William Morris Agency, Inc. History

151 El Camino Drive
Beverly Hills, California 90212

Telephone: (310) 274-7451
Fax: (310) 786-4462

Private Company
Incorporated: 1898 as William Morris, Vaudeville Agent
Employees: 600
Sales:$150 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 7922 Agents, Talent: Theatrical

Company History:

Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1998, the William Morris Agency, Inc. is America's oldest and largest talent brokerage. Over the decades, the agency established and nurtured the careers of some of the entertainment industry's brightest stars. The Morris stable has included vaudevillians George Burns and Gracie Allen, movie industry pioneers Al Jolson and Charlie Chaplin, trailblazing television personalities like Milton Berle, rock-and-roll king Elvis Presley, and scores of celebrities in between. As the prototypical agency, Morris metamorphosed through technological and geographical transitions that left other entertainment magnates behind, deftly easing from vaudeville to radio and film in the 1920s and 1930s, to TV in the 1950s, and from New York to Hollywood in the meantime.

But by the 1970s and 1980s the agency had grown complacent, certain that its stellar reputation would be more than enough to woo and keep clients. During that period five executives--and more important, several marquee celebrities--defected to found the Creative Artists Agency. Whereas William Morris had always operated behind the scenes, keeping its clients center stage, CAA came out from behind the curtain to promote itself as well as its star-studded clientele. In an industry where light can substitute for fire, it did not matter that William Morris continued to be Hollywood's largest agency--CAA was its hottest.

CAA may get burned by William Morris in the end, however. When Mike Ovitz left the upstart agency in 1995 to head entertainment powerhouse Disney, the older talent broker snapped up several big-name clients, including comedienne Whoopi Goldberg.

Late 19th-Century Foundations

The William Morris Agency's roots stretch back to New York City in 1882. That's when nine-year-old Zelman Moses and his family immigrated from Germany to the United States. The boy soon Anglicized his name to William Morris and quit school to clerk at a local grocery. Though he held a good-paying office job throughout his teen years, an economic crisis brought his first career in publishing to an end in the 1890s.

Morris went to work as a clerk for a top stage impresario in 1893 and had soon earned himself a partnership in the business. But when the owner died, his wife rescinded the partnership. Morris hung out his own shingle in 1898, establishing his monogram ("W" and "M" interwoven as four "X's") as a trademark that would stand for decades to come. In exchange for finding venues for vaudeville acts, he kept a portion--usually ten percent--of the actors' pay. Filling a void left by his former partner, Morris quickly established himself as an agent with great connections and an eye for talent.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, Morris assembled an unbeatable collection of widely known acts headlined by the likes of Scottish bagpiper and comic Harry Lauder, Oklahoman Will Rogers, and Charlie Chaplin. When the owner of a chain of theaters tried to blackball Morris and his clients, the agent formed his own confederation of theaters. Though Morris would continue to battle power-hungry theater owners through the 1920s, his control over popular talent always gave him the upper hand.

Morris's link to the entertainment world's "software"--the actors and actresses--rendered his livelihood impervious to "hardware upgrades." For example, when movies and radio began to deflate the power of the vaudeville theaters in the late 1920s, Morris took his acts to the new media. Many of his vaudevillians, including Amos 'n' Andy, Martha Raye, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, became radio stars. Others like Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers made the transition to film. The venue mattered little to Morris beyond finding a suitable fit, for no matter where his stars appeared, he received ten percent of their pay.

William Morris cheated death on a number of occasions. He was struck with tuberculosis in 1902, but after taking Dr. Trudeau's Adirondack Mountain rest cure, he returned to work in 1905. He and his wife were set to take the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912, but canceled the trip so that he could clear up a theater booking snafu. He was supposed to have been on the Lusitania in May 1915, but was still in New York when it was sunk by the Germans. In fact, Morris lived long enough to see his agency establish offices in London, Chicago, and perhaps most important, Los Angeles. After retiring in 1930, he died in 1932 while playing pinochle with friends at the Friars' Club.

The Great Depression and World War II

Son William Morris, Jr. became the de jure head of the agency, but it was Abe Lastfogel who truly filled the senior Morris's shoes. Lastfogel, who like his predecessor was a Jewish immigrant, had joined the talent brokerage in 1912 at the age of 14. Morris, Jr. continued to concentrate on the Los Angeles outpost, which he had headed since 1930, while Lastfogel guided the New York headquarters. By the time of Morris, Sr.'s passing, the Great Depression had already begun to take its toll on the agency; it lost a combined total of $45,000 in 1931 and 1932.

