Lloyd Braun, an entertainment industry entrepreneur and executive who has known Mr. Buchwald for 30 years, called negotiating on the same side of a deal with him “a joy.” Less so when negotiating against Mr. Buchwald. “There is a nightmare quality to it. Because you’re only going to do so well. If you want to do better than that, you’re probably going to have to grovel,” Mr. Braun said.
Credit Amber De Vos/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images
“Everyone should have a Don Buchwald in their life,” Mr. Stern said in a phone interview. “I’d never want to be without him, and I don’t need anyone but him. It sounds like a love song, but it is.”
No More Double Kissing?
Mr. Buchwald, who regularly uses terms like “fella,” “baloney” and “nifty,” is not an agent in any sort of “Entourage” sense. If he mirrors a fictional archetype, it would by Dicky Fox, the mentor of Tom Cruise’s character in Cameron Crowe’s “Jerry Maguire,” who says, “The key to this business is personal relationships!”
He was sitting at a corner table at the Friars, where he has been a member for 45 years, across the main dining room in one direction from the writer Gay Talese and in another from the gossip columnist Cindy Adams. Earlier in the week, Matt Lauer had been fired from the “Today” show. Over the dining room din, men drinking martinis could be heard darkly muttering names: “Lauer … Weinstein … Spacey.”
Mr. Buchwald had started his day, he said, conferring with his company’s C.O.O. to check in on the systems that were in place to protect employees from harassment. “I said to him, ‘We’re unscathed at the moment, but it seems like scathing is the order of the day. And I want to make sure we set the record straight with our employees and clients,’” Mr. Buchwald said. He also wanted to find out of it was still appropriate for him to greet women clients and associates with his standard double cheek kiss. “Is it O.K. for me to bisou, bisou?” he asked. (The C.O.O. said he should use his best judgment.)
In fact, the company is not totally unscathed. On Glassdoor, a website where people can post anonymous comments about their current or past employers, an assortment of posts cite a difficult work culture at the Buchwald agency. “We have a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment,” Julia Buchwald said in a phone interview. “Has there been a disgruntled employee or two in the past? Probably. But I really do care about every person within our walls.”
At the Friars, some men stopped by to say hello and pay homage to Mr. Buchwald, who was eating branzino, Caesar salad and steamed spinach. Two younger agents from his firm described Mr. Buchwald’s famous “milk and cookies” approach to agenting. (Anything, even cookies, to get you in the front door.)
The club manager came over to reminisce about the work he and Mr. Buchwald did together to organize the 2004 Friars Roast of Donald J. Trump. Another fella sauntered over with a “take my wife” Borscht Belt best-left-unshared joke about a woman named Laverne. Mr. Buchwald, who speaks frequently of his wife of 52 years, Maggie, winced.
Credit Jackie Molloy for The New York Times
“Are you kidding me?” he said, unamused.
Mr. Buchwald was dressed, typically, in a dark gray Brioni suit, a white shirt with a band collar and “DHB” embroidered on his cuff, and purple socks.
He refers to his clothes as his “costume.” This perspective is one that was shared with him by the late Geoffrey Holder, a client of Mr. Buchwald’s who won two Tonys in 1975 for directing and choreographing “The Wiz.”
“Geoffrey said that when you walk in a room full of people, you should set a tone,” he said. “You should announce yourself. You should look as lovely as possible.”
Mr. Buchwald and his four siblings were raised in Brooklyn. His mother, a schoolteacher, was the breadwinner for many years; his father, who worked in the curtain business, lived to be 100. “We had the kind of household where we could say, ‘Mother, that is the worst pasta I’ve ever tasted.’” Mr. Buchwald said. “And she would say, ‘Oh go on.’”
At 16 he enrolled in Brooklyn College, wanting to be an actor, but he worried that it would be more of a passion than a profession. He left school and enrolled in the Army in 1954, and was stationed in Korea after the war had ended. He returned to the college a few years later and graduated. (He has been a trustee of the Brooklyn College Foundation for 20 years and is on the advisory board of the Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Steiner Studios.)
Through the early 1960s, he found work in regional theaters, as a business manager and actor. (What kind of acting? “Bad acting.”) He found he had a knack for negotiating, and took on work as an agent for actors he met.
He also took a job as a travel agent specializing in honeymoons, making cold calls to baby boomers who were planning weddings. Many of his colleagues were voice-over artists who dreamed of Broadway or radio glory or even commercial spots. He started representing them too.
In 1977, Mr. Buchwald opened his own agency. His approach was simple, and he has stuck with it. “Everybody will say, ‘He’s full of baloney,’ but I don’t lie,” he said. “When you’re telling the truth, it can be a disarming thing.”
By the early 1980s, Mr. Buchwald had earned a reputation as one of the top agents for local radio and news talent. So when Mr. Stern decided he needed more help than his lawyers could give in steering his career, he called three agents, Mr. Stern said in the phone interview.
The first two were not interested. The third call went to Mr. Buchwald. “We sat down in his office and we talked for an hour,” Mr. Stern said. “He turned to me and said, ‘You know, your career could be as big as Johnny Carson’s.’ I thought this guy might be a little bit nuts. But he believed in me from the very beginning, more than I believed in myself.”
Still, Mr. Stern wasn’t totally sold on the idea of signing a deal with Mr. Buchwald that would require him to turn over 10 percent of his earnings. “I talked to my parents,” Mr. Stern said, “and my parents were like, ‘Ten percent? But he hasn’t done anything yet!’”
Mr. Stern said he shared his trepidation with Mr. Buchwald, who said, “‘I’ll tell you what. I won’t take 10 percent till I do something for you. I’m going to get NBC to rip up your contract and start again.’” Mr. Stern was skeptical because his ribald humor and repartee had already become problematic for WNBC. “They hated me, why would they renegotiate my contract?” he said. But Mr. Buchwald succeeded, and Mr. Stern has never worked with anyone else. “I would be dishonest if I did not credit Don for the success of my career,” Mr. Stern said. “I want to be more like Don.”
Julia Buchwald is not planning to deviate wildly from the path set by her father. “We are keeping the core philosophy Don built,” she said on the morning after she escorted O-T Fagbenle, her client, to the Golden Globe Awards after-parties; he plays the husband of Elisabeth Moss’s character in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “When you look up ‘talent agent’ in the dictionary,” Ms. Buchwald said, “there is a guy in a shiny suit, hanging up the phone” and being a jerk.
But her father has a different ethos. “My goal is to leave the negotiating table as a better friend to whomever I’m talking to than I was when I sat down,” he said.