Norman Brokaw's first day at the William Morris Agency was July 7, 1943; he has never worked anywhere else.
The 15-year-old, $25-a-week mailboy was the first mailroom trainee to become an agent, later becoming the agency's chairman of the board. He represented Bill Cosby for four decades and was responsible for introducing Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe.
On April 20 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, Brokaw's three decades of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center philanthropy -- as a member of the hospital's board of governors, board of directors and now life trustee -- are being honored by Cedars-Sinai's Heart Fund as Brokaw receives its Steven S. Cohen Humanitarian Award.
The cardiology unit is special to Brokaw because his mother had a stroke and heart attack while her older sons fought in World War II (one was executed on the Bataan Death March). One of Brokaw's brothers and his father died of heart attacks.
In his cozy office, the 76-year-old William Morris icon gave a rare interview to The Journal discussing his 30-year love affair with Cedars-Sinai.
Jewish Journal: How did you get involved with Cedars-Sinai?
Norman Brokaw: I've always had an interest in things that had to do with the heart, because of family history. Having had all this experience, first at the age of 15, when my mother had a heart attack, I lost a brother who died at the age of 43 with a heart attack, I'm very mindful of the heart situation. When my father and brother had their heart attacks, if we had that knowledge then (about the heart), they'd be living a much longer life.
JJ: What's the connection between your success at work and your success at philanthropy?
NB: If you work hard in business and you work hard for the hospital, if you're successful in business you can be successful for the hospital.
JJ: What do you think of philanthropy in Hollywood today? George Gobel once joked, "By the time I got to Hollywood, the only charity that was left was water on the knee."
NB: Well there you are. Everybody has a favorite charity. Cedars has been very, very special to me. So many doctors I know are longtime, personal friends of mine, and they all work through the hospital, treating family and friends of mine, including actors, writers, directors, producers, etc. Chances are that their personal physicians are on staff or had privileges at Cedars-Sinai.
So many people are drawn to the hospital; it has an incredible reputation. With Dr. P.K. Shah, the director of cardiology and atherosclerosis, and the research and things that are accomplished in his department, it's really the whole future.
JJ: What did you learn about philanthropy from Lew Wasserman?
NB: A great and friendly competitor. I considered him a mentor to me. I liked everything about Lew Wasserman. How he supported candidates from both political parties. He cared about everybody.
JJ: During the same 60 years you have been in Hollywood, you've also seen the rise of Jewish philanthropy and institutions in Los Angeles, including Cedars-Sinai.
NB: As a young man, I was in the entertainment section of the United Jewish Welfare Fund. I was one of the two founders of the Cedars-Sinai annual tennis tournament, which is now in its 32nd year. I did create a huge benefit to launch the Betty Ford cancer center, because of my relationship with President and Mrs. Ford.
My main contributions go to Cedars-Sinai, because of my involvement with them. I've always made contributions to the United Jewish Welfare Fund.
JJ: There is also a very personal reason why you are so attached to Cedars-Sinai and especially Shah, its cardiology division director.
NB: P.K. Shah saved my life. Because of my family history, every year I go to Cedars-Sinai and take a complete physical. Dr. Shah spotted a change in my cardiograph about a year-and-a-half ago and told me he wanted me to have a angiogram.
I told him that I had no aches, no pains, no shortness of breath, I work 17 hours a day and did I really have to have an angiogram? He said yes and scheduled it for a few days later.
At 5:30 in the morning, they did an angiogram. When I awakened about four hours later, I learned I had a triple bypass.
Because of P.K. Shah's early detection, they found there was blockage in three of the arteries. I was operated on with no damage to my heart. I was back working from home four days later and back in the office in three weeks.
Again, it was because P.K. Shah spotted that there was something going on. His early detection prevented me from having a major heart attack.
For tickets to the Heart Fund Humanitarian of the Year gala on April 20 honoring Norman Brokaw, call (310) 423-3657.
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