Film producer Jerry Weintraub

Entertainment industry mogul recounts how he came to understand and accept success and dealt with his cancer diagnosis; he also explains why he raises money for charity and talks about his new autobiography.

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Jerry Weintraub went from NBC page to entertainment mogul of music, film, theatre and TV. He's managed such diverse acts as Joey Bishop and The Four Tops and owned independent record labels and music publishing companies. The uber producer's credits include classics like The Karate Kid and Oceans series of films and over 100 TV shows. He's also a major contributor to numerous charitable organizations. Weintraub has stories to tell in his new autobiography, When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jerry Weintraub to this program. The legendary movie producer and music manager has just released an acclaimed memoir about his career in show business. It’s called, “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man.” Mr. Weintraub, good to have you on this program.
Jerry Weintraub: Thanks – Jerry, please, Tavis.
Tavis: Glad to have you. Let me start with a couple of things that have to do with the cover of the book. First, the title, “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead.” I saw it and I laughed. That comes from where?
Weintraub: It comes from all my actors telling me I talk too much and I could always convince them of everything. (Laughter) So it was an easy title to come up with because that’s what I’m known for. I never give up and I keep talking until I get what I want.
Tavis: Which leads me to my second question – “Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man.” What, to your mind, does it mean to be persuasive? Put another way, what does it mean to have influence?
Weintraub: It means – influence is a different thing, but being persuasive, what I meant by being persuasive is that I get an idea, get something in my head, and I don’t give up. I’m tenacious about it, if I believe in it, until it gets done, and I’ve done that my whole life and it’s worked for me, since I’m 12.
Tavis: Being able to persuade in that way eventually leads to having influence, yes?
Weintraub: Yes. Well, my influence, now that I’m 72 and I can look back at all this retrospectively, my influence in politics and the world, in show business, in philanthropy, in everything that I do comes from my network of friends around the world, and one led to another led to another led to another. It became quite extraordinary and mind-boggling, actually.
Tavis: Before I jump back to your friends, I don’t want to lose sight of the cover of this book. Jonathan, put this cover back up. I want to raise this with you because obviously, I talk to guests on this program every day who are born, raised, still live, will die in New York City.
But this picture says a lot about your life, because to my read, New York City – this is a picture taken on the Brooklyn Bridge, this photo is.
Weintraub: Yes.
Tavis: New York is a character in your life. It’s such a rich part of your narrative. Tell me about New York and Jerry Weintraub.
Weintraub: Yes, and so is the Brooklyn Bridge part of my narrative, and this cover was dreamed up by a great photographer named Normal Gene Roy, who’s photographed me a lot. The back cover is the Hollywood sign.
What this cover represents is the journey from Brooklyn to Hollywood, which took me a very, very long time, but I mean the success took me a long time. Coming here didn’t take me a long time. But that’s what it represents.
But New York for me, and the Brooklyn Bridge for me, represents my youth and my childhood, because my grandparents, who came from Europe, lived in Brooklyn. My parents and my father’s family lived in the Bronx. We went back to Brooklyn all the time because my dad was a traveling salesman, and so Brooklyn represented the beginning for me, represented my favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbet’s Field, and the guys in the neighborhood and so on and so forth, and the Bronx was where I grew up and went to school.
Tavis: You said a moment ago that coming to L.A. didn’t take you a long time but finding success took you a long time. This book – I couldn’t even do justice with hours to the stories in this book that attest to the fact that you were obviously successful and you’ve made a lot of friends, to your earlier point, along the way. But when you say that success took you a long time, you mean by that what?
Weintraub: No, it didn’t take me a long time. I became very wealthy when I was 26 years old, 25 or 26. After my first Presley tour I became a wealthy man. I started with nothing.
But what I mean by success, it took me a long time to accept it and understand it and live with it. It’s very difficult to come from nothing, have a lot all of a sudden and live with that.
Tavis: What are the examples, to your mind, of it taking you a while to appreciate it, to understand it, to embrace it? The success, that is.
Weintraub: Well, I didn’t think I deserved it. I couldn’t understand why me. I kept asking that question. Luckily, I was asking it about success and not having cancer, which I had later on anyway.
But you always – I’m a spiritual man. Not a religious man, but I’m a spiritual man, I believe in God, and I believe in a higher power. I think that I was brought along the way and I was not able to accept me being the one that he put his hand on or she put her hand on and guided me through this maze.
Tavis: I noted in the text, you literally spend, like, two or three sentences – not paragraphs, two or three sentences, on cancer. I just met you for the first time, but that something to me about you. I want to see if my senses are right. Why did you only spend two or three sentences on cancer?
Weintraub: Because I didn’t want to dwell on it.
