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Al Martinez

He used a telephone like a fixed bayonet. . . . You said what you had to say and you got off the stage. : Requiem for an Iron Major

April 25, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

I met Leonard Hanzer shortly after I had written my first pilot for television. I had never been represented by a Hollywood agent before and therefore expected the usual amount of lying love-talk that abounds in an industry where truth is considered less important than lunch.

He was only 5 feet, 4 inches tall and I had the feeling that when he was seated at his desk, which he was at the time, his feet didn't touch the floor. His face was round, almost cherubic, but there was steel in his gaze.

"You like show biz?" he asked bluntly.

"Not particularly," I said.

"Good," he replied. "Don't quit your job."

It was an odd first meeting with a man who was supposed to promote whatever career I might have writing for film. He wasn't certain my first sale wasn't a fluke and was skeptical that a journalist could "cross over" with any degree of success from the print medium into a dramatic screen format.

My first pilot became a series not because of my soaring talent, he assured me, but because NBC owed air time to the studio that had purchased my script.

"The industry," he said quite matter-of-factly, "runs on deals that grow out of obligations. Obligations grow from power, not talent. If you expect to survive on talent alone, write poetry or paint murals under the freeway."

He let me think about that for a moment then leaned forward over his desk. His expression had hardened. "From now on," he said, "you will talk with no one in television until I say so. You are to remember you are the goose and they are the foxes, and they will eat you alive.

"If a producer should say good morning to you, you may say good morning in return, but beyond that you are to speak only three little words."

"I love you?"

He didn't smile. "Call my agent."

Leonard Hanzer was known as the Iron Major, partly because of his style and partly because when he quit the Army after 16 years he held the rank of the gold leaf. He was tougher than the shooting end of an old M-1 rifle, and always made me feel that in his presence I should never slump or stand with my hands in my pockets. A salute was optional.

He was an honest man, and even those in adversary positions respected him for it. In television, it isn't so important that you like or dislike someone. Friendships last the length of a shooting schedule. Trust, once established, survives the bad times.

"You knew where you stood with the Major," Gene Reynolds said. He was one of Hanzer's Boys, the muscle behind both "MASH" and "Lou Grant."

"He made negotiations easy on people. He knew what he wanted for his clients and he played no games. There were no fallback positions and no hooking around. It was clean. He never went back on his word. I liked him for that."

Conversely, he was intolerant of anyone who crossed him. One of the town's most successful producers lied to him once. Just once. It wasn't a big lie, but it had caused distress to a client.

Hanzer called him and ordered him never to contact any of his writers again. I could say he simply told the man to go to hell, but it was more than that. He lashed the producer with adjectives that would melt a stevedore.

The man never got over it. He's still trying to explain his position.

Leonard's office was in West L.A. and he was a familiar, easily recognizable figure: short and stocky, straight black hair combed to the side, tie slightly askew, a suit jacket that was always rumpled.

But they rose to their feet in the network offices when the Major accompanied a client to a meeting, and they never took him for granted. He needed neither height nor uniform to establish his position as the man who guarded a barnyard filled with gullible writers. He carried his rank in his bearing and his power in his voice.

He used a telephone like a fixed bayonet, at once demanding and convincing, and wasted little time on small talk. You said what you had to say and you got off the stage.

Even so, there was an odd softness to the man. He quit the Army cold, four years from retirement, because they wouldn't allow his wife and only child to accompany him to a new duty post. He built a miniature electric train set and played with it in the quiet hours of the night, thinking through the day. He rarely watched television.

The Iron Major lived life to the fullest. He was a paratrooper in the Army because that was the ultimate test of his manhood. As a civilian, he traveled the world from his Brentwood home in search of antiques and fine wines. He chartered planes to fish in Alaska and skied where the mountains were highest and the slopes steepest.

He bet on racehorses, ate prodigiously in the best restaurants of two continents and played golf as though he were leading an infantry charge. He didn't stop to smell the roses. He took the roses with him.

Last week, at age 59, Leonard Hanzer, in the middle of deals, thinking about the next trip, tasting the best wines from his own enormous celler, died of a heart attack. He was an original. There will never be another like him.

Play taps.

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