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Obituaries

Monique James; Talent Agent Helped Many Achieve Stardom

January 25, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monique James, Hollywood talent agent who helped move such clients as Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Sharon Gless from obscurity to stardom, has died. She was 74.

James died last Thursday of cancer in Los Angeles, said her daughter, producer and manager Pam Prince.

With her East Coast partner Eleanor Kilgallen, James presided over Hollywood's last contract actors' system--at Universal Studios--from 1962 until it was shut down in 1980.

The two women then planned a production company, but went back to what they knew best--talent--and became personal managers for Gless and many other performers.

James' iron resolve, intelligence, integrity, loyalty and business sense, coupled with a sense of humor, made the diminutive woman one of the 20th century's best-known and most successful talent agents. She was called the "Starmaker."

Yet she loved illustrating her own fallibility by telling--accompanied by her own shrieks of laughter--how she canceled Lorne Green's contract with Universal, telling him he would never succeed as an actor and might as well go home to Canada. A week later Greene landed his career-making role as the patriarch of the popular television western "Bonanza."

James was born in Paris, where her father, Edwin L. James, was chief European correspondent for the New York Times, and grew up in New York when he returned to become the paper's managing editor from 1932 until 1951. Educated at the private Brearley School and Vassar College in mathematics and psychology, she shocked her blueblood family when she announced plans to go into show business.

"Never," said her father.

But she joined the casting department of CBS as a receptionist who couldn't type for Kilgallen--also the daughter of a famous newsman, reporter James Kilgallen. A year later, in 1949, the two women left CBS to form their own company, Casting Consultants, specializing in performers for the new medium of television.

Again James' father forbade the enterprise--and then loaned them $5,000 to start it. James and Kilgallen were so successful--handling such clients as Grace Kelly and Leslie Nielsen--that they repaid him within six months.

Despite the quick success, Casting Consultants was short-lived. Lew Wasserman, whom James referred to until her death as "our fearless leader," bought them out for a sum that staggered them both. The two women then went to work for his MCA--Kilgallen in New York and James out west.

After MCA took over Universal in 1962, James and Kilgallen were put in charge, on their opposite coasts, of the contract actors' training and management program as vice presidents in charge of new talent.

Among those James signed and groomed, in addition to Gless, were Valerie Perrine, David Hartman, David Carradine, Carrie Snodgress, Susan St. James, James Farentino, Katharine Ross, Susan Clark, Harrison Ford, James Brolin, Judd Hirsch, Jan-Michael Vincent, Lindsay Wagner and Jamie Lee Curtis.

James, with her East Coast counterpart, interviewed hundreds of potential performers each year and hired 15 or so to join Universal's stable of 40 contract players. And James, who read 17 scripts a weekend and scanned dailies of her charges' efforts, kept them working.

"The best training is being able to work in front of the camera--however small the part--being able to work with pros," James told The Times in 1968.

"The day of discovering a star in a malt shop is gone. The day of the manufactured star is past," she said in another Times interview. "That's because television has no time to train people. They have to know what they're doing when they step on that set. . . . For my young people, I want to know what training they've had, I want to see them perform, do a scene. That tells me more than a dozen screen tests."

James, whose married surname was Prince, is survived by her daughter, who asked that any memorial donations be made to the American Cancer Society or the Pet Orphans Fund.

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