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Going Postal in Hollywood

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Published Correction: Published December 15, 2000 page 8
Correction: In our ”How to Break Into Showbiz” issue (#565) we misidentified William Morris trainees Rashida Leonard and Jenean Palmer. We also misspelled Palmer’s first name. We regret the error.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and history has shown there’s no better somewhere to kick off a career in show business than the fabled mailroom of the William Morris talent agency. The mailroom-training program at the agency’s storied Beverly Hills and New York City offices began more than half a century ago and has advanced some of the most famed and feared agenda makers in Hollywood. Frequently mentioned is the holy trinity of trainees: Mike Ovitz, Barry Diller, and David Geffen, mail carriers all. Producers Irwin Winkler, Jerry Weintraub, and Bernie Brillstein also cleared in-boxes. And the agency’s postal centers on both coasts have even delivered a few surprises. ”I learned everything in the mailroom because everything passes through the mailroom,” says Famous Amos cookies founder Wally Amos, who worked alongside Geffen in 1961 before graduating to agenthood. Cosmopolitan magazine doyenne Helen Gurley Brown also spent time slaving for the agency. ”It’s the place,” Brown says, ”to see and be seen.” As an institution, the mailroom is ”a combination of hazing ritual and apprenticeship,” says Frank Rose, author of 1995’s The Agency, an inside look at William Morris. ”It gets you familiar with the names and faces of the clients, and the hierarchy of the industry powers that be. It also forms a talent pool from which the higher-ups can determine who has the stuff and who doesn’t. In other words, it’s a perfect introduction to the Hollywood shark pit.” As Ovitz puts it, the mailroom has long been ”the only place… and I mean the only place, where you could get a kind of macro view of this business.” In short, it’s that rare Hollywood location where grunt work wins out over glamour. Even Ovitz recalls ”sitting up at night, sifting through files. You have to remember, this was in the days before cell phones and copiers, when you got mimeograph all over your hands.”

Not surprisingly, mailroom lore runs rampant. There’s the story of a young Geffen steaming open an envelope from UCLA, then inserting his own college-graduation credentials, as part of his scheme to get into the program. (Geffen declined to comment.) There’s the tale of a surprise phys-ed exam by Arnold Schwarzenegger (see below). And then there’s the one about a pair of trainees back in the ’70s who got stuck delivering an agent’s stool sample.

These days, the mailroom’s a less odious place. Trainees typically spend a mere three to six weeks running errands, delivering checks, and logging in new scripts (the mailroom trainees work alongside an outside mail-and-messenger service, which handles much of the distribution duties). Still, the fact that the program can blast off careers means the gig’s highly competitive. Only 1 in 10 applicants makes it into the program, which pays about $350 a week, and all are college graduates. At any given time, as many as 15 young men and women will be working in the mailroom, hoping to make the right contacts and impress the right people so they can land ”on a desk” within the agency.

Many applicants call on even their most distant entertainment-industry contacts for help. They should. The from-the-ground-up introduction remains one of the industry’s great launching pads, even if the recent mailroom grads featured below would likely agree with Famous Amos, who sums up the post like this: ”My goal in the mailroom,” he says, ”was to get the hell out as fast as possible.”

ALEX CHAICE
Age: 30
Hometown: Manhattan
Oddly Appropriate College Degree: Master’s in philosophy from University of Colorado at Boulder.
Currently Serving Time as… a talent coordinator in the television department, serving 60 agents, in Beverly Hills.
Who Did He Know? His father was Bill Cosby’s lawyer.
Mailroom Zen: ”As long as you have some degree of intelligence and you can get along with people, people will tell you anything. It’s all part of the underground trainee network.”
Most Humiliating Celeb Encounter: Arnold Schwarzenegger came in the back door through the mailroom, sneaking up on Chaice as he carried a mail bin. Says Chaice: ”He squeezes my muscle and says, ‘Small, but wiry.’ I’m like, ‘Thanks, Arnold.”’
Second Most Humiliating Celeb Encounter: Ashley Judd was walking up the stairs. Chaice was walking down. ”She had on this incredibly tight sweater and tight pants. I tripped and fell and the bin of mail went flying. She looks up at me and says, ”I’ll take that as a compliment.”’
Favorite Agent-speak: NFW (no f—in’ way), OOT (as in the actor’s “out of town”). And the myriad pleasantries exchanged when rejecting a script (”It needs work,” ”It wasn’t for us,” ”It fell apart in the second act”).
Don’t… con people into thinking you know more than you do.
Do… be your own best PR person or else you’ll get lost. Get in people’s faces. CC everybody on inter-office e-mails. Go to the right Hollywood bars. The Right Hollywood Bars: ”Monday night, upstairs at Dublin’s. Wednesday night, Las Palmas. Thursday night, Cyrano — although Le Colonial’s coming back. And Skybar whenever you want.”
Secret to Getting Into Skybar: ”We’ve talked to the doorman about representation.”
Best Found Document: Chaice discovered screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ letter to Mike Ovitz ”telling him basically to go f— himself.”
Going-Postal Moment: ”Sometimes we’d lock the mailroom door and everybody would dance on top of the counter.”

