Talking Hollywood with Jerry Weintraub


By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Recuperating from his sixth back surgery doesn’t seem to have dampened Jerry Weintraub’s spirit. Even at 7:20 a.m. West Coast time, the 73-year-old Weintraub is sharp, funny and on point as he answers questions prior to his arrival Sunday at the 32nd annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

Weintraub recently added the credential of “author” to an already impressive resume, which includes concert promoter, film producer and philanthropist. Actually, the phrase “big-time” should appear before each of these pursuits because Weintraub is about as big as it gets, having produced the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, John Denver, the Moody Blues, Neil Diamond and the Carpenters and movies including “Nashville,” “Diner” and the “Ocean’s” franchise.


His memoir, which he wrote with Rich Cohen, is entitled “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man” (Twelve, $25.99). It’s a collection of lively stories and anecdotes about his life and the people he has worked with; he is likely to reference several during his question-and-answer keynote session at the book festival.

A few minutes into our phone conversation, two things become infinitely clear about Weintraub: He doesn’t mince words and he is extremely proud of his many accomplishments. When he points out examples of the latter, he does so in a way that is less bravado than matter-of-fact. After all, to say Jerry Weintraub is successful is like saying his pal George Clooney is handsome. Really? You don’t say.

When Weintraub describes himself as a “sophisticated, worldly man who enjoys fine wine and food, travels in limousines and lives in mansions all over the world,” he also makes sure to note that he is still a scrappy kid from the Bronx. Only now, he has a lot more money.

I understand that publishers were after you to write your memoir for years. When did you know the time was right?

Well I wrote it when I was 72 years old. You make it that long, it’s about time.

I stayed away from writing a memoir because I didn’t want to write anything that smacked of gossip and naturally every publisher wanted that. There’s been a ton of stuff written about me. There was a profile done on me in Vanity Fair by a guy named Rich Cohen, who’s a wonderful writer. He came to me and said, “I think it’s time for you to do your memoir.” I said, “No, I don’t think so.” Anyhow, we put it out for bids. We liked the one from Twelve (his publishing house), which only does one book a month, and I said, “OK, I’ll take a shot at this.” So I sat down and started writing. It was very cathartic and difficult. I’m giving you more than you’re asking for, but when I stop talking you’ll know I’m dead.

Your mother, Rose, loved movies. Did you inherit that love from her?

I suppose so because I was a movie buff. I worked at a movie theater as an usher. I use to sneak into the movie theater and watch the same movie over and over again. The owner got so tired of me sneaking in he gave me a job.

Did you have a favorite movie as a kid?

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn.

Were you very religious growing up?

I was raised in an Orthodox house, at least until my grandparents died. Once they died the lobsters showed up and shrimp and Chinese food.

In your book you say your father, who was a traveling salesman, played a huge role in your life. What did he teach you that resonates today?

My father gave me a lot of life lessons about people and about giving back, about charity. He taught me to be good about the world and not take anything for granted.

My work ethic was instilled in me at the age of 10. I worked from the time I was 10 or 11 years old until today. And I work all day, everyday, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

What stands out most about working with Elvis?

The money I made (laughs). He was a great star and he changed my life. I was in my 20s and because I got him I was able to start a big concert business that ended up being the biggest concert business in the world. It enabled me to get Sinatra and everyone else. He was the beginning. I had artists before then but I wasn’t established until I had Elvis. That changed my career and my life.

You essentially discovered 70s icon John Denver and took a personal interest in building his career. What happened to your relationship?

He was a great artist and a great friend. We were very, very, very close. He fired me one day. I don’t know why. He divorced his wife, he lost his father and he fired me all within a two-week period. He was a very important part of my life and I was a very important part of his life. It was a kick in the groin when he did what he did, but the fact was I still had Elvis, Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond.

It hurt me on a personal level. But I don’t dwell on any failures. This was not the only one. And it wasn’t a failure. We made tens of millions together. It was too bad it ended the way it ended, but life goes on.

When I say Sinatra, what comes to mind?

He was the greatest. He was one of my teachers and he was a master showman. He was the best I’ll ever see as a performer.

You never divorced your wife Jane Morgan, with whom you have four children and remain great friends, but you’ve been in a 20-year relationship with Susie Ekins. Why no divorce?

I’m a Mormon (laughs). I went to Jane when I fell in love with Susie and asked Jane if she wanted a divorce. She said, “I don’t need a divorce, there is no one I want to be with. If Susie doesn’t need a divorce, why don’t you leave it alone? I know you’ll take care of me and the kids. Why sit in a lawyer’s office for five years and fight with me when we can do this nicely and remain friends.” I said, “OK, let me talk to Susie.” And Susie said, “That’s great. I love Jane.”

They’re best friends. We spend vacations together. We’re always at family functions together. . . I happen to have two beautiful, fantastic women in my life, both of whom have dedicated their life to me and love me very much and take care of me.

Do you have a personal favorite project?

The last one I do is always my favorite. But my favorite film I ever made was called “September 30, 1955” about the day James Dean died. It didn’t make any money. About four people saw it.

I understand that you have a long association with St. Louis. Tell me about that.

In the 60s I booked all the shows at the Muny with (then-general manager) Bill Zalken. Charlie Cella, who owned the American Theatre, helped finance several of my projects, including “Canterbury Tales” on Broadway. He and Bob Hyland of KMOX were mentors. Jane (Morgan) used to work at the Chase all the time.

What has been your biggest career thrill?

There have been so many, how do I answer? Sinatra in the Main Event at Madison Square Garden in 1974, Elvis in Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles, Dylan in Tokyo at Budokan, Zeppelin’s first concert in America, my

“Ocean’s” movies, the first “Karate Kid” movie and this latest one, have all been huge high points. But the most important thing that has come out of my business life has been the friends that I’ve made.

What have you learned about these friendships?

Right after I wrote the book, I became very, very ill. I had a back operation and I got a staph infection in the hospital and I was dying. I refused to stay at hospital so I went home and had two nurses 24 hours a day and two rabbis praying all day long and I had a doctor and Susie. I was history. They told me to say goodbye to my family. It was a very moving time. I was in bed for six months with an IV in my arm.

Word went out that I was dying. My friends flew from all over the world to see me – the George Clooneys and the Brad Pitts, the Matt Damons, the Bruce Willises. I don’t remember much about that time – Susie wouldn’t let anyone in to see me on doctor’s orders – but they all came. Not just the actors but hundreds of people. That’s a pretty special thing about friends.

What pulled you out of this?

I don’t know. They told me I was going to die. I said goodbye to everybody. I started to float out my window and my rabbi was screaming out the window, “You can’t have him yet, don’t take him.” I think I saw that light everyone talks about. The next thing I knew, I woke up and Jane was holding one hand and Susie was holding the other. I was OK. My rabbi claims he brought me back. I made his check bigger at that point

What are you working on now?

A biopic about Liberace, starring Michael Douglas. Matt Damon is playing his boyfriend and Steven Soderbergh is directing.

What piece of advice would you give to a person just starting out in the music or movie producing business today?

Find something else to do.