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BOOK REVIEW: The film producer looks back

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WHEN I STOP TALKING, YOU'LL KNOW I'M DEAD: USEFUL STORIES FROM A PERSUASIVE MAN
By Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen
Twelve, Hachette Book Group, $25.99, 291 pages

There are three kinds of books in this world: good, bad and good-bad. A good-bad book is one you know you shouldn't be reading, but if anyone tried to take it, they'd have to pry it from your cold, dead hands. "When I Stop Talking ..." is a near-perfect example of such a book. Had a tornado warning sounded before I'd finished, they'd have found me in the middle of Kansas, sitting in my chair, still turning pages.

What makes this book successful is that it combines two surefire elements - dream fulfillment and showbiz, with poor-boy-makes-good and bigger-than-big names thrown in for good measure. It's written (undoubtedly thanks to Rich Cohen, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone) in a style so readable that you might never use your bookmark.

The cover shows an interesting-looking older guy wearing a tux with bow tie undone and a world-weary look. He's walking west across the Brooklyn Bridge. On the back cover is the same cool dude, now totally casual, sitting in a director's chair with the Hollywood sign up the hill over his shoulder. That's the journey the Brooklyn-born Mr. Weintraub, now in his early 70s, made with amazing success.

At 26, already a legitimate show-business hustler, he talked Col. Tom Parker into letting him take Elvis on tour. The King ruled. Next, in a dizzying lineup that reads like "The Ed Sullivan Show" on steroids, he promotes or produces events for Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop and other Rat Packers, the Four Seasons and Jack Paar, and he almost gets Arthur Godfrey to appear onstage live.

Along the way, Mr. Weintraub manages, falls in love with and marries the lovely and hugely talented singer Jane Morgan. They "summer" in Kennebunkport, Maine, where Mr. Weintraub - good Jewish boy from Brooklyn - meets and buddies up for life with the Ur-WASP George H.W. Bush. (Later he represents and befriends Jimmy Carter.)

Mr. Weintraub went on to promote and produce for Led Zeppelin, Moody Blues, Neil Diamond, the Carpenters, Bob Dylan, John Denver and Bobby Fischer. (Bobby Fischer?) It's almost like listening to George Gershwin or Paul McCartney say, "And then I wrote ...."

From there he moved into producing movies, where the shortlist reads: "Nashville," "Diner," "The Karate Kid" (he knows it's a hit when he leaves the premier and sees kids from the audience practicing the crane kick in the parking lot) and the remake of "Oceans Eleven" (plus its two sequels), during which he befriends George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

Along the way, Mr. Weintraub establishes and runs his own talent agency, his own production company and, eventually, a major motion-picture studio. This only-in-America feat is, all kidding aside, extremely impressive. That we don't really get to understand how he did it and what special talents enabled him to do so is, in a book like this, beside the point. Read between the lines and speculate - or just read and enjoy.

Of course, he must have a huge ego, and on almost every page, he brags almost without realizing he's bragging, but, again, credit his writer, Mr. Cohen, for the fact that it all goes down so smoothly.

Forgive me for not mentioning Mr. Weintraub's work and friendship with Armand Hammer (among others), but if you want to be sure not to miss any boldface names, there's an index, plus a roster of "Actors I Have Worked With," from A (Affleck, Allen, Ackroyd) to Z (Zeta-Jones) as well as "Clients and People I Promoted in the Management and Music Years," also A to Z (Anka to Zappa).

But, ah the stories. If you were fortunate to meet Jerry Weintraub in a bar and he was in a storytelling mood, you wouldn't leave until they kicked you out.

For example: the Great Sinatra calls Jerry and tells him he's depressed; he can't keep doing what he's doing over and over. To get him out of his funk, Jerry - on the spot - tells Frank he's going to put him in Madison Square Garden in a boxing ring, just him and the audience. Franks buys it, Jerry sets it up, and it quickly escalates into a major showbiz happening. The more nutzo-nervous Jerry gets, the cooler Francis Albert gets. He's so cool he says he's doing it without a rehearsal, which, of course, makes Jerry even crazier.

As Mr. Weintraub tells it, "At 7:30, his limo pulled into Madison Square Garden. The streets were filled with scalpers and fans - and that special electricity only Frank could generate. He had arrived with a police escort, sirens, flashing lights. He climbed out, straightened his tux, tossed away a cigarette, took my arm and asked, 'How you doing, kid?'

"'Not great,' I said.

"'We'll fix that in a minute,' he told me. 'First, remember to tell your wife, Jane, to get in the car when I start singing "My Way." I want to go by Patsy's and pick up some pizzas for the plane.'

"Who thought this could work, intimacy in an arena filled with thousands and thousands of people, but he pulled it off. He turned the Garden into a shadowy, three-in-the-morning Second Avenue saloon. You could have heard a pin drop.

"Then, just like that, when it seemed no more than a moment had passed ... Frank launched into 'My Way.' The ignition was turned in the limo, the pizzas were pulled from the ovens, the plane raced down the runway, and we were laughing and eating pepperoni as the jet climbed into the stratosphere."

Eat your heart out, Simon Cowell.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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