Monday, July 24, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — In Conversation with Talent Agent and Personal Manager Larry Weiss

by G. Jack Urso

Hot Hero Sandwich logo from original series stationery,
Hot Hero Sandwich creators and executive producers Bruce and Carole Hart’s personal manager Larry Weiss had a front row, ring-side seat to the creation and production of the series. While deeply involved with Harts, and representing other Hot Heroes like Dr. Tom Cottle and writer Sherry Coben (who helped arrange this interview), Larry was also something of an objective observer to the events and in this interview he helps us answers some questions about the show and what went on behind the scenes.

Probably like many outside the entertainment industry, what we know of a talent agent/personal manager comes mainly from what we see on film and TV — an aggressive, usually ingratiating, business shark with a bombastic personality. So, when I had the opportunity to interview a veteran talent agent and personal manager like Larry Weiss, who worked in the industry for decades, I has half-expecting to speak to a gravely-voice, jaded, cigar-smoking, Hollywood vet who would tell me where all the skeletons are buried and preface his comments with, “Listen kid, let me tell you how it really is . . . ”

At least that’s what I was hoping.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I called Larry, the voice of a pleasant-sounding young man picked up the phone. I thought it was perhaps his personal assistant, but, to my surprise, it was Larry himself  and he did tell me how it really is.

Just back from a jaunt to Europe, Larry is retired, but still active. His career dates back well before Hot Hero Sandwich and in addition to the Harts, Dr. Cottle and Sherry Coben, he has also represented such stars like Joan Collins, John Travolta, Alan Menken, and Sarah Vaughan (links to IMDb profiles], among many others too numerous to mention. Along the way he also discovered a quirky club performer named Andy Breckman who would go on to write for Hot Hero Sandwich, David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, and create a little show called Monk.

Larry took the time to share with me some background on how the Harts got involved with Hot Hero Sandwich and why it came to an end. We also discuss Andy Breckman and Dr. Tom Cottle, learn about what a personal manager actually does, hear about who of some of his clients were and discover that NBC’s Standards and Practices had problems with rocker Rex Smith’s bulge.

There’s always a story behind the story in Hollywood, and those stories often begin in the office of a talent agent or personal manager. You may not have heard of Larry Weiss before, but his work has been on screen for decades. Larry gives us a peek behind the Hot Hero curtain, so let’s get the tour started!

[Editorial Note: Hot Hero Sandwich was a keystone project part of NBC's 1979 Year of the Child public service campaign, an effort in response to the U.S. Government request for more positive children-oriented programming. Articles and promotional material from that campaign appear throughout this article.]

Hot Hero Sandwich publicity photo from the NBC Year of the Child 
promotional booklet (1979, pg. 6). 

Bruce and Carole and Tom and Larry

Ae13U: First, I was doing some research and I have to ask. Are you any relation to Lou Weiss, chairman emeritus of the William Morris Agency who passed away in 2019 at 101?

Larry Weiss: I'm not, although when we were both at William Morris, because I was an agent at William Morris as well, we used to get each other's mail, but that’s about it.

Ae13U: It was quite the coincidence, so I had to ask. To set the stage, so to speak, can you explain for us the roll of talent agent and what they do?

Larry Weiss: First of all, when I represented the Harts, I wasn't a talent agent. I was a personal manager but prior to that, I was a talent agent at William Morris, or what used to be William Morris . . .  now it's William Morris Endeavor. Basically, what a talent agent does is seek employment for their clients.

[Note: The William Morris Agency merged with the Endeavor Talent Agency in 2013 to become William Morris Endeavor, then just Endeavor in 2017.]

Ae13U: So, you're really proactive. It's almost like you're an employment counselor. You're going out and keeping these people working.

Larry Weiss: Exactly, yes. A talent agent’s job is to find deals for their clients and also to guide their careers and help them make decisions, etc. So, you become a real confidant.

Ae13U:  It's really a business of relationships, it sounds like.

Larry Weiss: It is . . . It is.

Ae13U: OK, because the curiosity is killing me, can you share a few names of some other people you've represented over the course of your career?

Larry Weiss: Sure, Academy Award winner Alan Menken I represented when I was an agent. I represented John Travolta, Sarah Vaughan . . .  Do you remember Rupert Holmes?

Ae13U: Oh, my gosh, yes. “The Pina Colada Song!” It’s actually on my playlist. [laughter – author’s true confession, I’m a Yacht Rock fan]

Larry Weiss: . . . Joan Collins . . . the Harts, Sherry [Coben, Hot Hero series writer] . . . but when I represented them, I was a personal manager.

