It almost seems unreal that prolific producer Jerry Weintraub passed away this week at the age of 77. He was one of those guys who was anywhere and everywhere from one decade to the next to where it was tempting to see him as incapable of dying. Those who know him best were quick to describe him as one of the most colorful characters in Hollywood, and reporter Scott Huver went out of his way to say that Weintraub “could sell matches to the sun” which is not at all hard to believe.
Weintraub started off his career as a talent agent in show business and eventually became the first manager to organize large arena concert tours for singers. Among the singers he managed were John Denver, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and even the rock band Led Zeppelin. But once he became acquainted with the world of movies, there was no turning back for him.
There were many movies Weintraub succeeded in bringing to the silver screen and, while other people might deserve perhaps a little more credit for their overall success, he made their reality an absolute certainty in a way few other movie producers could have.
Robert Altman’s 1975 film, widely regarded as one of the director’s best works, would probably have never become a reality were it not for Weintraub. United Artists had originally passed on making Nashville as they didn’t care much for its script. Altman, whom Weintraub was a big admirer of, managed to pull him aside at a party and pitched Weintraub the script. Back then no studio was willing to work with Altman as he was considered too difficult to work with, but that didn’t stop Weintraub from getting the director the budget he needed to make his masterpiece about people involved in the country and gospel music businesses in Nashville, Tennessee.
Weintraub was at one point the manager for John Denver back when he was a relatively unknown singer, and their working relationship came around full circle when Denver was cast in Carl Reiner’s 1977 comedy classic as supermarket manager Jerry Landers. Landers ends up getting selected by God (George Burns in one of his most famous roles) to become his messenger to the modern world, and all sorts of hilarity ensues as a result. Burns would appear as God in two sequels, but Weintraub was not involved with either of them.
While William Friedkin’s 1980 psychological thriller was critically reviled upon its release, it has since gained a cinematic reappraisal in recent years to where many see it in a different light. Al Pacino stars as a police detective assigned to go undercover in the underground S&M gay subculture in New York City to catch a serial killer. Friedkin originally turned down the opportunity to direct Cruising, but Weintraub managed to get him onboard thanks to the director’s renewed interest in the project.
Barry Levinson made his movie directorial debut with this 1982 autobiographical comedy drama, and it’s one of those movies that starred a number of young actors on the verge of stardom. Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly and Paul Reiser star as a group of friends who reunite in their hometown of Baltimore, Maryland for the wedding of one of their group. MGM was initially reluctant to release Diner as they feared it would be a commercial flop, but the movie proved to be hit and I imagine Weintraub, who produced it, played a big part in its success.
The Karate Kid
Of all the movies Weintraub produced in his lifetime, John G. Avildsen’s 1984 martial arts drama was far and away his most successful. The story of a bullied teenager who is taught by a martial arts master that there is more to karate than fighting struck a chord in us all, and it remains as popular today as it was when first released over 30 years ago. Weintraub was also involved in the three sequels which came after the original, of which only The Karate Kid, Part II is worth watching.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 comedy heist film pulled together quite the ensemble with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Andy García and Julia Roberts headlining the cast. The story of a group of very suave men robbing three Las Vegas casinos simultaneously proved to be a huge success, and it would go on to spawn two sequels with many of the same actors. On top of that it turned Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation,” one of the singer’s less successful songs, into a number one hit.
Clooney had the following to say about Weintraub:
“When it comes to work, nobody works harder. When it comes to charities, nobody guilts better. And when it comes to friendship, he has no peers. That’s Jerry’s great talent. He doesn’t just light up a room, he lights it on fire. He’s a great producer, a great organizer, a great friend, and truly the greatest showman on earth.”
As for Weintraub, he had the following to say about his work:
“The budgets are much higher now, it costs more to make a movie and the kids that go to see them are into instant gratification. They want things bigger and bigger. I don’t make those kinds of movies. I make movies about relationships. Karate Kid is one of my films that’s about relationships and that’s done well. Just because everyone else is doing Superman and Dark Knight doesn’t mean I have to do the same, although I am doing Tarzan.”
Rest in peace Jerry Weintraub, and thanks for all the great entertainment you brought to our attention.