Buddy Morra: Former Talent Manager for Billy Crystal, David Letterman, Robin Williams, etc.

Buddy Morra is a retired talent manager who worked for the prestigious management firm Rollins & Joffe.  Through the years he represented great talent like comedians David Letterman, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli.  Needless to say, he’s got a lot of stories to tell.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure we welcome our special guest, Buddy Morra. Thank you so much for joining us.

It’s a pleasure to be here, Paul. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, but I’m here (laughs).

I think most stories are best from the beginning. What was life like growing up?

Growing up? It  was kind of nice. It was like a lower-middle or middle class family. We lived in the Bronx. My father had some fruit and vegetable stores. He also had a pushcart for a while. He had a truck for a while. And we always managed to eat and we always managed to have food so we were OK. It was kind of a nice, sweet growing up. I’m glad I grew up that way, actually.

Can you remember early on what you wanted to do as an occupation?

Yes. I wanted to be a singer.

And did you ever pursue it?

Yes I did. It wasn’t terribly good (laughs) and at some point I realized, after a couple of years of having a good time running around and sleeping late that, you know, I had nothing special to offer. And my oldest friend at the time was a comedian, asked me if I’d be interested in working for the guy that represented him. He said he had a, he was doing okay, he could afford not very much money but I had the job if I wanted it. So I went to work for this guy for thirty bucks a week – cash.

The all-important cash!

(Laughs) Very important!

What city was this in?

In New York City. In 1957. I had been on my own until then, yeah. I had my own office for a while after I decided to give up singing and was just scraping by, at best. And then this offer came along and I took it. So I went from thirty bucks a week to forty bucks a week. Then I went to fifty bucks a week and then he put me on a percentage. But he was much smarter than I was because the percentage turned out to be the same fifty bucks a week (laughs).

Early on, the business side of the entertainment business – was it something you enjoyed?

Oh, I always loved it, yeah. I always loved it. Even as a young man I would just – I would read all the gossip columns. In those days we had, like, I think five or six newspapers in New York. I used to read all those columns about what was going on in Hollywood, what was going on on Broadway. I was very interested in that, so yes.

Tell us about how you started to specialize in comedians.

Well, I had my own office, oh, for four years or so, something like that, and then I had the opportunity to join Rollins and Joffe. They offered me a job, which was, at that time, the most prestigious management company in the industry. They handled Woody Allen, Dick Cavett – lots of really interesting people. It was an incredible organization and I went to work for them, and that changed my whole life. They managed a lot of people but mostly comedians. They were very successful with that. So I just kind of fell into that.

What are your memories of them, personally? Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe?

Jack Rollins, who I recently saw about a month or two back – I was in New York visiting my grandkids and I went to see him at the hospital. He had not been well. He had been in the hospital for a while and we talked for a while. He was kind of semi-awake, in and out, and I said ‘Jack, I just want you to know that you changed my life.’ and he said to me (laughs) ‘A lot of people have told me that.’ And he did! And he did change my life. I went from the bottom rung of show business – wherever that was, it’s way the hell down – to the top rung in one leap, and learned an awful lot from them.

You said that they were at the top. What was it about Charles Joffe and Jack Rollins the made that management company what it was?

Without question, it was the most prestigious management company in the industry. Everybody wanted to be with that company. We never had a contract with anybody, which is unusual, then and even now. It was just a handshake and we went to work. That was it.

Why do you think they were so successful? Why do you think they were so prestigious?

(Sighs) They were smart. They were intelligent – Jack Rollins was a very smart man. An intellectual, if you will. Read a lot. Could read a Woody Allen script and just be so precise about what was wrong and what was right about it that the first time, or any time that Woody Allen wrote a script the first person that would read it would be Jack Rollins. It was also that, and the manner that they worked in – no contracts with anybody. It was a very loose relationship with the clients and a very good one – and very honest, by the way. The company policy was – there was a little embroidery that was made by somebody that was hanging in the office that said ‘Don’t embarrass the office!’

(Laughs) That’s pretty good advice.

I had one made when I was living in LA and I misspelled it deliberately, thinking it would be funny but nobody ever caught on to it (laughs).

Did you have any personal involvement with Woody Allen during those years?

No. Outside of just knowing him, not terribly well but knowing him.  I found him to be a very, very nice man. My son, who was then a kid at the time, I don’t know, ten – nine, ten or whatever – was diving into magic and, uh, Woody had – and Woody was a very good slight of hand magician, by the way – and my son would come to the office every once in a while. And Woody would take him into the little conference room and he’d sit on the floor and do magic tricks for him. But no, I did not have any relationship with him in terms of business.

What about your move out to California– when did that happen?

About 36 years ago, 37 years ago.

Was the business in California different than New York?

I never found it to be different. I mean, people used to say that. I don’t know if they meant it as a joke – ‘Oh, it’s California …’ it’s not different. I’m dealing with the same people out here that I used to deal with in New York. Now I was much more face-to-face with them than I was on the phone, like I was in New York. But I found the business to be the exactly same. But probably a little less honest, maybe, out here than in New York, but the same, essentially.

What about working with Billy Crystal?

That was a joy. That was a joy. Yeah, I got a call one day from this guy – gosh, I wish I could remember his name – who was the manager of Sha Na Na. He called me from Buddah records and we had met a few times before. We didn’t really know each other terribly well and he said ‘Listen, there’s this very funny group, three guys, here that are just hysterically funny. You should come down and see them. They’re at the Buddah, the offices. So I went down – it was about three of four blocks from my office – I went down and I saw them. And I saw the group. I started to work with the group and, oh I don’t know, maybe for or five months later, I broke up the group and just started to work with Billy, who we thought had the most to offer at that point. My wife said to me ‘Why are you working with him? You should work with the others guys. They’re funnier.’ (Laughs) It’s the last time – thank goodness, I didn’t listen to her. I haven’t listened to her since (laughs).

