How Dean Martin hooked me up in Hollywood
by Paul Greenstone
In 1991, at the age of 24, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in show business. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but thought I’d get a great introduction and overview of the entertainment industry by working for a successful agent at a large agency. Four weeks after I arrived, I got a job interview at ICM to be Mort Viner’s 2nd assistant.
Mort, an “old school” agent (his first name gave that away), got his first job working in the mailroom of MCA until Lew Wasserman picked him to become his assistant. Mort learned how to be an agent from one of the greatest Hollywood agents/executives that ever lived.
Mort’s clients and agenting were his life and he never forgot that he worked for his clients and not the other way around. And Mort never used his job/clients to get favors. Mort represented Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly, Michael Crawford and Dean Martin. Look, I’m a NJ native and my parents introduced me to “Old Hollywood” and “The Rat Pack” at a young age, so this was a dream job for me.
ICM’s HR department told me I’d interview with Nina, who had been Mort’s 1st assistant for many years and I would not meet Mort during the process. After my interview, however, Nina had me meet with Mort for an interview that lasted for one question before being awkwardly dismissed.
The next day I found out that I got the job!
So I filed, read scripts and contracts, got Mort’s lunch, filled his Mercedes with gas, picked up dry cleaning and took him to/from the airport. Obviously, answering the phones was a major part of the job. We fielded offers for Mort’s clients, heads of studios would call.
If someone wanted to talk to Dean Martin (and they were not an ex wife, son/daughter or grandchild), they had to go through Nina and me. Tom Hanks was a big Dean fan and would call once in a while to check in on him.
Frank Sinatra called a lot. President Bush even called for Mort. I can still hear that familiar voice of Jimmy Stewart always saying: “Hello, this is James…” But, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Crawford and Dean Martin called every day. I remember Dean once saying: “You kept me on hold so long, I sobered up twice.”
While I could answer the phones, once Mort got on the call, I was not allowed to listen. I knew I was doing a good job and Nina and Mort liked me, but they did not know me. Trust had not been built, yet. I understood. So, Nina listened in on all the calls and I was in the dark. But after Valentine’s Day, everything changed.
My college buddy Susan Sussman (who was a junior agent at ICM) and I agreed that if we didn’t have any dates for Valentine’s Day, we’d go out for a nice dinner. So, I made a reservation at La Famiglia in Beverly Hills. I’d never been there but Dean had dinner there every night and almost always, he’d dine with Mort. La Famiglia’s owner, Joe Patti, and I had good phone banter and always told me to come by for dinner.
Susan and I show up. It’s packed. I greet Joe, who hugs me as if we’re old friends and points to a booth in the corner: “Dean’s over there eating alone. Go say ‘hi’.” I explain that while Dean and I speak several times a day, we hadn’t met yet.
Joe understands, grabs my hand and races me to Dean. Susan follows and suddenly we’re face to face with Dean Martin: Hollywood legend. We’re introduced, Joe leaves and Dean has us sit down with him. How cool is that? A few minutes later our table is ready. Dean kisses Susan on the hand, shakes mine and tells us to have a good night and we’re escorted to our table.
We’re seated next to Sugar Ray Leonard and his wife and the boxing champ excitedly asked me how I knew Mr. Martin. So, I told him.
About 30 minutes later, Dean gets up. It was as if the whole restaurant stopped and watched silently as he made his way to the front door. His style. His smile. The charisma. He still had “it”. But then…
Dean stops, turns around and scans the crowd until he finds… me!
He saunters towards us. After a brief stop for a handshake and a “hello” with Sugar Ray and his wife, he tells Susan again that it was nice to meet her and gives me a little slap on my face and mutters: “Thanks for everything you do for me, kid”. He turns around and leaves. I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live.
Later, Joe comes by with a grin and proclaims: “The dessert is on me, the meal’s on Mr. Martin.” Dean Martin just bought us dinner!
The next morning, I relay the events from the previous night to Mort, who is grinning from ear to ear, genuinely happy for me.
That day, Mort told Nina to tell me that I could now listen in on all his phone calls. I was now a “made man” and had complete access to Mort Viner, his clients and all the secrets: Secrets that Nina and I will take to our graves, the way Mort Viner took them to his grave, which is right next to his best friend, Dean Martin.Tags: Breaking into Hollywood, Dean Martin, Entertainment industry, Hollywood, Hollywood assistant, ICM (International Creative Management), Lew Wasserman, Mort Viner, Paul Greenstone, Sugar Ray Leonard