AARON PINKUS
Age: 27
Hometown: Indianapolis
Oddly Appropriate College Degree: B.A. in psychology from University of Indiana.
Currently Serving Time as… a trainee in the music department (a.k.a. music-club bookings), in Beverly Hills.
Who Did He Know? He was John Mellencamp’s assistant. Says Pinkus, or ”Bang,” as Mellencamp called him, ”John told me one day, ‘Well, Bang, as annoying as you are, you might be all right as an agent.”’ Mellencamp, then a William Morris client, put in a good word.
Number of Nights Out per Week: Seven, because of all the clubs he’s scouting. ”Actually,” he says, ”I’m starting to pull back a little — to six nights.” Mailroom Zen: ”Murphy’s Law should be etched in stone in front of this place, because that fax that you sent four times will get lost and will definitely wind up in Thailand.”
Memo to Mailroom: ”If you have to work all night, then for godsakes go home and change afterwards. You can’t be wearing the same clothes you were wearing the day before or everybody’s like, ‘What’s going on?”’
Favorite Agent-speak: Pasadena (to pass on), as in ”That [club] date’s a Pasadena.” Also, ”confirm,” Pinkus says, ”has as many nuances and shades here as ‘snow’ does for the Eskimos. All the details of a confirmation need to be warred over in the contract.”
Knew He Was in Showbiz When… he took some out-of-towners club-hopping on Sunset Strip and used his William Morris clout. ”There was a line every place we went, but I walked straight in. My friends were like, ‘Dude, you have this town wired.’ And I was like, ‘Woo-hoo, score one for the [mailroom]!”’

RASHIDA LEONARD
Age: 24 Hometown: Vacaville, Calif.
Oddly Appropriate College Degree: B.A. in philosophy from UC Berkeley.
Currently Serving Time as… trainee in the office of senior VP Nicole David, in Beverly Hills.
Why She’ll Make a Good Agent: ”I have no creative talent whatsoever,” she says. ”Talented people and creative types are drawn to me. My best bet is to help them out.”
Worst Thing About the Mailroom: Thirteen-hour days.
Favorite Agent-speak: Hip-pocket, which means taking on clients who aren’t officially signed on. ”You never know when you’ll be able to hip-pocket that friend or that waiter who’s writing a script, so you have to talk to everybody.”
Number of Pocketed Clients So Far: Zero.
Who Did She Know? An exec from the WB network ”helped coach” her during the interview process.
Best Perk: Scoring a pair of tickets to the Space Cowboys premiere and hangin’ with Clint Eastwood. ”I didn’t see this kind of thing in the small town where I grew up,” she says.
Client She’d Like to Call Her Own: Emma Thompson. ”She’s perfect.”
Mailroom Zen: ”Hollywood’s an alternative reality. The glamour and excitement you see on Entertainment Tonight or whatever requires a lot of hard work.”
Couldn’t Live Without… ”my cell phone. I’m constantly using it. Thank goodness I don’t have to pay the bills.”
Who She’s Calling: ”I can’t tell you that.”

ISAAC DUNHAM
Age: 23
Hometown: Denver
Oddly Appropriate College Degree: B.A. in government and legal studies from Bowdoin.
Currently Serving Time as… assistant to motion picture literary agent Michael Lubin, in New York.
Who Did He Know? No one. ”I cold-called.”
Biggest Score: Hung with Cameron Diaz at the Being John Malkovich premiere at the Harvard Club in New York. With all his friends looking on. ”I finagled in and talked to her. We ran out of things to say after about five minutes.”
Most Random Office Celeb Sighting: Bob and Elizabeth Dole (Mrs. Dole was signing with the agency).
Favorite Errand: Delivering a confidential envelope to Regis Philbin’s apartment. ”Unfortunately, I only got to talk to his doorman.”
Coolest Inside Info: Read the script for Pearl Harbor eons before the project was ever announced. ”I stayed in the mailroom into the wee hours reading it. I didn’t want the script to be [marked] ‘missing.”’
Trainee Trick: To remember agents’ names, Dunham created songs. For personal-appearances agent Kenny DeCamillo, he sang, ”They call him DeCamillo” (to the tune of ”Mellow Yellow”).
Most Irrational Fear: Getting stamped by the date-stamp machine used to log incoming scripts.
Every Mailroom Kid Should… ”suck something out of whatever you’re doing even if you’re just driving an agent home.”
Most Dehumanizing Task: Chasing an office mouse for a shrieking agent. ”I wanted to make a name for myself, so I crawled around in my suit.” He never found it.
Second Most Dehumanizing Task: Cleaning Jaguars for agents. ”When you’re in the mailroom, you want to do every job to the best of your ability, so I was digging in between the seats, pulling out Kleenex. It was kinda gross.”

