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How Sammy still runs

Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel 'What Makes Sammy Run?' took aim at Hollywood ambition run amok. Some things don't change.

June 05, 2005|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

As young screenwriters in the late 1930s, employed by David O. Selznick, Schulberg and Ring Lardner Jr. found themselves working with Ben Hecht, the feisty newspaperman B.P. had brought to Hollywood to write "Underworld," the first great gangster picture. "Ben was writing 'Nothing Sacred' as they were shooting it -- we couldn't wait to see how it would end," Schulberg told me, sitting upstairs in his old bedroom. "Then late one night, Selznick calls and says to hurry down to the studio. There's a crisis. When we arrived, David's secretary gave us a bowl of Benzedrine and said, 'You better take these before you go in.' "

Selznick had just had a huge blowup with Hecht, who was already on the Super Chief headed back East. Selznick told his young charges that they had to write the ending of the picture -- and pronto, since it was being shot the following day. "We did the best we could, but it's a pretty lame ending," says Schulberg.

He did better with "On the Waterfront," which was turned down by every studio in town. Finally, Schulberg bumped into producer Sam Spiegel, who was staying across the hall at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Spiegel was having a party that night but told Schulberg to come by at 7 the next morning. When Budd arrived, there were bottles and cigarette butts everywhere. Spiegel was sound asleep. Undeterred, Schulberg woke him up and pitched him the movie. "He was still under the sheets up to his eyes," Schulberg recalls. "When I finally got done, I didn't know if he was awake or not, so I shook him a little. He pulled down the covers and said, 'OK, OK, I'll do it.' "

Go to any industry watering hole today, whether it's the Grill or the bar at the Peninsula Hotel, and you can find Sammy Glick holding court in some corner of the room. Schulberg moved back East decades ago, but Sammy has stayed, embedded deep in the DNA of show business, as enduring a literary archetype as Lolita or Holden Caulfield. It's hard to imagine a Hollywood story, from Michael Tolkin's "The Player" to the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink" or David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," that doesn't owe a debt to Schulberg's scrappy hustler, not to mention Tony Curtis' frenetic Sidney Falco in "Sweet Smell of Success."

Sammy hasn't just survived, he thrives everywhere in showbiz. "The character is still completely relevant today," says veteran talent manager Bernie Brillstein, who got his showbiz start in the William Morris mailroom in the 1950s. "Originally the motivation was about having power and getting laid, but now it's all about making money. I saw a lot of 22-year-old Sammy Glicks who you knew were going to make it. They had the drive, but they also had the charm. You need both to get ahead."

Starting in the mailroom

For decades, the William Morris Agency mailroom has been an incubator for an army of Glicks, weeding out the wannabes from the indefatigable hustlers. In the early 1960s, the young David Geffen got a job there, first by posing as a cousin of pop producer Phil Spector -- a Glick in his own right -- then by lying that he'd graduated from UCLA. When it became apparent that the agency would check up on his story, Geffen came into work an hour early every day for four months until he intercepted a letter from UCLA, replacing it with a faked missive saying he was a graduate.

Geffen was never particularly embarrassed by the incident, viewing it as a necessary step in his career ascent. As he told David Rensin, author of "The Mailroom," a history of talent agency mailrooms, "If you want to succeed, you'd better not care too much about what other people think about what you're doing." In showbiz, boundless ambition is rarely frowned upon. In the frantic scramble to get movies going or sign hot new artists, it's accepted that everyone needs to take a few shortcuts. When Schulberg wrote "What Makes Sammy Run?," he saw Glick as a ruthless snake slithering his way to the top, betraying anyone who got in his way. Today's industry, however, sees Sammy with more affection. Glicks nowadays are admired for their fierce ambition and shameless chutzpah.

In 1992 a young agent, unhappy over the performance of his new Sony cordless phones, sent a heated letter to the Sony top brass, not only demanding that the company replace his phones but claiming that his "friend and business associate" Peter Guber, then head of Sony Pictures, "would be embarrassed to know their company made products that perform so poorly." It turned out he'd never met Guber, who angrily told him to "erase my name from your Rolodex and from your memory." But after Guber received an apology, he correctly predicted that the agent, Jay Sures, now co-head of United Talent Agency's television department, was going places. "He has some chutzpah that, if he can keep it in check, will be useful. He'll turn out to be a really good agent."

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