Monday, February 6, 2023 Feb 6, 2023
56° F Dallas, TX


Filmmaker Martin Jurow’s on a Texas-sized roll
By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

SEVENTEEN MILES OUTSIDE of Alpine, Texas-not far from the eerie Marfa lights-a dusty, rock-strewn road winds through the dry brush of Southwest Texas. Patinized signs here and there warn: “Be Careful. Livestock Roaming.” The primitive road has precipitous crevasses and watery gulches but also raw landmarks of beauty. Miles from civilization, the road rises onto a majestic bluff overlooking a wide, flat meadow anchored by one perfect windmill. On this summer day, an alien city of assorted vans, trailers, trucks and rental cars sprawls just over the edge, peopled by an invading army of T-shirted camera crew members, sunburned actors and ranch-rough extras. Through its midst scurries a man whose diminutive figure belies his stature. Dressed in a blue oxford shirt, drawstring blue jeans, boots and a straw cowboy hat, he is the peacemaker, the stroker of egos, the keeper of the purse. He is a man whose film career spans some four decades; a native New Yorker who shunned Hollywood for the color and character of Texas. He is producer Martin Jurow.

The feature-length adventure film being shot in this dry pasture stars a feisty young girl and a gray-speckled horse named Sylvester. Scheduled to premiere this month, Sylvester is the first movie Jurow has made since his acclaimed production of Terms of Endearment, shot partially in Houston. Sylvester is not a Texas-backed film but a product of Ray Stark and Columbia Pictures in Burbank, California. Some of the crew members are from around the state, but many are imported from Los Angeles. Every day for six weeks, the production company will pump $25,000 into the Marfa-Alpine economy. It is this link between Hollywood and Texas that Jurow believes is the future of regional filmmaking in our state. “We must not think of ourselves as a Third Coast,” he says, “but as a West Coast ally.”

Jurow has enjoyed an extraordinary role in the history of American filmmaking. He was right-hand man to such movie moguls as Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and Hal Wallis. He spent a decade as a William Morris talent agent, wooing the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Arthur Penn, Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracy. It was Jurow who persuaded a skeptical Audrey Hepburn to play the part of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was he who first upped the ante for a leading role to $1 million when he promised the sum to Marlon Brando for The Fugitive Kind. Yet, ironically, Jurow is known in the industry as a zealous protector of the bottom line. He is fervent in following a gospel of low-budget, no-schlock, low-key quality. As such, Jurow’s star is currently shooting skyward in a pattern that parallels his producing heyday in the Sixties. With the phenomenal success of Terms of Endearment behind him, Jurow is on a Texas-based, Texas-sized roll.

The road that brought this man of movies to filmmaking in Texas (the Jurows have a house in University Park and one in Jefferson) is as steeped in color and diversity as that winding ranch road. Jurow was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a mother who designed custom-made baroque hats and a father who sold them. When Martin was a schoolboy, his parents rather suddenly invested the sum of their millinery income in a hotel in upstate New York. Their lack of knowledge of hotel management caused the hotel venture to fail. “We lost everything,” Jurow says, “but the results of that poverty changed the course of my life.”

The loss left no money for furthering the educations of young Martin or his brother Irving, but the boys soon inspired the dean of New York University, Dr. James Buell Munn, to become their patron. “My brother attended NYU, but I rebelled against the idea of going to school so close to home. I wanted to get out on my own. With Dr. Munn’s blessing, I chose William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia.”

Having graduated from high school at the age of 15, Martin was a young but eager college freshman-and not just scholastically. “I was a bit entrepreneurial even at that time,” he says. “I noticed that students would line up to get their laundry, so I suggested that for 5 cents per student, I would have the laundry delivered. I then hired two deacons from the church as runners, and my business career was launched.” In addition to the laundry concession, Jurow cornered the Coca-Cola distributorship for the town. He started a band, for which he was lead crooner, called “Marty Jurow and the William and Mary Indians.” He says, “I was the only one in school who had a personal valet. My bath was drawn for me every night.”

