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07.04.10

Hollywood Mourns Agent Ed Limato

Tthe legendary agent, who stood by Mel Gibson and never wore shoes at his Oscar party, died Saturday. Nicole LaPorte on why the hands-on Limato was the last of his kind.

Ed Limato, the legendary agent who stood by Mel Gibson and never wore shoes at his Oscar party, died Saturday. Nicole LaPorte on why the hands-on Limato was the last of his kind.

As the nation celebrated its independence this past weekend, Hollywood was in mourning. Ed Limato, an iconoclastic agent who spent his career representing some of the biggest names in film, passed away at the age of 73.

Limato had been sick for some time, and died on Saturday of lung disease.

“An era has passed” was the way more than one colleague of Limato’s put it, describing a colorful figure molded in the style of old Hollywood agents such as Freddie Fields and Irving “Swifty” Lazar—though Limato always said his role model was Leland Hayward, the flamboyant Broadway producer and agent to the likes of Greta Garbo, James Stewart, and Fred Astaire.

“Mel was the ultimate testimony to Ed’s dogged loyalty and how he would never give up on anybody,” Variety’s vice president and editorial director Peter Bart said.

Limato, who spent most of his career at ICM and the William Morris Agency, was an emblem of Hollywood of yore—a time when being an agent meant nurturing and sustaining a star, not a sports team or a corporation; when there was no such thing as Casual Friday (Limato detested the innovation, and never altered his daily uniform of an impeccably tailored suit, cut from an always brightly colored cloth); and when standing up for your client sometimes meant throwing a drink in the face of a pesky reporter, something Limato famously did to Page Six’s Richard Johnson at the Vanity Fair Oscar party. (The next day, Limato told The Washington Post: “I hope he enjoyed the olives!”)

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Denzel Washington and Ed Limato arrive for the premiere of "The Taking of Pelham 123" on June 4, 2009 in Los Angeles. (Todd Williamson / Getty Images)

For Limato, it was always, first and foremost, about the artist. Or, as he liked to call his clients, “my children”—a group that has included Denzel Washington, Steve Martin, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Liam Neeson, and Sharon Stone. He even carried a laminated card in his breast pocket, with the names of his clients on it. Not because he thought he might forget any of them, but if asked, he didn’t want to leave anyone out.

When an agent was recently at Limato’s grand estate in Coldwater Canyon and, noticing his tennis courts, asked if he played, Limato replied, “Oh, no, no! That’s for [director] Adrian Lyne. He plays every Monday.”

“Many agents tend to look at talent as a commodity today, to help their own career,” Limato told Variety in 2005. “I still think of talent as something to be served. If you believe in a client, you stick with them through the ups and downs. With Richard Gere, for example, we grew together. His career became my career.”

“He was a pure movie agent,” Peter Bart, the vice president and editorial director of Variety, told The Daily Beast. “My recollection of him, when I was a studio executive, was that he was the kind of agent who would fastidiously look after his clients. If there was any sort of problem, he would call and inquire about it. If the star’s Winnebago’s air-conditioning was not working, he’d be into that. He really looked after his people. Agents today are often more like corporate figures. Ed did the types of things that today a personal manager would do.”

Indeed, Limato was practically a boutique business unto himself. At ICM, where he worked for two decades, he had three assistants (known as No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3), as well as his own script reader and business affairs person to work on his clients’ deals.

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Winona Ryder arrives with her agent Ed Limato for opening night of the Broadway play "Judas Kiss", 1999. (Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

As talent agencies have merged and super-size in recent years, Limato kept his focus on a relatively small, curated roster of stars, to whom he was ferociously loyal. Never more so than with clients who, as Bart said, “were not the easiest people to be loyal to,” such as Gibson, who drew ire in 2004 over his controversial film The Passion of the Christ. Two years later, Gibson became even more of a pariah in Hollywood when he went into an anti-Semitic tirade during a drunk-driving arrest. When certain industry leaders vowed to never work with Gibson again, Bart said that Limato was “personally affronted by it. He was hurt.”

“Mel was the ultimate testimony to Ed’s dogged loyalty and how he would never give up on anybody,” Bart said.

Limato was similarly wounded when certain clients over the years, such as Nicolas Cage and Anthony Hopkins, left him. According to one source, the most painful desertion was when Michelle Pfeiffer, whom Limato signed after Grease 2, left ICM after 18 years and went to CAA. Limato kept a silver-framed photograph of the actress on his piano at home.

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Actor Steve Martin, comedian Garry Shandling and Ed Limato attend the Ambassador Hotel benefit on October 3, 2003 in Beverly Hills. (Doug Benc / Getty Images)

As much as his work, Limato was known for his annual pre-Oscar party, held at his opulent home, where the lawns go on forever and the walls are lined with Al Hirschfeld drawings of old stars. For many years, the party was the invitation of the year—one so exclusive that not even all his fellow agents at ICM or, later, William Morris, were invited to attend. Limato always greeted his guests—barefoot and regally attired—at the door and would then usher them into the kitchen, where his Italian-American mother, Angelina, was holding court. He always had his picture taken with all his guests.

But if Limato acted as if he were out of another era, it was one that was becoming unsustainable. In 2007, a year after ICM merged with Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann, which primarily specialized in television (a medium Limato had little interest in), Limato left and returned to William Morris, where he had worked from 1978 to 1986. Limato endured another merger when William Morris and the Endeavor Agency united last year.

Even Limato’s gutsy bravado and diva behavior—he was in many ways as much an artist as those he represented—harked back to a time when the entertainment industry was less buttoned-up and media-conscious. After Limato threw his drink at Johnson—in response to an item Johnson had written suggesting that people were planning on boycotting Limato’s Oscar party over quotes made in 2003 by Mel Gibson’s father in The New York Times Magazine, suggesting that the Holocaust never happened—ICM was routinely drubbed by the New York Post, a situation that greatly concerned ICM Chairman and CEO Jeff Berg and hurt morale at the agency.

With his passing, some old-fashioned flair and originality have been drained from the business, and this weekend, the entertainment industry began feeling the void. In a statement, William Morris Endeavor wrote: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague Ed Limato. His passion for the business was contagious, inspiring so many who had the privilege of knowing him. A true legend, Ed has left an indelible mark on our industry. We will miss him dearly.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.