Irving Paul (Swifty) Lazar, Hollywood's best-known literary and talent agent whose tenacious deal-making and star-studded client list made him a pioneer in the packaging of modern motion pictures, died Thursday night.
The agent died at his Beverly Hills home of kidney failure, according to friend and social secretary Teresa Sohn. He was 86.
Dubbed Swifty after he accepted a dare and made five movie deals in one day for his friend Humphrey Bogart, Lazar had since the 1940s commanded record-setting fees for hundreds of writers, producers, directors, choreographers, composers and lyricists around the world.
For more than three decades, Lazar's famed Oscar night party--held most recently at Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant--had made him a celebrity host as well.
Distinguished by his shiny, bald head and black-rimmed Mr. Magoo glasses, the 5-foot, 2-inch Lazar had a giant reputation as a tough, sometimes brazen negotiator. He liked to say he could assemble the essential elements of a movie from his clientele--all except the actors, whose constant need for reassurance, he said, usually made them too time-consuming to have as clients.
"Packaging is what I do a lot of. Except for the actors," he told Joseph Heller in 1963, just before he sold the motion picture rights to Heller's novel "Catch-22." "I'm what you might call a catalytic agent."
Indeed, Lazar's career traced the arc of ascendancy of the agent in America.
"The town will be much poorer without him," said dancer Gene Kelly, a Lazar friend for 50 years. "A lot of towns, including London, New York and Paris."
Serving as a liaison between disparate talents and the studios or publishers who sought their help, Lazar was among the first agents to shape entire productions--a job he found satisfying as well as lucrative. When he sold "The Seven Year Itch," he collected commissions from George Axelrod, the author; Charles Feldman, the producer, and Billy Wilder, the director.
"He made more out of 'Itch' than anybody else," Axelrod told the Saturday Evening Post.
But Lazar's knack for assembling the creative forces of Hollywood was perhaps best illustrated each Oscar night, when he and his wife, Mary, who died in January, hosted their exclusive, glitzy party.
The black-tie dinner, which lured hundreds of stars and star-seekers from the Motion Picture Academy's official proceedings, was a magnet for legends and ingenues alike. The party kept the spotlight focused on Lazar long after some of his earliest big name clients, such as Truman Capote, Ira Gershwin, Vladimir Nabokov and Cole Porter, had died.
It was an elaborate production. To ensure that no one had to sit near an ex-husband or ex-scriptwriter, guests nibbled duck sausage pizza and toasted dill brioche in two rooms. To keep from elevating one room or the other to instant A-list status, Lazar had no assigned seat, preferring to roam back and forth between such personalities as Michael Jackson and Paloma Picasso, Elizabeth Taylor and Quincy Jones, Tony Curtis and Jimmy Stewart.
The fete was just one example of how Lazar loved to mix business, socializing with the rich and famous--from Sinatra to Madonna--and never wasting a sales opportunity.
To clinch a deal, he was said to have accosted one studio executive as he dined at Romanoff's and another as he emerged naked from a steam room. Once, while flying coach class in the 1950s, Lazar spotted Spyros Skouras, the head of 20th Century Fox, sitting beyond the partition in a first-class seat. It was the last time Lazar ever skimped on travel.
"I could have sold Skouras $300,000 worth of stuff," he grumbled to Time magazine.
Over the years, Lazar's eccentric behavior became legendary--a process that Lazar, knowing the value of a good story, did not discourage.
The bantam-like agent's distaste for dirt caused him to wash bars of soap before he used them. A hypochondriac, he had his sheets changed twice a day. When he stayed in hotels, he had a path of towels laid out between the bathroom and the bed--the place where, telephone in hand, he made many of his deals.
It was said that if Lazar was not invited to a party, he would arrange to leave Los Angeles so he could say he had been out of town. According to legend, in order to fall asleep at 2 a.m., the manic Lazar had to begin swallowing sleeping pills at dinner time.
Nearly as often as not, Lazar sold properties that he had not been retained to represent.
"Consent of the author is not necessary for me to work in his behalf," Lazar told Heller. Later, he told The Times: "The greatest fun is to sell something you don't represent at all. If I like something I go out and sell it. I usually manage to get paid anyway."
Lazar saw himself as more than a hired hand. He was a super-agent, a man with vision and with enough well-connected friends to turn vision into moneymaking reality. Lazar thought his friend, novelist Irwin Shaw, had put it best: "Every writer has two agents, his own and Irving Lazar."