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Jack Valenti: 1921-2007

Formidable force for Hollywood

April 27, 2007|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Jack Valenti, the urbane Washington lobbyist who served as Hollywood's public face for nearly four decades and was best known for creating the film ratings system, died Thursday afternoon, according to Warren Cowan, his longtime friend. He was 85.

Valenti had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in March. He was treated for several weeks at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore but was released Tuesday and returned to his home in Washington, where he died.

For 38 years until retiring in 2004, Valenti headed the Motion Picture Assn. of America, guiding the trade organization from a clubby group of movie studios led by autocratic moguls into a collection of global media conglomerates involved in television, the Internet and an array of other media businesses.

To the moviegoing public, however, Valenti's legacy will always be the ratings system he fathered in 1968, which now labels movies G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17. Valenti defended it for years against attacks by critics. Today, it remains largely intact as the self-policing vehicle he envisioned.

"It's the end of an era," said industry veteran Sherry Lansing, former Paramount Pictures chairwoman. "He was one of the greatest leaders our industry ever had. He was one of those unique individuals who could build consensus."

Former Warner Bros. Chairman Bob Daly said Valenti's passing represented "a sad day."

"He was friends with everybody in the industry, and even though he might not agree with you, you could talk to Jack and he understood your point," Daly said.

Valenti's death comes on the eve of the anticipated release of his memoirs chronicling a life that included piloting a B-25 in World War II, serving as one of President Lyndon Johnson's closest confidants and shaping nearly every issue faced by today's entertainment industry. Titled "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood," the book is tentatively scheduled for release in June.

In his role as entertainment industry lobbyist, Valenti moved effortlessly between Hollywood and Washington while trying to bridge two cultures that were often at odds.

With his silver mane, custom-tailored shirts and suits, and polished cowboy boots, Valenti was one of the most recognizable figures in the nation's capital. Despite being a loyal Democrat, he skillfully worked both sides of the aisles, possessing one of the town's best Rolodexes. Along the way, he became nearly as much a celebrity as the stars he befriended, addressing the worldwide Academy Awards TV audience each year.

In public, his Texas-accented eloquence was reminiscent of a Southern preacher. In fretting over the rising costs of making and marketing films, Valenti once said: "As the American movie rides an ascending curve throughout the known world, it is being pursued with malignant fidelity by total costs. It is a terrible confluence of hope and terror which confronts every studio, every producer, every production company."

The grandson of Sicilian immigrants and son of a tax clerk, Valenti was born Sept. 5, 1921 in Houston. An honor student and debating champ at Sam Houston High School, he graduated at age 15.

Lacking the money to attend college, Valenti worked as an $11-a-week movie theater usher -- his only entertainment experience before going to work for the MPAA. While employed by an oil company, he attended night classes at the University of Houston, where he was elected student body president.

At age 20, Valenti enlisted in the Army Air Forces after being turned down by the Navy because of a heart murmur. Flying 51 missions, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. He received his MBA from Harvard University in 1948 and four years later started his own advertising firm.

He was among a dozen young men and women invited to a reception at a Houston hotel to meet Johnson, then the U.S. Senate's majority leader, who was eager to cultivate talented young fellow Texans who might help him one day.

Valenti was in awe the moment he met his future mentor. Recalling that day during a Caltech appearance in 2003, Valenti said: "I was fascinated the way I'm fascinated by a hooded cobra or a silken panther on a hillside ready to spring. It was an animal magnetism I never got over."

After Johnson was selected as John F. Kennedy's running mate in 1960, Valenti worked on the ticket's media campaign in Texas, and he kept in touch with Johnson after he became vice president.

Valenti was also smitten by Johnson secretary Mary Margaret Wiley. After spotting her coming off an airplane with Johnson in Houston, Valenti asked an aide to call the Rice Hotel and order the staff to rearrange the seating so she would be placed next to him.

When the couple married in 1962, Wiley's father was ill, so Johnson gave the bride away. The couple had three children.

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