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Grey's Day at UB

brad grey

brad grey

brad grey
  Road to Hollywood:
A Brad Grey Production

How the ’79 grad has changed the face of the entertainment industry

Story by Jim Bisco

  An animated Brad Grey engaged his capacity audience, urging them "to find their passion," at a presentation in the Center for the Arts Screening Room.

  Photos by Nancy J. Parisi

Bob Saget, when he was beginning to make a mark as a stand-up comic, excitedly called his father from a tour stop and said, "Dad, I just got a manager." His father replied, "Great, where is he? Beverly Hills?" "No," said Saget, "He’s a student in Buffalo."

Now, some 25 years later, Saget, who went on to TV stardom with the sitcom Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos, remains with the same manager who soon made it to Beverly Hills and who, in the process, became one of the most influential people in the entertainment industry.

Brad Grey heads Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, known as Hollywood’s most successful management and production company. In addition to Saget, Grey manages the careers of Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, Rudolph Giuliani, David Spade, Bob Costas, Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, Martin Short and about 200 other star clients. His production arm has been responsible for such TV successes as The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio, Just Shoot Me, Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher and his crowning achievement, The Sopranos.

It’s quite a climb to the top for the former UB student who graduated in 1979 with a B.S. degree in communication and business. But then, the entertainment industry was Brad Grey’s focus ever since he was a kid growing up north of New York City in Spring Valley, New York. He was an avid fan of television, particularly the comedy shows.

The roots of his career began when he transferred to UB after his freshman year at SUNY Brockport. "I feel very fortunate for my UB years," the 45-year-old Grey recalls during a March phone interview. "I came from a middle-class family. My folks didn’t have much money to send me to a private university. The communication major was for me the most interesting. Candidly, I was not a great student. But I attended my classes and I did the best I could. But it was not really my focus or interest. My focus and interest were trying to find my way into the entertainment business. And so that’s what I did as soon as I got there. I started working for the local concert promoter and went to classes at the same time."

The concert promotion company was Harvey and Corky Productions, Harvey being Harvey Weinstein, another UB student and now one of the most powerful motion picture producers with his Miramax company. Noting that Harvey and Corky were the most prominent local concert promoters in Buffalo at the time, Grey headed to their offices at the Century Theatre downtown.

"I asked them if I could come work for them for free. Harvey being Harvey said, ‘Well, yeah, for free you can.’ He gave me a job as a runner and that’s how I began my career. I’ve been asked over the years what I learned from Harvey. From my perspective, the greatest lesson that I learned was attention to detail and determination. Harvey taught me that there was no element of production that was too small to pay attention to, and that following through on those details was where success lies."

At Harvey and Corky Productions, Grey grew quickly from errand boy to advertising manager for the concerts, touring plays and comedy shows at venues all around Buffalo, including Stage One, a suburban club that the company owned. This was where Grey’s entry into talent management took place.

"While I was attending school, I was booking acts into that club," he recalls. "The first comedy act I booked was a tour from Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in L.A. Bob Saget was on that tour. While he was performing, Harvey and I talked about opening a representation company. I told Bob we wanted to represent him and for some ridiculous reason, he said ‘yes.’ We remain good friends—our kids have grown up together."

Meanwhile, Grey continued his studies at UB. "In terms of the quality of life, I thought it was a wonderful place to go to school," he says. "I was in a quad at Ellicott when I started. I was with some friends at Brockport and we all transferred to UB. [The Amherst campus] was new at that time. Shortly after that I moved to the Main Street [campus] area. My first house was on Merrimac [Street]. Then, I moved to Minnesota [Avenue]."

He met his future wife on campus almost immediately. "Jill was in the prelaw program. The first week I got to UB, a very old friend of mine had a birthday party for me. Jill was at the party, he introduced me to her and we’ve been together ever since."

After they both graduated in 1979, Grey continued his talent management partnership with Weinstein. He traveled the comedy club circuit along the East Coast looking for clients, signing on Garry Shandling. After a friendly parting with Weinstein in 1983, Grey set out for Los Angeles and began to build a client list that included Dennis Miller and Dana Carvey.

In 1985, he went to work for Bernie Brillstein, who had built a management firm on comics, including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner, produced films like The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, and launched TV series such as Hee Haw and The Muppet Show. It was an environment in which Grey soon began to thrive.

