That was a vintage Bernie Brillstein-ism, according to his longtime friend and client Lorne Michaels. Michaels translates the Bernie bon mot to mean that talent needs to be honed through hard work and experience, and for comics, that often means the grueling biz of working nightclubs. And in many nightclubs, you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the stage.
Having spent most of the day talking to people about Brillstein (pictured with his wife, Carrie), who died Thursday at 77, I think I can safely say that the single-most defining aspect of his character was his "love of the game," as so many of his friends put it. He enjoyed the shoe-leather work of going to see a comic, or a play, or reading a spec script, or bumping into a promising staff writer on the set of a flailing TV show.
The latter scenario is how he met Michaels, 40 years ago on a Burbank soundstage that was briefly home to "The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show." The show was anything but beautiful, but it did mark the first U.S. job of a young Canuck scribe who was destined to meet his manager and mentor while working on that NBC show (and the two of them were destined to link arms and muscle "Saturday Night Live" on the air seven years later).
"The first night (on 'Beautiful') the taping went to 2:30 in the morning. We all spent a lot of time in the halls waiting around. And there was this guy Bernie who was both funny and profane and smart in a way that I'd never really experienced before," Michaels remembered.
lBernie was there because he repped Norm Crosby, who was a regular "Beautiful," for its three-month run.
As big and as "Sopranos"-spectacular that Brillstein-Grey became at its peak, Bernie never stopped personally handling Crosby.
To wit, producer Paul Brownstein recently booked Crosby to do a PBS pledge break spot. A day or so after Brownstein made the call, he got a call back from Bernie.
"Thanks for thinking of Norm," Bernie said, and recalled without any prompting that Brownstein had been the stage manager many moons ago on Crosby's syndie series "Norm Crosby's Comedy Shop."
That was Bernie. Loyal, honest, generous and more often than not, very kind. He'd been through some ups and downs during his 50 years in the biz and took pains never to get too big for his britches, or too important to rep a veteran client.
"The way he dealt with people, and the way he imbued his life with such a focus on what was important for the client and for the creative process -- was inspiring to all of us. Finding the right form of expression for creative people was his major love in life," said Brillstein Entertainment Partners CEO Jon Liebman, who took the reins of Brillstein-Grey after Brad Grey moved on to Paramount.
"We were fortunate to be around him for so many years to learn from him," Liebman said. "When we struggle some times with what to do in a deal or a decision, we always ask ourselves, 'What would Bernie do?"
Rob Lowe, an 18-year client of Bernie's, noted that his old-school mentality of focusing on grooming talent for the long haul, not just the next picture or series gig, made him even more relevant to younger generations of thesps and writers.
"Bernie did not care about whether a division of Company X was going to fold into Company Y, or what the per-screen average of horror movies were last year, or about expanding his brand to new platforms or any of that other B.S. that you hear all over the place today," Lowe said. "He loved finding new people, supporting the people he believed in and getting them out there in worthy products. He loved talent, and he loved being in the business of representing talent."
My strongest memories of Bernie are of him holding court every year at the U.S. Comedy Arts fest in Aspen, where he would often sit in a corner chair in the lobby of whatever hotel was hopping that night, hands perched atop his belly and his loud signature laugh ringing through the Rockies.
I also remember one very dinner event at a NATPE confab when Bernie client Martin Short was launching his syndie yakker with King World Prods. Bernie and Roger King, a heavyweight of similar build and biz stature, were a match made in heaven, and there didn't seem to be enough air in the room to keep everyone else fully oxygenated.
Roger and Bernie were birds of a feather -- two guys who'd made enough money for three lifetimes, but kept working as hard as if they were baby agents just promoted from the mail room, simply because they loved the game.
"He refused to retire," said scribe David Rensin, who co-wrote Bernie's 1999 memoir "Where Did I Go Right?" and 2004 follow up "The Little Stuff Matters Most." "He truly was The Man Who Loved Show Business."
Rensin casually pitched Bernie on writing his memoirs during one of those long chilly nights in Aspen. Bernie was cool to the idea (Rensin: "You should do a book." Brillstein: "Nah, I don't want to do a book"). Then at the end of a long night of schmoozing and yakking and otherwise having fun with Brillstein and sundry others, Rensin made a point of saying goodnight to Bernie and thanking the great one for letting him hang out in his orbit for a fun few hours.
"He told me I should come see him at his office (in L.A.), and that's how the first book got started," Rensin recalled, noting that Bernie later told him that he was impressed with Rensin's polite gesture.
"He always told me, in business, things don't always turn on a deal point or a negotiating strategy or leverage. Sometimes, things turn on a thank-you note," Rensin said.
In that spirit, I offer my heartfelt thanks, Bernie. If only for championing the genius of Jim Henson (who Bernie had the foresight to sign in the mid-1960s) -- thank you.