My Producer-partner and I arrived early for our pitch meeting at the sprawling complex on L.A.’s Fairfax Avenue known as CBS Television City. And when we reached the second-floor reception area, we were told that the party we’d come to see was running late, everything on his schedule delayed a half-hour. My partner crossed to a side door in the wall opposite the receptionist and, his hand on the doorknob, said something on the order of “Wanta go get some juice?”
“You mean at the commissary?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
During an early writing gig for a comedy-variety special, I had worked for about four weeks in the bowels of this enormous facility, and I vividly remembered a couple of things about the place. One was that on the far side of that door were acres of dark corridors and dim chambers – an immense, windowless, nearly impenetrable, directionless maze. The other was that the commissary was clear over on the opposite end of the building, about three city blocks distant. Hence, my question: “Do you know how to get to the commissary from here?”
He grinned as he opened the door, speaking with his customary charm, devoid of ego: “I built this place.”
He had indeed, back when he ran CBS. And we did not get lost enroute to the commissary.
His name was James T. Aubrey, and we’d met several years earlier, literally, while performing simultaneous shoulder-stands on the parallel bars in a Beverly Hills gym.
In yet another example of my incredibly good-fortune, I had started working out at the right gymnasium – at the right time.
What I could not have known, nor even imagined, was what an impact it would have on my life, the many ripples that would begin there – and continue. My workout-mates consisted of a top comedy writer, a famed musical arranger, an up-and-coming movie director, a major TV producer – and a man whose face had been on the cover of Time Magazine: Jim Aubrey.
Tall, handsome, witty, never seeming less than genuine, and almost eerily intelligent, he was at that time running MGM Studios. A lean fifty-four years old, Jim displayed none of the pomposity one might expect from someone who had wielded such enormous executive weight for so long. Quite the opposite, one of his gifts was that he made anyone he was with believe that there was no one in the world he’d rather be be talking to.
Truly one-of-a-kind, a privilege to know, and invariably stimulating to speak to and to work with, James T. Aubrey was one of the most interesting people I have ever met.
Along the way, I learned a lot from him, not least, while Will Holt and I were working on JACK, picking up some valuable, firsthand insights into the Kennedy family. When John F. Kennedy was a young man, Aubrey had been a guest at Hyannisport, knew his parents, and by Jim’s account had on more than one occasion ‘gone whoring’ with Jack – and with Jack’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
And we worked together. First when Jim – and MGM – optioned a comedy feature film I’d written, the intended director being Bill Persky. Later, following his departure from MGM, we conceived and pitched several TV series, one of which we sold, another one coming close. We were social friends for eighteen years, until he died in 1994.
One of the tribal customs in Hollywood is the Memorial Service for well-known’s such as Jim, during which friends of the deceased stand at a podium and tell entertaining anecdotes about them. I was honored to be asked to do so at Jim’s memorial. And I told the story about his knowing the route to the CBS Television City’s commissary. It was well-received by the star-studded audience, but immediately – and deservedly – topped by one I’d not heard but will never forget because it so nailed who Jim Aubrey was.
Told by prominent comedy-writer Stanley Ralph Ross, it was an incident that had taken place in the 1960’s when Jim, was running CBS in New York.
At that time, most TV pilots were produced by advertising agencies, for – and usually financed by – their clients. Once finished, they would be shopped by salesmen to the then-three networks. One day, Jim and a salesman entered Jim’s private screening room in “The Black Tower” (CBS), Aubrey buzzed the projectionist, the lights went down, and the pair began viewing the new sitcom being pitched. About four minutes into it, Jim abruptly ordered the projectionist to stop the film. The lights went up, Jim stood and turned to the sales guy: “Phil, that is the worst piece of shit I’ve ever—”
The salesman jumped in: “Oh, I know, Jim. Truth is I – I was embarrassed to bring it to—”
“Nono. We’re gonna put it on the air. It’s going to be a huge hit.”
It was. “The Beverly Hillbillies” ran for nine years.