Supermensch enjoying his moment in the limelight

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You want stories? Shep Gordon has stories. A half-hour with the legendary talent manager flies by as he tells one anecdote after the other about his show-biz associations.

In a sit-down coinciding with the recent San Francisco International Film Festival screening of “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” a briskly entertaining and admiring profile of the behind-the-scenes operator who used his moxie and personality to advance his clients, Gordon offered firsthand memories of Groucho Marx and Barbra Streisand, Bill Graham and Marvin Hamlisch.

And those were just the Jews he could recall.

Shep Gordon (left) with Alice Cooper photo/courtesy radius-twc

Gordon, a Jewish transplant to L.A. from Long Island, N.Y., got his start in the industry right out of college. In a Q&A at a recent  screening, he recalled how “in those days, the entertainment business had two categories: the entertainers, and the Jewish hierarchy.”

Gordon was 22 and working as Groucho Marx’s co-manager with the comic icon’s late-in-life companion, Erin Fleming. At a 1972 meeting with A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss, Fleming berated and cursed the music exec until he asked Gordon outside for an explanation.

“Groucho can’t afford his nurses,” Gordon explained, “and you have an album coming out with him [“An Evening With Groucho,” recorded live at Carnegie Hall], and I thought maybe you’d give him an advance, because you have a way to recoup it.”

Moss wrote a large personal check and handed it to Gordon. “I’m only going to ask you one thing,” he said. “Don’t bring her back.”

Gordon laughs with pleasure at the recollection, noting that he and Moss are friends to this day. “He’s a great Jew,” Gordon says. “I am proud to be a landsman of his.”

The lively and affectionate “Supermensch,” directed by Mike Myers, opens Friday, June 13 in the Bay Area. It assembles Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Emeril Lagasse, Alice Cooper — Gordon’s first and longest-tenured client and friend — and others to describe the path and character that led a gangly New Yorker to wind up cooking dinner for the Dalai Lama.

Or, to put it another way, how a nice guy — a real mensch — finished first.

“I give all credit to my DNA and my cultural background,” Gordon says. “A lot to my father, but I think it’s much broader than my father. I think that there’s a strain in many Jews of being social liberals, and that’s one of the things I love about being Jewish — so many people I meet who are Jewish actually care about other people.”

Gordon says he made it clear to prospective clients that other managers could make them more money but he could make them famous. He deployed this particular talent on behalf of Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, Anne Murray and numerous other performers and celebrity chefs (a category he pioneered, without compensation).

“I always felt that my social liberalism didn’t come from consciousness … it came from the DNA,” Gordon muses. “I knew [the chefs] had this need, for somebody to make them famous. At some point the consciousness went away and the DNA took over, and they needed help and I could help them. That’s Jewish.”

Gordon laughs. “Maybe not doing it for free, that might not be Jewish.”

He turns serious at the mention of hard-nosed Holocaust survivor and promoter Bill Graham, who booked and ran San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, among other venues.

“I had the utmost respect for him,” Gordon recalls of the late Marin County resident. “Because he had the tattoo. And because he had the tattoo I acted in ways that weren’t the smartest, but I’m glad I did ’em. But they always backfired on me, because he was a very difficult guy.”

On one occasion, Graham called to object to Pendergrass playing at a competing Bay Area venue. Gordon decided he’d let Graham have the show if Pendergrass agreed, even though it would pay less and might provoke a lawsuit from the original promoter. Gordon relayed that information to his client, along with the all-important fact of Graham’s wartime experience.

Pendergrass didn’t hesitate for a second. “If it’s important enough for you to make the call,” he said, “we’re doing his show.”

A touching tale, but the capper is that Graham withheld a portion of the fee because he was dissatisfied with the sound quality of Pendergrass’ show. Gordon was unable to change Graham’s mind, so he made up the difference — without anyone ever finding out — from the safe of Carlos and Charlie’s, a restaurant he owned in Tiburon.

“That was difficult,” Gordon sighs. “But I was glad I did it. I would do it again. I understand the tattoo wasn’t just numbers, this was a guy who lived a life, for all of us. The scars he had, I could never in my wildest dreams ever approach, so God bless him.”

As for Streisand, suffice it to say that Gordon’s wary perception — based on hearsay — that she was tough and demanding was erased by her gracious behavior as a guest at Gordon’s house in Maui with her husband.

If one needs more evidence that Gordon is no more than two degrees of separation from anyone in show business, Marvin Hamlisch had relationships with Fleming as well as Carole Bayer Sager, one of Gordon’s clients.

“I moved his piano more times than I like to think of,” Gordon says, this time without a smile.

“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon”
opens Friday, June 13 at Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and June 20 at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley (R for language, sexual references, nudity and drug use; 84 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.