Friday, April 27, 2007

Jack Valenti, 85, Dies; Confidant of a President and Stars

Jack Valenti speaks on the phone in his Washington office in 2004.

The New York Times
Published: April 27, 2007

Jack Valenti, who became a confidant of President Lyndon B. Johnson and then a Hollywood institution, leading the Motion Picture Association of America and devising a voluntary film-rating system that gave new meaning to letters like G, R and X, died yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 85.

Jack Valenti The cause was complications of a recent stroke, his family said. He had been hospitalized in Baltimore in March.

For 38 years, Mr. Valenti was the public face of the movie and television production industry and one of its fiercest advocates. He lobbied Congress to protect filmmakers’ intellectual property from piracy and to ease trade barriers overseas. And he fended off lawmakers’ recurring campaigns to curb violence and sex on the screen, arguing for free expression. He devised the film-rating system precisely to avoid censorship by local review boards.

He also remained a starry-eyed fan, cherishing his friendships with Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier and Frank Sinatra, falling speechless before Sophia Loren and savoring his seconds in the spotlight as a regular presenter at the Academy Awards.

As a Houston political consultant, he was in the motorcade when President John F. Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, and he watched as Johnson was sworn in beside Jacqueline Kennedy aboard Air Force One.

Mr. Valenti soon became known, and for a time mocked, for his unfailing loyalty to Johnson, if not outright idolatry of him. “I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently because Lyndon Johnson is my president,” he once said in Boston, inviting guffaws nationwide.

Even after leaving a senior post at the White House in 1966, Mr. Valenti remained at Johnson’s service, secretly arranging the president’s surprise detour to the Vatican to meet with Pope Paul VI on the way back from Vietnam in December 1967.

His fidelity was lifelong. Mr. Valenti, a bantam 5-foot-7 who forever looked up to the towering Johnson, picked fights with critical Johnson biographers like Robert Caro and Robert Dallek.

Mr. Valenti’s forthcoming memoir, “This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood” (Crown), does as much to polish Johnson’s legacy as his own. He was to have begun a six-city tour on June 5 to promote the book.

In 1966 Mr. Valenti took his talents for personal politicking — and lionizing his bosses — to Hollywood, heeding the request of Lew Wasserman and Arthur Krim, then chairmen of MCA/Universal and United Artists respectively, that he take over the Motion Picture Association. “If Hollywood is Mount Olympus,” Mr. Valenti once said of his new liege, “Lew Wasserman is Zeus.” He became the organization’s third president.

At the time, Hollywood was still officially operating under the Hays Production Code, the industry’s draconian and increasingly outmoded self-censoring rules that flatly barred nudity, profanity, miscegenation and even childbirth scenes from being depicted on film.

Mr. Valenti was soon confronted with two films in 1966 that convinced him that the code had become obsolete. He dealt with one, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” by negotiating a compromise in which three out of four particular vulgarisms were cut.

Later that year, M.G.M. released Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” even though that film, showing brief scenes of nudity, lacked Production Code approval. Sensing that other films would also begin flouting the code and in turn create a vacuum into which local politicians and censorship boards might rush, Mr. Valenti decided to act.

“I knew I had to move swiftly, and I did,” he later recalled. “I was determined to free the screen from anything like the Hays Code. But I also emphasized that freedom demanded responsibility.”

So by late 1968 he persuaded the national theater-owners association to buy into a system of voluntary ratings, based on an ascending scale of adult content, that would be enforced at the box office: G, M (later PG), R and X.

The system was not without flaws and detractors, and it required some tinkering. In 1984, after receiving complaints about frightening parts of PG-rated movies (“parental guidance suggested”) like “Gremlins,” the association added the PG-13 category (“parents strongly cautioned”). Though the other ratings were trademarked, the X was not, and pornographers quickly co-opted it. In 1990 the association replaced the X with NC-17 (no one 17 and under admitted), hoping it would be embraced, but distributors have mostly spurned it for commercial reasons, leaving many filmmakers to make wrenching cuts to adult-themed films in pursuit of an R rating.

Mr. Valenti always rebutted critics by citing an annual survey, paid for by the association, showing that parents of young children strongly believed that the ratings were useful.

In 1983, at the height of the Reagan administration’s deregulation efforts, Mr. Valenti led a fight to preserve federal rules intended to protect television producers and studios from the market power of the three major networks. The Federal Communications Commission was considering repealing the rules and allowing the networks to produce programs, thus giving them vertical control over production, distribution and exhibition.

In his memoir, he said he asked Mr. Wasserman, who had once been Ronald Reagan’s agent, and Charlton Heston to urge the president to oppose the repeal. The White House did just that, and the federal rules remained in place until 1995, by which time mergers between studios and networks had rendered them unnecessary.

