Former Hollywood executive Harris Katleman has an eclectic, five-decade track record that could only be the result of skill, moxie and luck.
He championed the Oscar-winning film adaptation of the WWII novel “From Here to Eternity,” made the impresarios behind “The Price is Right” wealthier and helped “The Simpsons” become an unlikely TV wunderkind. His platinum-level business circle included media tycoons Rupert Murdoch, Robert Iger and Kirk Kerkorian.
“I’m consistently, in my own psyche, amazed at what I accomplished,” Katleman, 90, said in an interview about his new memoir, which details his career highlights and the demanding, colorful industry he navigated. The book takes its title from an exchange with Kerkorian, who wanted him to head then-struggling MGM Television.
“I don’t know how to run a studio,” Katleman told him.
“Neither do I,” replied Kerkorian. “You can’t fall off the floor.”
Katleman made a success of his time at MGM, as he had as an industry novice under the tutelage of MCA titan Lew Wasserman; with game show producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, and as chief executive of Fox’s Twentieth Television for more than a decade. It was often a wild ride, one described concisely and unabashedly, expletives included, in “You Can’t Fall Off the Floor” (Rosetta Books, $27.99), co-authored by Katleman and his grandson, writer Nick Katleman.
Lessons learned are part of the book, and Harris Katleman believes they remain applicable today. Among them: “Business beats pleasure. … If you’re drawn to Hollywood for the perks instead of the work, you’re here for the wrong reasons.”
He skirts lightly over his personal life in favor of focusing on the big personalities he encountered, both stars and magnates, and the high-stakes transactions that drive the dream factory.
Making deals was more gratifying than wrangling stars, as Katleman’s book paints it. He recalled being assigned by MCA to ensure that the wayward Marlon Brando avoid trouble before shooting began on 1953′s “The Wild One.” Katleman and a colleague babysat the actor at his Hollywood hills house, until Brando managed a prison-style break one night with a hand-crafted rope of sheets.
His absence went undetected until Wasserman called and asked if Katleman knew where Brando was.
“Sleeping like a baby,” Katleman said, only to be contradicted by his boss: “Unless he’s got a long-lost twin, I think you’re mistaken. He just stumbled into Chasen’s.” Katleman said he was told the actor was drunk and had three women with him.
Brando had a heart of gold and good intentions, “but the man couldn’t sit alone in a room for five minutes without posing potential harm to his career,” Katleman writes.
He fared better by chance with Jackie Gleason, then among TV’s biggest stars with “The Jackie Gleason Show,” which aired on CBS in the 1950s.
The wife of CBS’ then-president overheard a rehearsal feed that included Gleason’s famously raw language, Katleman recounts, and called the studio’s control room to demand the actor-comedian knock it off.
“Krakatoa was second to Jackie’s explosion,” said Katleman, who’d been quickly dispatched to Gleason’s dressing room after he’d stormed off the set and refused to return.
Gleason told Katleman to get out, but he stood his ground and calmly introduced himself. It was the Katleman name that did the trick: Uncle Jake, who’d owned the El Rancho casino resort in Las Vegas, had forgiven Gleason’s gambling debt before he became a star. The actor returned the favor to nephew Harris and ended the crisis — after extracting a reluctant apology from the executive’s wife.
Katleman, who worked with writers, including the acclaimed Paddy Chayefsky and Clifford Odets, said he preferred them to actors because they offered substance over ego and temperament. There were run-ins with some executives, but not with one who has since fallen hard from grace: Leslie Moonves.
Moonves was a bartender and struggling actor when Katleman saw management potential in him and gave him a start at Fox. What he never witnessed or heard complaints about, Katleman said in an interview, was the sexual misconduct that led to Moonves’ firing last year as CBS Corp. chief.
Although not one for regrets, a deal that got away rankles Katleman, especially these days. A bid by him and other 20th Century Fox executives, including Alan Hirschfield and Dennis Stanfill, to take the company private fell apart. There was a dispute over whether Hirschfield or Stanfill would be CEO, Katleman said. Texas oilman Marvin Davis bought Fox, eventually selling it to Murdoch, who made it the foundation of his influential U.S. media empire.
The outcome changed history, as Katleman sees it.
“Rupert never would have owned Fox, there never would have been a Fox News and there never would have been a (President) Donald Trump,” he said.