Sixty-year-old talent-maven Billy Sammeth managed both Joan Rivers and Cher for more than 20 years. He also has managed Olivia Newton-John and, during the early part of his career was the PR guy for the Osmonds. He still manages K.C. and the Sunshine Band. But Cher and Joan were his first-class Hollywood tickets, and when they each fired him—Cher in 1999 right before she went out to sing The Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, and Joan a few days after she won The Celebrity Apprentice—he turned around and sued each of them for the commissions he said they still owed him. He felt more than wronged by their firing. He felt shunned. He wasn’t just humbled. He was heartbroken.
He sued Cher for 15 percent of the profits of her Believe album. But in Joan’s case he went one step further. Not only did he demand $179,000 in commissions that he said she still owed him, including 10 percent of the $200,000 she won on The Celebrity Apprentice, but also sued her for $2 million, claiming that his character was defamed by the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, in which, he said, she and the filmmakers led the audience to believe that he just might be a drug addict because of his repeated disappearances for days at a time, which he insisted damaged his personal and professional reputations.
He settled each case before they reached the courts.
Sammeth is a throwback to an earlier, less-corporate era in Hollywood, when personal managers were larger-than-life—just like the few stars they chose to handle instead of the hordes that can often make up a management company’s client list today. It was, indeed, a more personal way of doing business. “Passion for talent has been overridden today by greed,” he claimed when we had two days of conversations over Skype. “You’re a lightweight now if you only have one or two clients. If you’re a manager these days you’ve got to be Octomom,” he says. But the mistake Sammeth made was, to expand upon his own analogy, a familial one. He felt as if he were an adopted member of a family instead of in the employ of a client. The even bigger mistake both Joan Rivers and Cher are finally about to realize they have made is that you don’t throw back a throwback.
Sammeth now lives in Miami, a place, Lenny Bruce once said, where neon—unlike Sammeth—went to die. Many in Hollywood have often wondered if Sammeth will ever write a book about his exploits with Joan Rivers and Cher and open the carefully controlled crypt where their secrets are kept. Deciding to charge up his computer along with his memory bank, he sent me an email out of the blue the other day to see if I’d like to talk to him about just such a book. I declined the ghostwriting job but told him that we should do an interview and, in that way, he could serve as his own warmup act. He agreed.
So what was it like to manage two such diverse divas at the same time during the heyday of their careers that he had so much to do with shaping? “You know when you're 4 or 5 years old and you’re holding the leash of a German Shepherd and the dog is dragging you down the street but you think that you're in control because you’re holding the leash?” he asked, now able to laugh about it all. “That's what managing Cher was like.” Any canine comparisons he’d care to make to Joan Rivers? “I hate to besmirch the reputation of an innocent dog, but a lot of time her personality is like a rabid pit bull.”
As those statements attest, Billy Sammeth is ready to be free of his past by putting it truly all behind him. He is himself unleashed. Let’s begin.
KEVIN SESSUMS: Not to go from the ridiculous to the sublime, but when you told me you were thinking of writing a book about your time as a manager in Hollywood and particularly about all your years with Cher and Joan Rivers I thought of two quotes from the great 17th-century French tragedian, playwright Pierre Corneille. In one he stated, “One always reads one should forgive one’s enemies but one never reads that one must forgive one’s friends.” The other goes, “To court revenge half-heartedly is to court disaster—either condemn or crown your hatred.” Which quote better describes your attitude as you set out to write this book of yours?
BILLY SAMMETH: I don’t think it’s revenge, because some of the memories I have with Cher and Joan are fucking hysterical. Let’s face it, celebrities are all nuts and since they all have such … what’s the term I’m looking for?—“mind lapses,” let’s say, they can’t say that none of this ever happened. But Joan and the documentary and how I was treated in it ignited this need in me to write a book and set the record straight. Plus I want to write a book from my point of view of being the last of a dying breed of Hollywood managers.
You don’t have any kind of gag order on you since you settled with Joan before the case went to trial? To quote Miss Rivers herself, “Can we talk?” Is this conversation even legal?
Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes! That was part of the deal we struck that made her attorneys crazy—that I want to write a book. I told them, “Hello! I’m entitled to my own life.” She won’t like it. But here I am.
Isn’t a big part of being a talent manager about not being entitled to your own life but living life through your clients? It’s quite a codependent existence—being at the whim of such famous creatures while at the same time trying to convince them to do what you want them to do. It’s quite a balancing act in a business filled with all kinds of imbalance.
