I highly recommend the documentary “His Way” as a testament to one man’s persistence, the value of being optimistic and looking for opportunities when others see problems. In covering a man, Jerry Weintraub, for whom the Bush family helped end anti-Semitic policies at many Kennebunkport, Maine establishments in the 1960s and who counted both Ronald Reagan and Armand Hammer as friends, Douglas McGrath directed one of this past year’s best biographical documentaries.
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In these trying times, this story of one man’s unrelenting efforts to succeed can serve as an inspiration to many. I know “His Way” inspired me. After learning how Jerry cold-called Elvis Presley’s Manager, Colonel Tom Parker, every day for an entire year for the right to take Elvis on tour (for the first time in nearly a decade), I decided to roll the dice and take my own film out on the road to build an audience. Concluding our interview with Douglas McGrath, director of the documentary “His Way,” we talked about more of the film, including the amazing segments on Weintraub’s experiences with Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker and Frank Sinatra.
KW: How did you go about choosing which stories or chapters to cover or not cover from the book?
DM: Well, I didn’t do it that way. I didn’t think of them in terms of chapters. I just thought of them in terms of stories. But, I knew we’d have ninety minutes, an hour and forty-five maybe at most and I just thought, there’s no way to go through everything. I just thought “I’m going to ask about all the stuff I liked the best and the things that were really the big tent poles of his life.” So, I thought I’d better go with the things that really tell us, without repeating it, what his magic was. And the Elvis story is emblematic of his whole career, you know, that tells you how he started with nothing, he persisted. He won the contract, so to speak, the right to take him. He almost blew it. When you think of 20th Century entertainment, particularly musical entertainment and particularly male musical entertainment — you know, you have Elvis and you have Sinatra. Those guys are the big tent poles in that story.
KW: Jerry’s relationship with Frank Sinatra seemed much more direct than it did with Elvis. His relationship really was with the Colonel (Elvis’s Manager). Did you have to approach the Elvis segment any differently than you did from the Sinatra segment or in trying to work a connection between the two as a bridge?
DM: Oh no, that is a very good question. I don’t remember consciously doing that. You know, we came to the Elvis story first, because in my memory of his life, I worked through it in order so he could kind of work it in order. Sometimes if you’re telling a story about your childhood or some early part of your life, certain feelings come along with these stories that can then add to the overall feeling of what you are talking about. But [with] the Elvis stuff, he was a different guy. Meaning when he came into Elvis’s life, he was “aspiring” at that point. He had some clients, he was successful, meaning he could pay his bills and he was married and had a nice life. But, he was not by any means, what he became and he knew that this was his way out. But when we came to Sinatra… which I knew is the next big seismic event in his professional life… he [Jerry] was then a different person.
He had chased Elvis, but Sinatra came to him. Now nobody was confused about anything in that situation. Sinatra was still tough, extremely powerful and I’m sure a fairly terrifying person to work for, because he had a temper and knew what he wanted and had been a huge star and a big success for, by that point, 30 years or something . And while he wanted Jerry’s help, he was hardly a helpless and frail creative person looking for tough guidance from Jerry. And the Madison Square Garden Concert (“The Main Event,” 1974), Jerry really had to talk him into it. Really had to talk him into it. I think the reason Jerry flew to Las Vegas so quickly when Frank called and sounded so upset [and depressed] was I think he (Jerry) thought, “Oh. I could lose him.” A smart manager will hear something like any kind of qualm in a client’s voice. A smart manager gets on it. A lot of them don’t. Which is why people change managers. But, Jerry knew that was “his guy” at that point.
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KW: Does that come from growing up as he did [in the Bronx and Brooklyn] and being able to shake a guy’s hand and knowing if he is a good guy or a bad guy?
DM: I think you’re right. I think you’re right. He does have a very good sense of people and I remember Matt Damon saying this to me and I felt it as well… when he first meets you and shakes your hand, you can feel it for one second, he looks at you very intensely and you think, “I think he just X-rayed me.”
KW: Do you have a favorite Jerry Weintraub story yourself?
DM: Every time I try to pick one, I think of another one. There are so many that are so good. But that Elvis story is just amazing. The persistence to call the Colonel for a year, the hilarious business when the seats aren’t sold (at a Miami FL matinee) and he has to get the convicts to come take the chairs out… but I also love when the Colonel takes him into that electrician’s booth and with the suitcases of money. When he tells the story about the Colonel pouring the money on the table and whacking it with his cane. That’s yours, that’s mine… are we good? It just tells you that that it is a whole different part of show business that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s still got a foot in the “Carnie” world. That’s probably my favorite.
KW: Do you think there are more “Jerry”s out there or there’s still room for them?
DM: There must be because there’s no reason there shouldn’t be but I will say the business used to be comprised of more people like Jerry and now it isn’t. You know, that kind of renegade, non-corporate, non-business school, non-film school, come to it out of passion, bootstraps, hard work, gift-of gab, full force personality. I don’t run across many people like that. Maybe to be fair, maybe there were never a lot of people like that. I don’t know. But, there sure aren’t a lot of people like that now. There certainly a lot of people who approach it in a more systematic way with their foreign sales estimates and all their numbers that they run.
KW: The spreadsheets.
DM: Yeah, the spreadsheets and all the things that don’t connect to the thing that makes him so winning. Which is to say, a genuine passion for movies or music or the artists that he’s working with. That you don’t feel so much anymore. And I think we’re the worse off for it too. Look what he did with that passion.
KW: And what are the upcoming projects, if you can talk about anything?
DM: I am making a TV pilot with Nathan Lane. He was in my film “Nicholas Nickleby.” We’re casting now and we’re going to shoot in December (2011). It’s a funny and kind of touching half-hour single-camera comedy.