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A tribute to Jack Valenti's life and legacy

Family, friends and Hollywood honchos gather at the ArcLight's Cinerama Dome to remember the late industry icon.

July 21, 2007|Amy Kaufman | Times Staff Writer

It was just the way he would have wanted it, guests chimed in on Thursday afternoon at the ArcLight's Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard, where a slew of Hollywood's elite gathered to fete the legacy of industry mogul Jack Valenti.

Valenti, who died in April at 85, is most famously recognized as the longtime president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. During his tenure, Valenti created and defended the often-controversial rating systems for films.

"I'm happy to continue the Jack Valenti love fest tour," Fox Group Chairman and Chief Executive Peter Chernin joked with hundreds who gathered for an hourlong ceremony in the epic arena. "This is a venue Jack would have loved, luminous and right in the heart of Hollywood. The whole town ground to a halt to remember him. No one would enjoy this more than him."

Indeed, the heads of nearly every major studio seemed to have left their work posts to honor Valenti's memory -- and this during summer movie season! -- along with celebrities such as Kirk Douglas and Ron Howard who also came out to pay their respects to an old friend.

A comrade to many in both the entertainment and political sphere, Valenti was a close confidant and advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom he witnessed being sworn in to office on Air Force One.

Valenti married Johnson's secretary Mary Margaret Valenti in 1962.

"I'm sustained by many memories of our life together," said Mary Margaret Valenti, in a cheery yellow dress paired with an elegant string of pearls. "What more can I say about a man I loved?"

As guest speakers took the podium, a black-and-white photo of Valenti lingered on the blockbuster-sized screen in the background, an image showing a younger businessman resting his fists upon his desk while standing and making direct eye contact with the camera.

"He was the human equivalent of the iPhone," Steven Bochco, the creator of "NYPD Blue," said during the service. "He was a small, sleek package with irresistible features."

Valenti remained active almost until the end. He had been scheduled to embark on a book tour to promote his memoir, "This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood," when he suffered a stroke that led to his death.

The ceremony also touted his extensive yet lesser-known work for Friends of the Global Fight, an organization that battles AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria worldwide.

Despite his tireless work ethic, those closest to Valenti noted his devotion to his family and affable nature as his most integral qualities.

"We're going to miss him because he was just a regular guy," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who took a seat in the front row. "Two years ago, when I presented Jack with the key to the city, we had a dinner with 30 guests. And we were all sitting there like little children listening to all of his stories. When we walked out, I think we pinched our cheeks, knowing we'd just spent time with a special human being."

At the Cabana Club reception afterward, Warner Bros. President Alan Horn gestured toward Champagne glasses and chocolate-dipped strawberries, nodding his head as he imagined Valenti at the gathering.

"Jack would have enjoyed this -- the solemnity and informal nature of it," Horn said. "He's left such a legacy of values, honesty and integrity and what it really means to do hard work."

Actress Minnie Driver, who became acquainted with Valenti while sharing an apartment with one of his daughters, Alexandra, recalled Jack being able to "party with the best of us."

"He'd somehow seen all of my work, even the fluffy romantic comedies, and he was always offering advice to me," Driver said at the reception, sipping on a Corona, Valenti's favorite beverage. "He was the first one who sent me flowers when I was nominated for the Academy Awards."

Dressed in an artsy vintage dress and camel-colored boots, Alexandra Valenti presented another side of her father in the afternoon's most personal eulogy. He was someone, she noted, who was much more "progressive than everyone thought."

"When we saw him at his funeral laid out in a suit with a rosary in his hand, my family kept thinking that something didn't look right," Alexandra Valenti said in her speech. "That son of a bitch only went to church once a year. He should have been wearing white tennis shorts, had baby oil on his chest and been holding a bag of Orville Redenbacher popcorn in his hand."

The loss of her father, she said in her address, had been comparable to being "an astronaut cut loose from a space station."

"I almost didn't say anything at the ceremony. I wrote my words out this morning," Alexandra Valenti shared after delivering the tribute.

"I mean, it's like your dad is Jimi Hendrix and you have to go up there and give a guitar solo. I was kind of an angry kid because he wasn't around much, but he did the best he could and I've finally come to understand and accept that.

"Things have come full circle, which is the most beautiful part of all this. So that's why I spoke today. Not for all of them, but for both of us."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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