The business ventures didn’t hamper Jurow’s scholastic achievements; after graduating from William and Mary in 3 1/2 years, Jurow continued his studies at Harvard Law School with the continued largesse of his patron. He wanted to be an entertainment lawyer. “There is a biblical expression: ’Old men dream dreams, young men see visions,’ ” he says. “I felt we were on the verge of a tremendous expansion in motion picture arts.” At the time, there was only one tutor for Jurow’s ambition-Nathan Burkan, a New York City lawyer/Tammany leader/representative to the most illustrious names in the movie business: Al Jolson, Samuel Goldwyn, Mae West. “Instead of writing Nathan Burkan and telling him all about myself,” Jurow says, “I used a technique that has served me well throughout my life. I wrote him a letter and told him all about himself. For weeks I combed clippings gathering details about his late-in-life marriage, his appendectomy, his clients. He asked me to come see him.

“Instead of going directly to Burkan, I booked a room at the Algonquin Hotel and paid a visit to his chief telephone operator. I told her, ’Madam, my life is in your hands. I will be waiting in my room at the Algonquin. Will you please call me when Mr. Burkan has had a victory?’ Two weeks later, she called to tell me that her boss had won the custody fight over little Gloria Vanderbilt. I went in to see him, and he offered me a job at $26 a week. Within a year, while we were on a copyright excursion to Washington, D.C., Nathan Burkan died. His successors invited me to cut my pay to $19 a week.

“It was then that I wrote a second letter-to the venerable George Abbott, a longtime leading figure in theater. I had heard that you could get a job in theater for a minimum of $40 a week. George Abbott saw me and asked me what I wanted. I said ’assistant company manager.’ He said, ’There is no such job’ and asked me if I had any acting experience. He had me read for him. The play was Boy Meets Girl, and he said if I would understudy four or five roles, he would make me assistant to the company manager at $40 a week. Within a year, he offered me the lead in a play called Brother Rat. I refused, and when he asked me why, I explained that it was a case of ego. I’m short. My life in theater would never have included leading roles.”

Jurow then composed a third letter, this time to Dr. Jules Stein, a former violin-playing eye doctor who began the giant Music Corporation of America (MCA) on the concept of representing the traveling big bands. “Stein saw me and sent me to interview with his man in New York,” Jurow recalls. “His name was William Goodhart. I told Goodhart that I thought MCA should broaden its scope to include legitimate theater and motion pictures. His response was to write Dr. Stein and say, ’I like him, but I feel uneasy about the prefix “legitimate” before “theater.”’ It’s unbelievable how narrow-viewed some people can be.”

Despite Goodhart’s reservations, Stein told Jurow to open a branch of MCA independent of the New York office. Jurow’s first client was his former employer, George Abbott, for whom he negotiated the selling of a musical called Too Many Girls. In a matter of months, Jurow had brought a million dollars’ worth of business to MCA. Soon he was ensconced in the New York headquarters.

Jurow’s affiliation with MCA was marked by great personal success. He began to receive offers of employment from the big studio heads in Hollywood. Eventually, he was lured to the West Coast by Jack Warner. Jurow would learn the movie business as the master’s right arm.

In the meantime, Jurow had met Erin Jo Gwynne, an aspiring young actress from Dallas who had come to New York to study. They decided to make the move to Los Angeles as man and wife, beginning a relationship that Jurow terms “the most meaningful partnership of my life.”

The work at Warner Brothers, Jurow says, was “thrilling,” but being an adjunct to the arrogant Warner was not. “We’d play tennis every Sunday on the Warners’ lawn,” Jurow recalls. “Even if I were right in the middle of a game, he’d come over, poke me in the ribs and say, ’All right, off the court, Mickey Rooney.’” After one particularly trying episode with his boss, Jurow demanded that Warner stop his car and let him out. He was let out for good-with a caveat that he would never again work in the business.

But Jurow soon rose to the top again, when producer Hal Wallis asked him to join a new venture at Paramount. It was an exhausting and a prolific period, during which six films were produced in 18 months. “As much as I respected his work, Wallis was a bit reluctant in sharing the monetary rewards. He had said, ’As I prosper, you will.’ Yet all I got for six pictures was a robe-and it needed altering.”