AMY PAUL
Age: 23
Hometown: Rye, N.Y.
Oddly Appropriate College Degree: B.S. in economics from University of Pennsylvania.
Currently Serving Time as… assistant to Kara Stein, a television literary agent, in New York.
Most Thankless Errand: Once got a Social Security card laminated for chairman emeritus Lou Weiss.
Memo to Mailroom: ”It’s really annoying when a trainee comes around and tells me what they’re putting in my mailbox. I don’t need to know.”
Average Workweek: ”Fifty hours is a short week.”
Who Did She Know? A friend of her lawyer dad knew agency chairman Norman Brokaw.
One Day, She’d Like to… ”be an agent for writers. They’re smarter, more creative, and easier to handle than actors.”
Favorite Brushes With Fame: Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Buscemi, Samuel L. Jackson. And Roy Scheider. ”He was in Jaws.”
Most Random Celebrity Trolling the Halls: Survivor winner Richard Hatch, apparently in search of representation. ”He had an air to him that I’m not sure I liked,” she says.
Worst Thing About the NYC Mailroom: Riding the freight elevator. ”There’s a restaurant right next door and one Monday morning I shared the elevator with a giant smelly salmon.”
Knew She Was in Showbiz When… ”Joan Rivers called and we talked about her daughter.”
Biggest Check She Ever Touched: A royalty payment of $600,000.
Who It Was For: ”I can’t tell you.”
Coolest Inside Info: Kevin Costner sometimes goes by the name Gardner Barnes. ”I had to deliver something to his hotel.”

JANEAN PALMER
Age: 28
Hometown: Chicago
Oddly Appropriate College Degree: B.S. in engineering from Purdue.
Currently Serving Time as… assistant to worldwide head of motion pictures David Wirtschafter, in Beverly Hills.
Why William Morris? ”I refuse to be poor.”
Who Did She Know? Got her M.B.A. from USC’s Business of Entertainment program, where several of her instructors were former William Morris agents.
Mailroom Zen: You must give heed to those who’ve come before you. ”There’s a seniority. I don’t care if I started two months before you, I’m the senior trainee. If someone’s going to go get a Jamba Juice on a Monday morning, it’s going to be that new kid.”
The Name Game: ”If all five of the top agents come in the mailroom at the same time, you better know who they are to make an impression.”
Most Dehumanizing Request: ”I’ve gone to Gucci many days. Making other people’s coffee may be a bit of a pet peeve.”
Knew She Was in Showbiz When… ”I went to a fashion show in Manhattan with all those fabulous people, and Chazz Palminteri [a Wirtschafter client] came up and gave me a hug.”
Secret Weapon: Taking minutes at meetings. ”You have to get in that room where they’re throwing out names and pitching ideas. You need to see how the room operates.”
Freakiest Phone Call: ”One time, Marlon Brando called and nobody believed him even though he sounded just like him.”
Coolest Inside Info: ”Long before it was in all the tabloids, I knew that a very big Hollywood couple, recently divorced, was breaking up because of an affair.” Take that, National Enquirer!


THE NORM SHOW

It’s amazing what licking a few stamps can do for a career in showbiz. When 15-year-old Norman Brokaw landed a $25-a-week job clerking in the William Morris mailroom in 1943, he hardly expected he’d be running the whole shebang a half century later. ”I still can’t believe it sometimes,” says the sprightly 73-year-old agent and agency chairman, who recently marked his 57th year at William Morris. ”I’ve represented the leading people in the world, and it’s all because I got the basic foundation you can only get as a mail boy.”

Indeed, Brokaw’s photo-lined office in the William Morris headquarters in Beverly Hills is a veritable advertisement for the ground-floor-up approach to making it big. There he is, posing Zelig-like with five decades of famous faces, most of whom tower above him: Harpo Marx, Frank Sinatra, Loretta Young, Bill Cosby, Gerald Ford, and a young unknown actress who’d recently changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. ”She was happy enough to get a $55-a-day job when I met her,” says Brokaw, who insists he first introduced Marilyn to a certain famous Yankee outfielder. ”We were at the Brown Derby,” he says, ”and someone came up to my table and said, ‘Norman, I’m sitting with Joe D. He’d like to meet the young lady.’ Marilyn said, ‘Who’s Joe D?”’

Knowing who’s who has never been a problem for Brokaw, who says he started memorizing names back when he’d deliver packages by streetcar to moguls around town. ”I quickly learned where everybody in the industry was located,” he says. ”Not just the names and who the players were, but how much they made, because I delivered all their paychecks. I also learned how to make myself known to the important people at the studios. That way, when I’d show up to escort a Lana Turner, they’d all say, ‘Hi, Mr. Brokaw.”’

Just about everyone in Hollywood knows Brokaw’s name these days. ”He’s been incredibly enterprising in finding ways to capitalize on celebrity, and that’s made him stand out,” says Frank Rose, author of The Agency. ”Norman knows how to package people, even people who seem to defy packaging.” Cases in point: Gerald and Betty Ford, whom he signed to combined book deals worth more than $1 million after they left the White House; and, later, ex-surgeon general C. Everett Koop. ”If you’re passionate about something, you can sell anything,” Brokaw says. In fact, Brokaw, who continues to put in 15-hour days at William Morris and comes to work dressed in custom-made suits even on weekends, still knows how to sell himself. ”The fact that you might write that Norman Brokaw is a legend is fine,” he says, ever the negotiator. ”But it doesn’t come from me.”

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