Film lobbyist Jack Valenti dies at 85posted 2007-04-27 08:42:24 by grendel
Jack Valenti was not just Hollywood's top lobbyist. He was one of its biggest stars. The 85-year-old Valenti, who died Thursday of complications from a stroke in March, led the movie industry out of the prudishness of old Hollywood and into an age of freer expression with the creation of the film rating system that has endured nearly 40 years.
The former White House aide went from politics to show business, overseeing the Motion Picture Association of America with eloquence, bullheadedness and flair.
Valenti was a passionate envoy, deflecting criticism of Hollywood with wit and humility, fostering its interests overseas and fiercely combating threats to the industry such as film piracy.
"In a very real sense, he was the ultimate leading man," said Dan Glickman, Valenti's successor as head of the MPAA.
A former aide to Lyndon Johnson who was in the motorcade the day President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Valenti went from Beltway insider to Hollywood baron when he took over the MPAA in 1966.
His impact on American culture was almost immediate. Recognizing that the industry had outgrown the morality code regulating movie content since the 1930s, Valenti replaced it with a ratings system that survives today with its G, PG, PG-13 and R designations.
Valenti's ratings system "enabled the industry to give parents the information they need to make appropriate decisions for their children while at the same time eliminating the possibility of government censorship from the content of the movies," said John Fithian, who heads the National Association of Theatre Owners.
The ratings system has its critics, but Valenti always defended it as an example of democracy in action.
Without it, films might have been subject to government censorship, so it ensured freedom of expression for moviemakers, Valenti said. And, he said, the ratings designations gave fair warning to audiences about content they might prefer to skip.
"While I believe that every director, studio has the right to make the movies they want to make, everybody else has a right not to watch it," Valenti told The Associated Press shortly before his retirement in 2004. "All we do is give advance cautionary warnings and say this is what we think is in this movie."
A short man with thick, snow-white hair and a speaking style both eloquent and homey, Valenti was a colorful fixture at the Academy Awards, major film festivals such as Cannes and other industry gatherings.
"In a sometimes unreasonable business, Jack Valenti was a giant voice of reason," Steven Spielberg said in a statement. "He was the greatest ambassador Hollywood has ever known, and I will value his wisdom and friendship for all time."
Valenti had been hospitalized at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore until this week, when his family took him home.
Kirk Douglas said Valenti, his friend for more than 45 years, visited him in New York City in March for a talk the actor gave to a Young Men's Hebrew Association group.
"He was so full of vitality. He was excited about his book that was soon to be released. Two days later, I got a call about his stroke. My wife and I flew to Johns Hopkins hospital immediately," Douglas said. "He was in a coma. I held his hand and talked to him. Maybe he heard me. My only consolation is that he did not suffer."
Valenti's Washington career was born from tragedy. As a Texas-based political consultant working for then-Vice President Johnson, Valenti was riding in the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Valenti, six cars behind the president, initially didn't know what happened.
"Without a trace of warning, the car in front of us accelerated from eight miles an hour to eighty," he wrote in his memoir, "This Time, This Place," to be published in June. "The whole spectacle turned bizarre, like an arcade game run amok, as we drove madly toward or away from some unnamed terror."
In an Associated Press interview, he said in 2003 that the assassination "is so seared in my memory I literally, sometimes at night - not often, but once or twice a year - I relive that day."
Hurried aboard Air Force One for Johnson's historic flight back to Washington, Valenti was instantly drafted as a special assistant to the new president.
His duties grew to include congressional relations, diplomacy and speech editing, and he attended Cabinet and National Security Council meetings. Valenti became known for his loyalty, likening Johnson to Lincoln for his civil rights efforts and declaring, to widespread ridicule, "I sleep each night a little better" knowing Johnson was in charge.
"There is a hole in our hearts with his passing. Jack was a giant of a man. He was our most sage counselor, eloquent spokesman, and ardent defender," said Johnson's daughter, Luci Baines Johnson. "He made each of us feel he loved us best, and oh how our family adored him."
Yet Valenti resigned in 1966, over Johnson's objections, to accept the movie post. He became one of the highest-paid and best-known trade association executives, with a salary topping $1 million and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The ratings system has met with recent disapproval from many film critics, cinema fans and moviemakers, especially directors of independent films who say the system favors big studio productions and over edgier, low-budget fare. Critics also say the system is overly prudish on sex while allowing excessive violence.
Valenti was always quick to rebut critics, saying frequent MPAA surveys found that parents with young children felt the ratings system was a helpful guide.
Born in Houston, the grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Valenti swept floors and made popcorn in a local theater as a boy. He never lost his wonder at what he called the "miraculous, unfathomable alchemy" of moviemaking.
After earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting bombing missions over Italy in World War II, he worked his way through night school at the University of Houston, then earned a master's in business administration from Harvard.
In 1952, he co-founded an advertising and political consulting agency. He was introduced to Senate Majority Leader Johnson three years later and was "mesmerized," Valenti recalled. "I felt a primal force was in my presence."
He met his future wife, Mary Margaret Wiley, through his budding friendship with the senator - she was Johnson's longtime secretary. They had three children.
Valenti wrote a handful of books, including one on Johnson, "A Very Human President," and a novel, "Protect and Defend," published in 1992 by Doubleday with the help of one of its senior editors, Jacqueline Kennedy.
By the time he retired, the movie business had been on a growth spurt for more than a decade, with admissions climbing to their highest level since the late 1950s.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world, because I spent my entire public working career in two of life's classic fascinations, politics and Hollywood," he said in 2004. "You can't beat that."
Associated Press Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report from New York.