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SAYING GOODBYE TO FRIENDS

One of the perils of growing older is losing friends and colleagues. This past week or so has been tough, while the three people who died couldn’t have played more different roles in my life. Cari Beauchamp was a fellow film historian, Ned Comstock was a research librarian, and Richard Leibner was my agent for nearly forty years.

I had no previous television when Entertainment Tonight gave me a job as their film critic in June of 1982. Most of the other staff reporters had worked their way up in the world of television, moving from “market to market” in a giant game of checkers. I had already acquired a wonderful lawyer but when he hit a wall with the business affairs people at Paramount Television I asked if perhaps an agent might do better. Because my lawyer was, and remains, a mensch, he readily agreed.

My on-air colleagues were candid in explaining why they wouldn’t recommend their agents. And in passing along his rep, the late Scott Osborne (R.I.P.) said, “Remember, your agent is not your friend.”

In fact, Richard Leibner, the super-agent who transformed the television news business, wasn’t my friend—but he acted like a protective uncle. When Paramount decided not to renew my 26-week option just days before Alice was scheduled to give birth to our daughter Jessie, he took it personally. The business affairs person who was negotiating a major change in my employment status said, “Paramount thinks…” and Richard interrupted her. “There is no Paramount. There’s you and me and Leonard.” As the studio wanted to split my next term in half, or two thirteen-week option periods, he insisted that I have the ability to leave after that quarter—just as they had the ability to renew or drop me at that time. He won.

As it happened, Paramount couldn’t find a substitute for me in time and said, essentially, “Well, we might as well sign you for another thirteen weeks.” By that time I’d sniffed around for another TV job as a film critic—talk about a vacuum—and learned to swallow my pride. I signed again and fate took a hand; a new executive producer took an instant liking to me and an instant dislike to my replacement! 

Richard’s company, named N.S. Bienstock after his original partner (an insurance broker), specialized in filling TV newsrooms. He handled Diane Sawyer and several colleagues on 60 Minutes as well as the weatherman in Columbus, Ohio. At one time the company had six hundred clients. The same year he got Dan Rather a $10 million raise he nudged ET to boost my fee per finished piece by ten dollars.

That’s a story for another day…and with Richard came endless stories, mostly Jewish jokes which he told with great gusto. He told them even at our daughter’s bat mitzvah, which he attended.

He worked in tandem with his wife, Carole Cooper, who still represents Anderson Cooper (no relation) and other A-listers. She “blames” me for sending her husband into the world of collectibles. Richard had a compulsive nature but he learned to channel it into something positive. In the 1990s he started building a Hopalong Cassidy collection that quickly overtook his office. He could afford pricey items that many collectors could only dream of owning and even found a photo signed “to Richard” that gave him a special kick.

Yet when he’d accumulated enough Hoppy tchotchkes to launch a store he sold everything off and started from scratch on a new goal: finding mint-condition Syroco figures of classic comic strip characters. Major dealers like Ted Hake came to know him well, a top-shelf collector who would pay whatever it took to land the best examples of any given item. You ought to see his Superman Syroco figure.

I don’t know what kind of small talk he made with other clients like Maria Shriver or Andy Rooney, but with me it was always about the latest “find.” And to think that I started him down that road…

Cari Beauchamp came into my life much later but we became good friends, not only because we shared the same interests but were fellow authors and freelance writers. Freelancing, to invoke Dickens, can lead to the best of times and the worst of times, but Cari’s two children were grown by the time we connected. So much for making the month’s rent.

She had fine-tuned b.s. antennae and called a spade a spade. She was a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, as one can tell from the subjects of her books and articles, but her activism may have been most effective in the example she set. Her sons Teo and Jake are justly proud of their mother and marvel at all she accomplished while raising them—and never making them feel as though she sacrificed anything to do so.

The first time Cari and I had lunch together I learned just how savvy she was. We spoke of another colleague who was struggling to get along and she said, “He needs an Alice in his life.” She identified the secret of my success. When Turner Classic Movies launched its Classic Film Festival many of our friends pooh-poohed it, as they weren’t programming anything particularly rare. Cari put her finger on its raison d’etre: she called it “movie buff fantasy camp.” And that’s just what it is for thousands of people who fly to Hollywood from all over the world.   

Knowing how she suffered in recent years I’m glad she had a quiet exit from this world. I’m happier still that she has left behind a handful of books that will remain high on film history reading lists for years to come: Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, My First Time in Hollywood, Hollywood on the Riviera: The Inside Story of the Cannes Film Festival, Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary, Anita Loos Rediscovered, and her valuable but underappreciated Joseph P. Kennedy Presents.

I only realized how ill Cari was when she was unable to attend the Hollywood Reporter’s gathering of film-book authors in October. She rated a seat front and center, and she will be impossible to replace.

Finally, I must offer a few words about Ned Comstock, a shy, retiring man who I daresay is thanked in more books about movies than any other individual. That’s because he was a storehouse of information about the many collections residing at the USC Cinema Library. No computer could retrieve the material that Ned exhumed from the MGM files, or the papers of Alfred Newman or Ernie Kovacs. The prolific Tom Weaver wrote online, “He knew where everything was. And if you struck him as sincere, if you struck him as someone who really would finish the book you were currently writing, he went the extra mile for you. And over time, it’d get to the point where he’d go the extra

TWO miles for you. There was no end to his energy and generosity.

“Tell him you want to take him out to a fancy restaurant, as a thank-you gesture: ‘No no no, that’s all right, I just want to help.’ Try to give him money to do with as he pleased: ‘No no no.’ Insist, MAKE him take the money: ‘Welllll, okay, I can use it to buy some more folders and pencils for the reading room.’ The guy bent over backwards for EVERYbody, and would take NOTHING in return: ‘I have fun doing it!”’

That’s what these three wonderful people had in common: they loved what they did, and they were highly skilled at their jobs. Like any good friends, they can never be replaced.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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