Tavis: That’s what I thought, yeah. (Laughter)
Weintraub: I beat it and they got it out and I went on with my life. But I was pretty scared there for a while. But luckily, I know a lot of great doctors and I’m very involved in the medical profession, and they helped me get rid of it for me.
Tavis: Strange question, because – well, it’s just strange, but given how persuasive you are, given what a fighter you are, if that had gone the other way, the cancer, you think you would have felt defeated or you would have felt like this is my fate, I’ve lived a long and good life, and this is just the way the story ends. I’m not defeated; this is just the way my story ends. How might you have taken that ending?
Weintraub: I would have stopped talking. (Laughter)
Tavis: Fair enough. All right, I’ll take that. I’ll take that and go back to Elvis now. So, Elvis helps to make you, at 25 or 26, a very wealthy man. How did you and Elvis hook up?
Weintraub: I had a dream one night, and I used to keep a pad, and I still do keep a pad and a pencil at my bedside, and I got up and I wrote, “Jerry Weintraub presents Elvis at Madison Square Garden.” I woke my wife up at 3:00 in the morning and I said, “Look at this,” and I showed it to her. She said, “Do you know Elvis Presley?”
I said – and I was nobody then, I was doing a few little shows at the Brooklyn Paramount. And she said, “Do you know Elvis Presley?” I said, “No.” She said, “Well, how are you going to present Elvis Presley at Madison Square Garden?” I said, “I’m going to present Elvis Presley at Madison Square Garden.”
She said, “Why don’t you go to sleep? It’s 3:00 in the morning and you get up at 4:30 as it is. You’re crazy.” I went back to sleep, got up in the morning, made a couple of phone calls, got Colonel Parker’s number – he was Elvis Presley’s manager – and I called him.
I called him, and he said to me, “Not a chance. I owe people shows if Elvis ever goes back to work,” he was kind of retired at the time, “and it won’t be you. It’s not going to be you, son, so forget it.”
I called him every day for one solid year, 364 days. Got very friendly with him on the phone – never met him, but friendly with him on the phone. The 365th day, I didn’t have to call him, he called me and he said to me, “Do you still want to take Elvis on the road?”
I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “Meet me tomorrow in Las Vegas with $1 million.” And I said, “Fine, no problem.” Now, when I was that age, $1 million to me was so foreign I can’t even begin to tell you. It was impossible to get a million dollars.
I thought about Rockefeller having a million dollars, Andrew Carnegie having a million dollars, but not Jerry Weintraub having a million dollars. But there were a lot of people in New York who kept saying to me, “You know, kid, I think you got a future. I’d like to invest with you. I’d like to do something with you. Let me know when you want to do something.”
So I made a beeline for all those guys – nobody gave me a nickel. (Laughter) Not one of those guys came up with five cents. So I put the word out that I had this deal cooking with Elvis Presley and I got on a plane and I went to Las Vegas.
When I got there, there was a phone message to call a man in Seattle, Washington by the name of Lester Smith, who owned radio stations. He owned a station up there called K-Day and a number of other stations around the country. He said, “I heard about this Presley thing, I like it.” He said, “How much money do you need?” I said, “I need $1 million.” He said, “What will I get for the $1 million?” I said, “You get half of my concert company.”
He said, “Let’s make this clear – I get half of your concert company and the Elvis Presley tours for $1 million.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Okay, I like it. Send your lawyers to Seattle. They can meet with my lawyers and we’ll figure out a deal.”
I said, “Wait a minute, Mr. Smith, you don’t understand something.” He said, “What?” I said, “I need the $1 million in three hours or I’m not going to have a deal. I don’t have time for lawyers.” I said, “First of all, I don’t have any lawyers and second of all, I don’t have time for lawyers to go to Seattle and negotiate and make a deal.”
So he said to me, “You know what? I like you. I want to do it,” and he wired me $1 million to Las Vegas, which is a whole story which would take this whole segment, we don’t need to get that. I went, got the million, went over to the International Hotel in Las Vegas, met Colonel Parker, he was at the roulette table.
We went upstairs and we talked about a deal. I didn’t know how to make a deal because this was unprecedented, and I had sold half of my concert company. Of course, I didn’t have a concert company, so I was selling half of nothing, which was pretty good – pretty persuasive. (Laughter) He ended up making tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars with the company, so he did fine.
Anyway, he took me up to see Elvis, and we talked about the deal first before we went up to see Elvis, and he didn’t know what to ask for and I didn’t know what to ask for because this was unprecedented territory. It’s never been done before; no one had ever taken a concert tour into arenas. I did it for the first time.
So I kind of waited it out and I talked to him a little bit more and he said, “How about 50-50?” I said, “Fifty-fifty? That sounds okay, it’s okay with me.” He said, “Okay, Elvis and I will take 50 percent and you take 50 percent.” I said, “Great.” I didn’t realize what that meant to me, you know, that I was going to become a multimillionaire in no time.