I couldn’t believe when Cher fired me and didn’t want to pay me what she owed me that she was the same person who wanted “Bumper” to come live with her during all those times she was having one of her lows in life. “Bumper” was her nickname for me because she thought my love handles made me look like a bumper car. Even when she’d disappear and nobody knew where to find her, I’d be the only one who could figure out where she could be.
I was there for her through thick and thin. I put my quarters in that slot machine for over 20 years and then when there was ready to be a jackpot, she fired me and didn’t even speak to me. I’m the villain because I sued her. How terrible for you to stick up for your rights when someone owes you money and refuses to pay you. Joan was the same fucking way. But look at Cher’s career now. She has whored herself to a city that she despises—Las Vegas. Cher even had a big falling-out with Steve Wynn when the entertainment reporter Jeanne Wolf was with him and they came up to say hello to Cher and Cher asked Jeanne in front of Steve, “What are you doing in pig city?” That infuriated Steve because he considers Las Vegas the center of the world. So for Cher to go back to pig city now to make her millions of dollars a year ... well, don’t tell me how ethically moral you are since you decided to take the money. You chose to go through the money door. That’s it. Are you happy now? I don’t think so. Nobody’s putting you in movies anymore.
At its height, your own management career had the bipolarity of Cher on one side and Joan Rivers on the other. I have to admit when I watched the documentary on Joan that I thought you were a bit manic yourself or even a drug addict. That’s the way you were portrayed. Are you a drug addict?
I so don’t do drugs. I have smoked marijuana sporadically in my life.
Did you see the episode of Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?—the reality show on the WE network—of Joan smoking pot and getting high? Melissa had to go “rescue” her and drive her home and stop for cheeseburgers because Joan had the munchies so bad.
I read an article the other day about how low was she willing to lower herself now to get ratings. That’s just another example of it. In my mind, Edgar [Rosenberg, Joan’s late husband] killed himself 20 years too early. It would have been a great reality show they all could have starred in. He could kill himself. Then Joan could go to his funeral. She could then mourn on camera. You want to talk about ratings. I tell you, the world has gone off its rocker on what is right and wrong.
Melissa is now dating porn king Steve Hirsh, who made his fortune by selling celebrity sex tapes.
Well, she’s not my favorite girl for a lot of reasons. Mainly because I respect people with talent. I’m not so sure if you’re talented yourself you take on your mother’s stage name. It’s not Liza Garland, for God’s sake. But Joan has gotten away during this phase of her career with bringing Melissa along with her. “It’s you and me, kid,” she seems to be saying.
I once took Joan and Melissa to the Palm Court at the Plaza when Melissa was around 7 or 8 years old. Going to the Palm Court became like a ritual to Joan back then. Two old Jews came up to Joan that day when Melissa tagged along with us to the Palm Court. They said something to Joan in Yiddish. Melissa was roaming around the room like a little Jewish Eloise and Joan calls her over. Melissa traipses over and Joan told the old Jew to repeat what he had just said in Yiddish and Joan and Melissa fell all over each other hysterically laughing. My eyes were falling out of my head thinking how smart this little girl is to already know Yiddish. So after the old Jews walked away and Melissa goes off to pretend she’s Eloise, I turn to Joan and say, “My word, Joan. I’m so impressed. Melissa knows Yiddish?” Joan goes, “No. She doesn’t know Yiddish and I don’t know Yiddish. But anybody who’s speaking to you in Yiddish is telling you a joke so you laugh at the end of it. I’ve taught her that much so nobody will think she’s stupid.” That was Joan in her 50s. She’s almost 80 now and she still treats her daughter the same way.
What do I really think about Melissa finally? I think when she no longer has Joan, it will be a very interesting Melissa. But with her final breath, Joan will be trying to lock Melissa into some job or other. As much as I wish Melissa had more talent, it ain’t easy being Joan’s daughter. She tried to segue Melissa into the jewelry collection, but Melissa just wasn’t very good at it. But the way Joan’s going, she could last till the age of 212.
And on her one-hundredth facelift. What is your take on Chaz, Cher’s son? I think he’s a brave man.
BS: Oh, I’m gonna get in such trouble for this. Are you ready? I’m sure Cher is more upset that Chaz is fat. Knowing Cher and how she feels about thin people and fat people, I can tell you this: she has no time for fat people. None. So Chaz—whether when he was a lesbian as Chastity or a man as Chaz—is fat. That probably bothers her a lot more. Oh, doll face, this book is going to be sort of scary to write. But let me keep going. I’m all in now. You know how you can tell Cher is a great fucking actress and deserved the Academy Award? Because of her eulogy at Sonny’s funeral. This was someone she hated. Cher gave a brilliant performance when she delivered that eulogy because I knew how she really felt. I can tell you what I do think she cried so about. She cried that she never settled her differences with him, that they never had that resolution. That would be upsetting to her. But that he died? Please. She thought he was nothing but a used-car salesman.
