Irving Fein was still playing tennis every morning until he was in mid to late 90s. He was the manager of Jack Benny and George Burns, among others. What a great guy. He and his wife Marion lived in West Hollywood’s Empire West, where they were my neighbors when I schnorred a maid’s apartment from my friend Mary Shulman, widow of the late great Max Shulman. They were all great friends. Irving’s daughter, Tisha, inherited his gift for working with celebrities. She’s the chief music wrangler for every important show involving rock stars. You can’t do a show properly without Tisha Fein. My condolences to her and to Marion. But Irving Fein had a great life as you can see from this interview I did with him for a one off Oscar magazine I edited called Red Carpet about ten years ago. Rest in peace, Irving.
HE’S SO FEIN
Irving Fein is one of Hollywood’s Unknown Soldiers, a studio publicist who went on to managed legendary comedians George Burns and Jack Benny.
At 91 years old, Irving Fein doesn’t hang around the Motion Picture Home. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The spry elder statesman of Hollywood’s old time managers plays an aggressive game of tennis every morning and likes to win. He’s been part of three of show biz’s golden eras—the great movie stars of the 40s, the early days of television in the 50s and 60s, and the comedians’ resurgence of the 70s. In 1975 he revived the career of George Burns by convincing Ray Stark to put him in The Sunshine Boys, the movie that got Burns his first and only Academy Award at age 75. At Burns’s funeral, Fein—who’s also the author of an excellent biography of longtime client Jack Benny– said: I know you took your music with you, so wherever you are, I hope they’re playing it in your key.”
RED CARPET: How did you get started in show business?
IRVING FEIN: I was a publicist at Warner Bros, Columbia, and Sam Goldwyn. I was in New York and Warner Brothers sent me out here to L.A. Jack Benny formed a film company called Amusement Enterprises. Jack was at CBS at the time. They hired me to do publicity and advertising. Bill Paley liked me. Paley took me away from Jack. I became director of public relations for CBS. This was 1955. I was there about 2 or 3 months and Jack called me and asked me to come back.
RC: Who were some of your clients at the studios?
IF: I worked at Warner Bros. with Bette Davis, Erroll Flynn, Lana Turner. I gave Lana the title of “sweater girl” when I was a publicist at Warners. Her first picture was called They Won’t Forget. [ed note: sort of a Twin Peaks scenario with the local high school. girl murdered, 1937]. She wore a sweater in the first scenes. They killed her. But I knew it would be memorable.
RC: I’m sure Bette Davis gave you a lot of trouble?
IF: She was a tough dame. When I was in New York we used to call her Bett Davis. When I came out, we were told we had to call her Betty. The first time I met her, I called her ‘Bett’ by accident. She said, it’s Bett-TEE. I said, Oh, I’m sorry! That was my first meeting with her.
RC: You were the publicist on the Lou Gehrig story, Pride of the Yankees (1942). How was Gary Cooper?
IF: He was quiet. He used to talk to the grips a lot. He didn’t talk too much, a down to Earth guy.
RC: That movie still has big emotional pull
IF: I did that campaign.
RC: How did you do it? Now they’d say don’t talk about the disease
IF: Everyone knew about it. You couldn’t hide it.
RC: That must have been so exciting for you
IF: It was. We brought a lot of the real players from the Yankees into the movie. We gave them train fare to come do the movie. And $500. The third baseman was working in Florida during the off season and making a lot of money. He turned it down. Goldwyn said, I don’t understand it. We can get a first baseman for this money, shouldn’t a third baseman be less? Bill Dickey was the Yankees’ catcher. I met him at the train with his wife. Goldwyn had lunch with him. Goldwyn, who knew nothing about baseball and had never seen a game in his life, said, ‘You’re in the dugout in the first scene. The dugout is by the stands underneath. He thought he had to explain it to Bill Dickey!
RC: Tell me about Gary Cooper—
IF: He was easy to work with. I got him interviews, and he did them.
RC: Did you sit in on the interviews?
IF: Oh yeah. I always sat with the star and the interviewer.
RC: Did they ask personal questions?
IF: They’d try, and the star would try to avoid it, and you’d say no no. We never left them alone.
RC: You also worked on the Al Jolson story—
IF: I worked on the Jolson story with Harry Cohn at Columbia. He asked me to come work with him. It was 1946 and he was nervous about it because it was going to cost two and a half million. It was a lot of money in those days! When he called me, he said half the people never heard of Jolson and the other half thought he was dead.
RC: How did you get people interested in him again?
IF: He was still living, so we did interviews with him. I got pictures with him. But there was an unknown in the picture—Larry Parks.
RC: He was blacklisted a few [five] years later. How much did the blacklist come into your life?
IF: I was a very liberal guy in those days. Luckily I wasn’t a big organization joiner. But I did bring Larry Parks to a ‘gathering’.
RC: A Communist Party meeting?
IF: No, no. They were liberal organizations that later became Communist. Not a Communist meeting. They later became Communist.
A lot of the people you worked with were affected by the blacklist?
IF: A lot. Ring Lardner, Jr. He was at Warner’s when I was there.
RC: It must have changed the atmosphere
IF: All of a sudden people you knew you couldn’t work with
RC: Rita Hayworth was a friend of yours?
IF: I helped her career. No one knows it. She was at Columbia Pictures and getting a lot of publicity. We were going to do “Virginia City” with Erroll Flynn. It was a follow-up to “Dodge City.” Ann Sheridan, who’d been in the first picture, wanted more money for the second one. When she didn’t get it, she walked. I talked them into testing Rita Hayworth. She didn’t get the part, but that was how Columbia started putting her in ‘A’ pictures.
RC: How long did you work with Benny and Allen?
IF: I was with Jack for twenty eight years, twenty two with George Burns.
RC: You were on the road with Benny all the time?
IF: I used to throw him a violin from off stage. They were $10 violins I’d pick up, they were crap. Jack used to say can I have my violin please? And I was good at it, I’d throw it and it would bounce and land right at his feet. The audience would scream. I’d send the bow flying and it would get a big laugh. Then Jack would take out a real violin. It was a great gimmick. We did it in that show. Once we gave the stagehand the real violin, and he walked out with it. The police caught him and arrested him and had him in jail. We had to get him out fast.
RC: Benny was supposed to be in The Sunshine Boys?
IF: He was sick, and I knew he’d never make it. This was in December and the movie started in February. I called Ray Stark, who was the producer. We had roomed together when we were about 25 years old. I said, Why not try George? But even then, George and Jack were so close we didn’t want to tell him Jack was sick.
RC: And then you got him the Oscar? What was your Oscar campaign?
IF: We did interviews, but he did a lot of charity work. And he’d do it if we could get him different titles, like Star of the Year: George Burns. And we do it for free. Entertainer of the Year.
RC: Did you say George, we’ll get the Oscar this way?
IF: No, I just said it would be good for him. He’d be doing the benefits anyway.
RC: Was he pleased that he won?
IF: Let me put it this way: He didn’t hate it.