How CAA Became One of the Most Powerful Agencies in Showbiz

Seth Rudetsky   How CAA Became One of the Most Powerful Agencies in Showbiz
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares highlights from his interview with CAA co-founder Ron Meyer—plus the time Barbra Streisand saw Seth deconstruct her!
Seth Rudetsky
Seth Rudetsky Marc J. Franklin

Hello from my couch! I’m sitting with the two doggies next to me and enjoying the fireplace. Even though it’s December 26, the holiday season is not complete until I post my video with Jack Plotnick where he plays Evie Harris rehearsing her cabaret act called “Christmas Evie.”

Evie was developed in part by Jack seeing a woman on an infomercial who announced with smiling concern, “My kids have a real problem with Cola. They love cola!” He was riveted by how she spoke and her “sellin’ it!” positivity. That speaking voice and attitude was the basis for Evie Harris. He created a character who was a movie star back in the studio days, who then would do TV guest spots and her Vegas act in the ’70s, and finally succumbed to her various addictions and horrific personality but was still trying to get work. As for her specific age, his friend Richard Day gave her the line “I was born in what is now called Arizona…”. I’ve performed/co-written a lot of sketches with Jack as Evie at venues like Caroline’s and the HBO Workspace and Dennis Hensley has done the same on the West Coast. Richard Day wound up writing a whole hilarious film called “Girls Will Be Girls” which starred Jack as Evie, teaming him with Clinton Leupp as Miss Coco and Jeffrey Roberson as Varla Jean Merman. Here’s one of my absolute favorite classic Evie moments. Click here to watch the video where Evie is sitting at home, Norma Desmond style, and watching her hit TV film Asteroid!.

And here’s “Christmas Evie”:

Jack visited me when I was doing my SiriusXM show and came into the studio wearing what he found in the SiriusXM hallway asking, “Is this too much?” I love the innocent/quizzical face.

Seth Rudetsky 12.26.18

He also took this great picture of us having a big holiday meal at the house.

Seth Rudetsky 12.26.18

And then kindly sent this one writing: “This is how you will crop it.”

Seth Rudetsky 12.26.18

Speaking of SiriusXM, I had Hollywood legend Ron Meyer on Seth Speaks, my weekly talk show. Ron is now one of the heads of Universal Pictures, but he began in the mailroom of William Morris. Yes, that old chestnut. He was a high school dropout who wound up enlisting in the Marines because he was a boxer. Three things I can identify with only in terms of I know what those words mean. Anyhoo, when he was 21 and got out of the Marines, his best friend from New York invited him to visit, and he saw his first three musicals: Fiddler On The Roof with Herschel Bernardi, Sweet Charity with Gwen Verdon, and Man of La Mancha with Richard Kiley.

First of all, can you imagine that all three classic shows were on Broadway at the same time? After seeing these shows, he said he became “lost,” a.k.a. obsessed. To this day, 50 years later, he flies to New York all the time and sees shows. As a matter of fact, we just went to see Head Over Heels together, and he loved it just like I did!

Anyhoo, while at William Morris, he moved up the ranks and became a low-level agent. After a while, he and four of his agent friends (including up-and-comer Michael Ovitz) decided they wanted to form their own agency called Creative Artists Agency (CAA). They gave themselves a year to figure out how to do it and then planned on quitting to start it. Well, within five days, their plan got out and they were fired! The powers-that-be at William Morris were so annoyed that they not only fired them, but blasted them in The Hollywood Reporter and the Daily Variety. Ron says that the five of them were so unimportant they wouldn’t have succeeded if William Morris didn’t call so much attention to them. He said that no one knew who they were…until all of their names were in the Hollywood trade papers. #Backfire. CAA’s first really important client was Sidney Poitier, which then led to Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep and many more.

Speaking of Barbra, Ron is the reason she came to my show! He took me out to lunch a few years ago (we met because he’s a fan of my radio show) and told me that he would fly me to L.A. so I could hang out with Barbra at the Sunday movie nights he hosts at his house. After passing out, I said yes. Once there, Barbra and I chatted briefly (she was much more interested in Juli) and watched Pitch Perfect 2. Then Ron came to see me do Deconstructing Broadway at Largo in L.A. and decided Barbra would love it. I was booked to do the show again a few months later, and he brought Barbra to see it. Yes, because of Ron, I got to deconstruct Barbra Streisand in front of Barbra Streisand. The good news is, she loved it! Here’s a little Barbra deconstruction:

Back to CAA, they were the agency known for perfecting the art of “packaging,” meaning they would find the right script, put it together with their clients and then take it as a package to a studio. This way they could make a better deal for everyone involved. A great example is Rain Man where they represented the writers (Barry Morrow, Ronald Bass), the director (Barry Levinson) and the stars (Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman). I asked for an example of something he wanted as an agent but didn’t get and he told us that tried to convince Sylvester Stallone to do Beverly Hills Cop because he thought it would be good for him to spoof his tough guy image. Ron pushed and pushed but Stallone said no and the film instead made Eddie Murphy a movie star. Then I asked Ron for something he didn’t push for and he said that when he left CAA and started running Universal, one of the films he turned down was Titanic. He’s probably ju-u-u-ust now getting over it. Regardless, you can read about the ups and downs of CAA in their own words in the really fun book Powerhouse. In the book, Ron comes out like a great businessman who is a kind person in real life, or as my audience member called him after the interview, a “mensch.”

I mentioned before that Barbra came to see my show at Largo in L.A. and, turns out, I’m doing another appearance at Largo in February!

I was talking to Audra McDonald, and she told me I should do Rhapsody In Seth again. That was the show that ran at the Actors Playhouse in NYC back in 2003 and is about my growing up on Long Island, where my classmates hated me because I was gay, but also lauded me because I was a great piano player. The bizarre dichotomy created a lot of situations that were hilarious….only now after decades of separation from the events. What’s the saying? Horror plus time equals laughs? Those early years are also where I formed my deconstructing skills, which I highlight in the show. Anyhoo, after Audra told me to haul it up again, I thought of that old saying, “6 Tony Awards plus a TV career equals advice you must take.” So I’ll be at Largo in L.A. on Monday, February 18, and you can get tickets here.

Finally, I want to re-mention the meal I wrote about before—where Jack took the photo. In the middle of the giant repast, my husband James quieted everybody to tell his mom how good the food was. He then added that he was going to call something out because his mom always asks for feedback so she can make the meal better. He point blank announced that the string bean dish didn’t taste good at all. Again, he felt comfortable commenting on how bad that dish was because his mother welcomes criticism. His mother then announced that she didn’t make the string bean dish. If you can’t figure it out by now, the creator of the aforementioned string bean dish was me. So, the fun part was an entire meal coming to a halt so James could announce how bad my dish was. P.S. Guess who doesn’t welcome criticism? Answer: Me.

On a more positive note, today (December 26) is the day that I met James back in 2006 at a game night. I will not be making him an anniversary string bean cake.

On that note, Happy early New Year!

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