The family ties that count in show business

Hollywood is a lot like a family bussiness, writes Rob Long

The first agent I ever had, during the early years of my career as a screenwriter, was something of a Hollywood legend. He represented some of the most powerful and successful television producers in the business. He was famous for making smart and, from his clients’ perspective, highly lucrative deals. He was feared by studio and network executives – everyone hates it when the person on the other side of the bargaining table has all the leverage – but he was also deeply respected. Fear and respect, I’ve come to understand, mostly come hand-in-hand.

A studio executive once asked me: “You want to know why he’s so good? It’s because his father was an agent, too. His father represented a bunch of old movie studios back in the 1950s, and he was the one who repackaged and sold all of those old thrillers from the 1930s to television. Made a fortune!” Growing up in the business, I guess, has its advantages. Most of the time.

I’ve known a few sons and daughters of Hollywood luminaries. Some of them – mostly, it must be said, those who did not follow in their parents’ footsteps – were thoughtful and smart and all-around nice people. One of Cary Grant’s daughters once auditioned for me, and she was effortlessly charming and a terrific actress. Although she was way too young for the role, don’t let anyone tell you that turning down Hollywood royalty is easy.

Colin Hanks, son of perennial movie-star Tom Hanks, is cut from the same cloth as his father. He’s whip smart and curious and seems like a great guy – I’ve met him a few times, always while trying to get him into a project I’m working on – and he’s also brilliantly talented. Watch him on the FX series Fargo and you’ll see what I mean.

Harrison Ford’s son, Ben, is a gifted chef and restaurateur. He’s had several successful restaurants in Los Angeles – his father could occasionally be spotted at one of the tables – but in general keeps a low profile.

I once asked the daughter of a very famous show business figure what it was like growing up in the worldwide capital of over-the-top publicity and non-stop Hollywood madness.

“I have no idea,” she said. “I grew up in Montana. That’s where we lived. My dad only came to Los Angeles once or twice a year, for meetings, and did his movies on location.”

Which explained why she was so, well, normal.

It isn’t always the case. We’ve all read the tabloid stories of the children of the rich and famous: their addictions, their utterly unsupervised lifestyle, all of it. It can’t be easy to be a child– or I suppose a parent – in that kind of crucible, so the ones who have somehow forged a successful path through a Hollywood childhood and come out the other side as useful, productive, reasonably happy adults deserve some applause.

I once watched the son of a famous old movie star try to tell his father that he no longer wanted to work as his assistant. That happens a lot – the child of the star ends up, somehow, working for the star. The child turns 30, then sometimes even 40, still in the employment of his or her legendary and world-famous parent. That kind of upbringing is less like raising a child and more like raising a butler.

But we all watched as this trembling 30-year-old man tried to quit his job as his father’s assistant. He told him quietly and firmly that he didn’t want to work for his father anymore. He wanted, he said, to be a full-time musician. “I want to do my own thing,” he said.

“Your own thing?” His father asked. “Your own thing? OK, go do your own thing. Your own broke, poor, thing.”

Meaning: if you quit, you’ll get no financial help from me.

The son never did quit.

I thought of that moment on Wednesday afternoon, when I learnt that Frank Sinatra Jr, the son of the still-and-always famous Frank Sinatra, had died at 72. He spent a lifetime in his father’s shadow – and even if he hadn’t, he still had his father’s name reminding him and everyone of who his father was and who the son wasn’t.

He was his father’s band leader for decades – if you can’t escape the name, you may as well join the marquee – and they often performed together in Las Vegas, which is where I saw them. Frank Sinatra and his son had a bantering relationship on stage, but it was always clear who the boss was. The jokes and the quips and the put-downs only flowed in one direction. It was funny, as I recall, but it was also painful and awkward at times. The two of them had a difficult and complicated history.

On the other hand, everyone who met Frank Sinatra Jr said the same thing about the man: he was warm and generous and unfailingly polite. He was thoughtful and kind to everyone.

The same could not be said about his father. Not all inheritances are equal, and not all talents and traits are passed down. And that’s not always a bad thing.

Rob Long is a producer and writer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl