HRTS Membership Profile: Harry Abrams
Harry Abrams is President and CEO of Abrams Artists Agency. I recently had a chance to sit down with Harry to discuss talent, advice to young agents, and the Democratic National Convention.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in Hollywood? How did you first get involved with the HRTS?
-I had been interested in theater and film and television ever since I was a child. My mother had me work in theatre and film when I was nine to eleven years of age. Also, I went to a lot of theater as a kid here in Los Angeles and I then went on to UCLA. I was originally a pre-med student but after I received a failing grade in a physiology class, it was a red light, a siren went off in my head. I realized I had to do something about it so I went to UCLA’s career guidance bureau. After talking with the staff psychologist, he recommended that I take a battery of aptitude and affinity tests. The results showed that I had zero interest in any field of science but to my surprise, the tests showed that I was fascinated by the business world. I changed my major to business administration, much to the dismay of my parents who were hoping for a nice Jewish doctor in the family.
As I moved along in business administration at UCLA, I was still interested in the entertainment industry as a whole and tried to figure out what aspect of the industry I was most intrigued with. I talked to many people, read a lot of books about artist representation, the trade papers and generally kept up with the industry. I decided in my senior year to focus on being behind-the-scenes, behind the camera in the entertainment business, I was also interested in psychology and counseling at the same time. I talked to various people, sought guidance and came to the conclusion that the field of artist representation was the area I wanted to focus on, that this could be a great career path.
I believe my first HRTS contact had to do with a panel discussion I attended with the presidents of programming of the then-four broadcast networks. I enjoyed the lunch and decided that I should explore the organization a little more, I subsequently learned a lot more about the Hollywood Radio and Television Society and decided to apply for membership.
Q: How has the agency business changed since the day you started at MCA?
-in those days it was much more of a gentlemanly business. It was a much smaller industry at that time, there weren’t that many talent agencies, the two leading ones being MCA and William Morris. The agency business has changed markedly; it’s much more of a cutthroat competitive business today. The large corporate agencies tend to raid the smaller independent agencies, who have spent the time cultivating and building their talent. The independent agency has assisted an actor or performer to figure out just how to elevate their profile, gain more visibility, thus increasing their worth, their value, to build them into someone important. Then when they get a big break, whether it’s in feature films, in television or in the theater, the large corporate agency swoops in and poaches them. I doubt that it’s ever going to revert back to the way it was. It’s a very competitive business today with a lot of talent agencies on the scene.
Another thing that has also changed the landscape of the talent agency business is that personal managers have crept into the industry in a big way. They weren't existent in those original days with the exception of the music business, and perhaps in the stand-up comedy arena. In the personal appearance and music business, you worked in venues around the world and you needed a personal manager to help design an act for a live performance. The personal manager also handled promotion and publicity, helped select the material for the artist, handled their wardrobe, selected the lighting and sound design, negotiated the employment contract, living accommodations, travel arrangements, etc. This was prevalent for many musical acts and as time went along they began to creep into the motion picture and television business, representing actors. Personal managers became more prominent, to not only manage the talent but also to develop and produce feature films and/or television, whereas agents were restricted from doing that. Agents couldn’t produce due to state labor laws as well as union/guild restrictions. Managers were not regulated by union or guild regulations and could operate however they wanted.
Q: What’s the best thing about being an agent? worst?
-I’ve enjoyed being an agent because I like to be involved with guiding, advising, counseling performers about their careers. I like helping to develop someone who’s come out of school with a BFA or an MFA or out of conservatory training in London or New York or here on the West Coast. Actors are not familiar with the business side of the industry, so they place their careers, they place themselves in the hands of artists’ representatives and I enjoy that, I enjoy guiding them.
I think that’s one of the things about the agency business that I enjoy the most, to see them develop and give them opportunities to grow. I’m thrilled when they get those opportunities, bigger opportunities, more visibility, increase their profile, all of which increases their net worth. Someone who’s always wanted to play Hamlet or King Lear as they have trained in their acting schools, to finally give them the opportunity to do that and to sit in the audience some years down the line, it's thrilling, it's exhilarating to me. I am beaming in the audience as they perform. Not only in theater but also in film or television, to be able to get them a role as a regular in a television series where they’ve been playing bit parts or guest star roles, to get them a leading role in a feature picture whereas they’ve been working dayplayer parts or smaller roles. To watch my clientele up on screen, that to me is really exciting. I am so proud of them. They're like my children.
