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William Morris Appoints Rifkin Its New President

Movies: The film unit chief's promotion marks a further shake-up in the Hollywood agency elite.

April 15, 1997|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The William Morris Agency on Monday named Arnold Rifkin, one of Hollywood's most aggressive and colorful movie agents, as president of the venerable agency.

The ascent of Rifkin to the most visible post at the 98-year-old agency is testimony not only to Rifkin's success at revitalizing Morris' once-moribund film division, but also to the importance agencies place in having a movie agent as the most recognized face in their company.

Rifkin's promotion also represents a further realignment at the top of Hollywood's agency world. The last two years have seen such top names as Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and Jack Rapke leave the business, along with the emergence of such newcomers as the agency Endeavor to join such established operations as Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management, Morris and United Talent Agency.

Rifkin, 49, takes over as president from Jerry Katzman, a longtime television agent who was given the title vice chairman. In addition, longtime William Morris Chairman Norman Brokaw relinquished the chief executive title to Walter Zifkin, the company's top financial and business specialist.

The appointment comes seven months after Rifkin was courted to be the top film executive at Sony Pictures Entertainment in what turned into an embarrassing debacle for then-Sony Pictures President Alan Levine. He recruited Rifkin, only to be overruled by Sony President Nobuyuki Idei. Levine himself left Sony a month later.

Following that episode, Rifkin returned to the agency with a new five-year contract. At the time, sources said he was also all but promised that he would eventually be named president.

In an interview, however, Rifkin denied he was specifically promised the job at the time, saying that formal discussions did not start until January with the Morris board.

Rifkin said he plans to continue to oversee the film division, including expanding the company's movie presence in London.

"I may be president, but I'm still an agent," Rifkin said.

Rifkin and his staff are given credit for engineering a comeback for actor John Travolta that has made him once again one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood. Morris also has played a major role in the well-chronicled growth of the independent film sector, helping put together such films as "Pulp Fiction," "The English Patient" and "Sling Blade."

Rifkin for years has personally represented actor Bruce Willis, and now also personally represents actress Whoopi Goldberg. His staff recently scored a major coup by signing actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Morris agency.

A former fur salesman who remains one of Hollywood's most impeccable dressers, Rifkin joined Morris when it acquired Triad Artists in 1992. At the time, Morris badly needed to rebuild its film division, which was hemorrhaging after rival agencies poached such top names as Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer and director Tim Burton.

From the moment he started at the agency, Rifkin's New Age approach separated him from the button-down style at Morris. He opted to have meetings outside of the Morris conference room because there was "too much negativity in the room" and bought Ralph Lauren bedsheets to cover the chairs to change a room's mood.

Rifkin also arrived at the time with a reputation for having one of the most explosive tempers in Hollywood, something he says he now has under control with the help of therapy.

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