When the notoriously hard-driving talent manager Helen Kushnick died Aug. 28 after a nine-year battle with breast cancer, she had lost almost everything: her son, Sam, who died of an HIV-tainted blood transfusion in 1983 when he was 3; her husband, who died of cancer in 1989; her career, which ended when she was fired after four months as executive producer of The Tonight Show in 1992; and her close, almost symbiotic, 17-year relationship with Jay Leno.
Kushnick’s story is well-known to those who follow the late-night TV wars. She was portrayed as an abusive tyrant in The Late Shift, Bill Carter’s 1994 book about Leno and Letterman, and in last February’s HBO movie; and the image was no exaggeration. In the end, many who had been her supporters, like former client Jimmie Walker, and even NBC executives, found her impossible to deal with. Her stepdaughter, Beth Kushnick, 35, still calls her a ”ghastly monster.” Even her only sibling, Joseph Gorman, 48, had been estranged from her until shortly before her death at age 51.
But what is not so well-known is the story of Kushnick’s final years — years spent out of the media eye, years that ended in a kind of redemption and, for her daughter, Sara, 16, in a reconciliation with Leno. ”Maybe she did have to be a bitch to get where she did,” says Sara, Sam’s surviving twin. ”But when she started out, women were supposed to be secretaries. She did things with anger because it was the only way she knew how.”
”They called her a bitch,” says Mitzi Shore, owner of L.A.’s Comedy Store, ”but if she were a man, she wouldn’t be called a bitch. There are managers in town who are 10 times worse than she was and they don’t call them bastards.”
At one time, Kushnick could have been viewed as an inspiration for women in Hollywood. The daughter of a truck driver and a housewife, Kushnick broke into the entertainment industry in her early 20s as a secretary at Twentieth Century Fox. After moving from New York to L.A., she teamed up with — and eventually married — entertainment lawyer Jerrold Kushnick; they thrived as the managers of ’70s stars like Walker, Ben Vereen, and the then unknown Leno.
But as Kushnick became focused on Leno’s career, pushing him to the ultimate prize — host of The Tonight Show — her lifelong temper grew worse. ”She could go ballistic in a matter of seconds,” says Gorman, her brother. Installed as executive producer of The Tonight Show in 1992, she routinely bullied staffers, played hardball for star bookings, and alienated network executives with her frequent tirades.
Leno says he put up with Kushnick in part because of her string of personal tragedies. ”I was the client who stayed the longest, but it just got crazier and crazier,” he says. ”Helen had so much success — but it just seemed to make her worse.”
Her brother says he never understood the source of Kushnick’s anger and drive. ”I think she wanted to prove things to the family,” he says. ”They didn’t encourage her. They thought a girl should grow up and just get married.”