As to the least part of the business, it’s probably dealing with the actor or the performer or the artist whose career you have built and to have them come and tell you that they have decided to leave you for another agency, a large corporate agency. It’s as if their head has swelled, they have become very full of themselves and now this other organization is going to be able to do a better job for them than you are able to do and they’ve succumbed to the persuasion of the large agency. It's pure malarkey. The least part is having to deal with them and point out to them that they’re incorrect. Many is the talent that have succumbed to this and have left our agency to go off to a large corporate agency, then a year or two later their careers have declined, the momentum has disappeared, their balloon has been deflated. The momentum that we had created for them has disappeared. It's very frustrating to us and to the artist.
Q: What advice would you give a young agent just starting out?
-pay attention, listen carefully, try to take on a mentor inside the agency that will help guide you and that you can talk to frequently about the path that is in front of you. A good work ethic is critical, nothing is beneath you, you take on whatever responsibilities, whatever exposure you can have to any of the agents in the office and any of the different departments; gain and take advantage of that exposure, learn it, be trained into it. Work in different departments, don’t just focus on the motion picture department, which is terribly, terribly glamorous but learn about radio and television advertising and commercial departments, learn about reality television, learn about youth departments, learn about the literary department.
Q: You’ve been in the business for many years, what is one of your favorite stories?
-this was an unusual situation that occurred some years ago. The Democratic National Convention was being held in Los Angeles in The Sixties and I was working at MCA in the commercial advertising division. Lipton Tea came to me and asked me if I had someone who could be their spokesperson, their image on television, they wanted someone who would be live at the convention, whenever they cut to a commercial during the telecast of the convention. They would provide the sixty seconds of advertising copy and the performer would deliver the message. They wanted a celebrity, they wanted a personality, they didn’t just want a spokesperson or a presenter. I came up with one of our clients, Mr. Eddie Albert, and I proposed him to Lipton. He was a well-known actor but he’d never done any commercials so he was reluctant to appear in the cold, cruel, crass world of television advertising. In those days name actors didn’t do television commercials, so he was resistant. But the money was terribly attractive and it was only going to be a one-time thing, the commercials would not continue on the air afterwards, they would be on the air just this one time during the convention.
I was able to persuade and convince Mister Albert to accept the job and so I negotiated the deal. The first night, he delivered four or five commercials during the three-hour telecast and late that night I got a telephone call from him telling me that he hated it, “get me outta this!” It was a real dilemma since a good amount of money had exchanged hands and he was already on the air, they had three or four more nights for the convention to be telecast, so it was puzzling, a daunting task for me to try and figure out what the hell I was going to do, how I was going to get him out of his commitment. I went to bed, didn't sleep easily, and early the next morning I get a call from Lipton’s advertising agency. Before I said anything to them they told me that they were unhappy with his performance. I said “what do you mean you’re unhappy with his performance? He’s already gone on camera in front of millions of people and if you now don’t want him to continue it’s going be terrible for his career as an actor, for the millions of television viewers to see that he was fired. You can’t do this, it’s ridiculous!” They told me I had to figure out some way to do that for them so I got off the phone and thought about it. We represented commercial spokespersons during those years and one of them was George Fenneman, who was a well-known on-camera, commercial presenter.
I got back to the ad agency later that morning and said “I’ll tell you what, you’re gonna have to pay a penalty to Mister Albert, not only pay him for what the rest of the commitment is but also a penalty fee for firing him”. In addition to that, one of the conditions I insisted on was that I wanted a different one of our clients to become the spokesperson for the tea company during the remainder of the convention and the image on behalf of the product. I had them meet with George Fenneman, who had been the original announcer on the Groucho Marx show “You Bet Your Life”, so they knew who he was. They thought that George Fenneman was a great idea. So I called Eddie Albert and said “I was able to get you out of the deal plus you’re going to get more money as a result of this”. Lipton loved George so much as a result of this four- or five-day exposure that they hired him for the next few years to be their spokesperson for all of their television commercials.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
-I enjoy being part of the HRTS, I think they do a really excellent job, their programs are fascinating. If they could do the same thing in New York City, maybe a branch, that’s something that I think would be of interest. Also, an HRTS program that I thought was helpful was that they wanted volunteers from the membership to meet with and talk to younger members of the HRTS, to perhaps mentor them. I volunteered my services and I’ve met with one person that they’ve sent on to me, a young lady, and given her counsel, guidance and direction and I enjoy that opportunity as part of being a member of the HRTS. I think that expanding that program and having it grow would be very valuable. That suggestion plus having a Radio and Television Society presence in New York City would be my suggestions.