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Jerry Weintraub inspires Royal Roads University fundraiser with showbiz wisdom

Michael Reid

After 50 years in showbiz, Jerry Weintraub hasn’t lost his Midas touch.

As he noted in his autobiography When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead, it’s because of his inability to hear the word ‘no.’

“When I hear ‘no’ I hear ‘maybe,’ and when I hear ‘maybe,’ I move it to ‘yes,’ ” Weintraub, 75, said in an interview prior to his Monday night speaking engagement at a fundraiser for Royal Roads University’s Eric C. Douglass Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Hotel Grand Pacific.

Weintraub, who began his career managing or promoting headliners such as John Denver, Joey Bishop, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and Frank Sinatra, shows no signs of slowing down.

“It’s the same thing that keeps me going,” the Brooklyn-born producer said. “I keep going with projects I believe in and have been very successful with because I put my nose to the grindstone.”

After staging Sinatra’s 1974 comeback at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Weintraub morphed into a movie producer with Robert Altman’s seminal hit Nashville, followed by a string of hits including Diner, The Karate Kid, Oh, God! and his Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.

Weintraub’s current HBO hit Behind the Candelabra exemplifies his legendary tenacity.

When the studios rejected his labour of love despite his dream team — including director Steven Soderbergh, Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, the flamboyant pianist’s lover — Weintraub took it to HBO. It earned 15 Emmy nominations.

While Soderbergh has said the studios felt the biopic was “too gay,” Weintraub says they felt it wouldn’t be profitable.

“They’re kicking themselves in the teeth now,” he said, gleefully recounting how he persuaded HBO to finance it and give him worldwide rights. “It was exactly the deal I wanted. More people watch the movie on HBO than ever would have seen it in theatres.”

While the philanthropic tycoon was also once chairman of United Artists film studio, “that’s not who I am,” he said, reiterating he’s a guy who “makes product” as a creative producer.

“I’m in real estate as well and when I build or buy something, it’s location, location, location. In my [showbiz] world, it’s content, content, content,” said Weintraub, who has also produced Broadway shows, including Starlight Express.

“Taking a blank palette and painting it with other great artists, writers, directors and stars … that’s what makes me happy.”

Weintraub has seen many changes in the movie industry since Altman sent him his script for his musical drama Nashville, about the intersecting lives of folks on Tennessee’s country and gospel music scene.

“I didn’t understand a word I was reading,” Weintraub admitted. “I said, ‘Robert, this is very nice, but I don’t get it.’ ”

Altman sold Weintraub on his unique concept over lunch, adding he needed $2 million.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll give you $2 million. Let’s do it,’ and Robert said, ‘No, you don’t do it that way. You go to a studio, tell them you’ve got Robert Altman and they give you the money,’ ” recalled Weintraub, who knew all the studio chiefs.

“They slammed the door in my face. They said, ‘We don’t want to work with Altman. He’s crazy.’ ”

Weintraub persuaded ABC to finance it by guaranteeing three small-screen runs, and secured distribution through Paramount.

Although he’s franchised movies himself, Weintraub laments that’s all studios seem interested in now.

“It’s because the numbers don’t add up for them in the normal way for the kind of movies I made for many years, like Nashville and Diner,” said Weintraub, who still has no time for critics.

An exception was friend Pauline Kael, the late New Yorker critic who championed Nashville and Diner.

“I don’t read them,” he says. “Everything today is sensationalism in the media and I stay as far away from it as I can get. I’m not interested in who’s sleeping with who and who’s doing drugs and who’s crazy.”

One of his most critically reviled films was The Avengers, Jeremiah Chechik’s 1998 adaptation of the British TV spy series with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman.

“If I had to do it over again, I’d do it differently,” Weintraub admitted. “It was my fault, nobody else’s. I should have made a bunch of changes early on and I didn’t do it. I don’t like firing people. I made money with The Avengers, by the way.”

Weintraub’s new passion project is Years of Living Dangerously, a series on climate change for Showtime he’s making with James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Damon, Don Cheadle and Alec Baldwin. It was brought to him by veteran 60 Minutes producers Joel Bach and David Gelber.

“They wanted to do something for the environment, which interests me,” he said. “I have children and grandchildren and I think we’re screwing up the world pretty good.”

Does he ever pinch himself when he stops to think of who he’s worked with?

“I don’t have time to pinch myself. I’m too busy,” laughed Weintraub, who will receive the Hollywood Legend award at the Hollywood Film Festival Oct. 21. “Now I’m going to be a legend, which means I’m very close to the grave.”

Meanwhile, he has another dream project.

“I’d like to be able to play golf better than I do,” he says. “I’m getting too old to hit the ball far.”

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