He took me up to see Elvis, I met Elvis, and Elvis said to me, “I have two requests – only two requests.” I said, “What is that?” And he called me sir – he was three years older than me and he called me sir – he said, “Number one, every seat in the arena when I sing has to be full. That’s very important to me.
“And the most important thing to me is all the first 20 rows have my fans, not big shots. I don’t care if the governor comes, I don’t care if the mayor comes, I don’t care if the president comes. If anybody wants to come and bring me an award, tell them to leave it at the box office. I’m not interested in any of that stuff. I’m interested in singing for my fans, and I need them in the front because they give me energy and they make me work better and sing better.”
I said, “You got it, it’s no problem.” But on the first show that I did with Presley, I booked him in Miami Beach, Florida, on July the 4th. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Miami Beach, Florida, on July 4th weekend, but it’s quite humid, and most of the Floridians who have any brains get out of town – they don’t want to be there.
But I sold the show out anyway; it was at the convention center, 10,000 seats. I called down there and they said, “You’re sold out, it’s just unbelievable, it’s fantastic, Jerry. It’s a fantastic thing.” I said, “Great.” They said, “How about a matinee?” I said, “I’ll ask Presley.”
So I went to see Elvis and I said, “How about a matinee?” “Great, let’s do a matinee.” So I booked a matinee. Oh, he did say, “Can you sell it out?” I said, “Yes.”
I got down there, I called them up, they said I was sold out both shows. When I got to Florida I went right to the building on July 3rd and there were 5,000 seats left for the matinee – 5,000 seats left out of 10,000 seats, and I had guaranteed him that every seat would be full.
Now remember, that’s the end of my career – beginning and end in a very short period of time, with no millions, no nothing. That day, the colonel and Elvis came over to the building and I went to the colonel and I said, “Colonel, we have a problem.” He said, “We do, son? What’s the problem?”
I said, “I have 5,000 seats left for the matinee tomorrow.” And he said, “Son, we don’t have a problem – you have a problem.” (Laughter) So I went outside and took a walk to get some air and to say to myself, “This can’t be the end, it’s just the beginning. It can’t be the end.” I saw the Miami Beach Jail staring me right in the face next to the convention center.
I went into the jail and I went to the warden and I said, “How many prisoners you got in here?” He said, “I don’t know, 300, 400,” whatever it was. I said, “I need to hire them to come into the Miami Beach Convention Center and take 5,000 seats out of it, put them in the parking lot, cover it over with a tarp and then after the first show I need them to come back, put the seats back in the convention center, so that I have 10,000 seats for the nighttime show.
And I did it, and it worked, and the only comment I got about it was when the show was over I went over to have a drink and a sandwich with Elvis and I said, “How’d you like the day? Did you enjoy yourself today?” He said, “It was great, it was great. The seats were all full.” He said, “You know, but the nighttime audiences have much more energy than the daytime,” (laughter) because there were 5,000 less people.
Tavis: You didn’t go to school, obviously, to learn this. How did that happen for you?
Weintraub: Well, you can’t go to school to learn it, but I learned it on the streets. I learned how to survive.
I think one of the great things about growing up was not a lot – I had a lot. I shouldn’t say that. I had a lot because my parents were great people and my dad was a loving, great guy and a fantastic salesman, and my mom was a wonderful, nurturing, terrific mother who you couldn’t ask – and in those days, mothers stayed home, they didn’t go to work.
There was always food, the smell of food in the house; there was always fresh milk and cookies and so on when I came home from school. I lived in a neighborhood; it was a whole different thing than life today. I went to the university of hard knocks, I never went to college, but I learned how to survive and I was – my mother loved the movies, loved books. She read to me all the time.
She lived her life through film because she was afraid of everything. She was afraid of living above the second floor, she was afraid to travel. She was a very cloistered woman in New York City.
My dad, on the other hand, traveled the world and did a lot of things when he was a young man. He started traveling when he was 14 years old. So I think I got a lot of that from them, and the intuition and the savvy and knowing how to survive I think is a big part of that, and I think a lot of why I said in the book I could have been a better father is that I didn’t have time to teach my children that they had to survive by themselves, because I gave them too much and give them too much to this day.
They’re great kids and I love them with all my heart and I love my grandkids and I wouldn’t change anything for the world. They’re wonderful children and I don’t mean to say they’re not, but I could have spent more time with them.
But there’s choices in life. I made a choice for career and for success. When you make that choice, you give up something – you have to give up something. I worked 24 hours a day and still do, seven days a week. I don’t know about Saturday or Sunday, I don’t know about holidays and vacations. To me, working and being around people and talking and persuading people and in politics, in charity, work and movies and television, Broadway, everything I’ve done has always been about persuading people to do it my way.