Ae13U: So, what is the difference between what a talent agent does and what a personal manager does?

Larry Weiss: A personal manager is involved in all aspects of the life of the client. It works with an agent to seek employment for their clients, but an agent will represent fifty, 100 people or more [clients]. A personal manager will represent much less and has a closer personal relationship with the client. They will help them select an attorney or a finance person . . . it's a much more intimate relationship. The client will much more confide in you and, like the name says, it's very personal . . . sometimes being a shrink because, you know, a lot of artists are very insecure.

[Note from series writer Sherry Coben: The insecurity we artists have is the same most people have . . . only our self-doubts get a real workout from the unique vagaries of this casually cruel business. Rejection feels pretty personal for actors and writers; we put ourselves out there in a very vulnerable way. We audition and submit material for many jobs and are rarely hired, and when we do get a job, our work (even our looks) gets publicly criticized. We have precious little control over what happens to our work once we hand it over to a studio/editor/network. It’s very important to have someone in your corner who believes in you and your talent regardless of what the suits and various winds of fortune have on offer at any given time. That’s what managers and agents can do over the long haul of a career with all its ups and downs.]

Ae13U: It sounds like a very diverse skill set you need, but primarily it's a business of relationships and having those relationship skills is clearly important.

Larry Weiss:  Yes, an agent will have those kinds of relationships, but they're much more superficial.

June 23, 1979, NBC Year of the Child press release promoting Hot Hero Sandwich and the original start date of Oct. 20, 1979 (later moved up to Nov. 10).

Ae13U: At what point did you get involved with the Harts? Was it before Sesame Street or afterwards?

Larry Weiss:  It was after Sesame Street. . .  I knew the Harts beforehand, but I really got to know them when I became a personal manager because they were clients of the company I was in partnership with.

Ae13U: Was it around the time they were working on a documentary or news report on the Boston Desegregation Crisis [circa 1974-1976]?

Larry Weiss:  No, I didn't know them at that point.

Ae13U: I see, just trying to get the timeline straight. I understand Carole was a bit more hard-nosed when it came to business than Bruce.

Larry Weiss:  Right, but she was also, you know, very creative as well.

Hot Hero Sandwich publicity article from the NBC Year of the Child
promotional booklet (1979, pg. 5).
Ae13U: One story that Dr. Tom Cottle told me about Bruce . . .

Larry Weiss:  That's a name I haven't heard in a long time . . . great guy.

Ae13U: He is! I had a nice long conversation with Dr. Cottle and he tells one story when he was in New York with Bruce Hart at a meeting with some of the NBC executives showing them footage from the show, and one of the executives asked Bruce “Don't you think that a lot of this stuff is over the heads of these children? Bruce responded, “Yeah, it may.” The suits said, “Well, how are you going to deal with this?” Bruce Hart responded, telling the NBC executives paying his salary, “Well, we’ll just have the kids stand up and then it won't be over their heads.”

Larry Weiss: [laughter] That sounds just like Bruce!

Ae13U: What a remarkable moment in entertainment history . . . I wonder, frankly speaking, considering their very principled, and sometimes stubborn, positions, did you ever get exasperated and say to them “Just sign the contract already” or not make so much a fuss about things sometimes?

Larry Weiss: No . . . no, that was not the case with them. They had their principles and they would walk away from something if it wasn't what they wanted to do.

[Note from Sherry Coben: That’s another huge difference between agents and managers. Agents don’t consider the long game as carefully as managers. Agents often apply subtle (and not so subtle) pressure to their clients to accept deals and packaging situations that might not be all that suited to them. In my experience, managers truly represent the client in a more straightforward way. Obviously, they want to keep their relationships with production companies and networks, but the client comes first. That’s not always the case with agents.]

Ae13U: Dr. Cottle was able to give some good insight into who they were as individuals.

Article by Noel Holston in his “In Hollywood” column (1979). Early copy indicated Carl Bernstein, Penny Marshell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Rev, Jesse Jackson were slated to be interviewed by Dr. Tom Cottle, but did not appear.

Larry Weiss: As an aside, Tom Cottle was a great interviewer. He really knew, being a psychologist, he really knew how to get answers out of people that they normally wouldn't say.

Ae13U: Yes. I mean, he was talking about sex, first loves, not fitting in, being abandoned by a parent . . .

Larry Weiss: All that kind of stuff.

Ae13U: And he wasn’t exploitative about it, like the TV talk show “psychologists” today.

Larry Weiss:  No, no. He wouldn't do something like that.