Wasn’t booking Joan on The Celebrity Apprentice the last thing you did for her as a manager? I find that show so vulgar I might have considered that a firing offense myself. Donald Trump has Sonny Bono beat as a kind of used-car salesman.
Here’s how all that went down. She had been offered The Celebrity Apprentice the year before and she had turned it down. I’ll give Joan this—she does still have class somewhere in there. You have to have the skill of a surgeon to go in there and find it at this point, but it’s still there. Deep down somewhere is that little Jewish girl from Larchmont whose voice goes, “No, this isn’t right.” She told me, “I’d rather kill myself than be on Celebrity Apprentice.” But just like there’s that little girl from Larchmont in Joan, there is another bigger part of her now that is like Mama Rose in Gypsy when it comes to Melissa. So she tells me that she will do the show only if they’ll put Melissa on it as well. At first they didn’t want Melissa, not at all, and it became a pissing match to get her on with her mother. It got from the point of they were dead set against having Melissa on the show to what a great idea to have both Joan and Melissa on the show. I just thought, who all must have turned down this show for them to finally think it was a great idea to hire Melissa Rivers.
So suddenly now Joan had to do the show. She said, “I’m so embarrassed I am actually going to be on this. What am I going to tell people?” It was the week that Paul Newman had died, so I told her just to tell people she was a last-minute replacement for Paul Newman. Of course, by the end of the show they have all gone from being “celebrity apprentices” to sleep-deprived killers, which is exactly what Trump wants. Trump is really the scum of the scum of the scum.
What did Joan finally think of Donald Trump?
Doll face, she’s in awe of him because he has money. Power to her is money. But I’ll tell you when Donald Trump showed his true colors to me. Joan took me to the Howard Stern wedding. We’re at the table with Trump. He goes “Joan ...” He’s always so serious and humorless. “Joan, you know who would have been a great booking for Celebrity Apprentice and the network wouldn’t allow it? O.J. Simpson.” I thought to myself, you are now finished in my book. You have just shown who and what you are. I thought—this was when Osama bin Laden was still alive—Trump could also cast him on the show with a bunch of other shits and let them all kill each other. I bet Mark Burnett would have been thrilled to produce that as well. He’s another fucking scumbag.
Why such a low opinion of him as well?
Okay, here’s the low down, doll face, on Celebrity Apprentice. Joan calls me when she’s taping the show to tell me that she needs people to pledge money or she’s going to get voted off and for me as her manager to start making some calls. So I said, “Who do you want me to call? Sandy Gallin? David Geffen?” “No!” she screams. “Not people like that!” So I rounded up some pledges from the kinds of people who wanted to be friends with her.
I basically ended up whoring myself for her. I was able to scrounge up $9,000 and then put in $9,000 of my own, so I was in for $18,000. I didn’t want my Joan—God forbid!—to be voted off Celebrity Apprentice. What happens to one’s celebrity if one is voted off something called Celebrity Apprentice? The devil must come up and swallow you or something. So I schlep to New York to the Fashion Institute of Technology where the show is camped out and I ask where Joan Rivers is because I’m her manager. I’m told she’s in the "war room.” Excuse me? There’s a war room at FIT? Talk about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But the producers are all so serious, throwing around terms like the "war room.” They’re all fucking nuts on that show. So I go into Joan’s “war room” and she’s sitting in there with Clint Black and that golfer bimbo. “Hi, sweety puss,” she says. “How much money did you get me?” So I tell her 18 grand. She then pulls me aside and whispers to me, “Give it to Melissa.” Excuse me? I’ve already told you how I feel about Melissa. “I don’t want Melissa to be voted off,” she whispered.
So I’m still the good little soldier at that point and go back outside in the hallway and ask where Melissa is. The series producers tell me she’s in her “war room.” I go, “You know, guys, just cut the shit and tell me where the fuck she is.” So I find Melissa in some other hallway at FIT and she’s hanging out with that most personable of guys, Jesse James, because he was on that Celebrity Apprentice, too. In other words, he was probably fucking people in New York while Sandra Bullock was off somewhere making a movie. Even before I can offer Melissa the money—I had decided she wasn’t getting any of my money, so the sum had gone back down to $9,000 on my walk over to her—she goes, “Hi, Billy, how much money did you get me?” Which means she and Joan were in cahoots the whole time. Even though they were on opposite teams, Mama Rose was still going full force.
