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Bernie Brillstein's Secrets of Success

The talent manager shares his sage advice from decades of working with the “Saturday Night Live” crew

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For more than four decades, talent manager Bernie Brillstein—a scrappy old-school wheeler-dealer who doesn’t know from M.B.A.’s—succeeded in Hollywood by putting himself second to clients such as Lorne Michaels, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner. His just-out memoir Where Did I Go Right?: You’re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead (Little, Brown, $24.95) marks ”the first time I’ve ever put myself out in front,” says Brillstein, 68, who’s happy to share his seven lessons on how to survive and prosper in the entertainment business.

—Go with your gut, even if it’s ample. Brillstein made a career out of relying on instinct. ”Some people are making decisions based on feng shui now,” he says disdainfully.

—Inspire trust, not fear. Brillstein’s motto is ”My wink is binding.”

—There’s such a thing as too much money. A TV syndication company once wanted to pay Brillstein $1 million for a consulting deal; he took $250,000. ”Otherwise, they would have thought they owned me,” he says.

—Don’t be afraid to make enemies. Brillstein devotes almost an entire chapter to bashing Michael Ovitz. The pair’s long-simmering feud peaked when, according to Brillstein, Ovitz forced Brillstein’s daughter Leigh, a onetime CAA agent, to quit the company. ”I can take anything tough in the business, but what he did to her was not nice,” says Brillstein. (Ovitz would not comment.)

—Ideas translate. Brillstein created Hee Haw (his pitch: ”Laugh-In in the country”) and greenlighted the movie Dangerous Liaisons. ”People said, ‘Are you nuts, making a period-costume comedy/drama?”’ recalls Brillstein. ”I said, ‘It’s Dallas with a French accent.’ It was about f—ing in France, that’s all.”

—Your worst enemy is always your delusions. ”Once you have a hit, you think you actually invented this business,” he cautions.

—Believe in the talent. ”Talent doesn’t go anywhere. It just rests for a while,” says Brillstein. Case in point: his client Rob Lowe, back in the spotlight with West Wing. Brillstein wants to put Lowe in a stage version of Robert Evans’ autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. And who should star in an adaptation of his own book? ”Oh my God, at what age, at what weight?” he says. ”It could be anyone from Johnny Candy if he was still alive to Kenny Rogers if he were a little fatter. Though I might hold out for Robert Redford.” Spoken like a true dealmaker.