Ae13U: He asked just a few guiding questions, he often wasn’t even seen on screen, and his segments were probably maybe eight minutes of the entire show, spaced throughout the episode in short segments.

Larry Weiss: They were edited because his sessions were much longer. I sat in in a number of those sessions . . . we also represented Tom.

Ae13U: Oh, really?

Larry Weiss: Yes, as a matter of fact, he did the Today Show a number of times — I'm trying to remember if it was before or after Hot Hero — on a number of different topics. Very interesting in-depth reporting on a number of different topics. I used to get up early in the morning and I'd pick them up and we'd go over to the Today Show, you know, together cause you know it was done very early [in the day].

Ae13U: Tom’s approach was the exact approach that one should take, but somehow doing TV left him a bit ostracized professionally from some of his colleagues. He was very transparent and open and honest about it, which was wonderful, but also disheartening to hear.

Larry Weiss: Yes, that was crazy.

Ae13U: I guess the Hart’s legacy is evident in how those who worked with him have been so accommodating. Dr. Cottle responded within I think twenty minutes to the email I sent him. Andy Breckman also responded just a few hours after I reached out, and they didn’t respond because of my pitch, it was because of the love and respect they continue to have for the Harts. All the Hot Hero alumni have been like that. It's a remarkable testament to the kind of people they were.

NBC Year of the Child Public Service Announcement (1979).

Mr. Breckman and the Case of the New Talent

Ae13U: Ok, let’s shift gears to Andy Breckman.

Larry Weiss: I discovered Andy Breckman.

Ae13U: Yes, Andy mentioned that. Did you just happen to walk into Folk City, where he was performing one night, or did somebody tell you to check him out?

Larry Weiss: I read a very small review of him in a weekly Variety.  It was a small little blurb and then I went to see him . . . and I introduced him to Bruce and Carol.

Andy Breckman at Folk City promo poster, circa 1979 or 1980, according to Breckman.

Ae13U: It’s a classic Hollywood story of getting discovered, and Andy acknowledges how important that moment was in his career.

Larry Weiss: He was just an amazing talent. It's a shame that he didn't pursue his live career, but he was very good.

Ae13U: In our interview, Andy diminishes his performance abilities a little bit.

Larry Weiss: I'm sure he does.
                                                                                                                              Circa 1980.
Ae13U: His performances are just so wonderful. They’re so sincere and not just only capture the energy of adolescence but the songs have layers of meaning. “Tommy Two” and “My Friend Bernie” seem at first just funny songs about a boy who builds a robot friend and the other about a game of hide and seek that never ends, but there’s really a sadder tone underneath them. They’re songs about loneliness [in the former] and how friends move apart [in the latter].

I would love to hear him write some sequels to those songs or some new stuff, but I think those days are behind him. [Note: See the above links for articles and videos for the songs.]

Larry Weiss: Yeah, I can't see him doing that.

Ae13U: It just feels like he left unfinished business in terms of not going on with his performance career.

Larry Weiss: I agree with you.

Ae13U: Well, hope springs eternal.

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 11: Andy Breckman and the Hot Hero Band performing
"Here We Come and There We Go," the last performance in the last episode of the series.

Larry Weiss: You left out one very, very important thing . . . the Puberty Fairy!

Ae13U: Oh, how could I forget! The Puberty Fairy is one of the most surreal elements of the show, and a fan-favorite of course. I don't want to get too psychological, but the Puberty Fairy is like a manifestation of a teenage Id. Sherry Coben created the character specifically for Andy, and there really is no one who could have done the character justice like he did.

Larry Weiss: How they got this hairy, bearded guy into a tutu . . .

[Note from Sherry Coben: I would never have written the character had Andy not been there to play it. No one else had all that facial hair not to mention all that body hair. And that voice. I mean, come on. He’s a natural comic force. And he never balked at all at the costume. Not once. He knew it was perfect.]

Ae13U: [laughter] Well, it was the 70s! And Andy is kind of a tall guy.

Larry Weiss: Yeah, he is.

Ae13U: You're not going to miss him in a pink tutu.

Larry Weiss: But it was just so unlikely . . .

Ae13U: Yet that is what made the character so memorable after so many years and no video releases. It underscores just how important it is to match the right person with the right part, and in this case the right pink tutu!

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 7: The Puberty Fairy Strikes!

Cancellation Insights and Rex Smith’s Bulge

Ae13U: Alright, to pick your mind a little bit. You’ve kicked around the industry for a long time. You knew the Harts, knew people on both sides of the table. In your opinion, why do you think the show didn’t get a second season? On one hand, NBC spent a lot of money on the show, which would lead one to think they wanted it to succeed.

