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12.12.10

The Man Behind Piers Morgan

A year ago, agent John Ferriter was almost dead (his heart stopped for three minutes) and figuratively dead (he was fired). Getting Morgan into King's seat was Ferriter's road back.

This January, Piers Morgan will take over from Larry King as CNN’s prime time interviewer with his new program, Piers Morgan Tonight. It is a remarkable coronation for Morgan, a talent show judge and former tabloid newspaper editor, whose old boss Rupert Murdoch once said of him, “His balls are bigger than his brains.”

It may be an even sweeter victory for John Ferriter, Morgan’s manager and the man responsible for the CNN deal. Only last year, Ferriter was technically dead for three minutes when his heart stopped beating during a hospital stay. “I got a blood clot in my upper thigh and developed a staph infection,” he explains, pulling up a chair in his office at Octagon Entertainment in West Hollywood. “I can’t even pronounce what it was.”

A year ago, Ferriter was also figuratively dead (the more serious condition by Hollywood standards) when he was fired as a talent agent from the William Morris Agency after 19 years.

“I was constructively terminated,” he says. “An announcement was made saying I had resigned. That is not true. I never would have left the agency on my accord. I bled William Morris blue.”

Ferriter, whose clients included Ryan Seacrest and Jimmy Kimmel, acknowledges the venerable agency had managerial concerns—and he was the only member of the William Morris board to vote against the proposed merger with Endeavor.

“It was the last official thing I did before I went into the hospital. If I had to equate it to anything, it would be the courtroom finale with Al Pacino in …And Justice for All."

When Morgan learned of his agent's dismissal via a gossip site online, he immediately called to pledge his allegiance. "If this is your Jerry Maguire moment," Morgan declared with typical understatement, "then I am your Rod Tidwell." (Morgan’s legendary self-regard is on a par with that of his mentor Simon Cowell. He also says his new show will "interview the most important people in the world" and insists he looks like Richard Gere.)

The unlikely duo first met in England in spring 2007 at a dinner and bonded over a shared irreverence for show business idiocy. Ferriter calls hot male TV stars “Dalmatians” because they’re “beautiful to look at, but stupid enough to eat their own shit.” Morgan wrote in his Daily Mail column: “[My agent] is resigned to the fact that most of his clients are less intelligent than him.”

Ferriter said the first step in realizing the potential of Brand Morgan was to raise his profile in the U.S. “You need to get America to embrace you,” he told the 45-year-old Brit, urging him to appear on Donald Trump’s show Celebrity Apprentice. "Piers sent me this long email ... The pros, the cons. I sent him one back saying: 'Do it.' I knew he would read Trump’s books and would play it as if he worked for Donald Trump. He’s not shy about picking up the phone and using his contacts.” Morgan won the contest, raising $754,000 for charity while conducting a noisy feud with fellow contestant Omarosa.

“When people started coming up to Piers on the street, that’s when I knew he would work on American prime time,” says Ferriter, who regards shows like America’s Got Talent and The Apprentice as “a vehicle for getting a story out.”

“It was fun, like a caper,” says Morgan. “John kept saying, ‘This will get done.’ He didn’t have a moment’s doubt.”

The clinching moment was his visit to London in January when he watched Morgan record a TV interview with opera starlet Katherine Jenkins for Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. The interview made headlines after Jenkins tearfully spoke about how she was almost raped when she was a student. “He has this knack for getting people to open up,” Ferriter says. “It was genuinely affecting. We got together afterwards and he said, ‘What did you think?‘ I said, ‘This is your future. For the first time, I realize you can be equally comfortable interviewing the president of France in Paris or Paris Hilton. And that’s the person who’s going to replace Larry King.’”

Talks began with CNN in April before it was clear that King was looking to wind down after 25 years with the network. “Looked at in the grand scheme of things,” says Ferriter, “it was totally impossible and should never have been attempted. There were a million obstacles, but we kept figuring it out.” In the end, it took six months before lawyers could negotiate the final terms.

He and Morgan celebrated with a bottle of Chateau Latour ’61 at Cut restaurant in Los Angeles. “We looked at each other and burst out laughing,” recalls Morgan, speaking on the phone from New York, where he will be hosting his show. “It was fun, like a caper. John kept saying, ‘This will get done.’ He didn’t have a moment’s doubt.” There is a long pause on the line. “I did. But he didn’t.”

Ferriter wasn’t always the Zen dealmaker. Raised in Santa Barbara, he spent his 20s playing guitar for The Stingrays, before winding up at age 31 doing temp work for William Morris agent Dick Howard. “After the first day, Howard revealed he had bad kidneys and was starting self-dialysis. He said, ‘I need you to make people think I’m still here,’” recalls Ferriter. “Assistants talk about the rough things you have to do on the way up–fetching coffee, getting laundry. I was smuggling out three bags of urine a week.”

Howard, says Ferriter, was a gentleman of the old school. “He taught me loyalty. I learned you have to support your colleagues at all times.”

Ferriter went on to become the agency’s head of reality television and found a niche shepherding radio performers like Carson Daly and Adam Carolla onto television (“TV is like cocaine to a radio personality,” he says.) His biggest coup was getting Ryan Seacrest onto American Idol. “I virtually willed it to happen. I may not be the smartest or have the best connections but I outwork them.” (So much for loyalty. Seacrest later left Ferriter and the agency for CAA.)

Octagon is primarily known for its sports clients like Michael Phelps and Justin Tuck. But the Morgan announcement, he says, has already helped to change that. Ferriter facilitated Nancy O’Dell’s move to Entertainment Tonight and Dr. Drew Pinsky’s new show on HLN. He also helped pull together a book deal for Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell. “I got an email from a high-ranking TV exec. It said, ‘I’d like to say welcome back, but I know you never really left.’”

Ferriter admits the CNN deal has been bittersweet because he’s known Larry King and his wife for many years. “It’s like watching your favorite player in his last season.” But he insists the handover has been nothing but cordial. (King’s final broadcast is Thursday.)

Morgan met King for the first time at the official CNN photo call in September. “Larry took me aside for a coffee and couldn’t have been nicer,” says Morgan. “We sat in the corner talking about politics and the war, various topics. Turns out, we’re kindred spirits.”

Ferriter has a framed thank-you note on a stand from Morgan that reads, “You promised. You delivered.” “Normally those letters say the reverse,” says Ferriter. Just behind the frame, on the windowsill, is a brass logo for the now defunct William Morris Agency. “It’s the logo off the side of the building. I literally found it in the trash can outside the office.”

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Sean Macaulay is a screenwriter, humorist and journalist, specializing in symptoms of the post-macho midlife crisis. He was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007, and has written for The Daily Telegraph, Radio Times, Punch, and British GQ. He was most recently creative consultant on Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which was voted Best Documentary at the Independent Sprit Awards. You can follow him on Twitter here.