The legendary dealmaker behind Ghostbusters

Manager/producer/studio head Bernie Brillstein was a great, larger than life Hollywood character who had a long and varied career. 

He managed Jim Henson, several of the key players in the SNL gang including John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, and Gilda Radner, and you’ve probably seen the logo for Brillstein/Grey on the credits for The Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos. (Brillstein’s former partner, Brad Grey is now chairman of Paramount.)

With news hitting the ‘Net this week about Ghostbusters comics, and Steve Buscemi trying to stop the Ghostbusters firehouse from closing down, it made me think back to Brillstein’s memoir, Where Did I Go Right?, co-written by David Rensin.

The book has many great stories, but there’s two geek-centric stories in it that I’ve always liked.

In Where Did I Go Right?, Brillstein recalls one day when Dan Ackroyd came to his office, and reminded him about a project he’d been working on, which was originally called Ghostsmashers. Ackroyd was writing it for himself, Bill Murray, and John Belushi, and Brillstein figured Ackroyd had forgotten about it after Belushi passed away.

As Brillstein recalled, “He paced around the office and told me the story of three unemployed parapsychology professors/scientist who set up shop as a ghost-removal service.” Brillstein loved the pitch, then Ackroyd said, “The final scene is…,” and showed him a picture of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man.

Ackroyd wanted Brillstein to watch his back and told him, “Just so I don’t screw it up, give me a dollar and you can control it.” Brillstein handed Akroyd a dollar, and “became the gate keeper.” 

First it was shown to John Landis as a potential Universal film, and he passed. Then Ivan Reitman got the script from then Hollywood uberagent Mike Ovitz, and Reitman and Murray were friends from working on Meatballs and Stripes together.

Ghostbusters actually made more money than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, generating $229 million domestic, and it was also the highest grossing comedy of all time. Brillstein had 3.75% of the gross, and as he recalled, “The movie was so hot that it flew past break-even so fast that no one could screw me out of my share.”

Brillstein also recalled convincing Jim Henson in his Sesame Street days that he had to do merchandising to keep the operation going. Henson was against commercializing his characters, but Brillstein explained if he agreed to merchandising nothing would go through without his approval.

Ten years later, Henson wanted to buy back the rights of his under-rated fantasy film, The Dark Crystal, so he would personally own the film. It would cost Henson $15 million to own it, and Brillstein told him, “Tell you what. I’ll come to your office right now with a Gucci bag filled with fifteen million in cash. Take a look at it. Say good-bye to it.” Then Henson told him, “Remember ten years ago in your kitchen you said I’d be free to do what I want? Artistic freedom? I’m calling it in.”

“Once he could afford it, Jim was determined to own everything he created,” Brillstein recalled. Although it was definitely a lot of money to go out right away, Brillstein wrote that except for a million bucks, they made their money back. “[Henson] just wanted to own his stuff. End of subject.”