On the other hand, however, they seemed to do what they could to kill it off. They scheduled it at 11 AM Saturday mornings, and was also broadcast at 12 Noon in some markets, when it would be pre-empted by sporting events, sold ads for children’s toys much younger than the actual demographic, no merchandising at all, and when they gave the Harts two and half minutes on air for Andy Breckman to perform at the 1979 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, they failed to even mention the name of the show. NBC seemed to have little interest in the show once it got on the air. Maybe I’m projecting a little, but what do you think are some of the factors that led to the show not getting a second season?

TV Guide post-mortem of Hot Hero Sandwich, March, 29, 1980.

Larry Weiss: Well, I think that first of all . . . look at the time slot.  I mean, it was ridiculous. What teenagers are home watching television at that time?  Maybe you don't know this, the reason that Hot Hero Sandwich existed was because NBC had made a commitment to the government that they would do a show geared towards that age group.  If I'm not mistaken, NBC went to the Harts

Ae13U: Really?

Larry Weiss: I think so. I mean, this was one hundred years ago, so who remembers? I'm pretty sure I know that was the reason — who came to who, I'm not sure. The best recollection is that they [NBC] came to the Harts, but I could be wrong.

Ae13U: If NBC was willing to spend over $1,000,000 in 1979 dollars on the show [$4,202,603.31 in 2023], it does seem that someone lit a fire under them to get the show on the air, so I can believe that.

Larry Weiss: Oh, that I'm sure of. NBC made a commitment to the government they would put on an educational show like this.

Ae13U: Despite all that, the show managed remarkable moments on television. I’m thinking of Jarett Smithwrick’s “n-word” monologue in Episode 5 [written by Richard Camp]. That must have aired about 11:30 AM on a Saturday morning. Do you recall the Harts having to fight NBC to get that on the air?

Larry Weiss: No, I honestly don't. The only thing I remember with Standards and Practices . . . was when Rex Smith was on. They made him change pants because his bulge was showing.

Ae13U: [laughter] I am definitely going to include that in the article!

Larry Weiss:  I was there . . . I saw it.

Ae13U: That is a classic Rock and Roll story!

Larry Weiss: And believe me . . . only Standards and Practices would notice anything like that because I was there with other people and no one thought anything of it. I'm not putting down Rex Smith’s “manhood,” but it wasn’t anything, you know, major. The guy put on his pants and this is what he looks like.

[Note: Sherry Coben notes the incident was a bit more obvious than Weiss reports and that she has to take full credit for getting Standards and Practices involved in that little adventure. During rehearsal, Coben was in the control room next to Jane Crowley, the show representative from Standards and Practices. Coben saw that Rex Smith’s skin-tight shiny white leggings (which he originally wore) were VERY revealing and not appropriate for a quality children’s television show. Consequently, there was no conflict with Crowley on that point when she asked for a costume change. However, Coben noted that Crowley may not have noticed it had Coben not mentioned it, however very obvious it was.]

Ae13U: Well, Rex still has his fans. I have a lot of clips from the series posted on the Hot Hero Sandwich Central YouTube channel, and all of the music performances, but once I put up both of Rex Smith’s performances they quickly shot up to the top two spots in the most frequently watched videos. Though, I have to remind myself, those teenagers are grandparents now.

Rocker Rex Smith and the Hot Hero Band performing “Tonight.”

A Word from the Weiss

Ae13U: I like to wrap up the interviews with some advice for the next generation. We’ve gotten some great advice from actors and writers, but from the perspective of a talent agent and personal manger, — and particularly those interested in that side of the industry — what advice or words of wisdom could you pass on?

Larry Weiss: Start at the bottom and work your way up. It's the best education.

Ae13U: It's interesting you say that because Louis Weiss, the chairman emeritus of the William Morris Agency who I mentioned at the beginning of our interview, as I was reading his obituary it also mentioned that very thing. He started at the bottom.

Larry Weiss: Yes, he did. I saw him a few years before he died. He was a classy gentleman agent that does not exist anymore.

Ae13U: His obituary mentioned that he started off as a $12 a week office boy and worked his way up.

Larry Weiss: So did I . . . so did almost everybody else.

Ae13U: I have to wonder, who does, or wants to do, that anymore? But it must give one the broadest exposure to the business and gives an intimate insight into how things get done behind the scenes.

