thoughtfully political is simply a way of overcoming natural obstacles to the integration of your needs and the needs of others. It's a way of figuring out where the common ground for the common good lies, while not losing who you are or what you want in the process.
The key is to treat others as you would like to be treated.
It's the Golden Rule.

My encounters with three actresses at different times in my career demonstrates how my mother's advice-to give what others need in order to get what you need-works, no matter what the era.
I'd always fantasized about meeting the stars. When I was ten, I shelved books at the Amory Public Library and took every opportunity to read each book, magazine, or newspaper I could find to learn about Hollywood. We had material on all of the top Hollywood stars: Clark Gable, Loretta Young, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis, and I read them all.
Bette Davis, in particular, fascinated me. Somehow, she didn't seem like a typical movie star. She was more handsome than beautiful, and she seemed so grounded. I just loved her. My fascination never faded, even as I grew older. I was dying to meet her someday.
In the spring of 1982, after I'd been an agent for two years, I was responsible for covering every single talk show and variety show on television; if there was a spot into which I could book a William Morris client, it was my job to find it. I got hundreds of William Morris clients on the air, and I was excited to go to the office every day.
I also worked with the producers and packagers we represented, to help them put together their network television projects. Sir David Frost (and his partners) had come up with a two-hour special called The American Movie Awards. We sold it to Brandon Tartikoff at NBC as an alternative to ABC's yearly Academy Awards telecast.
Deborah Miller assigned me to the new David Frost special, and I was thrilled to be a part of its creation.
At the first production meeting Sir David announced that producer Hal Wallis would get the first American Movie Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. Wallis had produced so many movies I can't list them all here. But they included Anne of the Thousand DaysBarefoot in the ParkThe Man Who Came to DinnerThe Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca.
Mr. Frost said he wanted Bette Davis to present the award. She and Wallis had done several movies together, including Jezebel, for which Miss Davis had won her second Best Actress Oscar, in 1938.
"Who knows Bette Davis?" he asked, explaining that someone had to call and ask if she'd appear.
The room, full of producers, writers, and network executives, remained silent.
"All right, does anyone know Marion Rosenberg, Bette Davis's agent?"
I didn't know Marion, but I raised my hand and said, "I'll call her." Mr. Frost said, "Thank you, Sam, but Marion will probably make you call Bette yourself. She's... tough. Do you think you're up for the job?"
I'd barely replied, "Yes sir," when the older men in the room started telling me horror stories about Bette Davis, suggesting that I should reconsider having volunteered. I didn't care what they thought of her, I was determined to talk to Bette Davis.
Sir David told me to call the next morning and then report back to him.
At 9 A.M. sharp I called Marion Rosenberg. As predicted, she told me I'd have to call Miss Davis directly. She warned me that there would be many questions and that the way I answered those questions would determine the outcome.
When I got through to Miss Davis's assistant, Kathryn Sermak, she put me on hold. It seemed like I waited a half hour, but it was probably only five minutes. While on hold, I prayed that God would help me find the right words. My prayer was interrupted by a voice I knew all too well. "Mr. Haskell, this is Bette Davis ....What exactly would you have me do, and how does this involve Mr. Hal Wallis?"
I explained-it probably sounded like a rehearsed speech, but it came straight from my heart-why we were honoring Hal Wallis, and why she was the best-qualified person to give him the Lifetime Achievement Award.
"What exactly are The American Movie Awards?" she asked.
I explained the idea behind Sir David's show.
She laughed and said, "David will have his hands full with the Academy over this one!" That led into a fifteen-minute discussion about who I was, my age, where my accent came from, how long I had been an agent, etc. I must have answered all of the questions correctly, because Miss Davis agreed to do the show.
I thanked her. No, I gushed; I admit it. I was about to hang up when she said, "Mr. Haskell, there is one condition. I want you standing on the red carpet when I arrive, you'll walk me into the theater, and stay in the Green Room with me until it's time for me to present Mr. Wallis his award."
She didn't have to ask me twice. To get what she said she wanted-"the company of this funny young agent with the heavy Southern accent, who was both earnest and eager" (I guess I was somehow different from other people who had made business calls to her)-she ultimately gave me what I wanted as well: her presence at the awards ceremony.
Naturally, David Frost was overjoyed, and he told everyone at NBC and William Morris how "the kid called Bette Davis and convinced her to be on the show."
