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A Player Then and Now

The game's changed, but agent Phil Gersh is still at it after more than 60 years. Oh, the stories he can tell.

April 21, 2002|CHARLES DENNIS

In his more than 60 years as an agent, Phil Gersh has had a host of famous clients, among them David Niven, Fredric March, Mary Astor, Lee J. Cobb, Gloria Grahame, Dorothy McGuire, Zero Mostel and James Mason. But the agent is perhaps best known for his handling of Humphrey Bogart in the 1950s, an association that led to some of the actor's most memorable screen roles.

If the '40s had revealed the tough-guy, existential hero of "Casablanca" and "The Big Sleep," it was during the '50s that Bogart's versatility was revealed in such films as "The African Queen" and "Sabrina." Making that transition wasn't easy, Gersh reveals with a memory for detail that belies his 90 years.

"Bogey was a very decent guy," Gersh says. "Very loyal. He had the same lunch every day between films at Mike Romanoff's: two scotch and sodas, an omelet, French toast, some milk and then, at the end, coffee and a brandy. In those days, everybody drank.

"This one particular lunch, we didn't have a future commitment for him. This was after he'd won the Oscar for 'African Queen.' He turned to me and said: 'Kid, no scripts. You didn't bring any scripts.' I said, 'Next week, I'll have three scripts for you next week.'"

Bogart shook his head and told Gersh: "You didn't bring any scripts. Nobody wants me." "The insecurity! You see, those actors were used to the old studio system and having a contract 40 out of 52 weeks. They'd do four, five pictures a year."

Gersh knows a thing or two about working hard-- he's still at it every day. He's one of the last links between Hollywood's golden age and the corporate-owned movie business today. Where agents today communicate via cell phones and Palm Pilots, Gersh is an old-fashioned hand-holder.

He flourished at a time when movie stars turned up at premieres in mink coats and gorgeous gowns, when driven producers like Darryl Zanuck and Sam Goldwyn gambled their studios and life savings to make the movies they wanted, and talent was swapped at all-night card games among producers and agents like Myron Selznick, Leland Hayward and Charles Feldman, who were as colorful as their more famous clients.

"You can set your watch by him going by on his way to work every day," says actor-director Richard Benjamin, a Gersh client who lives down the street from the agent and his wife of 57 years, Beatrice. (The couple are well-respected art collectors and donated a significant part of their collection to the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1989.)

Gersh hasn't lost his verve for the business--or his bluntness in assessing the current Hollywood scene. "There's no executive control in the movie business anymore," says the wiry, silver-haired Gersh, whose voice still carries the cadence of his native New York. He's in the Beverly Hills office of the Gersh Agency, which he runs with Leslie Siebert and his sons Robert and David. Today, the Gersh offices in Beverly Hills and New York employ 50 agents. The present client list includes Tobey Maguire, David Schwimmer, Marcia Gay Harden, Deborah Messing, Sam Rockwell, Patricia Arquette, Seann William Scott, David Arquette and Catherine Keener.

"Phil still works as an agent," Siebert says. "But most important, he's our leader, the one we turn to for advice and feedback for what we're doing with the company."

In the past 50 years, where his contemporaries were swallowed up by bigger agencies or simply closed their doors, how has Gersh managed to survive and thrive?

"He's very smart about the business," Siebert says. "He knows how to adapt to it. People like myself and his sons understand today's business and keep it up to speed. He's had many offers to buy him out. But this business is his passion, his life. He'll never give it up."

Of course, there have been some failures along the way. Kirk Douglas fired Gersh when the actor failed to win the title role in the 1959 epic "Ben-Hur," despite the agent's campaign to win him the part, which went to Charlton Heston. But Gersh survived in the often brutal world of Hollywood agents.

Martin Baum, a longtime agent and one of the founders of Creative Artists Agency, has known Gersh for years and feels the key to his long-lasting success is "his honesty, decency and hard work." DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg calls Gersh "an unsung hero. He's a man of great taste, an extraordinary quality to have as an agent."

On a recent visit to his office, Gersh shakes hands with a vise-like grip. It's casual Friday and Gersh is dressed in a green sports shirt and sharp-looking trousers.

"The actors now can call all the shots in terms of compensation, when they want to start the picture, even who the below-the-line people should be," says Gersh, who clearly remembers when things were very different.

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