Larry Weiss: The William Morris model was you start in the mail room. You delivered the mail. You do a lot of grunt work, but in doing all that you get to read memos. You get to absorb some information by doing that. That was back in the day . . . and I think there may not be mail room personnel anymore, but they start on someone’s desk. Everything was . . . I don't know how old you are, but ditto and mimeo . . .

Ae13U: Oh, I’m old enough to remember the sweet smell and warm touch of fresh mimeograph paper!

Larry Weiss: Yes . . . and ditto was the purple one . . . it printed things purple on white [Note: Mimeographs printed with black ink, dittos used purple ink] to send things out worldwide because remember, William Morris was all over the world at that time. And you got to read these memos and Telexes, and all that kind of stuff, which you know now with email, you may not have access to. It was how you learned or . . . being a messenger and going to different people’s houses.

An old friend of mine who was a very successful agent, he would pick up clothes from Joan Crawford's closet, I mean one of the few people I know that was ever in Joan Crawford's closet! [laughter]

Ae13U: [laughter] And lived to tell the tale!

Larry Weiss: So, you got a vast overview of the business. Then you went on someone’s desk [an agent a new employee would work for] and at that time there was a listening device on every telephone, so when the agent was on the phone, you could hear the conversation. It was only the hearing part. It wasn't a full telephone and so that's how you learned. Then while you're on that person's desk, you start to look at contracts. You hear them negotiate.

Ae13U: It really is a long-term apprenticeship.

Larry Weiss: It is. I always say that I got my master’s degree at William Morris — because they wouldn't hire you unless you were a college graduate.

Ae13U: And then they start you on the bottom.

Larry Weiss: And they start you on the bottom because it was a tried and true way of learning.

Ae13U: Well, that is, I think, one of the most important lessons I think we can share with the readers, so I'm really happy to hear that perspective, and I quite agree with it. Start at the bottom and you learn where all the skeletons are buried, I guess.

Larry Weiss: Well, it's not only that, but let's say you want to be in production. you ultimately want to be a producer, you start, as you know, an AP [associate producer], you learn as much as you can and then hopefully after that, you know, from being an assistant to somebody on the next project you move up the ranks and then you go from there.

Ae13U: Words for the wise indeed. Thank you for your time Larry. I think we learned a lot today and filled in more of the Hot Hero picture.

NBC President Fred Silverman in a Jan. 18, 1980, NY Times article defends NBC’s record of children’s programming against FCC criticism, even touting Hot Hero Sandwich, which would air its last episode one week later on Jan. 26, 1980. The show had already been cancelled.

Concluding Thoughts

“If you want to be star of stage and screen, look out! It’s rough and mean.”  AC/DC, “It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock and Roll.”

Larry notes how insecure actors are. Being an actor must one of the most ego-busting exercises a person can willingly put themselves through. The old saying that actors must learn to deal with rejection is no toss-away comment. It’s a fact of life and they have to go through that with every single audition and it applies to musicians and writers as well.

When actors get turned down for a roll, they are often told, “they're just not right for the part,” yet the truth can be much more personal. They’re told they're too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, not skinny enough, their voice is wrong, they have the wrong “look,” or, worse, they just don’t like your acting. Then, if you do get the part, you have to survive the critics and commentators saying pretty much the same things about you all over again. It can be soul-crushing, and into all of this enters the personal manager.

I am reminded of the 1983 film, The Dresser, with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, about a vaunted, but egotistical, British stage actor whose career and fading talents are propped up by the efforts of his long-time dresser, who effectively serves as the actor’s personal manager. Without the dresser’s efforts, the actor would not be able to give his stirring performances in King Lear. Those performances are as much the Dresser’s as they are the actor’s. It is a symbiotic relationship.

Consequently, personal managers are valuable human infrastructure in the entertainment industry. Part agent, part confidant, part psychologist, and often one of the few people the actor can trust, personal managers help the actor focus on their art by managing everything from the minutia to the massive egos. In that respect, being a personal manager is not simply a matter of business, it is also as much a creative effort as any artist.

Not a lot of people can do that, and do it well, and Larry Weiss did it for a long time. So, while you may not have heard his name before, just turn on the television, the radio, or look at the silver screen. 

He's been there all along. 

Larry Weiss (left) and Bruce Hart (right), circa early 1990s (courtesy Sherry Coben).

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  1. Great interview. What a wealth of behind the scenes insight. Loved the "concluding thoughts" piece.

  2. Like the way you use photos and other visuals to add to the interview. Makes for a better and more interesting read.

  3. You're right, a significant exchange between Bruce Hart and the suits. Great moment.