Creator of film rating system

Jack Valenti 1921-2007

April 27, 2007|By James Bates | James Bates,Los Angeles Times

Jack Valenti, the urbane Washington lobbyist who served as Hollywood's public face for nearly four decades and was best known for creating the film rating system, died yesterday afternoon at age 85, according to Warren Cowan, his longtime friend and publicist for the MPAA.

Mr. Valenti had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in March. He was treated for several weeks at the Johns Hopkins Hospital but was released Tuesday and returned to his home in Washington, where he died.

For 38 years until retiring in 2004, Mr. Valenti headed the Motion Picture Association of America, guiding the trade organization from a clubby group of movie studios led by autocratic moguls into a collection of global media conglomerates involved in television, the Internet and an array of other media businesses.

To the moviegoing public, however, Mr. Valenti's legacy will always be the ratings system he fathered in 1968, which now labels movies G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17. Mr. Valenti defended it for years against attacks by critics. Today, it remains largely intact as the self-policing vehicle he envisioned.

"It's the end of an era," said industry veteran Sherry Lansing, former Paramount Pictures chairwoman. "He was one of the greatest leaders our industry ever had. He was one of those unique individuals who could build consensus."

His death comes on the eve of the anticipated release of his memoirs chronicling a life that included piloting a B-25 in World War II, serving as one of President Lyndon Johnson's closest confidants and shaping nearly every issue faced by today's entertainment industry, among them censorship and digital piracy. Titled This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood, the book was tentatively scheduled for release in June.

In his role as entertainment industry lobbyist, Mr. Valenti moved effortlessly between Hollywood and Washington while trying to bridge two cultures that were often at odds.

With his silver mane, custom-tailored shirts and suits, and polished cowboy boots, Mr. Valenti was one of the most recognizable figures in the nation's capital. Despite being a loyal Democrat, he skillfully worked both sides of the aisle, possessing one of the town's best Rolodexes. Along the way, he became nearly as much a celebrity as the stars - such as Kirk Douglas - he befriended, addressing the worldwide Academy Awards TV audience each year.

In public, his Texas-accented eloquence was reminiscent of a Southern preacher. In fretting over the rising costs of making and marketing films, Mr. Valenti once said: "As the American movie rides an ascending curve throughout the known world, it is being pursued with malignant fidelity by total costs. It is a terrible confluence of hope and terror which confronts every studio, every producer, every production company."

The grandson of Sicilian immigrants and son of a tax clerk, Mr. Valenti was born Sept. 5, 1921, in Houston. While employed by an oil company, he attended night classes at the University of Houston, where he was elected student body president.

At age 20, Mr. Valenti enlisted in the Army Air Forces. Flying 51 missions, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He received his MBA from Harvard University in 1948 and four years later started his own advertising firm.

Mr. Valenti met Mr. Johnson at a reception in Houston. Mr. Valenti worked on the Kennedy-Johnson ticket's media campaign and later continued to handle assignments for Mr. Johnson. And, while assisting in a Texas campaign visit, Mr. Valenti was riding six cars behind the presidential limousine in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Valenti to join him on Air Force One flying back to Washington. Then, Mr. Valenti said, he was "catapulted onto the largest proscenium stage" he'd ever been on.

Mr. Valenti helped write the words Mr. Johnson uttered when he addressed the American people for the first time as president. He effectively became Mr. Johnson's companion, troubleshooter and trusted confidant.

Mr. Valenti had married Johnson secretary Mary Margaret Wiley in 1962. The couple had three children: Courtenay Lynda, John Lyndon and Alexandra Alice.

In 1966, two Hollywood moguls, MCA Inc. powerbroker Lew Wasserman and United Artists' Arthur Krim, were looking for someone to lead their trade group and they approached Mr. Valenti. After initially resisting, Mr. Johnson gave his blessing.

Two years after taking over the MPAA, Mr. Valenti and association counsel Louis Nizer devised the ratings system so they could scrap the industry's Hays Code, which for decades placed tight restrictions on movie language and sexual content. The code included such rules as no open-mouth kissing and a requirement that a man and a woman in bed each have one foot on the floor.

"If you wanted to be affectionate, you had to be Nadia Comaneci the gymnast," Mr. Valenti later recalled.

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