Despite being one of the most loathed figures in Hollywood history, when Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, died in 1958, his memorial service was filled to the rafters. Observing the crowd, the late comedian Red Skelton famously remarked, “Well, it proves what Harry always said: ‘Give the public what they want, and they’ll come out for it.’”
Skelton’s comment was made in jest, but what was true then is doubly so now: When a Hollywood dignitary passes away, he or she doesn’t go down without playing it up to the hilt. Indeed, Tinseltown memorial services—not to be confused with more somber funerals—are often as well choreographed as major movie premieres. Guest lists are meticulously curated; VIP sections are roped off; commemorative ads are taken out in Variety; “talent” is lined up. The result, according to former Paramount chairwoman Sherry Lansing, is entertainment worthy of an admission price. “Because of the unique talents of the people involved, there’s often great humor,” she says.
Lansing recounts when, in 1981, at the memorial for television and screen writer Paddy Chayefsky, Bob Fosse got up and explained that he and Chayefsky had a dare about what each man would do at the other’s memorial. Fosse then rose to the challenge by executing a flawless soft-shoe shuffle.
Not to say that death is taken lightly on the Left Coast, but putting on a show, after all, is what this town does for a living. “It’s easier to focus on a memorial than a funeral, because I have my feet planted in the world of show business. I know what I’m doing,” says Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, who last August, with Paramount chairman Brad Grey, organized the much talked-about memorial service for legendary manager and producer Bernie Brillstein. According to one celebrity publicist, the event—which was held in UCLA’s Royce Hall and drew a crowd of 1,200—quickly became an It invite and the cause of many “fluttering e-mails” asking, “How do I get a parking pass at UCLA? Is there a reception? Is there a VIP section?”
Among Brillstein’s clients were Martin Short and Jim Henson. Michaels, also a longtime client, says that his first thought in planning the service was, “The Muppets should close, and Marty has to open.” As predicted, both delivered. Kermit the Frog’s closing words, “Bye, Bernie,” said with the Muppet’s characteristic soulful humility, after he’d warbled through a rendition of “The Rainbow Connection,” were the perfect ending to a show that combined poignant memories from Dan Aykroyd, David Spade, Rob Lowe and Jon Lovitz, among others, with Friar’s Club–like wit.
Grey, too, brought down the house when he told the story of how, a few days before Brillstein was to be buried, his widow, Carrie, called Grey in a panic. The cemetery, she told Grey, was “sold out,” meaning its burial schedule was booked solid. Grey, a past partner of Brillstein’s, did what any former manager would do: He made some calls, the first of which was to Michaels, who told him, “Well, bump someone.”
From top: The crowd at Bernie Mac’s Chicago memorial; Flowers on Bernie Brillstein’s Walk of Fame star.
“Lorne, these people are dead,” Grey said.
“You’re in Hollywood, you can do that,” Michaels responded.
In the end, Grey told the crowd, a nice family from Encino buried their loved one later in the week.
Humor was also the commanding guideline at comedian Bernie Mac’s mega-memorial last year, for which seemingly all of Chicago packed into the city’s 10,000-seat House of Hope church to pay their respects and listen to eulogies from Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer and Samuel L. Jackson. “You laughed, you cried, you got inspired,” says Marty Bowen, the United Talent Agency partner and producer who represented Mac. “It was like a three-and-a-half-hour performance.”
More like a Jonas Brothers concert. Thousands camped outside to secure seats, and commemorative T-shirts were sold. During his speech Cedric the Entertainer aptly remarked of Mac, who died at age 50 of an immune disorder: “He’s still the hottest ticket in town!”
At the other extreme are ultraformal memorials such as the one held for Lew Wasserman, the agent-turned-Universal Studios titan. Wasserman’s career straddled Hollywood, politics and religious causes, and his 2002 memorial felt like a tribute to a head of state. Bill Clinton and Steven Spielberg were among those who addressed a crowd of 4,000 in the Universal Amphitheatre, a space traditionally used for premieres and rock concerts. “It was very dignified and had a great warmth and humor,” says Lansing, who attended. “It made you proud of being a part of this business.”
