June 2, 2005
Agents of Charity
As I write this The Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles' annual gala to be held on June 1, 2005 is a few days away. The honorees are CAA agent Rick Kurtzman; his brother, Fox business affairs executive Howard Kurtzman; and their brother-in-law, William Morris Agent David Lonner (married to their sister Janet).
JFS is a wonderful and important organization that, since 1854, has provided mental health and social services to men, women and children of all faiths and ethnicities.
The Kurtzmans in all their extended glory are a great family. Our connection is through Rick and Wendy Kurtzman and through our daughters. My friendship with Rick is such that we recently saw "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" together. For men, that's about as close as it gets.
By the time this column appears the event will already be past. I trust many of you attended and many more contributed; and for those who didn't it's not too late (see www.jfsla.org; they'd be happy to accept a contribution, even now). But I thought I would use this occasion to discuss something completely different: Hollywood, Jews, ethics and morals.
As a rule, agents are not held in high moral esteem by either Hollywood denizens or the public at large (that is, the readers of Vanity Fair and gossip columns). Michael Ovitz's fall and subsequent drumming in the press have not added luster to the profession. As Lady Caroline Lamb said, when asked about the morals of Lord Byron: "It's the first I've heard of them."
Being an agent is fraught with apparent conflicts: How do you lobby for one client rather than another? How do you sign a client who already has an agent (less politely called poaching) -- even if you could better serve that client? At every turn, in every deal, opportunities abound to lie and misrepresent the truth.
Although agents are subject to state regulation, enforcement is lax, to say the least.
And agents do, on occasion, behave intolerably. Some have even stolen from their agency or clients. But with rare exception, as when "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry discovered that his agent, Marcie Wright, was embezzling from him, agents do not get turned over to police or even sued. More often than not, the agency dismisses them with a generous settlement and an even more generous press release. Agencies are disinclined to institute a criminal or civil suit that would open the agency's books and business to prying eyes.
Hollywood's long history of Jewish employment begs an interesting question: To what extent are Jewish agents, or indeed the profession itself, informed by Judaism or held accountable to some form of Jewish moral standard.
A recent New Yorker profile of William Morris President David Wirtschafter caused a sensation, particularly when some of his named clients left him post-publication. Wirtschafter's misstep may have been telling the truth -- out loud and in print. That may not seem a sin, but as the Talmud tells us, sometimes not holding your tongue is the worse thing one can do.
All told, I have never been convinced that the morals of agents, or the moral dilemmas of those in the agency business, differ from any other profession. Consider real estate, the art world, Wall Street -- all have their share of scoundrels, beloved and reviled.
Morals and ethics reside within the person, not the profession. Further, there is a difference between ethics and morals. Ethics are of the moment; morals are of a higher, more permanent order. (Which is why no one ever talks about "situational morals.")
It follows that there are many kinds of agents (and I don't mean Orthodox, Conservative and Reform). Some are young heat-seeking missiles on the move, networking their way to studio or production-company jobs. Others are salespersons, with little depth, but great enthusiasm -- and they are all about the sale. Others are more entrepreneurial and are about building the business of their agency and/or creating business opportunities for their clients and themselves.
A very few number -- and in these I include Rick Kurtzman and David Lonner -- value and exude professionalism. Although very competitive, they are all about the people they represent -- about standing by them and doing the hard work. They see that as their job; the rest does not interest them.
When I asked Kurtzman about the ethical and moral conflicts he encounters, he said, "I never put myself in a position where I have those problems." That may sound simplistic. But it's as simple as that. Sometimes morals are as much about what we don't do, as about what we do.
Which brings me to the annual gala of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. So what does it mean to be honored by an important and venerable charity?
It is not so much an award as an agreement. In most cases, it means that you are willing to make calls for the charity and have your PDA contacts exploited, as well as your friends, family and business associates, all in the service of fundraising for this charity evening.
If that sounds like a hassle, it is.
So why do it? Why did Rick, Howard and David agree to be honored?
The answer is simple: Because these honorees grew up learning the meaning of tzedakah, or acts of charity and lovingkindness.
Lynette Kurtzman, Howard and Rick's mother, is a longtime JFS board member who co-chaired the 1999 JFS gala; their father, Ray Kurtzman, one of the original pillars of CAA, served on the boards of the Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. David recalls his own father being honored by the United Jewish Appeal. Philanthropy was passed from generation to generation.
Tzedakah, according to some commentators, is the most important Jewish commandment; as important as all the others combined. It is also, according to Yom Kippur liturgy, one of three acts that can absolve us of our sins.
That should come as good news to at least some of the agents in the room at the JFS event.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week. Visit him online at www.tommywood.com.