FOR DECADES, hidden from the public eye, William Morris agents made the deals that determined the fate of stars, studios, and television networks alike. Mae West, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand—the Morris Agency sold talent to anyone who would buy it, from the Hollywood moguls to the Madison Avenue admen who controlled television to the mobsters who ran Vegas. While the clients took the spotlight, the agency stayed behind the scenes, providing the grease that made show business what it’s become.
Led by Abe Lastfogel, a cherubic little man who treated agents and clients alike as family, the Morris office transformed the agent's image from garish flesh-peddler to smooth-talking professional. But in the 1970s, when Lastfogel's protégé brutally sacrificed his best friend—the man who'd brought Barry Diller and Michael Ovitz out of the mailroom—Morris gave birth to its own nemesis: Ovitz's new shop, Creative Artists. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as Morris made, and lost, such major stars as Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, and Julia Roberts, Ovitz’s power grew inexorably as Morris’s waned. Not even the last-minute hiring of the legendary Sue Mengers—“the superagent who ruled Hollywood with sex and booze,” as a New York Post headline once put it—was enough to revive the Morris office. Finally, with its flagship motion-picture department at the brink of collapse, Morris was faced with the stark reality of having to buy its way back into the business it had once owned.
The Agency began when Frank Rose was interviewing Mengers at her home in Beverly Hills for an article on the exodus of stars for Premiere magazine—and she told him he had to write a book about it. By the time The Agency was published in 1995, Morris was in the midst of a long transformation that would eventually see it reconstituted as William Morris Endeavor, a radically different firm led by hard-driving Ari Emanuel. All along, the book has remained required reading for new generations of Hollywood mailroom trainees, indeed for anyone with a hunger to understand how show business works and how it evolved, gradually yet inexorably, into what it is today. ■