The Morris Agency found an unlikely savior in Mae West, who went on to become the top grosser at the box office in the 1930s. After its initial dip, entertainment proved a Depression-hardy industry. Over the course of the decade, revenues multiplied from about $500,000 to $15 million as the agency's client roster grew to number in the hundreds. While big-name film and radio deals contributed two-thirds of this turnover, the other third came from lesser known departments, including vaudeville, nightclub, and literary management. For not only did the agency represent well-established stars but it also nurtured what it called "the stars of the future." As a William Morris Agency advertisement once stressed, "Our Small Act of Today Is Our Big Act of Tomorrow." In 1938 the agency moved its West Coast office to posh Beverly Hills. Its early real estate purchases throughout the area would become a major source of wealth in the decades to come.

The Morris Agency's contribution to the Allied World War II effort was as showbiz-oriented as anything it had ever done. Abe Lastfogel organized USO shows featuring more than 7,000 entertainers, including such luminaries as Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart.

Post-World War II Expansion into Television

In the postwar era Morris's roster included Mickey Rooney, Laurence Olivier, Danny Kaye, Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, and Rita Hayworth. The agency also discovered and launched Marilyn Monroe's steamy career. Morris merged with the Berg-Allenberg Agency in 1949, bringing in such Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Frank Capra, Edward G. Robinson, and Robert Mitchum. It also branched into television during this period. According to Frank Rose, author of a 1995 history of the agency, "in the early years the talent agencies essentially produced the shows, even lining up guests, taking care of all sorts of details." In fact, Morris agents were responsible for packaging such immensely popular productions as "The Milton Berle Show," "Texaco Star Theater," and "Your Show of Shows." "Make Room for Daddy," starring Danny Thomas, was another Morris vehicle of the 1950s.

When Bill Morris, Jr. retired from the agency in 1952, Abe Lastfogel became de facto head of William Morris. During the decade, the group represented Elvis Presley and revived Frank Sinatra's career. The agency also sparked the quiz show craze with the 1955 launch of "The $64,000 Question." Other agents booked comedy and variety acts to the nightclubs and casinos springing up in Las Vegas. These venues continued to serve as "feeders" to the film and television operations, fleshing out new talent and molding it into the next generation of movie and TV stars.

Film stars of the 1960s on the Morris roster included Anne Bancroft, Carol Channing, Katharine Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren, Walter Matthau, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, and Barbra Streisand. The agency also expanded into the music industry during this time, representing such diverse acts as folk artists Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, British rockers the Rolling Stones, Motown divas the Supremes, and teen idols The Beach Boys.

But it was television that became William Morris's biggest moneymaker in the 1960s, contributing around 60 percent of revenues or more than $7 million by the end of the decade. According to a 1989 article in Forbes magazine, "In the mid-1960s Morris was the undisputed kingpin of the television business, with some 9 hours on network prime time."

When Abe Lastfogel retired in 1969, he generously divvied up all the agency's voting stock among its key executives and employees. He was succeeded by an attorney/accountant Nat Lefkowitz. At that time, the Morris agency was bringing in an estimated $12 million annually, and it boasted hundreds of employees at offices in New York, Chicago, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Munich, Rome, and Madrid.

CAA Fracture in 1970s and Decline in 1980s

Though the transition from Lastfogel to Lefkowitz appeared to have been a smooth transfer of power, William Morris was fraught with internal strife. For while the agency's corps of young, eager talent brokers multiplied, positions at the top remained filled by sexagenarians. Only Phil Weltman, a high-ranking executive in the television division, was in favor of grooming a cadre of younger men for top positions. Weltman's ideas were anathema to the Morris corporate culture, which prized long-term loyalty and rewarded it with promotions, but only after decades of service. The agency was becoming a training ground for other Hollywood professions; music industry executive David Geffen, television producer Aaron Spelling, and television executive Barry Diller all got their starts in the Morris mailroom.

When Lefkowitz unceremoniously canned Weltman in 1975, several of Weltman's young apprentices saw the writing on the wall. That year Rowland Perkins, Bill Haber, Mike Rosenfeld, Mike Ovitz, and Ron Meyer left to form Creative Artists Agency. The agency and other defectors soon lured more than a dozen major clients, including Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Brian De Palma, Goldie Hawn, Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Costner, Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, and Chevy Chase.