Tavis: Playing devil’s advocate, I can take that last comment to say that’s awfully empty. That this guy has lived 72 years and with all the list you just ran, whether it’s movies or music or philanthropy or whatever, it’s all about Jerry trying to get folk to do it his way?
Weintraub: No, no, no, I didn’t mean it that way.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s why I’m asking.
Weintraub: If I said it that way – it came out that way, I didn’t mean it, though. It’s not about doing it my way; it’s about getting it done no matter how I have to get it done.
Tavis: Got it.
Weintraub: Whether I’m working with my president, 41, Bush, who I loved with all my heart and still do to this day and I love him dearly, and I was with him from the beginning, before he was in politics, and I would do anything for the man. He opened up the world for me, introduced me to world leaders and I lived at the White House, I lived in the Lincoln bedroom, in the queen’s bedroom, and I had total access to the presidency and so on.
That was all great stuff and he taught me a lot and showed me a lot. I didn’t do it my way, but I did what I had to do for him politically or whatever, as a friend, to get things done. I compromise, I don’t – I have learned enough in politics, because I’ve been on both sides of the aisle, I’ve been on the Republican side of the aisle, the Democratic side of the aisle.
I’m a centrist. I’m socially very, very liberal – liberal, liberal socially – and I’m conservatively fiscal. I’m a centrist, and that’s what I believe politically the world should be, I think. Well, when it comes to the center and not one party is ruling everything, you can win. When it’s one party that has both houses and the presidency, doesn’t work.
Tavis: At the top of this conversation we talked about the front cover of the book. You referenced at that moment the back cover of the book and I want to go to that now because there’s a wonderful line here that says, written by your friend George Clooney, who says, “When it comes to work, nobody works harder. When it comes to charities, nobody guilts better. When it comes to friendship, he has no peers.”
I hear the funny in Clooney’s comment, “When it comes to charities, nobody guilts better,” but you are known in this town for squeezing arms pretty hard about things that really matter. Where’d that come from?
Weintraub: Well, not just in this town, I do it all over the world, and I do really do it all over the world. I go everywhere in the world to raise money for charity. It came from my father, who taught me as a young man when you have, you must help other people who don’t have, and you’re much better off giving than getting.
That was always his mantra, and when he had an extra $500, which was rare, but when he had it, he gave it away. When he had an extra $10, if he saw a guy on the street who didn’t have food, he gave it to him. There was no conversation about it.
So I was brought up with that kind of a – it was injected into me as a kid, but as life went on, as time went on, I got involved in very important causes. They’re all important, everything is important, but the stuff that was important not only to me but could help people around the world – and I’m not patting myself on the back, because I’ll tell you a quick story, which I did not do altruistically; it just happened.
We were going to Cannes with one of the “Oceans” pictures for the festival – Cannes Film Festival – and George Clooney – and I did the whole thing, got all the guys on board, which is tough to do. They don’t like to do that, and everybody was going, and Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones and all the guys and so on, and Matt Damon and Brad Pitt and so on.
Clooney said to me, “Jerry, we got a problem.” I said, “A problem? Everything’s great. Where do we have a problem?” He said, “Well, we’re going to go to Cannes. You always have this huge yacht – you’ve got this huge yacht in Cannes. You get there and you’ve got 50 people waiting for you, you’ve got limousines all over the place.
“We fly in on private planes, you’re smoking Havana cigars, you’re drinking champagne, you’re eating caviar, and you’re talking about the problems in Chad and Darfur and Burma. It doesn’t work, Jerry. That doesn’t compute, you know? There’s something wrong. You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to figure this out.”
So I said, “Okay, what we’ll do is the first night we’ll have a charity dinner, and that way it’ll be for charity.” He said to me, “You think we can raise $100,000 or so, or a couple hundred thousand?” I said, “We’ll raise that, don’t worry about it.”
So I went to work and I started to put this thing together, and I put together a foundation called the Not on Our Watch Foundation, and it’s Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and myself – pretty nice heavy hitter, good lineup, even a good lineup for the Yankees.
I’ve started working on this and I got caught up in it like everything else I do. Make a long story short, I raised $10 million the first night in Cannes and we put it to work immediately, and all of a sudden we had a foundation and we had to get a 501(c)(3) and we had – but it happened because Clooney said to me, “You can’t go there and be Jerry Weintraub. You’ve got to go there and be the other Jerry. They’ve got to see the other Jerry, not that one that is on the yacht with the cigar,” which is right. He was right. But good came out of it at the end of the day.
Tavis: Well, a lot of good has come out of this rich and full life. The new book by Jerry Weintraub is called, “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man.” I might add, a very persuasive man. Mr. Weintraub, good to have you on the program.
Weintraub: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure.
Weintraub: I really – I enjoyed it.

Tavis: I enjoyed having you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm