Behind the Lines with DR: How Not to Fire an Agent

By Doug Richardson

I think I was twenty-five years old. Pretty young to have come to the conclusion that the man who’d helped me cross over the threshold into showbiz had to be shown the proverbial exit. My career was showing some lift, and it was already painfully clear that the sweet old agent wasn’t going to be able to help me get any further down the road. It was time for me to move on. If only it were as easy as merely saying it. I’d been raised not to shy away from responsibility. To meet uncomfortable situations without ducking or passing the buck. A man needed to do what a man had to do. Thusly, I resolved to put on my big-boy pants and sack Harry Bloom.

fire an agent

Tom Cruise in ‘Jerry Macguire’

A little back story first. Just three years earlier, I was a kid with an armful of scripts, tires so bald the steel belts were showing, and couch-surfing from San Diego to Los Angeles and anywhere else I could steal some power to plug in my salmon-red IBM Selectric II. Then Harry Bloom, this old time MCA agent and his assistant-slash-better-half read my stuff and signed me on to his dwindling client roster. In no time he was sending me into producers’ offices where I could pitch out my stories like some clueless nabob. In one of those rooms was a former studio boss who thought he saw a glimmer of talent and signed me to be his exclusive pet scribbler. What followed was a parking space at Warner Brothers, a converted office supply closet for an office, and a two-year paid education in the picture business. If I was grateful then, I’m even more so today.

Unfortunately, I had some contract issues. Conflicts over payments and exclusivity. Eventually, it became clear to me that dear Harry Bloom was cowed by the studio and my assigned producer. For over a year I watched him do little more than lob unreturned phone calls over the studio wall in hopes that one day they might get a secretarial return. If I was to move ahead in the game without getting squished, I needed stronger representation. Harry had to go.

Now, if you’ve ever fired someone, then read on and squirm as you watch me make one catastrophic mistake after another. If you haven’t, then you get to learn from my erstwhile errors.

I knew how Harry loved to tell stories over long, Beverly Hills lunches. The swanky old-style joints with vested, veteran waiters and linen table cloths were to his usual liking. My thinking was that, if I was going to let the aging agent down gently, it’d be best done over an expensive, middle-of-the-day meal. Of course, I would be paying. I owed him that and more.

The restaurant I chose escapes me. It was popular and posh and packed with industry heavy-weights. I could tell because as Harry entered the high-class eatery, he made several, glad-handing stops before he finally landed his five-foot-four frame at our center-cut table.

“How ya doin’, son?” said Harry, double-pumping my hand. “You been waiting long?”

“Just got here,” I said.

“All the way over from Warner Brothers,” he said. “Man, I still hate that drive over the hill.”

This is when Harry proceeded to launch into one of his million-and-one tales of old Hollywood. The halcyon MCA days.

“You know what?” said Harry. “In my day, producers used to love the movies they made. Now they’re lucky to like the movie, but wouldn’t pay to see it if it wasn’t their own.”

I’d heard that line before. From Harry, in fact. About five times. But that’s not why I was about to let him go. I needed to keep focused on my task. I didn’t want to get swept up in a conga-line of Harry Bloom adventures before I softly dropped the wood.

“Harry,” I said. “I gotta get to it. Why I asked you to lunch.”

“All good over at Warners?” he wondered.

“Okay,” I said. “But I’ve come to the very hard choice that I’m going to have to let–“

“You’re firing me?” interrupted my agent. “That’s what this is about. You came over the hill to fire me?”

“Sorry,” I said. “But I need to move–“

“You’re fuckin’ kidding me.”

“Really, Harry.”

“Who the hell are you? Barely wet behind the Goddamn ears and you’re firing me?”

Okay. So you remember the scene in Jerry Maguire? Agent Bob Sugar invites Jerry to lunch in a crowded restaurant, surrounded by other suited power-brokers, only to fire him. If you recall, Tom Cruise’s Jerry compliments Jay Mohr’s Bob on what a smooth move it was. A very public space. It would cause too much embarrassment to cause a scene. So Jerry was going to have to swallow and take the sacking without so much as a raised decibel.

Okay. I love that movie. And I love that scene. But it is flat out bullshit.

The dear, sweet, aging Harry Bloom proceeded to excoriate me without much concern for decorum or his reputation. He chewed me up and down and called me every ungrateful, derogatory name he could dredge up from his seventy years or so on earth. Some of it Yiddish, all of it scorching.

And the appetizers hadn’t even shown up yet.

In hindsight, I should’ve dropped a wad of cash and left. But part of me was as young and dumb as he’d described. So I sat there, stammered, rationalized, tried to explain myself, and pretty much took every drop of vitriol he could dish out. Part of me felt as if I deserved it for not sticking with him despite his clear lack of gumption when it came to facing down the studio. The other half felt his venom should sting only because I’d cocked up the whole plan to let him go.

I mean, what was I thinking? Fire somebody over lunch? After ordering and before the bread basket hits the table? Then, to add insult to my own self-injury, sitting across from the old man and watching him drop every pent-up fireball he’d never had a Hade’s chance to unleash on all the other clients who’d left him.

I seriously don’t recall how we made it through the meal. I do remember insisting on grabbing the check when it arrived.

“I got this,” I said to the waiter.

“You sure as hell do!” spat Harry. “And mark my words, sonny boy. When I’m done with you, you’re gonna owe me ten percent for the rest of your Goddamn life.”

With that fatal flourish, Harry finally stood, tossed his napkin onto the table, and marched out of the restaurant. I paid the bill and limped back to the Warner Brothers lot.

“You fired him over lunch?” asked Sharon, D-Girl supreme and newly-minted wife to The Werth, my recently acquired lawyer. “Jesus.”

“Live and learn, I suppose.” Still singed, I flopped onto her office couch. “Says I’m gonna owe him ten percent for the rest of my life.”

“Not after my husband gets done with him,” said Sharon, already showing her protective claws. She’d been big-sistering me through the last ten months of my deal. Sharon always told me the truth, and I’d learned loads from her in-the-trenches experience.

She was right, too. About Harry Bloom and that penance for life threat. He’d caved to The Werth’s demands in my favor in a heartbeat. It appeared, the only person Harry Bloom was capable of cowing was me.

Years have flowed by, and I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’ve sacked a few agents since that awful day. And I’ve been retired myself a few times by producers and studios. It’s a skill worth acquiring that should be done with grace and dignity and never over a meal.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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