It’s the people in front of the camera who get most of the money and attention in Hollywood. But it’s the ones behind the camera — way behind, calling the shots in the board room — who have all the power.
And for quite a while in the 1970s through 1990s, Harris Katleman had a lot of power.
Katleman served as studio head of MGM and 20th Century Fox. He was there for the early years of the Fox television network, and he apprenticed under legendary talent agent Lew Wasserman.
“I love the power of being the president of something,” Katleman says. “I love that power. A writer interviewed me a number of years ago and said, let me ask you a question: What do you like best about being president. What I liked most was the jet. There’s nothing like flying private.”
Then he laughs. “Power is intoxicating, but there’s ups and downs. Fortunately, the good stuff in my life has outweighed the bad.”
Katleman chronicles those ups and downs in his new memoir, You Can’t Fall Off the Floor and Other Lessons From a Life in Hollywood. It reads like a who’s who of Hollywood — he’s got stories about Marlon Brando and Jane Mansfield, Jackie Gleason and Judy Garland, Rupert Murdoch and Les Moonves.
His book tells how The Simpsons were created and why one of his colleagues was once shot in a, um, sensitive area by another producer. Katleman spoke about how he decided to write the book, his best career advice, and why he’ll tell stories but he won’t dish dirt (here’s a lesson: power doesn’t have to make you mean).
When did you decide to write a memoir?
Harris Katleman: Once my family was all sitting around and talking at a dinner at my house, and one of the grandchildren said, “Did you really represent Grace Kelly?” I decided to write a journal just for the kids. Before I join my mom and dad at Hillside, they should know what I did. So I started writing by myself in my office.
Your grandson Nick co-authored it with you. How did that come about?
Katleman: He had already sold a screenplay. He would come down to my office and sit with me twice a week and drew me out. We took our time. It took us almost two years.
What did you learn from writing this book, what piece of advice would you give that you gleaned from your career?
Katleman: I’d say follow your instincts. Believe in what you believe in.
I had street smarts. I left UCLA to go to MCA [a talent agency], but I can’t say I had book smarts. I was smart as far as business because I had intuition. After I went to MGM, I signed all the writers. I felt the writers were key to television. Writers make the show. If there’s a show on that’s awful, people will take their remotes and turn it off.
Are there any stories you left out of the book that you wish you’d put in?
Katleman: You know what, the stories I left out were things that would have hurt people. At this stage of my life, I don’t want to damage people who are still alive. I’ll tell you about people who are dead, those people wouldn’t care less. But I don’t want to bury anybody.
What’s a good story from the book?
Katleman: Marlon Brando’s primary agent enlisted me to help babysit him. He was supposed to study his lines at a duplex. He went upstairs, and we were downstairs watching a football game. I got a phone call from Lew Wasserman, and he said, “I thought you were watching Marlon Brando.” I said, “He’s upstairs reading lines.” I ran up the stairs—Marlon had tied the bedsheets together, gone out the window, got in a car and picked up some girls.
I figured, “There goes my career.”
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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