In Mr. Valenti’s last decade at the association, it became consumed with fighting digital piracy. But one of his bolder strokes, in 2003, blew up in his face. He had learned that half the films being sent to industry people on DVD, known as screeners, for awards campaigns were turning up for sale illegally around the world. So he banned screeners altogether. A storm of protest ensued — loudest of all from the major studios’ own specialty divisions, which rely heavily on awards attention to publicize their films — and the policy was overturned by a federal judge, who said it ran afoul of antitrust laws.

Jack Joseph Valenti was born in Houston on Sept. 5, 1921, to the son and daughter of Italian immigrants from Sicily. He traced his passion for politics to the day his father, a clerk for the city government, took him to a political rally, where the 10-year-old Jack was invited to give his first speech, from a flatbed truck, for the Harris County sheriff. “I never recovered from it,” Mr. Valenti wrote.

As a youth he worked for a chain of second-run movie theaters in downtown Houston, roaming the city putting up posters in storefront windows in exchange for free passes. Hired as an office boy at the Humble Oil Company (an antecedent to ExxonMobil), he attended the University of Houston at night but still managed to be elected class president his sophomore year.

A voracious reader, he devoured everything by Macaulay, Churchill and Gibbon, and his speaking and writing style would mix his native twang with the rhetorical flourishes of his heroes in a brew of cliché, cornpone, compelling phrases and clunkers that one critic called “a kind of Texas baroque.”

In 1982 Mr. Valenti published a guide to oratory, “Speak Up With Confidence,” which was revised and reissued in 2002. He also wrote “The Bitter Taste of Glory,” a book of essays (World, 1971); “A Very Human President” (W. W. Norton, 1975), about Johnson; and a political novel, “Protect and Defend” (Doubleday, 1992), edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

As an Army B-25 pilot in World War II — the Naval air corps had rejected him because of a heart murmur — he flew 51 missions over Italy, but never piloted a plane again after returning his flak-battered bomber to the United States. He went to Harvard Business School on the G.I. bill, then returned to Humble Oil’s advertising department, where he helped its Texas gas stations jump from fifth to first in sales through a “cleanest restrooms” campaign. He co-founded an advertising agency in 1952, with a rival oil company, Conoco, as its first client. He later added Representative Albert Thomas, a Johnson ally, as a client.

It was in 1956 that he met Senator Johnson at a gathering of young Houston Democrats. As a sideline, Mr. Valenti had begun writing a weekly column in The Houston Post, and he rhapsodized there about the senator’s “strength, unbending as a mountain crag, tough as a jungle fighter.” Their friendship grew, and when Johnson became Kennedy’s running mate, he had Mr. Valenti run the ticket’s campaign in Texas. Mr. Valenti helped stage Kennedy’s televised meeting on Sept. 12, 1960, with a group of Protestant Houston ministers, an event that was instrumental in helping him overcome anti-Catholic bias.

Mr. Valenti cemented his ties to Johnson in 1962 when he married Mary Margaret Wiley, a Johnson secretary. The couple accompanied Johnson to Rome for the funeral of Pope John XXIII, and Mr. Valenti was put in charge of the Houston leg of Kennedy’s 1963 swing through Texas. After a dinner there on Nov. 21, Johnson asked Mr. Valenti to fly on Air Force Two the next day. Moments after learning Kennedy was dead, Mr. Valenti was summoned to Air Force One, where he was hired on the spot as a special assistant.

In his memoir he recalled helping rustle up votes for Johnson’s monumental Great Society legislation; witnessing Johnson’s private browbeating of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama after the attacks on civil-rights marchers in Selma; and being accused (unfairly, he maintained) by Robert F. Kennedy of leaking to the news media stories about Kennedy’s chances of being made Johnson’s 1964 running mate.

But Mr. Valenti may have rendered his most vital White House service by being a source of companionship, public praise and private candor, Mr. Dallek said; before leaving the White House, he warned Johnson how much the war was hurting his credibility with voters. Mr. Valenti spent more time socially with the president than any other aide, often bringing along his wife and their toddler daughter, Courtenay Lynda, a Johnson favorite.

In addition to his wife of 45 years and his daughter, now an executive vice president for production at Warner Brothers Pictures, Mr. Valenti is survived by a son, John Lyndon, of Los Angeles, the chief executive of, an informational service for the film industry; another daughter, Alexandra Alice, a photographer and video director in Austin, Tex.; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Valenti, who was four days shy of 83 when he stepped down from the motion picture association, continued to come to work, nattily dressed, long afterward. “Retirement to me is a synonym for decay,” he wrote in his memoir. “The idea of just knocking about, playing golf or whatever, is so unattractive to me that I would rather be nibbled to death by ducks. So long as I am doing what I choose to do and love to do, work is not work but total fun.”

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