Roger Moore hosted the show, and my client, Debbie Allen, along with the cast of the TV show Fame danced down Hollywood Boulevard, then burst into the theater to complete their production number. Dudley Moore, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Fonda, Liza Minnelli, and Ginger Rogers were all there as well. David Frost was thrilled. It was a great moment for me. I'd proven myself to my clients, and somehow made Ms. Davis happy to help me.
A month later I got an invitation to Bette Davis's seventy-fourth birthday party. The party started at 7 P.M. at Miss Davis's penthouse apartment on Havenhurst Drive in Hollywood. I arrived at 6:45, and I drove around the block until 6:55. Then I parked, rode the elevator up, and rang the doorbell. Miss Davis answered the door herself. "Well, Mr. Haskell," she said, "how perfectly prompt you are."
She asked me in, and then called to her assistant Kathryn and said, "That will be ten dollars!" Playing off my quizzical look, she explained, "I bet Kathryn ten dollars that YOU would be the first to arrive."
Miss Davis took me on a tour of her beautifully appointed apartment. Everyone else arrived "fashionably late," which meant that I had the hostess all to myself for half an hour. In her living room, Miss Davis showed me a portrait of herself that hung over the mantel. It had been fashioned after her character Margo Channing in the Academy Award-winning film, All About Eve. "Now that's the way I want to be remembered," she said.
She also showed me both of her Oscars, displayed prominently in her den, and we discussed her disappointment at not being cast to play Scarlett 0'Hara in Gone with the Wind. I couldn't believe she was telling these things to me. It was incredible.
When Mary and I married the following December, Miss Davis sent us a congratulatory note, and I realized yet again how wrong my father and others had been to think I had thrown my life away by coming to Hollywood. I was so happy-both to be making good impressions and to be befriending the Hollywood stars of my childhood fantasies.
The second of these three women made me laugh when I met her, and she still makes me laugh today. Debbie Allen, my second client (Kathie Lee Gifford was my first), has always been a great soul mate. I'd wanted to represent Debbie Allen from the moment I was hired at William Morris. She'd had a role in the movie Fame and was cast in the TV version that went on the air in January 1982 on NBC. Her William Morris agents worked in our New York office. I told them that she was going to need a television agent on the Coast.
"Let me help you," I said. "Let me be your West Coast contact." They agreed because of the way I asked. I'd learned that offering to help by saying, "Let me help you" instead of "Let me do this" was a nonthreatening way of opening the door to let myself in. I was confident enough that once I got in the door, I'd stay inside the room.
Debbie and I finally met during the taping of The NBC Family Christmas, in December 1981, when the producer, Bob Precht, summoned me. "We've got a problem with Debbie Allen," he said. "She won't sign her contract."
Debbie had probably been a little bit of a diva to one of the production assistants, refusing to come out of her dressing room to do her big number with the cast of Fame. Precht dispatched me to her dressing room, I knocked, and she said to come in.
"Ms. Allen, I'm Sam Haskell."
"I'm one of your agents at William Morris."
"Oh, you are? Well, look at this contract! This says I work for scale. I don't work for scale. I just got a Tony nomination for playing Anita in West Side Story! I just starred in Ragtime! I'm starring in Fame! That's why I'm here!"
"Ms. Allen, I know," I said. "You are one of the most important clients we have, and I am honored just to be in your presence. What can I do to make this better?"
She got a big smile on her face. "Baby, if you can go tell Mr. Precht, Mr. Ed Sullivan's son-in-law, that I love my Bob Mackie dress, and get him to agree to give it to me, I'll sign the contract."
"I'll be right back," I told her.
I ran back to Bob Precht. "Here's how to solve this nightmare," I said. "I know you paid ten thousand dollars for this Bob Mackie dress. You own it. But who else besides Debbie Allen will ever wear it? Give it to Debbie Allen and we can get her to sign the contract."
He said, "Give her the damn dress."
I ran back: "Ms. Allen, you can keep the dress."
"I'll sign the contract," she said, "and I want you in my life." We've been friends and business partners ever since!
The third actress, Kirstie Alley, was a client for many years. She's very smart, beautiful, and a little eccentric. She has also battled her weight for a long time.
A few years ago, I went to a Pier I commercial shoot with her when she was at her largest. She knew the truth, but couldn't face the fact that she'd become so large. One of the Pas had to lace her up in a corset, under her gown, like Mammy lacing Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.
