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She Made Hollywood Stars Shine

Retired publicist laments gossip overload in age of Twitter


Lois Smith with actor Elliot Gould at Robert Altman: Celebration of an American Icon, at Winterfest. Photo courtesy of Legacy Lee

When Lois Smith won the Publicists Guild lifetime achievement award in 2003, her good friend Martin Scorsese was on hand to present the award. “Lois stands out as a beacon in the industry,” said the famed director. “What matters to her is the art as it should be.”

A longtime PR guru, Smith guided the careers of A-list talents Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Whitney Houston, and Scorsese, to name a few. She began her own PR firm, PMK/HBH, with Pat Kingsley, Tom Cruise’s former agent. Smith is now retired, except for the occasional phone call to offer advice.

She will speak tonight at the College of Communication’s Cinematheque, a program that brings film industry experts to campus to discuss their careers. James Verniere, a Boston Herald film critic, will moderate.

BU Today spoke with Smith about her experiences as a publicist and how things have changed since she was in the business.

BU Today: What does a publicist do?
It depends upon the client. You have to take the needs of the client into consideration and act accordingly. Sometimes it’s to get publicity, sometimes it’s not to get publicity, sometimes it’s to aim it in a certain direction; everybody is different. There is no formula. Well, at least there shouldn’t be, let’s put it that way.

What is the role of the publicist?
I think we can be helpful for talented people we admire, and if your strength is not in acting, directing, or the arts, perhaps it’s in publicizing. I was that way when I was young; every time I acted I got laryngitis the night before — what does that tell you? I never knew what publicity was until I got a job in the field. A lot of people can develop the kind of publicists they are, sort of as they go. It’s individual, or it should be.

How did you get involved in PR?
When I got out of college I came back to New York and went to the New York Times, because I wanted to be a journalist. They said, “Sorry, not hiring,” so I went to see somebody at Time. She offered me a job doing research, but said, “You will never write because you are a woman.” Women didn’t get bylines in those days. So I thanked her and left, because I figured I didn’t want to stay somewhere where there wasn’t opportunity.

I had interviewed a journalist by the name of Walter Kiernan back in my high school days, and I had kept up with him. I went to see him. He sent me to see a man he knew named Ted Saucier, who had a PR firm, and four days later someone from his office quit. So there I was, knowing nothing about publicity; it was for industrial and fashion accounts. It was a relatively quiet office, and it gave me time to learn what to do and how to do it. I was there for a year or so when I got an offer to go with another company just to type, which I did. Four days later someone quit, and they hired me because I was cheap!

I stayed there quite a while and really got into the world of show business, because they represented primarily actors, directors, and producers. I was there until I joined Arthur Jacobs, who represented actors and directors. When the guy who ran the office quit, they made me head of the office, I think reluctantly. And then I went on my own.

Who was the most pleasure to work with?
Well, that’s easy — probably Robert Redford. Very nice guy.

I saw him on a television show, Playhouse 90. I tuned in to watch my friend Susan Koner’s performance, and Bob was playing a young Nazi, and I thought, cute, cute. He shrieked “star,” at least to me. I found the guy who represented him, and said if Redford becomes interested in publicity, please remember me. So we got together; that was over 40 years ago.

Why do you think he’s been so successful?
His choice of projects — that’s what I think you should judge people by, the work that they do. And his projects, both as an actor and a director, were wildly interesting. And that was important to me, to be involved in projects that I felt were important.

I think my best experience was All the President’s Men. Bob and I had gone down to Washington to do a screening of The Candidate, and just prior to that had been Watergate. To the screening came Woodward — but not Bernstein — so I introduced the two, because I also represented talk show host Dick Cavett. Bob started talking to Woodward about what kind of book they were planning to write. It went on from there, and Bob made suggestions. Several months later we were down in Florida shooting The Great Waldo Pepper, and the galley from All the President’s Men came in, and we took off from there. Bob optioned the book and got Dustin Hoffman involved. They got Alan Pakula to direct. It was really great fun.

Who was the most difficult to work with?
I don’t know if I had anyone really, really difficult to work with.

What was your most difficult experience as a publicist?
I don’t suppose I should say this, but Whitney Houston was not so easy because of who she was married to (Bobby Brown). It made life difficult, and when she did The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington, it was just not easy. It’s too bad, because she’s immensely talented. I started with her when she was in The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner. I was with her for a while; I can’t even remember why we broke up.

With Web sites like Perez Hilton, and Twitter and more gossip magazines than ever, how do you think things have changed for a publicist?
Oh please — I’m so glad I’m not doing publicity now. Between celebrity magazines and Web sites, there’s so much out there to be filled up, so much information that has to be put out there simply because those publications exist. First of all, whatever you’re pushing, it becomes a story 30 seconds after you put it out there. I don’t care about hearing so much information minute by minute. People are desperate to fill the space they’ve got; they’ll print anything, go with anything, pursue rumors, and even create them. It’s not what I call publicity.

Many stars have now broken the fourth wall — they’re on Twitter, Facebook, in the tabloids, and more. Has it changed since you were in the business?
It depends on who the celebrity was, who the journalist was. There were some celebrities and journalists who were great friends, had great relationships, and that was fine. But it was different; they weren’t on Twitter. Everybody wasn’t as accessible back then as they are now.

If you could work with anyone today, who would it be?
Maybe Josh Brolin or Helen Mirren. Mirren worked with Robert Altman, one of my favorites. He was a glorious, great director. I attended last month’s BU event Robert Altman: Celebration of an American Icon, and it was great fun to see Elliott Gould, Mrs. Altman, and Michael Murphy. I hadn’t seen them in a long time. Altman and Redford worked together only once.

An Evening with Lois Smith takes place tonight, Friday, February 5, at 7 p.m. at the College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Ave., Room B-05. The event is open to the public and admission is free. For more information, e-mail Legacy Lee at legacy8@bu.edu.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @amlaskow.


4 Comments on She Made Hollywood Stars Shine

  • Dale Bhagwagar on 02.08.2010 at 12:29 pm

    the passion is missing

    this is not to put anyone down, but this interview lacks passion. ms. smith comes across as a person who had the PR profession just fall into her lap. the interview portrays her as a person who just got opportunity because others quit jobs. huh. this is not what great spin doctors are made of. where is the ambition, the drive, the passion, the grit, the determination etc etc etc.
    sorry if this hurts anyone, but i cant imagine a PR Guru without the passion fr the profession.
    dale bhagwagar


  • brianna on 02.09.2010 at 1:40 am

    RE: the passion is missing

    while the PR profession may have “fallen into her lap,” she made Personal Publicity what it is today. ask any working personal pr guru in the entertainment business who they look up to or where they learned everything about the biz and they’ll say Lois Smith. her ambition, drive, grit and determination is evident in every campaign she took on, whether it be for personal clients like Redford or Altman or films like Basquiat or Gangs of New York.

  • Anonymous on 05.22.2011 at 3:02 am

    Amazed by this wonderful role model.

    Lois is an amazing role model for many. Her career entrance could have been from “falling on her lap” or whatever… but, if she is not a guru (to Dale Bhagwagar), then how did she assist in making many actors career successful? How has she come to win a Guild award? Hehehe, read up on her history before you set an opinion Dale. READ!!

  • Dale Bhagwagar on 11.03.2011 at 3:23 pm

    Dear Brianna and Anonymous, Please read the words in my comment carefully first. They say: “THIS INTERVIEW lacks passion. ms. smith COMES ACROSS as a person who had the PR profession just fall into her lap. the interview PORTRAYS her as a person who just got opportunity because others quit jobs.”

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