REMEMBERING ED LIMATO
Iconic Hollywood talent agent Ed Limato, who spent more than four decades guiding the careers of superstars such as Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Denzel Washington and Steve Martin, died Saturday July 3rd at his Beverly Hills, CA home surrounded by friends and family. He was a few days shy of 74.
While the laity imagines a Hollywood talent agent as something they've seen on “Entourage,” Ed Limato had his own definition. He was in a class by himself - an iconoclast, as Vanity Fair once called him - a talent agent who glided through Hollywood with poise and panache. He hearkened back to the Golden Age, a time when men were more refined and elegant, as if he were preparing for an evening at the Mocambo. Yet despite his reverence for Hollywood of yore, his client list kept him active and relevant into the 21st century. He was as colorful as he was powerful. Always handsomely coiffed and impeccably dressed, Limato would promenade into the office wearing Italian suits of mustard yellow or salmon pink, rallying to his assistants, “Let’s talk to the stars.”
Limato’s love for old Hollywood was not just apparent in his demeanor, his two acre Coldwater Canyon Estate, known as “Heather House,” was built in 1936 by movie stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell and later owned by George Raft. The game room was adorned with Hirschfeld caricatures acquired from the old MGM commissary, and his screening room was named after Marlene Dietrich. He even gave his assistants a list of classic Hollywood films that they were to watch and report back to him with analysis.
Limato is the last of the great Hollywood talent agents – a breed that dwindled with the loss of Stan Kamen and Irving “Swifty” Lazar. Over the years, his client list read like a who’s who of Hollywood royalty and Oscar winners, including Antonio Banderas, Michael Biehn, Nicholas Cage, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Claire Danes, Geena Davis, James Franco, Matthew Fox, Ava Gardner, Melanie Griffith, Goldie Hawn, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Thomas Jane, Frank Langella, Jennifer Lopez, Derek Luke, director Adrian Lyne, Madonna, Matthew McConaughey, Bette Midler, Liam Neeson, Sam Neill, Nate Parker, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dennis Quaid, Doris Roberts, Diana Ross, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, Paul Walker and Marlon Brando. To Limato, his clients were less business and more family. He was known to cry when one would leave him for another agent. Instead of family photographs in his living room, he kept exquisitely framed headshots of every actor he ever represented. He was loyal and stood by clients Gibson, Robert Downey, Jr. and Winona Ryder during their darkest times. But Limato could be as difficult and obstreperous as any Hollywood bad boy, throwing tantrums and hanging up the phone on the most powerful players - often following up with an apology or bouquet of flowers. During fits of rage, he was masterful at name-calling; he might have coined the phrase “bucktooth wonder fuck,” for example. When a battle of words didn’t satisfy Limato in his feud with the NY Post "Page Six" editor, the agent took revenge at an Oscar bash by dousing the gossip columnist with a double vodka on the rocks and two olives. The following award season, Variety joked that a “Limato Drink Protector” was a necessary party accessory.
Edward Frank Limato was born in Mount Vernon, New York into a middle class Italian American family. He left home and traveled the country, earning money as a disc jockey. Continued restlessness took him to Europe in 1966, where he eventually landed a job on the set of “The Taming of the Shrew” as an assistant to director Franco Zeffirelli. From a very young age, Limato loved movies and movie stars. He seemed obsessed with the business of Hollywood and studied the trades. In a 1990 Vanity Fair article, actor Michael York, who met Limato on the set, said, “I was the first person to tell him he should be an agent. I told him he must obey his destiny and go to the mailroom.” With the help of Zeffirelli’s agent, Limato returned to New York and took a job in the mailroom at Ashley-Famous Agency, which eventually became International Famous Agency – where he was promoted to junior agent. Later, Ashley-Famous merged with Creative Management Associates to become International Creative Management. He transferred to ICM’s west coast office but was lured away to the William Morris Agency in 1978 by Stan Kamen. He remained there until 1986 when, after a series of secret meetings with ICM CEO Jeff Berg and agent Sam Cohn, he returned to the agency that gave him his start.