Not everyone appreciates such heavily attended rites. In the opinion of former superagent Sue Mengers, “real” memorials are “small and intimate, like when Brando died. I wasn’t there, but I know it was at someone’s house and it was small,” she says. One memorial that Mengers approved of was that for Psycho star Anthony Perkins. Held in 1992 at the home Perkins shared with his wife, photographer Berry Berenson, on L.A.’s Mulholland Drive, the event was limited to close friends, including Mengers, Mike Nichols, Sophia Loren and interior decorator Paul Fortune. “It was kind of like a great Hollywood party with a sad premise, but somehow we transcended that,” Fortune recalls. “Marisa [Berenson, Berry’s sister] got up and sang songs; Mike Nichols told stories. Sue was rolling these huge joints. At one point we were all sitting around listening to people chatting, but it wasn’t like eulogies, it was kind of like gossip, actually.”
The proceedings were also intimate—though more somber—after Heath Ledger overdosed last year at age 28. As the press went haywire over the news, two subdued memorials took place for the Brokeback Mountain actor. The first, at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary (where Marilyn Monroe, Billy Wilder and other Hollywood icons have been laid to rest), was small and mostly for family. A week later Sony Pictures, which produced Ledger’s last film, The Dark Knight, hosted big names including Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Naomi Watts, Ellen DeGeneres and several CAA agents at a larger event on the studio lot. Todd Haynes, who directed Ledger in I’m Not There, delivered a eulogy; musician Ben Harper, a close friend of the late actor’s, performed; and a slide show of images from Ledger’s life was set to Neil Young’s “Old Man.”
Achieving a media-free service is no small feat. When Tootsie director Sydney Pollack died last year, his family was so intent on keeping his memorial private that guests were told not to reveal where it was held or who attended. Months later people were still not talking.
But even with such measures, Hollywood memorials inevitably attract guests who don’t fit into the categories of colleague, family or BFF—which, in the movie business, can also stand for Best Foe Forever. As Dale Olson, a veteran publicist who once repped Shirley MacLaine, explains: “There are people in this town who are funeralgoers, who go everywhere because they want to be seen.”
And then there are the guests who can’t bring themselves to relinquish the spotlight. Rabbi Jerry Cutler, a former stand-up comic, sitcom writer and comedy manager who established the Creative Arts Temple in L.A., has presided over the memorials for Milton Berle, Walter Matthau, Shelley Winters and, most recently, über publicist Warren Cowan. At the 1996 service for attorney Sidney Korshak, a “fixer” with ties to Al Capone, producer Bob Evans gave a eulogy that “went on and on, into non sequiturs,” Cutler remembers. “I kept tugging at his jacket, but he kept on swiping my hand away as he kept going on and on.”
The 1986 memorial for Harry Ritz—one of the Ritz Brothers, a comedy trio popular in the Thirties—sparked a feud between Milton Berle and fellow funnyman Jack Carter. In the middle of Berle’s eulogy, Red Buttons, who’d spoken before him, tried to come back onstage, claiming he’d forgotten to say something. “Milton didn’t want anyone to come up. He’d started his eulogy, and he was in that mode,” Cutler remembers. “Red kept pushing him, and finally Milton yelled, ‘Hey, this isn’t a nightclub!’ Everyone started laughing, and then Jack Carter, who was in the audience, yelled out, ‘Check, please!’ That started a roar of laughter, and Milton never got his audience back. He stopped talking to Jack for years for that.”
Such onstage drama is rare, but often more subtle conflicts transpire behind the scenes. “The interesting thing is to observe the people who think they should be in reserved rows,” Olson says. “It’s very hard for the publicist involved, because he has to say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t sit there.’” (Decisions about who sits where—and who speaks—are generally made by the event organizers, with input from the family of the deceased.)
But for the most part, Cutler says, mourners are less interested in making a scene than in laughing away their sorrows. This philosophy was in full effect at Brillstein’s memorial, which Short made clear as soon as he took the stage. “Bernie used to say,” Short told the crowd, switching into an impersonation of the gruff-voiced Brillstein, “‘Kid, I’m gonna get you a gig at Royce Hall if it kills me.’” There was a brief pause as the audience absorbed the joke. And then an explosion of laughter. His manager would have been proud.