January 11, 2001
'Bette' producer Bonnie Bruckheimer talks showbiz, success and family.
Why do most people want to believe that a successful career in show business happens by luck? Maybe it's because for people who haven't made it, that's a good explanation or excuse. And maybe successful people want it to seem as if it were easy for them, as if they were chosen to receive such blessings because they are so very special.
But it's not an accident or magic, and it's never just a lucky fluke, not if you have any staying power. People succeed in show business just as they succeed in any business, step by small step.
Exhibit A: Bonnie Bruckheimer.
Bruckheimer is one of Hollywood's most successful producers. The fact that she's a woman is not incidental; it's remarkable, especially in a business where few women make it to the top. Bruckheimer is Bette Midler's business partner. Midler may make you laugh, but Bruckheimer is the woman who makes her laugh.
The two have been business partners and great friends for more than 20 years, quite a record in or out of show business. They formed All Girl Productions together in 1985, with the 1988 feature "Beaches" as Bruckheimer's producing debut. Since "Beaches" she's produced three more Midler movies, "For the Boys," "Hocus Pocus" and "That Old Feeling." She co-produced the comedy hit "Man of the House," starring Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and executive produced Midler's HBO concert film "Diva Las Vegas," as well as Midler's television production of "Gypsy" for CBS, both of which won Emmy Awards.
Currently Bruckheimer is producing "Bette," a new sitcom on CBS, remarkable for its ability to combine broad physical comedy and smart, sophisticated wit. Perhaps even more remarkable is that it has a recognizably Jewish female character, the lead no less.
Not bad for a high school graduate from Brooklyn who started as a secretary in the garment business before she knew how to type. Not to mention a mother who told her to "marry a nice guy who'll take care of you," and a father who told her to "get a job in civil service so you can't be fired."
Bruckheimer credits working in the garment industry as her training ground. "I talked a good game," she explained in an interview at her bungalow on the Culver Studios lot. "I didn't always keep the jobs, but I could talk my way into them" -- which happens to be the No. 1 qualification for a show business career.
"The garment center is a lot like the movie business and I think I was lucky to work there. I was able to pick up things that were really important," said Bruckheimer, who had men's clothing designer John Weitz as an early boss. "He was a tough task master," she said. "I was his assistant, and if anything ever went wrong, I would always find an excuse. I would say things like, 'Well, uh, you know, it wasn't my fault because, the ... you know ...' He hated that! And he drilled into me that you must own up to your mistakes. It took a long time, but I left there knowing how to take responsibility. It has served me in everything I do." "And I was personable" -- she actually does purr as she rolls the word off her tongue: purrrr-sonable.
"Once I had the job, I started to learn secretarial skills. I created my own shorthand, which I called 'Bonniewriting.' It was basically scribbling and remembering," she says with a laugh. It's easy to see how she kept those jobs. Not only is she a hard worker, she's funny and unpretentious; anyone would want her around.
After she became, as she put it, "a really great secretary," Bruckheimer landed a job as executive secretary to the treasurer of Columbia Pictures Industries. She was still in New York and at the time was married to Jerry Bruckheimer, who, as she said decided he wanted to be a producer," she said. "Little did I know he would be the most successful producer of all time."
They moved to Los Angeles, and Columbia gave her a job at the studio. That's when she started learning about film production. Not from Jerry Bruckheimer, though. He was just starting out when they were married, and they were divorced before he hit his stride.
Bruckheimer met Midler in 1979, when she was working as a producer's assistant on "The Rose," and went on to be Midler's personal and professional assistant. "I took care of e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g," Bruckheimer said, becoming, in the process, she added, the world's best assistant. The relationship grew into their partnership. What's kept them together so long in a business notorious for contentious breakups? Bruckheimer credits their mutual respect for each other's abilities.
"We each have our strong suit," Bruckheimer said. "I'm much more business-oriented, and Bette trusts me with that. But if you ask Bette, she'd say [that] I make her laugh. We both really love to laugh. We've been in a lot of tough situations, and we've managed to keep our sense of humor."
For example, Midler had been offered the leading role in the film "Misery," but she didn't want to do it. Bruckheimer thought she should, but ultimately Midler just wouldn't do the part -- a role that won Kathy Bates the Academy Award. When asked if Midler admitted she had been wrong, Bruckheimer giggled triumphantly, "Absolutely, oh, absolutely! And I played it for all it was worth."
But Midler, Bruckheimer said, taught her the importance of perfection. "She taught me many years ago that you don't look at your watch and say, 'Uh-oh, time's up. It's good enough.' "
As producer of "Bette," Bruckheimer is definitely feeling the pressure. "We are trying to find our way, to look at our shows and see what worked and what didn't, but we're so visible because of its being Bette," she said.
But after making it to the top, Bruckheimer has found an important way to stave off the pressure and gain perspective: her children. "I was good at what I did before I had children," she said, "but I learned patience from my kids. And I've learned that none of it, businesswise, is life or death. Sometimes the work is great, and sometimes it doesn't work at all, but your family is what really matters."
As she put it, "I am more a mom than I am a producer. My kids come first, and they always will. I have no social life: no business dinners, no screenings or parties." What many consider the glamorous perks of show business, the stuff that's in People magazine, Bruckheimer has given up.
"When I go home at night, I spend the evening with my kids," she said. "I'm helping with homework, I'm putting them to bed or I'm just hanging out with them. If I go anywhere on the weekend, it's to a soccer game or with other parents, and we go to kid-friendly restaurants, like the California Pizza Kitchen.
"Since I've been doing 'Bette,' they come to the tapings and we watch the show together on Wednesday nights," she continued. "They feel very much a part of what I do. That's one of the ways I do it. And the other way is I pull my hair out."
In addition to producing a prime-time television show -- a full-time job for anyone -- Bruckheimer is also deep in preproduction for her new Warner Brothers feature, "The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood." Awed, I asked how she could possibly do so much. Her answer was a nonplused "I don't know." Then she added, "When you're the busiest, everything happens. But you manage to do it." She pauses for a self-effacing moment. "Well, we'll see."