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Elvis, Sinatra and the king of producers

By Todd Leopold, CNN
  • Jerry Weintraub has produced Elvis Presley concerts, Frank Sinatra, "Ocean's" films
  • Weintraub guided by the "Star of Ardaban" -- a good product with a great story
  • "No regrets," says producer, "why would I have any regrets?"
  • Weintraub on Elvis and the pitfalls of fame: "He gave up his freedom knowingly"
  • Jerry Weintraub
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Entertainment

(CNN) -- You gotta have a story.

Talent helps. Talent is necessary, the veteran music and movie mogul Jerry Weintraub says. "You still need something to sell. You can't just sell anything," he says.

But you gotta have a story. A hook. A draw.

And Weintraub ("Please call me Jerry," he says straightaway in a phone interview) has plenty of stories. He's worked with big names for 50 years -- Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and George Clooney among them. They roll out, one upon another, his gravelly Brooklyn voice rumbling with the force and propulsion of a New York subway train.

There's the one about calling Presley manager Colonel Tom Parker every day for months, wanting to put the King on tour, and scrambling to come up with a million dollars as security. The one about telling powerful agent Lew Wasserman a truth that could have gotten him fired. The time he couldn't play tennis at a club in Kennebunkport, Maine -- no Jews allowed -- until a businessman named George H.W. Bush stepped in on his behalf.

There are stories about Sinatra. About John Denver, whom he managed. About politics and movies and religion, about remaking the concert business with his company Concerts West, about producing "Nashville" and "Diner" and "The Karate Kid" and the "Ocean's" films.

And about Weintraub's father, a jewelry salesman who taught young Jerry the value of a tale through "the Star of Ardaban," an inexpensive star sapphire that the elder Weintraub carried with him on his calls, equipped with an elegant case, armed guards, a Brinks truck and a silver tongue.

The stories are between hard covers now, in his book "When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead," co-written with "Tough Jews" scribe Rich Cohen, who began what was intended to be an article for Vanity Fair in 2006.

"We wanted it to read like a novel, meaning we wanted it to be one big story -- the story of the kid from Brooklyn, who tried and failed and finally made it -- and included only those stories which were part of the bigger story, or came up naturally along the way," Cohen says via e-mail.

Blog: Weintraub and the rise of "In the Year 2525"

He loved the sweep of Weintraub's life: "He was a book, an epic, a real-life novel of the sort that might have been written by Saul Bellow. Simply put, I fell in love with the guy."

Weintraub spoke to from his home somewhere amid the glitter and sparkle of Southern California. The following is an edited version of the interview (with a little input from Cohen as well):

CNN: The story you tell in the beginning, about the Star of Ardaban, is a theme throughout the book, about the power of the story as well as the power of the talent.

Jerry Weintraub: I'm happy to see that you read it. (laughs)

CNN: Do you consider the sizzle more important than the steak?

Weintraub: No. ... In retrospect, the Star of Ardaban taught me about events, and how to make things an event, and how to package things and make them more important than they really were. But you still need something to sell. You can't just sell anything. [My father] happened to have a lot of wonderful things to sell, but he used the Star of Ardaban to attract people.

CNN: You mention you felt like [Woody Allen's hustling talent manager] Broadway Danny Rose when you started. Was there a sense that you had to put your faith in people who weren't the most talented?

Weintraub: No, because when I was Broadway Danny Rose, I had faith in them. ... I believed in my artists. Everything's that's Cirque du Soleil right now -- contortionists, jugglers, acrobats -- those were the people I was around.

CNN: Did it bother you when clients like John Denver were criticized in the media?

Weintraub: Yeah, I went through a period in my life when I used to read critics and they bothered me. But I got to a place ... that I stopped paying attention to critics, because it's one person's opinion. You can't please everybody -- not everybody likes corned beef and not everybody's going to enjoy a corned beef sandwich, so you just have to go with the flow.

CNN: Let's talk about some of the names in your book: Colonel Tom Parker.

Weintraub: I loved him very, very much.

CNN: And you know he doesn't have the greatest reputation.

Weintraub: Yeah, but I don't agree with that.

I personally did business with this man for a very, very long time, with he and Elvis. We made tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars together. I never saw him do anything illegal or wrong with Presley. Their relationship was very strong. It had bumpy roads, like every relationship does, like every father and son argue. [But] I don't believe Elvis would have been as successful without Tom Parker. ... He did what he thought was right at the time.

Rich Cohen: The usual depiction, in which the Colonel is the heavy, the snake in the Garden of the King, is so usual I figured it must be wrong. And the way Jerry explained that relationship agreed with my sense of how the world works. They were partners, and each got something from the other. People hate the Colonel because they love Elvis and do not like how things wound up for Elvis, and need someone to blame. But the fact is, and this is something I learned from Jerry, each person is really responsible for his own choices, and Elvis was responsible for his own.

CNN: How about Elvis?

Weintraub: He was very, very smart. He was a very, very nice guy. He was completely aware of the level of fame because that's what destroyed him. He was cloistered, he was locked up all the time, he couldn't go out to a restaurant unless we closed the restaurant, he couldn't go to a movie unless we closed the theater ... it's a very hard way to live. Listen: He gave up his freedom knowingly because he was such a huge star.

CNN: What do you make of the music business nowadays?

Weintraub: I don't know, is there one? I'm a country-western fan. ... I like country music because they tell a story, and I like songs that tell stories.

CNN: Did you like putting on concerts more than movies? Two different kinds of shows.

Weintraub: No. The concert business for me -- and the reason I gave it up -- was a very tough business. I owned the concert business; there wasn't a concert business without me. And I was doing it all over the world, not just in the United States. So I traveled quite a bit. And that's why I say in the book that I could have been a better father. But I had to give up something to get something. And I found myself on the road most of the year. Ten months a year, 11 months, maybe 12. So I didn't get to the ballet recitals and the Little League games and so on and so forth. So I wasn't as great a father as I could have been. But then one day I woke up and said: 'Wait a minute, I gotta change this up.' So I did.

CNN: Is that your biggest regret? The time that got away from you?

Weintraub: Honestly and truly, I have no regrets. You know the [Edith] Piaf song? No regrets, no regrets. I have no regrets. My life -- I'm 72 years old. I'm vital, and strong, I have all my wits about me, I have a hit book, I have a wonderful life and I'm doing a million things in the theatrical business. Why would I have any regrets? I can't have any regrets. They'd have to give me a lobotomy.