July 24, 2003
 
   
 

 

   

Last Comic Standing
George Shapiro on growing up in the Bronx,
reality television, and discovering a guy named Jerry Seinfeld.

by Benyamin Cohen

"Talent alone can not make a writer. There must be a man behind the book; a personality which by birth and quality is pledged to the doctrines there set forth, and which exists to see and state things so, and not otherwise; holding things because they are things."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1850



In many circles, George Shapiro is an icon. A scene from last year's acclaimed documentary Comedian paints the picture perfectly. An up-and-coming stand-up comic has just gotten word that, after years of struggling in the biz, he will be able to meet with the world-famous talent manager, George Shapiro. "This guy is a legend," he exclaims. As if preparing to meet a mafia don, the comedian literally spends days preparing for the meeting, with full knowledge that the man he is about to see will change his life forever.

After all, he's the guy who saw Jerry Seinfeld perform 23 years ago in a small and smoky club and plucked him for stardom.

"I'm not a real star," Shapiro told Jewsweek during a recent phone interview. "The public at large doesn't know George Shapiro." A pretty humble statement coming from the guy who helped shape the careers of such disparate talents as Elvis Presley and Dick Van Dyke, and whose client list looks like a veritable who's who of comedy giants: Carl Reiner, Steve Allen, Jim Nabors, Andy Kaufman, and, of course, one Jerry Seinfeld.

But every man comes from humble beginnings. It is those formative years growing up Jewish in the Bronx that is the subject of a new documentary to air later this month on Cinemax entitled Bronx Boys. The hour-long program is a look back at Shapiro's 1936 kindergarten class from PS 80 in New York. The documentary was filmed a year ago at the class' 70th reunion. Amazingly, the 15 guys from the class -- which included Howard West (Shapiro's business partner and Lenny Lauren (Ralph's older brother) -- have all remained friends to this day.

Initially, the home movie of the reunion was meant for the Bronx Boys themselves to show their grandchildren the background in which they grew up, a snapshot of a bygone era. But it was a showing of a rough cut of the film to a group of Gen Xer's that made Shapiro change his mind.

"After the screening they came over to me and they were so touched and they said, 'This friendship is so universal'," recalls Shapiro. "That's what triggered my sending the tape to Chris Albrecht, the head of HBO. Because these guys were enthusiastic and one of them almost had tears in his eyes saying that he regretted not keeping in touch with those he went to grade school with. He said, "Friendship is universal. You hit an important chord'."

Seeing Seinfeld
After a while, spending summers in the Bronx lost its innocent luster and Shapiro and West took jobs as lifeguards in the Pocono Mountains where they first came in contact with talent agents visiting the resort on weekends to check out the acts of Max Liebman and Sid Caesar.

"You come up here for the weekend and you have dinner, and you watch a show, and you go on a rowboat and swim, and this is your job?" Shapiro asked them. After a short detour in the army, Shapiro started work in the mailroom at the prestigious William Morris Agency in New York for $38 a week. Six years later he was off to L.A. with West and soon started their own talent firm, Shapiro-West and Associates.

As Jerry Oppenheimer explains in "Seinfeld: The Making of American Icon", it was in Hollywood that Shapiro made a name for himself, "handling deals for Steve Allen; introducing new talent like Bill (Jose Jiminez) Dana, overseeing the creation of That Girl, the long-running Marlo Thomas sitcom, and discovering a range of talent from Jim Nabors to Andy Kaufman." He later went on to manage a menagerie of talent including Carl Reiner and the guy who created Scooby-Doo.

But these days people can't chat with Shapiro without bringing up his most famous client, Jerry Seinfeld. "It was 1980 when I saw Jerry for the first time," Shapiro recalls. "I saw him in a comedy club. I liked him immediately because he had such clever stuff. A young kid in the office, Jimmy, spotted him and then we went in. We signed him to management and the rest is history. He did the Tonight Show about a year after that -- May 6, 1981. Some days you never forget. That was probably the most significant show of his life because, at that time, the Tonight Show was so impactful in a comedian's life. Johnny Carson gave him the OK sign and he was off to the races."

"It's almost like a marriage relationship," Shapiro says of Seinfeld. A father-son relationship is more like it. When Jerry's dad Kalmen passed away in 1985, Shapiro stepped in to nurture the young comic, escorting him to almost every performance and audition. For years, the two were inseparable. Even now, with a wife and two kids, Seinfeld still brings Shapiro along for comedy concerts and family vacations.

Despite being the mastermind behind some of television's most revered sitcoms (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld) Shapiro is, quite surprisingly, a big fan of reality TV and admits to the guilty pleasures of Last Comic Standing, American Idol, and For Love or Money. "It's like watching an accident," he says.

With frazzled hair, an L.A. tan, and a Bronx accent, Shapiro may look like your grandfather, but he's every bit the proverbial Hollywood agent. The 70-something Shapiro acts like a man half his age. Having just returned from the Montreal Comedy Festival last week, he's now promoting the Bronx Boys documentary and working on at least a dozen more projects including a Dick Van Dyke reunion show.

"I'm over 70-years-old and I'm still shooting hoops and playing singles tennis," Shapiro says. Hey, even a legend has to keep up his stamina.



Benyamin Cohen is the editor of Jewsweek Magazine

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