November 16, 2009
One Man’s Illness Works to Myeloma’s Benefit
“Tonight we’ve heard from a small Jew, a medium-sized Jew, and now we’re about to hear from the world’s biggest Jew,” comedian Ray Romano cracked to an auditorium full of Hollywood bigwigs.
Brad Garrett, who is a striking 6 feet 8 1/2 inches tall, sauntered onto the stage.
“Jews come in all sizes,” Garrett announced, peering down at his crotch.
Jewish jokes, racial slurs, sex rants — everything was fodder at the International Myeloma Foundation’s third annual Comedy Celebration on Nov. 7, held at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre and headlined by a handful of the most talented comics in showbiz, including host Romano, Garrett, Jimmy Kimmel, Bob Saget, Fred Willard and Doris Roberts. Film star Jack Black appeared with his Tenacious D bandmate Kyle Gass to play a set of absurdist rock.
There were even “no-you-didn’t” jokes about cancer.
“There are many agents I wish cancer on, but Steve is not one of them,” Jimmy Kimmel said, referring to his first agent, Steve Weiss, who along with his wife, Amy, served as the evening’s co-chairs.
Over the course of their 12-year marriage, Steve and Amy have become a Hollywood power couple. Steve, who now works independently, had a 35-year career at the former William Morris Agency, where he specialized in television packaging for shows like “Murphy Brown” and represented writers (his father, Lou Weiss, helped build the agency, having served as chairman emeritus until his retirement in 2007, after 70 years with the company). Amy, who has a law degree, is the executive vice president of Brillstein Entertainment Partners, one of the industry’s leading management firms (they rep Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler) and is also a talent manager for clients Courtney Cox, Meat Loaf, Tom Skerritt and “Mad About You” creator Danny Jacobson, among others.
This time last year, Steve was in the hospital undergoing a stem cell transplant after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer that is presently considered incurable. So when Dr. Brian Durie, an oncologist at Cedars-Sinai as well as the co-founder and chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation (IMF), asked the couple to chair this year’s benefit, Amy threw herself into a fundraising frenzy. She was relentless, practically badgering her Hollywood colleagues from CBS to HBO to CAA to support the cause. And she didn’t stop there: several pharmaceutical companies, including Celgene and Genentech also ponied up for myeloma.
It paid off: By the Monday morning after the event, donations had surpassed $700,000. The same Hollywood that has lately been wringing their pockets over lost advertising, fallen DVD sales and Internet piracy had provided an outpouring of support. To their surprise, the Weiss’ personal tragedy brought out the charitable side of an industry.
“What I find the entertainment community responds to are personal pleas,” Amy said in a telephone interview from her office. “I had a story to tell; I could put a face to the illness.”
“Groups come together to support their own,” Steve added. “Everybody gets affected by these things. Anybody can get sick.”
For the Weisses, the story began one morning in May 2008, when Steve went to the doctor to have his cholesterol checked. After a brief test, the doctor gave him the news: his cholesterol was the lowest it had ever been, but his protein levels were unusually high. The doctor ordered more tests. A week later, Steve was diagnosed with myeloma.
At the time, Steve and Amy had never heard of myeloma.
“When they said ‘multiple’ myeloma, I was like, ‘Wow, how much worse is that?’” Steve recalled.
“I actually passed out when we got the diagnosis,” Amy said. “I had felt that life was so wonderful at that moment, and I could not believe what I was now looking at.”
In 1993, the year she moved from New York to Los Angeles to work for Disney, Amy lost her mother to lymphona and was terrified of a repeat. Steve began treatment with a variety of drugs, including Revlimid, which without insurance can cost up to $8,000 per month.
As often happens with serious illness, Steve’s diagnosis impelled the couple to take stock of their lives. Both are prominent players in the Hollywood community; they realized they had been incredibly fortunate, but also considerably insulated from some of life’s difficult realities.
“It’s really kind of a wake-up call,” Steve said about his diagnosis. “You dealt with all those people, you enjoyed the perks and all of that — what meaning does it have? You start to realize what is really of value in life. The Los Angeles Hollywood community is kind of a big bubble that separates us from a lot of realities.”
Yet when it comes to raising awareness about a cause, few people in the world can attract public attention the way Hollywood can.
“We were able to use our relationships,” Amy said. “This bubble of Hollywood that separates you from the real world has a tremendous reach to the rest of the world.”
“A lot of times people think celebrities are self-absorbed, and all I can say in my experience with this benefit is that I reached out to the heads of studios, heads of networks, heads of agencies, and without fail the support was there,” Amy added.
Clients and friends flew in from all over the country. Entertainment colleagues donated money and volunteered their time. Some of the comedians, Amy said, canceled paying gigs to appear at the event. And the red carpet saw its share of big names, including a pregnant Jenna Elfman, rock stars Joe Walsh from Eagles and Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra, as well as Blythe Danner.
“A lot of this was the Jewish community,” Amy said. “And Jewish people by nature are charitable.”
The Weisses have a close relationship with Rabbi Mark Borovitz, the rabbi at Congregation Beit T’Shuvah, a rehabilitation community for recovering addicts. Every week, Steve, his father and his brothers, Jeffrey and Evan, who are also in entertainment, study Torah with the rabbi, and, Steve said, Borovitz donated money for the benefit.
“This reaches deep, I guess, because we’re Jewish,” Steve said. “One of the things our rabbi has taught us is about tzedakah and being able to give. My client, Jill Zarin, [who stars on the reality series, ‘The Real Housewives of New York,’] has a book coming out called ‘Advice From a Jewish Mother,’ and one of the things she writes in the book is ‘You can’t keep it if you don’t give it away’ — and that’s something I learned growing up in a Jewish home.”
While Amy was “shameless in her pursuit” to raise money — she tactfully persuaded some of the bigwigs to give by suggesting everyone else was in, and she didn’t want to see them “embarrassed” — Steve took a back seat to all that. “My whole career was asking for more money and more money, and I don’t like doing that,” he said.
“Even though I’m the one that asked for the money, it was all because of him that people gave,” Amy insisted. “This was a mission for me. There was a specific, clear-cut goal, and that is to find a cure for multiple myeloma and to find one in my husband’s lifetime. I treasure our marriage. I treasure our life together. He is my best friend, and I want to grow old with him.”
There are, of course, days when the challenges of living with myeloma take a toll. But overall, the experience has been positive.
“There are opportunities where you see the best and worst of people,” Amy said. “For me, this was about the best of people.”
Steve saw the best in his wife: “She can basically do anything,” he said. “She’s my hero.”
Even on a three-way phone call, the couple shares a romantic moment.
“Steve knows without question that I am 100 percent there for him at all times and forever,” Amy said. “There’s not even a question.”
“But,” Steve added, “If you put it in print, I’d appreciate it.”