Back at Morris, Lefkowitz was bumped up to the newly established--and dutiless--post of "co-chairman," a title shared with the octogenarian Abe Lastfogel. Lefkowitz was succeeded as president by Sammy Weisbord, who had joined the agency in 1931 at the age of 19 as Lastfogel's assistant and had risen through the ranks of the television division. December 1980 brought another management reorganization. While Weisbord remained president, the two aging past presidents were dubbed "co-chairmen emeriti" and the board was expanded to include seven new members--the first newcomers since the early 1950s. It was not exactly an influx of new blood, however; not one director was under the age of 50. Weisbord went into semi-retirement in 1984 and was succeeded by Lee Stevens, who guided the company until his death in February 1989. At that time, Norman Brokaw ascended to the top management position.

The frequent management upheavals of the 1980s did not do much to spruce up the Morris Agency's dulled reputation. Before long, it had become the butt of an oft-quoted joke: "How do you commit the perfect murder? Kill your wife and go to work for the Morris Agency. They'll never find you." Trade rags like Los Angeles Magazine and Variety sounded the death knell with headlines like "Whither William Morris?" and "R.I.P.?"

Of course, the obituaries for the William Morris Agency were premature, for although the business did rely heavily on past glories and the residuals they generated, it retained several big stars, including Bill Cosby, Clint Eastwood, Jack Lemmon, Tim Robbins, Uma Thurman, Tom Hanks, and John Malkovich. Moreover, estimated revenues had doubled from $30 million in 1984 to more than $60 million by the end of the decade, when the company represented about 2,000 clients.

Signs of Life in the 1990s and Beyond

In January 1991 three senior agents left the Morris Agency for a rival, taking with them a mix of well-established and up-and-coming stars including James Spader, Gerard Depardieu, Andie MacDowell, Anjelica Huston, Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Anne Bancroft, and Ralph Maccio. That's when former head of television Jerry Katzman ascended to Morris's presidency in 1991 with a mandate to breathe new life into the agency. Later that year, he executed what Variety characterized as "one of the first bold moves in a long time by the huge firm that was once the undisputed industry leader." The acquisition of Triad Artists Inc. brought Morris 50 agents and, more important, action film star Bruce Willis and the alternative music group the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The acquisition of the Jim Halsey Co. boosted the agency's penetration of the reinvigorated country music industry, and the purchase of Charles Dorris and Associates made Morris a leader in the growing field of contemporary Christian music.

But Morris may have gotten its biggest break in 1995, when CAA chairman Michael Ovitz--who since his departure from Morris in 1975 had become "the most powerful man in Hollywood"--left the agency he founded to join the Walt Disney Company. In the wake of this tidal wave, Morris picked up Whoopi Goldberg and re-signed Sylvester Stallone.

Jerry Katzman advanced to the post of vice-chairman in April 1997 and Arnold Rifkin, director of the film division, added the day-to-day management of the agency to his list of responsibilities. At that time the Morris roster included teen brother act Hanson, clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger, Asian action film star Jackie Chan, supermodel Cindy Crawford, and Olympic ice skater Oksana Baiul.

At 100 years old in 1998, the agency appeared to have been taken off life support and was breathing on its own. But in a world driven by the vagaries of taste and image, the William Morris Agency's health could be graded no better than stable as it perched on the cusp of the 21st century.

Further Reading:

  • Bart, Peter, "Whither William Morris?," Variety, October 19, 1992, pp. 5-6.
  • Bernstein, Amy, and Frank Rose, "They Made Mae West a Star," U.S. News & World Report, August 7, 1995, p. 51.
  • Gubernick, Lisa, "Backs to the Future," Forbes, April 15, 1991, p. 10.
  • ------, "Living Off the Past," Forbes, June 12, 1989, pp. 48-52.
  • Ressner, Jeffrey, "R.I.P?," Los Angeles Magazine, May 1991, pp. A61-A69.
  • Rose, Frank, The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business, New York: HarperBusiness, 1995.
  • ------, "The Case of the Ankling Agents," Premiere, August 1991, pp. 54-61.
  • "The 10%ers Solution," Time, November 2, 1992, p. 19.
  • Waddell, Ray, "William Morris Agency Buys Dorris and Associates," Amusement Business, April 5, 1993, p. 6.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 23. St. James Press, 1998.