What is Billy Crystal like to work with?

I found Billy to be a terrific guy. He’s one of my favorite people, one of my favorite clients. He’s a very smart young man, by the way. He knows a lot of things. I found him to be very pleasant, no problems. Did we ever have an argument? – we may have had one argument in 30 years or whatever, when we disagreed. But that was very rare.

What happens when a manager disagrees with a client?

The client usually wins. Well, unfortunately, what happens is – see, with our company, which was interesting, is that we never took a client except when they were just first starting out, they were brand new. We never took established clients. Not that it wasn’t possible to take one – we didn’t turn down established clients – but we liked working with someone who was brand new. Why? It was much more interesting. It was much more adventurous for us if we could, if we had a plan for them and that plan came to fruition after whatever – six months or a year later, you know, which is what the plan was, so they could essentially call their own shots at a certain point. And so when that happens, the relationship kind of changes, by the way. In the beginning, the client who is brand new relies on you totally. You are their god for a moment and, hopefully, you make the right decisions. Most of the time we did. Sometimes we didn’t, but most of the time we did. And once they get to a position of importance and becoming a much more important client and personality, the relationship kind of changes a little bit where you can’t just respond or act with them the way you did when they were first starting out. They won’t accept it, it’s not right, and you have to change with the times which took a little while to do, but we did.

When you think of all the clients that you had through the years, is it possible to pick a favorite?

Yeah. I would say probably John Pizzarelli.

What made him your favorite?

He seemed to have no ego. Now, we all have egos – some of them, the egos don’t come out. He was just a very easy guy to be with. He listened. You could say things, he listened. Sometimes he went along with what you said, sometimes he didn’t, but he listened. And it was just a joy to be with him. And he appreciated – he greatly appreciated what we tried to do for him and I think that made a big difference. And I still to this day, although I’ve been retired 14 years, I talk to John probably once a week, once every ten days.

What about the very first time you heard a young David Letterman performing?

Well, the first time I saw David Letterman was at the Comedy Store in Westwood, which doesn’t exist any longer. I was with one of my partners and one or two other people, and had never seen or heard of David Letterman but I knew when he came out and he started to talk – because he was never a very good stand-up comedian, but there was something special about him. I even said to my partner ‘This is the next Johnny Carson.’ And I went back to talk to him, but the guy who was running the back, the manager said ‘You know he has a manager.’ And I said ‘Oh, then I’m not going to go back.’ and I didn’t talk to him. But then a few months later, I was at NBC for some reason and he was doing a, hosting a game show – a pilot for a game show – in the next studio so I went over and spoke with him.

Letterman is very much a legend. When you think about him in those days and you see him now, is it hard to believe?

Not really. I always thought that he could do what he’s doing. I always thought so. And we got started with him and things just moved really quickly. I think one of the leading factors was that as we started to make a little noise out here, The Tonight Show called. And The Tonight Show, at that point, when they had comedians on the show it was kind of a policy that you never sat down with Carson until you’ve done three shots on that show as a stand-up. And I kept turning down the show because I knew Letterman’s stand-up was not that great but he’d be great sitting down with Carson because they had a lot of the same things in common. And I must have turned it down half a dozen times. And then finally they said to me one day ‘OK, he can sit down.’ then we took the show.

Wow. What makes a good manager a good manager?

(Laughs) Good question! Well, honesty for one, I think is very important, you know? I mean, you have to be honest with your clients and sometimes it’s not as easy as it may sound, you know? If you have critiques about a particular client, hopefully you’re right, well you try to explain that to the client – hmmm, you’re dealing with egos now and actors are very fragile, so it has to be presented in an interesting way where you’re not offending their ego but, at the same time, making your point. And sometimes it’s not easy to do, but you find a way – sometimes.

What’s the best thing about being Buddy Morra?

(Laughs) That’s a good question! You’ll have to ask my wife that, I think (laughs). We’re about to celebrate 50 years.

Wow. Congratulations!

Thank you. Early May we celebrate, yeah, end of May, yeah. It’s been an incredible ride. I mean, my – she is amazing. That’s all I can tell you. I don’t know where I’d be without her, quite honestly. I once said to her, not too long ago, I said ‘Why did you want to marry me?’ She said ‘I just had a feeling you were the right guy and you would do well,’ when I first met her (Laughs) I was making, like, twenty bucks a week or something like that on my own (laughs)! Yeah, I mean I couldn’t pay the rent, really.

So she saw a spark.

I hope so! (Laughs) Unless she was lying – I don’t know (laughs)!

What do you want to say to anyone who is listening to this interview?

Gee whiz. Well, if you’re going out to see live talent, do listen to them. Don’t make noise. Don’t slurp your soup. Otherwise, don’t go to the club. Stay home and listen to the radio or something. I mean, pay attention to these people. They work real hard. It’s important for them to get your acknowledgement and your applause, assuming you like them. If you don’t like them, then don’t applaud. But otherwise, be kind, be attentive, pay attention. You’ll learn a lot more that way. And I think, also, you get to be a bit more discriminating that way. If you see enough talent after a while, you can be a little more discriminating in your taste. Because everybody has talent. It’s just that what kind of talent is it and does it rise to where the general public can love it and like it and understand it?

Mr. Morra, it’s been a pleasure to do this interview.

My pleasure, Paul. Sorry I didn’t get you earlier but my daughter is back east, in Harrison, New York and there’s floods and things. I couldn’t get through for the longest time. I finally got through so we got a little time on the phone.

I appreciate it very much. It’s been a joy.


Thanks!

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA

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