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Jerry Weintraub: Mr. Hollywood

The producer’s new book chronicles his life with celebrities

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Damian Dovarganes/AP file

There are five massive flat-screen TVs hanging on the living-room wall of Jerry Weintraub’s Beverly Hills mansion. Upstairs in the bedroom, there are five more. The reason for all the high-def? ”I like to bet on football,” says the 72-year-old überproducer, straightening his shirt cuffs as he settles into a comfortable sofa. ”I like it a lot.”

The guy can afford to lose a few dollars. Over the years, Weintraub has amassed a fortune gambling in the entertainment industry. Back in the 1970s, he wagered on an unknown folksinger in a blond pageboy haircut; John Denver became one of the biggest pop acts of the decade. He started his film-producing career by bankrolling (with his own money, no less, a cardinal sin in Hollywood) a movie that would become an instant classic — 1975’s Nashville — despite the fact that he never understood the script. ”I understood Robert Altman,” Weintraub says, ”and that’s what mattered.” In the 1980s, he made another pile of money from the Karate Kid pictures (a remake is on the way this summer, starring Will Smith’s son Jaden as the Kid and Jackie Chan as the martial-arts master). And in 2001 he signed some of the biggest stars in the world — George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt — to redo an old casino-caper flick that originally starred Frank Sinatra (whom Weintraub once repped, back in the early 1970s, right after he helped Colonel Parker manage Elvis). Ocean’s Eleven ended up grossing nearly half a billion dollars worldwide and spawned two sequels.

The point is, Weintraub knows a thing or two about placing bets. And his latest venture sounds like a sure thing — an autobiography, pithily titled When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man (co-written with Vanity Fair scribe Rich Cohen). ”The truth is, I signed a contract to write my autobiography back when I was 32 years old,” Weintraub says. ”But I wasn’t ready to write an autobiography at that point. I had already accomplished a lot — or at least I had made a lot of money. I had mansions and Rolls-Royces and Havana cigars and pink champagne. But when I sat down to write, I realized my story was far from complete.”

Forty years later, Weintraub has plenty to put on paper. Aside from scores of behind-the-scenes showbiz tales — like how Weintraub made George Burns wear a hat in nearly every scene of 1977’s Oh, God! in order to cover up the comic’s atrocious hairpiece; or how he rigged fake speakers at the Nassau Coliseum to trick clients Led Zeppelin into thinking they were playing louder than they were — there’s also a fairly gripping personal story in these pages. How Weintraub, the son of a traveling jewelry salesman, joined the Air Force instead of going to college, then studied acting in the 1950s alongside James Caan and Brenda Vaccaro at Manhattan’s Neighborhood Playhouse (shacking up with two hookers in an apartment on Lexington Avenue). How as a music manager in the 1960s, he fell in love with one of his clients — singer Jane Morgan — and divorced his high school sweetheart to marry her. (He’s still married to Morgan, although they aren’t exactly a typical couple, even by Hollywood standards: Weintraub now lives with another woman, Susie Ekins, while Morgan lives in Malibu; the two women are ”best friends,” according to Weintraub.)

Of course, Weintraub’s story isn’t complete just yet. He’s still producing movies (up next year: a Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas), still schmoozing with stars (”I just had lunch with Will Smith…”).

”My journey so far has been fantastic,” he says, grinning like a gambler on the world’s longest lucky streak. ”I could fill another book.”


In his own words

In his new memoir, Weintraub details his moviemaking career. Here are excerpts on a few of his famous projects.

Nashville (1975)

”Everything I did later was built on the success of Nashville. The experience taught [me]: Work with the best people. If you have the best writers, the best actors, and the best director and fail, okay, fine…but if you fail with garbage, then you are left with nothing to hang your spirits on. Besides, life is too short to be spent in the company of morons.”

Oh, God! (1977)

”For the actors, reading with [George Burns] was like taking batting practice with Babe Ruth. But he was an old man, so you could not help but wonder how he would handle his lines. When we started reading, though, it was obvious he had remembered not only his part, but every part. If John Denver fumbled, George Burns would correct him.”

Diner (1982)

”It’s no accident that, in the course of my life, I’ve launched dozens of careers. Like my father, I can look at a sea of sapphires and pick out the Star of Ardaban: the young kid who will blossom onstage, glow onscreen…. Diner launched, among others, Ellen Barkin, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, and Steve Guttenberg.”

The Karate Kid (1984)

”Ideas come from many places. Take The Karate Kid. I was home watching the 5:00 news. All the stations were broadcasting the same story. It was about a kid in the Valley who had been getting beat up every day. He took it and took it until, tired of taking it, he found a teacher and learned karate. I loved that story.”

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

”[One time] Brad and George, knowing I am a big vodka drinker, challenged me to a contest….We went shot for shot. I passed out after fifteen. The boys then took the opportunity to fill my clothes, pockets, socks, and shoes with M&Ms. I found out later that, as I had been downing Stolichnaya, they had been drinking water.”