Limato was a voracious reader and believed that good material was the key to stardom. He suggested Michelle Pfeiffer for the role in “Scarface,” which launched her career. He begged Richard Gere to star in “Pretty Woman” after the actor expressed trepidation. Over the years, Limato watched joyfully as his clients ascended to the Hollywood “A’ list. They took him along too, and he was eventually named ICM co-president.
Although it’s common for clients to jump from agency to agency, Limato inspired loyalty from the likes of Gere, Gibson and Washington, who have been with him for most of their careers. He was often criticized for maintaining his own agency within the agency, because his office consisted of three trainees (he referred to them as "number 1," "number 2," and "number 3), a personal assistant, an attorney and a story editor. But while most agents are all about the deal, Limato serviced the client. Because of his unique style, Gere, Gibson, Washington and Martin did not have managers. Limato was a full-service agent.
In 2006, ICM merged with Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann, primarily a TV literary agency. But within a year, the seams at the new agency came apart. Limato claimed both his authority and stature were being undermined by the new regime, which, he alleged, planned on forcing him into a consultant position and early retirement. Limato wanted out of his contract. ICM refused. The dispute was taken to arbitration, where Limato challenged a 3-year non-compete clause, which forbade him to work for another agency. The battle became a publicity nightmare for ICM, as it played out in the national news.
During arbitration, Limato’s lawyers argued that his contract dated back to the mid-90s and was bound by an obscure California law known as the "seven year rule,” stating that anyone who renders extraordinary or unique services cannot be bound to a contract for more than seven years. On August 13, 2007, the arbitrator found in favor of the agent and against ICM. With Limato a free agent, Variety wrote, “"Ed Limato's arbitration victory over ICM…puts into play not only one of Hollywood's most senior and revered agents but also the most important client list in a generation." Limato was one of the few talent agents who could boast a fistful of clients with salaries of more than 20 million dollars a film plus first dollar gross. Almost immediately, he and his talent list made a return trip to the venerable William Morris Agency, which merged with Endeavor in June 2009 to form WME. Some industry insiders claim that ICM has not yet recovered from Limato’s exit. At his new home, he brokered deals for Denzel Washington to star in “The Book of Eli” as well as his Tony winning Broadway triumph in “Fences,” Mel Gibson’s return to the big screen in “Edge of Darkness,” and Richard Gere’s upcoming spy thriller “The Double.”
When Limato wasn’t negotiating deals for the rich and famous, he served on the boards of Abercrombie & Fitch, the LA Conservancy, the American Cinematheque, and the MPTF.
Limato’s fame as an agent might have only been eclipsed by his annual Oscar party, a relaxed but star-studded event that was held at his home the Friday before the Academy Awards. Limato reigned supreme over the party in flamboyant regalia and bare feet. The guest list looked like the hall of fame from politics, movies, TV, music and literature. Invitations were coveted and entrée to the event was often sport to Hollywood lounge lizards and posers who struggled to find a way in. But Limato protected the list like Moses did his Commandments. One year, the wife of a great movie star called to say her husband couldn’t attend and asked if she could bring a guest instead. Not only did Limato say no, he uninvited the wife – who was not on anyone’s “A” list.
Even in his final days, Limato played host to those who came to say good-bye. He passed away surrounded by the conviviality that always made him happy. Judy Garland sang in the background as movie stars, their spouses and children, fellow agents, co-workers, producers, studio heads, old friends and family gathered around, brought flowers and food, ate homemade Italian meatballs, drank cocktails, laughed, cried and shared stories of the talent agent who could outshine any star in Hollywood.
This was, perhaps, his greatest tribute. In Hollywood, when one can no longer help another get ahead, he becomes irelevant and obsolete. In the end, Limato could be of no help to anyone. He couldn’t slip a script to Mel or convince Denzel to star in a movie. He wasn't taking your call. The negotiations were over. But visitors came in droves anyway – a procession fit for a king. They came not to get ahead, not to make a deal but to simply show their respect and love.
Ed Limato is survived by his 99-year-old mother Angelina, a brother Paul, a sister Angela, and several nieces and nephews.
He had no children but nurtured and inspired a tight-knit group of young Hollywood professionals - his entourage - who learned the business from him.
Ed Limato taught us how to work, how to live and how to die. He was our patriarch.