After the shoot I had to have one of these "come to Jesus" meetings with her because she had complained to me, "Why can't I get the lead in all of the movies and TV series that I'm interested in? Why can't I be the love interest?"
I looked at her, at her beautiful face, and knew I just had to be honest. "Because you're seventy-five pounds overweight," I said. "You've become a character actress right before our eyes. You are so pretty, but in Hollywood, pretty is thin. You can get supporting parts as a heavy woman, but not roles like the once trim and gorgeous Kirstie Alley everyone knew."
Something clicked in her eyes then. She knew that I loved her, and at that moment, though it wasn't easy, she decided to face the fact that she no longer liked who she was. She needed a way to figure out how to like herself again, to conquer the constant struggle with her weight. How could she turn this weakness to her advantage?
That's how the Showtime series Fat Actress was born. I set my client Brenda Hampton (7th Heaven) to write and produce it. I even convinced NBC's Jeff Zucker to guest-star in the first episode. I knew Kirstie was unhappy and needed to work, and I needed to make her happy to help herself. So we decided that she should wear her own experience in public. I told her, "Lots of viewers will identify with you. And then if you want to lose weight, we'll go to Slim-Fast, or we'll go to Jenny Craig, and we'll make a deal where you'll be paid to lose weight."
Kirstie wanted to feel better about herself. She felt losing weight was the answer. I wanted her to be happy in her own skin, and in turn, as her agent, to have a client who knew what direction we were going in and why. The series Fat Actress gave her a"playing ground" to deal with her weight issues, and the deal with Jenny Craig paid her to lose the weight. She dropped seventy pounds, and the next thing I knew she was on Oprah in a bikini!
We both got what we wanted, and everyone was happy!

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you really want to test a man's character,give him power."
The year 1997 was an outstanding one for me. Everything good happened. Every deal closed. Lily Tomlin hosted a dinner at which I was honored by the Alliance for Children's Rights as their Man of the Year. The L.A. Mission honored me with their "Men Helping Women" award. I was the de-facto Worldwide Head of Television and on the fast track to becoming president of the William Morris Agency. My then-seven-year-old daughter, Mary Lane, was chosen to be on the pilot of Bill Cosby's version of the show Kids Say the Darndest Things for CBS.
In June, the week of my forty-second birthday People magazine ran a big article about the kids we'd helped go to college through the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation and our biannual "Stars Over Mississippi" concerts. The People writer, who had followed me around for two months, at one point asked me to name the most important thing that had happened to me in Hollywood. Of what was I the most proud? I'm sure she expected to hear about Bill Cosby's latest deal, or something I helped make happen for George Clooney, Debbie Allen, or Kathie Lee Gifford.
"I guess what I'm most proud of," I said, thinking of how I'd determined to be one person for everyone so I could be comfortable anywhere and avoid personal artifice, "is that I'm exactly the same guy today that I was when I arrived here in 1978."
I think that surprised her. Sure, experience had made me savvier and more polished, but inside I felt exactly the same: I had the same values, same morals, same core. Even if I now bought my suits at Barneys instead of Belk, I was still essentially the same person as when I'd left Mississippi almost twenty years earlier.
The writer then asked for the names of some of my really important friends for comments. I gave her Leslie Moonves, president of CBS; Warren Littlefield, president of NBC; Phil Hartman, Bill Cosby, and George Clooney. Any of them would have given her a good quote.
To my surprise, she talked to the parking attendant in the William Morris garage instead, who said, "Mr. Haskell always tells us 'Good morning' and 'Good night,' and he's one of the few who brings us something at Christmastime. He's always the same."
After I retired from William Morris in 2004, a secretary who was stationed on the path to my office when I walked in every morning, wrote and told me it meant a lot to her that I always greeted her as I passed her desk. To her, I was one of the most important men in the company. To me, she was just a human being like the rest of us, who deserved common courtesy. "Thank you," she wrote. "Your saying hello to me always made me feel good about myself."
Both of those comments, from people I saw on a daily basis, brought a smile to my face. They told me that I'd kept the promise I'd made to my mother about living my life "standing in the light." She never tolerated anything less from me. And, of course, my wife wouldn't have put up with less for a Mississippi minute.

Promises I Made My Mother
Sam is generously donating proceeds from Stage 32 members sales of his memoir,Promises I Made My Mother, to the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation.
To purchase Sam's book click here: Promises I Made My Mother.

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