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COVER STORY : Managing in Turbulent Times : As personal manager to some of Hollywood's biggest names, Sandy Gallin has earned a rep for keeping secrets and dodging the spotlight. Now, the task of rebuilding Michael Jackson's image has forced him front and center

January 16, 1994|CLAUDIA ELLER | Claudia Eller is The Times' movie editor

Lying on the floor of his posh, newly remodeled Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park while getting a shiatsu massage, Hollywood mega-manager Sandy Gallin tells a reporter on the phone that he is finally ready to step out of the background and talk about the crisis plaguing his superstar client Michael Jackson.

"Let me read you something," says Gallin, 53, who also represents such other pop icons as Dolly Parton and Neil Diamond. Reading an emotionally charged statement he has prepared for The Times in defense of Jackson--who five months ago was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy and now faces a civil lawsuit set to go to trial March 21--Gallin finally breaks his carefully cultivated low profile, saying, "I can no longer remain a silent witness.

"Over several weeks now I have watched in silent horror the press crucify and assassinate Michael's character without any solid evidence and with no response from his side," he reads. "Based on my very thorough and intimate knowledge of Michael's activities" and "insights into his character, I am convinced that Michael has done nothing that is illegal or immoral.

"Michael's innocent, open and childlike relationships with children may appear bizarre and strange to adults in our society who cannot conceive of any relationship without sexual connotations. . . . This is not a reflection of Michael's character; rather it is a symptom of the sexual phobias of our society."

Gallin says the only reason for speaking up now is to help Jackson, not out of concern for his own image. "I don't think I would have been perceived badly, because I have a low profile," he says. "I stay in the background and my association with Michael is not that public."

He is certainly right about that. Unlike his two best friends, Barry Diller and David Geffen--neither of whom can be said to be press shy--Sandy Gallin has managed to keep his personal and professional lives out of the media spotlight during his 30-year career, particularly when it involves scandal.

Three years ago, for example, when his then-clients Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, better known as Milli Vanilli, were stripped of their Grammy after it was revealed that they did not sing on the hit album "Girl You Know It's True," Gallin and his management firm, Gallin Morey Associates, were barely mentioned in the flood of press accounts.

Diller defends his friend's choice of a low-profile strategy: "The reason he's chosen this tack is to maintain his dignity." Referring to the Jackson crisis, Diller says: "In a situation which has become such a media circus, I think what he's decided is one more voice isn't going to do anyone any good. He decided that the only way to best serve his client was not to talk."

Gallin says he has always preferred to stay in the background. "I am not a star, and I always thought someone I represented would think, 'Why am I not in these five pages . . . and why is my manager?' "

After graduating from Boston University in communications and the arts in 1962, the Brooklyn-born and Long Island-bred Gallin, who had always been fascinated by show business ("I even wanted to be Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton--a mega-star in every medium"), realized he was not destined for stardom. "It was the day of the pretty boy--Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Fabian--and I thought, 'I don't look like them. I am not going to make it, because I am not gorgeous.' So I decided I would go behind the camera. (Even then) I knew I wanted to be a manager and a producer."

The boyish-looking Gallin, with his cropped wavy brown hair, lively brown eyes, fit 5-foot-9 physique and expensive smile, could, in fact, be mistaken for a onetime teen idol. But in lieu of stardom, Gallin chose to transform the careers of the undiscovered into superstars, calling on his own strengths: an instinct for recognizing talent, hard-nosed negotiating skills, a bottomless schmooze capacity and, as one of his former associates put it, "an ability to understand the superstar mentality and subjugate his own ego."

While sometimes the lines are blurry between the duties of an agent and a manager, in general the agent negotiates deals for clients, while a manager supervises and helps forge a client's public-relations strategies and make career choices, and takes a more personal role in an entertainer's life.

"I look at the client as a business or industry," Gallin says, "and the manager becomes the chairman of the board. . . . You have to know the mind of the people you represent and become their alter ego. . . . I always try to put myself into their psyche and make decisions the way they would." Ultimately, he says, "all final decisions, no matter how big or small--whether someone should do 'The Tonight Show' or commit to a world tour--remain with the artist."

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