NEW YORK — One of the last of the classic Hollywood showmen, Jerry Weintraub built his show business empire on a Rolodex and chutzpah.
The Brooklyn-born son of a Bronx jeweler, Weintraub rose from the mailroom of a talent agency to become a top concert promoter before shifting into a decades-long career as a top Hollywood producer.
Along the way, Weintraub worked with the most famous of stars — Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, George Clooney, Brad Pitt — and was a close friend of former President George H.W. Bush. He relished his insider status, just as they savored the stories that eagerly poured out of him.
Weintraub, the dynamic producer and manager who pushed the career of John Denver and produced such hits movies as “Nashville,” ”Karate Kid” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” died Monday in Santa Barbara, California. He was 77. A publicist for Weintraub said he died of cardiac arrest.
“Jerry was an American original who earned his success by the sheer force of his instinct, drive, and larger-than-life personality,” said Bush, a longtime friend. “He had a passion for life, and throughout the ups and downs of his prolific career, it was clear just how much he loved show business.”
Weintraub failed in one of his most ambitious gambits. His attempt to found his own studio, Weintraub Entertainment Group, ended in bankruptcy after only three years. But his long career, very much alive at the time of his passing, was marked by savvy innovation — he was among the first to stage arena tours — and old-school class.
Weintraub had his choice lunch spots in Los Angeles, his desert home in Palm Springs and his favored places to moor his yacht off the French Riviera. A self-made man, he fashioned himself in the mold of old Hollywood showman like Mike Todd, Cecil B. DeMille and P.T. Barnum. He titled his 2011 memoir: “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead.”
At the time, he joked he might write another: “Dead, But Still Talking.”
“In the coming days there will be tributes about our friend Jerry Weintraub,” said Clooney, a star of the “Ocean’s” movies. “We’ll laugh at his great stories and applaud his accomplishments. And in the years to come, the stories and accomplishments will get better with age, just as Jerry would have wanted it. But not today. Today our friend died.”
One of Weintraub’s most recent successes was the 2013 Liberace drama “Behind the Candelabra.” After the studios passed, he took it to HBO, where it won 11 Emmys.
He left numerous projects behind, including the recently debuted HBO series “The Brink” with Jack Black, and an upcoming big-budget remake of “Tarzan.”
“If asked my philosophy, it would be simply this: Savor life, don’t press too hard, don’t worry too much. Or as the old-timers say, ‘Enjoy,'” he wrote his book. “But … I never could live by this philosophy and was, in fact, out working, hustling, trading, scheming, and making a buck as soon as I was old enough to leave my parents’ house.”
Growing up, Weintraub said his father, a successful gem salesman, taught him “only two things are important at the end of the week: how much you owe the bank and how much you have in it.”
Hired to work in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, Weintraub then landed a job with Lew Wasserman’s MCA, where he worked as advance man for the agency’s stars.
His career as a promoter took a giant step in 1970 when after a lengthy courtship he persuaded Elvis Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, to let him promote Presley concerts. It was at a time when Presley was beginning to do live shows after years of concentrating on movies.
Weintraub and partner Tom Hulett introduced such improvements as a modern sound system for Presley, an experience that propelled Weintraub into the top ranks of promoters.
Around the same time, Weintraub saw Denver at a small Greenwich Village nightclub and was overwhelmed by the mountaineer’s easy manner. He took on Denver as a client.
“He would be a test case for all my theories on selling and packaging, for everything I had learned since I left home,” Weintraub said.
After enormous success followed, Denver bought Weintraub a Rolls-Royce as a thank-you gift. Weintraub said, “I couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t too long ago that neither of us had bus fare.”
Weintraub produced a dozen Denver musical specials on television — winning an Emmy for one of them — and the hit 1977 movie “Oh, God!” It starred George Burns as God and Denver as the young grocer whom God approaches to spread his message.
He also set up successful tours for Sinatra and produced the television special “Sinatra — the Main Event,” as well as joint appearances with Denver. Among other musicians Weintraub worked with were Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and the Beach Boys.
After his first marriage, which resulted in a son, Michael, Weintraub married torch singer Jane Morgan in 1965. They had three adopted children: Julie, Jamie and Jordy. The pair separated but never divorced.
Weintraub’s emphasis shifted to movies with 1975’s “Nashville,” Robert Altman’s acclaimed comedy-drama of American life as seen through the eyes of 24 characters in and around the country music business. It landed five Oscar nominations, including best picture.
In his memoir, Weintraub said he didn’t understand the complicated script, but he was eager to produce it because “Altman did, and it was Altman who was going to make the movie.”
Weintraub went on to produce such notable films as Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” ”All Night Long,” ”The Karate Kid,” and William Friedkin’s controversial, gay-themed “Cruising.”
He became chief of United Artists in 1985 but was ousted after just five months amid reports of disagreements with financier Kirk Kerkorian. He later reached a settlement with the company.
In 1987, he attempted to establish his own studio, WEG, but it went belly up in 1990 after a string of flops including “My Stepmother Is an Alien.”
“I had, in a sense, promoted myself out of the job I always wanted, which was telling stories, producing,” he wrote in his memoir. “[The films] now were being made for me instead of by me.”
After the WEG bankruptcy, Weintraub continued producing, putting out such films as “Vegas Vacation” and “Ocean’s Eleven” and its starry sequels. He remade “The Karate Kid” in 2010, setting the project up in China and starring the young Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s son. Weintraub said he “questioned it 150,000 times” before backing it.
Starting in the 1980s, Weintraub became known as one of the Republican Party’s most loyal supporters in Hollywood. He had been close to Bush years before he became president, and in 1991, he hosted a star-studded party for the president at his Malibu home and played golf with Bush and former President Ronald Reagan.
JAKE COYLE, AP Film Writer
The late AP Entertainment Writer Bob Thomas contributed biographical material for this story.