Family & Companions
At once a consummate, hard-living dealmaker and a well-loved Hollywood personality, Bernie Brillstein was a truly old-school talent manager and producer with a heart as great as his ambition. In his heyday, Brillstein had a myriad of clients that ranged from soft-spoken muppeteer Jim Henson to hedonistic John Belushi. Despite being from opposite ends of the spectrum, both fit his personality perfectly, which was warm and genial as well as passionate and outspoken. Prior to being a top manager, Brillstein worked his way up the chain of command at the William Morris Agency, starting in the mailroom and quickly advancing to become a talent agent. Once he left, Brillstein formed his own management company, allowing him to serve as a producer on numerous film and television projects, including "The Blues Brothers" (1980), "Ghostbusters" (1984), "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO, 1992-98) and "Just Shoot Me" (NBC, 1996-2003). Brillstein had a reputation of caring deeply for his clients and left behind a legacy of being a giant in the business.
Born on April 26, 1931 in New York, NY, Brillstein was raised by his parents, Moe and Tillie, in the home of his uncle, Jack Pearl, a famed vaudeville performer and star of early radio. Though his blue collar father was a textile worker and his mother a manic depressive, Brillstein's eyes were opened to the wonder and limitless possibilities of show business when he made a fateful trip to the 1939 World's Fair, which marked NBC's first regularly scheduled television broadcasts in New York. Brillstein grew up with a dual New York City childhood - his father represented the scrappy West Side, while his well-heeled uncle exposed the lad to hot spots like the Stork Club. It was during these visits that Brillstein learned to love stars and showmanship. Meanwhile, after graduating from New York University with a degree in advertising in 1953, Brillstein was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was stationed in England, where he began producing radio shows. Upon returning to the United States, he landed a job in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency and never looked back.
Brillstein quickly learned the ropes of the business, realizing that much of the work involved simply paying attention and refusing to back down. Although much of the job was drudge work - getting coffee and running errands - there was still a glamorous streak and a sense of unpredictability. One early task required him to take a young Elvis Presley to a stage show simply because no one else wanted to work on a Saturday night. Brillstein's hustle and nerve propelled him forward until he eventually became a talent agent. By 1964, he had the confidence and wealth of relationships to leave William Morris and join a smaller outfit, Management III, where he was given more autonomy. A few years later, Brillstein moved to Los Angeles to open a branch office. Realizing that top tier stars were beyond his grasp, Brillstein instead chose to focus on behind-the-camera talent like writers, producers and directors. By 1969, he struck out on his own and formed The Brillstein Company, taking an active role in not only his client's careers, but in the shows and projects themselves.
Recognizing the growing popularity of country and western music in mainstream America, Brillstein created "Hee Haw," (CBS-Syndicated, 1969-1993), a variety series that was a huge success. In signing his next two clients, muppeteer Jim Henson and fledgling television producer Lorne Michaels, Brillstein's life and career were changed forever. Both men were brilliant and innovative, while at the same time ambitious. With his own one-two punch of showmanship and street smarts, Brillstein was a perfect match and helped birth "The Muppet Show" (Syndicated, 1976-1981), a prime-time sketch show populated by puppets that managed to work for both adults and children. Routinely witty and often sarcastic, the Muppets' sophistication never went too far over the heads of children. At the same time, "Saturday Night Live" succeeded on a similar level - while the basic combination of sketches and musical acts was familiar, the show's highly irreverent tone suggested that hooligans had hijacked the airwaves every Saturday night. Both "SNL" and "The Muppet Show" featured celebrities as guests, ranging from Steve Martin to Paul Simon, while reflecting a vaudevillian, Borsch-Belt style of show business with which Brillstein was intimately familiar. Yet both were enormously popular with both young, hip stars and equally young, hip audiences.
Thanks to his early involvement with both "SNL," Brillstein represented many of the comic stars who originated on the show - John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. Brillstein's toughness guaranteed them success, but his open-heartedness also endeared him to them. Brillstein helped guarantee Belushi a big payday with "The Blues Brothers," (1980), among other projects, but was devastated when the actor died from a drug overdose in 1982. He even publicly protested Bob Woodward's Wired, which claimed that his handlers ignored Belushi's drug use in order to make money. On into the 1980s, Brillstein struck comedy gold in feature films, especially with "Ghostbusters," for which he was a key player in getting the script written and into studios. But it was during this process that he locked horns with super agent, Mike Ovitz, and began a long-running feud over money. Nevertheless, Brillstein went on to executive produce "Spies Like Us" (1985), "Dragnet," (1987) and "Ghostbusters II" (1989). As a manager, he helped resurrect actor Richard Dreyfuss' career by getting him parts in a string of small comedies for Touchstone Pictures. But when Dreyfuss later claimed he didn't need a manager and left, Brillstein was genuinely wounded.
In 1984, Brillstein met Brad Grey, then 26, a young and up-and-coming talent manager. The occasion was a television convention and Grey's client, Garry Shandling, was the entertainment for the event. The two remained in touch for a year until Grey broached the subject of combining the forces of Brillstein's experience and Grey's connections to young talent. Grey was hired and Brillstein's company went on to huge success in the 1980s with shows like "Alf" (NBC, 1986-1990), "Its Garry Shandling's Show" (Fox, 1986-1990) and "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" (NBC, 1987-1990). Racking up a string of successes, Brillstein was approached in 1985 to sell his company to Lorimar Pictures, the studio owned by media mogul Merv Griffin. By 1987, Brillstein was asked by Griffin himself to run Lorimar and he jumped at the chance. His short-lived tenure was rocky and mediocre at best, in Brillstein's own words. Under his watch, the studio produced such forgettable fare as "Action Jackson" (1988), though they managed a critical hit with "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988). Brillstein later admitted that he preferred maneuvering a project into production over actually producing a film. When Warner Communications stepped in to buy Lorimar, Brillstein was ousted from the studio.
Returning to his own company, Brillstein made Grey partner in 1989. Then in 1992, he co-founded a new version of the company, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, which went on to produce some of the most critically-acclaimed television in the 1990s, including "Mr. Show," (HBO, 1995-98), "The Larry Sanders Show" and "The Sopranos," (HBO, 1999-2006). On network television, the company was behind "Newsradio" (NBC, 1995-99), "The Naked Truth" (ABC, 1995-98) and "Just Shoot Me." (NBC, 1987-1993). In the feature world, Brillstein served as executive producer on "Happy Gilmore" (1996) and "The Cable Guy" (1996). That same year, Brillstein stepped down and sold his half of the company to Grey, though he retained an office. Emotional about no longer being in the driver's seat of the company he created, Brillstein turned his attention toward writing Where Did I Go Right? You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead, a colorful, candid and self-deprecating memoir. Meanwhile, Brillstein remained active as a producer and was behind Martin Short's "Primetime Glick" (Comedy Central, 2001-03) and the feature film, "Jiminy Glick in Lalawood," (2004), as well as the primetime drama, "Heist" (NBC, 2005-06). Then on Aug. 7, 2008, Brillstein died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at a Los Angeles hospital. He was 77.
Producer (Feature Film)
Producer (TV Mini-Series)
Joined Management III while still working for William Morris Agency (WMA) in New York
Formed The Brillstein Company in Los Angeles; continued to manage talent and develop television programming
Executive produced the Showtime series "It's Garry Shandling's Show"
Formed the production company, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, with Brad Grey
Executive produced the NBC sitcom "NewsRadio"
Sold his shares in Brillstein-Grey Entertainment to Brad Grey
Co-wrote with David Rensin, his memoir, <i>Where Did I Go Right?: You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead</i>
Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (April)