His understanding of talent was not lost on Brillstein. Neither was his business acumen. "He was the first guy I ever saw in this business who read the Wall Street Journal," the boisterous Brillstein said of Grey, who is 27 years his junior, in a profile of Grey that appeared in Forbes magazine last July.

In 1992, Grey became an equal partner in the firm. The A-list clientele continued to build and productions like NBC’s NewsRadio and HBO’s Larry Sanders Show flourished. Then, several years ago, Grey became sole owner of the company. And the success continues.

Although the humble, low-key Grey describes his firm as a small-time player, he is known as one of the prime movers and shakers in Hollywood. His intuitive creative sense and insightful business manner is a potent mix.

TV and film production now consume most of his attention. He observes that "although I have one of the largest management companies in our business, frankly I have people these days who are better at that than I am."

Grey’s reputation as an arbiter of taste and inventiveness is characteristic of his success. "I like to think that from time to time I do have creative influence over productions," he notes. "I think my talent, to the extent that I have any, is probably in my instincts for an idea or the people who should populate that idea, for financing or producing ideas of others that I really believe in—and then helping to guide them to our best chance of critical and commercial success."

Keeping his track record in perspective, Grey says, "Most of us who are successful in show business these days mostly fail. And every once in a while we come upon a hit and then I guess we’re called successes. But you trust your instincts and try to pursue and nurture those ideas that you believe in, that you’re passionate about and every once in a while they work out."

One such success has been The Sopranos. All of the broadcast networks rejected the series, but Grey believed in it and kept shopping it around until he finally found a home for it at HBO.

"The Sopranos has been a gift for me because of the people who I work with on it every day, from the producers to the writers to the creator David Chase, the cast and our production people," he declares. "That show has been one of the joys of my career and my life. I look forward to my discussions regarding The Sopranos on a daily basis. It’s certainly one of the most rewarding and wonderful projects I’ve ever been involved with."

The show won Grey, as executive producer, the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award, his fourth in a career that has also seen him win 17 Emmy nominations and an Academy Award nomination for the documentary The Celluloid Closet. His determination also brought another stalled project to fruition. "I bought the rights to My Big Fat Greek Wedding a couple of years ago. We were on the road to developing a television series. When the film couldn’t find a distributor, the producers thought it would just end up sitting on the shelf. And then my friends at HBO ended up financing that picture and we all know what happened. It’s now created quite a bright light on the series."

The February launch of My Big Fat Greek Life resulted in CBS’s biggest ratings that it has had on Monday (the series’ special debut night) and Sunday in nearly 10 years.

Grey is currently busy with that breakout sitcom and the new HBO series, Real Time With Bill Maher. The Sopranos started production on what will supposedly be its fifth and final season when it airs in the fall. ("We’re talking about that," offers Grey. "We’ll see, we’ll see.")

Then, through his new association with Warner Brothers and partner Brad Pitt, there are the motion picture projects that are consuming much of his efforts. "I have made movies in the past—we produced Scary Movie, which is the highest grossing movie in the history of Harvey’s company. But now we’re on to this new enterprise to which we’re giving a lot of focus. The first picture that we’re doing is Troy with Wolfgang Petersen directing. It’s a big, epic motion picture with Brad Pitt. We’ve also bought the rights to Pat Conroy’s book, My Losing Season, which we’re putting together. We have eight to 10 projects that we’re pursuing very aggressively. We’re trying to build these the same way we’ve built our management company and our television production—by pursuing and producing those ideas that we’re passionate about."

Amidst all this activity, Grey returned to the place where his career began. On March 27, he came to the university to accept an honorary SUNY doctorate of humane letters (see accompanying story) in recognition of his contributions to the UB community and to the field of media arts, his integrity, his entrepreneurial spirit and his leadership in a competitive industry.

"Although I’ve won many awards, I was really touched with this—it means a lot to me," he says. "I enjoyed being at the university and made lifelong friends who I regularly keep in touch with today. I met my wife there. I began my career there. My time in Buffalo was meaningful to me and continues to be meaningful to me."

His wife Jill and their children—Sam, 15; Max, 13 and Emily, 7—accompanied him on his visit. They toured the places where the Brad Grey success story was nurtured. It was a homecoming for a career that could have hardly been scripted any better.

Jim Bisco is a Buffalo-area writer who has written many profiles for UB Today.

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