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A parting shot heard round the town

A William Morris assistant's farewell e-mail makes him a star.

August 25, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

On his last day as a William Morris Agency assistant, Shai Steinberger sent out a whopper of a "goodbye" e-mail, rife with tales of Christmas party debauchery, (failed) seductions in the file room and embarrassing celebrity encounters. He poked fun at agency President Jim Wiatt and his former bosses, agents David Lonner and Jeff Shumway, and in doing so, humorously breached Hollywood etiquette.

Naturally, the "I love you, WMA" e-mail pinged around the agency world in a matter of minutes on Aug. 17. Agents and assistants who'd never met Steinberger sent him kudos, calling his missive "profound" and "epic." The day after, L.A. Weekly's industry columnist Nikki Finke posted it on her blog and by Monday, Steinberger was "the talk of the agency world," said an agency staffer. "Everyone was e-mailing it back and forth. Everyone thought it was absolutely hysterical."

A bone-headed career move, maybe, but hysterical nonetheless.

On Wednesday, Steinberger, former assistant and aspiring comic, gamely charted his ascent to 15-minute fame-dom at a Beverly Hills coffee spot swarming with actress/model/writer types. He was a little overwhelmed by all the attention, but admittedly not one to shy away from the limelight.

"I'm loud," he said at one point. "I'm out there."

With his mirrored sunglasses firmly in place, he spoke at warp speed, covering everything from freshman year at Harvard to the two years he spent at the agency to the moment-by-moment anxiety he now battles.

Long, long story short, after college, after an "atrocious" year at Creative Artists Agency, Steinberger, now 26, landed in the mailroom at William Morris and persuaded Lonner to hire him over someone else with this line: "I know, like, how many Splendas you like in your cappuccino."

Steinberger's raucous farewell post was a rare act of rebellion in the insular world of talent agencies, where even the most mundane secrets demand Pentagon-level secrecy, where people of much greater status are ostracized for far less. It read like a goofy sendup of agency life as shark tank with Steinberger as the hapless protagonist, boozing and wooing his way around the photocopier.

The letter could easily be taken for a job pitch. But Steinberger emphatically denies he was using the forum for anything but good-natured fun. He wasn't gunning for representation. He was just trying to live up to his reputation. When friends heard Steinberger was leaving, they were braced for the full force of his personality in his goodbye.

"People are expecting fireworks, Shai," one told him.

A spokesman for the agency declined to comment on Steinberger or his e-mail. It's likely though that he ruffled a few feathers over there. Lonner probably wasn't too keen on Steinberger's more colorful musings. Steinberger wrote, for example, that during his year-end review at the Grill, where Lonner introduced him to everyone who mattered -- a big, big deal for an assistant -- Steinberger was still so drunk from the night before that he passed out in the booth just as producer Michael London sat down to discuss his "upcoming slate." (The passing out part, Steinberger later said, was just for comedic effect.)

Steinberger's recounting of the time he mistook actress Molly Sims for a new assistant and invited her to share some Koo Koo Roo probably didn't go over so well either.

Still, Steinberger is clearly genuine when he says he loved his job. A philosophy major who started out pre-med at Harvard, he'd already tasted failure when the Lampoon staff rejected him. Four times. (Apparently, the staff never recovered from his urinating on the magazine's doorstep freshmen year, he said.) Then there were the Open Mic Nights at the Improv ("abysmal") and the Comedy Store ("equally abysmal").

At William Morris, he was earnestly working his way up the food chain -- mailroom, mail cart, coffee runs, legal files, reception, photocopying -- until finally he was chatting up people like directors Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino. Agency life, he said, seemed to get him "very, very close" to his dream.

"I saw the young covering agents, I saw the up-and-coming vice presidents, I saw the powerful agents, and you see where you're headed," he said. "When you go to sleep at night, as cliché as it sounds, you ask yourself, are you pursuing the dream? As much as I loved William Morris, I wasn't pursuing the dream."

Steinberger said he has about four months before his savings run out. Then he'll probably tutor to pay the bills. He has some vague ideas about a sketch comedy website. Next week, he said, he'll fly to New York to shop it to potential investors.

He's still groping for his life's path, he said. Maybe he'll write books. Maybe screenplays.

On one point, however, Steinberger is crystal clear:

"I'm never going to be an assistant again."




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