[Deathwatch] Ted Ashley, Agency Chief, 80

Deathwatch Central Deathwatch Central <cdw@slick.org>
Mon, 26 Aug 2002 14:58:18 -0700 (PDT)

Ted Ashley, WB Topper and Agency Chief, Dead at 80
Mon Aug 26, 3:12 AM ET
By Carl DiOrio and Richard Natale 

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - Talent agent-turned-studio executive Ted Ashley,
who played a key role in shaping Warner Bros. into a modern movie
powerhouse, died Saturday in New York of acute leukemia following a
long illness. He was 80. 

Founder of the Ashley Famous talent agency, Ashley was a high-ranking
executive at Warner Communications for two decades. His tenure was
marked by big box office successes with franchise-launching pictures
like "Dirty Harry" and "Superman" and creative coups including the
helming ascendancy of Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood and others. 

Sony Pictures chairman John Calley, tapped by Ashley in 1968 to serve
as studio chief at Warners, said Ashley wielded both a keen intellect
and superior business sense. 

"He was one of the smartest men I've known," Calley recalled. "The
studio had been losing money year after year, and the first year we got
there I think the studio made $35 million -- which was a lot of money
for back then." 

Ashley entered the film scene amid a shifting Hollywood landscape,
noted Warners home-entertainment president Warren Lieberfarb, who
joined the studio in 1975 as marketing VP. 

"His impact dates from when the movies barely survived the onslaught of
television and goes into the era of studios being acquired by
conglomerates," Lieberfarb said. 

Against such a challenging backdrop, Ashley's exuberance seemed to
carry Warners to a new destiny. 

Former colleagues recalled that he was so entrepreneurial and
optimistic, the studio's films acquired a similarly upbeat quality. An
utterly drab studio suddenly began to generate hits. 

Ashley started out as a William Morris agent at the age of 20 and went
on to launch his own personal-management firm amid a field of storied
contemporaries including the late Freddie Fields. His Ashley Famous
agency packaged landmark television series such as "Mission:
Impossible" and represented a wide variety of clients from Tennessee
Williams to Janis Joplin and Vanessa Redgrave. 

Both hard-working and reclusive, Ashley rarely spent time schmoozing
with celebrities, granting interviews or hanging out at industry
eateries. He was the original low-profile doer. 

Kinney Corp. bought into his talent agency in 1967 and fully acquired
the firm in 1969 when Ashley helped Kinney head Steve Ross acquire
Warner Bros. Ashley served as Warners CEO until 1981, when he named
Robert Daly and Terry Semel as successors. 

For the next seven years, he was vice chairman of studio parent Warner
Communications, where he was involved in transactions including the
merger of The Movie Channel and Showtime. 

"He walked softly but carried a big stick," Lieberfarb recounted. "He
had such deep experience that he didn't need to exaggerate his persona.
It spoke for itself." 

Ashley could be deftly diplomatic when needed. Calley remembered an
incident at Warners when film great Bette Davis seemed to be going out
of her way to be condescending and dismissive toward the exec pair. 

Without seeming to take umbrage, Ashley deftly injected into the
conversation references to their previous professional accomplishments.

"He didn't have to be brutal but was still able to make his point,"
Calley recalled. 

Ashley was born in Brooklyn in 1922 as Theodore Assofsky. Graduating
from high school at age 15, he studied business administration at City
College at night, also working as an office boy at the William Morris
agency where his uncle Nat was general manager. 

At age 20 he graduated to full-fledged agent -- changing his name in
the process -- and began representing radio clients and photographers.
After nine years at William Morris, he launched Ted Ashley Associates. 

It was the dawn of the television age, and Ashley's clients included
Gertrude Berg ("The Goldbergs"), Allen Funt and Henny Youngman. 

Within three years he expanded into the heftier Ashley Famous Agency,
which became known for packaging and selling network series. Such TV
series included "The Danny Kaye Show," "Mission: Impossible," "Get
Smart," "The Carol Burnett Show," "Medic," "Star Trek," "Dr. Kildare,"
"The Defenders," "Tarzan," "Name That Tune," "The Twilight Zone" and
"The Doris Day Show." 

Ashley Famous also represented playwrights such as Williams and Arthur
Miller, singers Perry Como and Trini Lopez, and rock acts including
Joplin, The Doors, and Iron Butterfly. Motion-picture clients included
Redgrave, Burt Lancaster, Rex Harrison, Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

"As an agent, Ashley had great panache and showmanship -- he seemed to
relish the wheeling and dealing," remembered Daily Variety editor in
chief Peter Bart, a Paramount executive in those days. 

"He once came to my office at Paramount to present a package involving
two major stars of that era (but) there was also a condition," Bart
recalled. "'If you want this deal, I'm going too stick you with a kid
director who you don't want,' he said with a smile. 'You may feel he'll
screw up your movie, but I've got to get him a job and this is the only
way to do it.' 

"When everyone shook hands on the deal, Ashley summoned an aide who was
waiting in the reception area. He entered carrying four bottles of
champagne and some hors d'oeuvres. It was party time." 

Two years into his association with Kinney and Ross, Ashley was named
chairman-CEO of Warner Bros., and Ashley Famous was spun off to avoid
conflicts of interest. Ashley reportedly earned $2.7 million in Warners
stock from the deal and collected a $200,000 annual salary plus
six-figure bonuses through the mid-1970s. 

One of Ashley's first theatrical hits was the "Woodstock" music
documentary, which grossed $13 million. Other major successes,
including horror classic "The Exorcist," soon followed. 

When Frank Wells was named Warners co-chairman in 1974, Ashley briefly
stepped into the background before returning full time through 1980.
Ashley segued into a consultant's post for a couple years before moving
to New York to serve as vice chairman of Warner Communications until
1988 when he retired. 

"He was a beautiful man," said Calley, who remained friends with Ashley
over the many decades. "In 50 years, I never had an argument with him."

Ashley, who was involved in a number of professional and charitable
endeavors, was a board member of the Lincoln Center for the Performing
Arts, a member of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a
founder of the American Film Institute ( news - web sites). He was an
active supporter of the Democratic Party and its candidates, and was
particularly involved in the '70s California political scene. 

Ashley is survived by his wife, Page Cuddy Ashley; four daughters, Fran
Curtis Dubin, Diane Ashley, Kim Balin and Ba-Nhi Sinclair; a brother,
Alfred Ashley; and two grandchildren. 

Services are set for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Frank Campbell Funeral,
Madison Avenue and 81st Street, in Manhattan.