So to make this very long story a bit shorter, I also agree to be one of three plants at the staged charity auction of Ivanka Trump jewelry in order to bid the lots up and make it all look legit. That’s a laugh. Trump makes his humorless entrance that night like he’s a U2 boat commander. But by the end of the night—I had already spent $8,000 of the $9,000 I had been pledged by those impending friends of Joan—this plant got played himself since no other plant bid against me when I was told by some production assistant to bid $10,000 for a pair of earrings in the last lot, thinking I was just starting off the bidding for a grand finale. Suddenly I hear “Sold!” I was no longer a plant but just some Jewish schmuck in the front row with a new pair of Ivanka Fucking Trump earrings. So at the end of that night I was fit to be tied. I didn’t want to see Joan. And I didn’t want to see her c---- little daughter who doesn’t appreciate anything—especially what Joan does for her. Joan has made her what she is, whatever that is. Joan Rivers’s daughter, I guess is all finally. And Melissa is almost angry that she is Joan Rivers’s daughter. Her attitude is, Joan is the embarrassment—she is the talent.
So, finally, to cut to the chase. I get a phone call from my accountant who wants to know why I am spending $18,000 on my credit card, which is going to someplace called Reilly Worldwide. Are you ready, doll face? Reilly Worldwide, I come to find out, is owned by Mark Burnett and my American Express statement clearly shows that the money that was "pledged" for charitable reasons to help my client not “get fired” on The Celebrity Apprentice was charged on my statement as Reilly Worldwide … not to a charity. I told my accountant that I don't consider Mark Burnett and/or Donald Trump a charity and they have enough fucking money to donate their own money to a charity, but that they sure as hell weren’t going to get away with donating my money under their name to a charity. No! No! No! So I disputed it. That was my undoing. That was what got me fired. Apparently one of the executive producers of Celebrity Apprentice went to Joan and said that your manager is disputing the charge. Why go to my client and not to me? Not only was it not the truth (I was disputing that the charge was not a charity) but it also let to my eventually getting fired (just like Celebrity Apprentice!). American Express resolved the issue when Reilly Worldwide agreed to have the charity send me a charitable deduction receipt directly, but if I had not disputed the charge, it seems that would never have happened.
But Joan worships Donald Trump—and everyone with money and power—and said she’d give me the money to pay it off, because she wanted to win Celebrity Apprentice and actually thought disputing the charge on my credit card would make her lose Celebrity Apprentice and that Trump would be mad at her ... and that this could destroy her career. And then her business manager called to say that she said she would advance me the money but not give it to me. I told him it was not about advancing me the money or not, but the principle of the thing to me. I wasn’t going to let everyone get away with this. Joan waited until she won The Celebrity Apprentice and then fired me. All during the filming of the documentary, she was loving and civil to me. Five days after she won, I got an email from her business manager telling me I was fired and that she was moving in a new direction. It was as if she were telling me, this is your punishment for embarrassing me to the holy and high one, Donald Trump, the scumbag who had the moral judgment to want O.J. Simpson on The Celebrity Apprentice.
Maybe Mitt Romney should be asked about that, since he was so grateful for the man’s judgment in endorsing him for president last week.
But don’t you see? This is why managers are finally beheaded—for doing something ethical that is not always in the interest of a client. Finally one has to have ethics.
So you’re saying that Joan was fine as long as you two were a kind of Lucy-and-Ethel act but the minute it became Lucy and Ethical she had to move on.
Exactly. I’m no saint. I’ve lied for clients to get them over a hurdle from time to time. But there are limits. Let’s just say that Joan does not wear power well.
To end this interview, let’s go from two quotes by Pierre Corneille to one by Rex Reed. That’s even more of a journey than you’ve been on. Rex once said that in Hollywood if you don’t have happiness you can send out for it. Is a manager’s job finally to be a delivery boy for a star’s happiness hoping they give you a big tip?
I once innocently thought that if you did the right thing by them, then the money comes. But it was never about the money for me. It was about loving talent and loving my clients.
Do you still talk to Cher and Joan?
No. No. And it hurts me that I’ve been left on the tracks. And after all I’ve said in this interview, I’ll probably be killed. I’m sure some people would suggest I name this book I’m planning to write Kill Bill.