About that time-1948-one of the principals in the William Morris Agency came to Jurow and asked him to head up most of the operation in New York. “I would be in charge of all agency contracts in the legitimate theater and motion pictures-everything except network television, which was in its infancy,” says Jurow. “So it was back to the East Coast. And it was a most extraordinary 10 years of nurturing some of the greatest stars of the day. I never sat down. I talked on three telephones simultaneously. I’ll never forget when Elvis Presley came to do the summer show for Jackie Gleason. He was rehearsing in a studio above Lindy’s restaurant with three other musicians as backup. I remember I had a sandwich in my hand that I never ate. When you feel a certain talent, the vibrations start at your toes and go up through your head. When I heard Presley, they went right through the roof.

“The agency business was marvelous but draining. I was continuously dealing with people who were fortunate to have what they had, but whose ambitions were so much better than their talents. The time spent with them was taking a toll. After 10 years, I hit a turning point. I had had 17 years of a glorious marriage-an absolute love affair. I felt that this was God’s gift to me. I couldn’t let my ambition overwhelm my life. And what that eventually meant was giving up New York and William Morris and going out to the West Coast again.

“It was in 1959 that I got my big break. I joined a young man named Richard Shep-erd, who was the grandson-in-law of Louis B. Mayer, and we began producing. Our first venture was the production of The Hanging Tree, starring Gary Cooper. Our second feature was The Fugitive Kind. I originally had Anthony Franciosa cast in the lead, but along the way I learned that Marlon Brando was on the verge of divorce from Anna Kashfi. Brando had originally turned down the movie. Now I had heard that you could have Brando read from the telephone book and make money, so I went to his house and talked to him-not about the part, but about the money he needed for the divorce. He accepted the role.” It would be the first time that a million-dollar contract was offered to an actor for six weeks’ work.

“Then there was Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Everyone wanted to get that story. Instead of corresponding with Truman Capote’s agent, I got in to see Capote himself. We dined at a wonderful restaurant called The Colony, talking until the place closed. On Monday morning, he called his agent and told her he wanted me to do the picture. It took me a month to convince him not to play the lead. I told him, ’All I need is a shoulder-and Truman, it’s not you.’

“Soon thereafter, I had a chance plane ride with Marilyn Monroe. She convinced me that she would be good for the part of Holly Golightly. But from the moment we landed, I was never able to reach her again. It was almost as if we had had some dream conversation in the clouds.

“I considered Shirley MacLaine, but she had another part. Then I went to Audrey Hepburn. She didn’t want the role, she said, because she couldn’t play the part of a hooker. When she said that, I rose to my full height and huffed, ’If you can’t tell the difference between a call girl and a dreamer of dreams-a girl walking on a precipice to make her way against the swollen ego of man…’ And I walked off. She accepted.”

After Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Jurow moved from a partnership with Richard Shepherd to a lucrative liaison with director Blake Edwards. Their first film together was the enormously popular Pink Panther-originally cast with Peter Ustinov and Ava Gardner. Gardner was released from the film after a tiff over whether to shoot on location in Italy or Spain, and Ustinov followed. “That’s when I went to London to get Peter Sellers,” Jurow says. “He had done The Millionairess with Sophia Loren and was hopelessly in love with her. I played a sneaky trick on him. I simply said, ’Peter, she’s waiting for you.’ Loren lived in Rome, where we would be shooting for six weeks. Sellers never saw her once. Whenever she was in residence in Rome, she was faithful to Carlo Ponti.”

Next came Soldier in the Rain with Jackie Gleason, Steve McQueen and Tuesday Weld, and then The Great Race with Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis and Peter Falk.

After The Great Race, the Jurows became enamored of the European countryside and arranged a deal with one-time foe Jack Warner to oversee his production there. “We spent three years in heavenly places, supervising some 25 movies. We bought Vivien Leigh’s flat on Eaton Square in London when she died. I just wanted to dress where ’Larry’ Olivier had changed his clothes.

“When I returned to California in the late Sixties, a great deal had happened to young people. They were in pain over Kennedy’s death; there had been a dramatic change in the mores. I was shocked at the material being submitted to me for production. The language was degrading, and there was a great deal of promiscuity, blood and gore.

“At the same time, Richard Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, asked if I would do a study with Stanford Research Institute forecasting the future of his films. The research was so good that when Zanuck was deposed by Dennis Stanfill, he reluctantly suggested that since I was a Zanuck man, I depart with him.

“Like a bolt, I realized that I never would punch a clock for anyone again. With that recognition and the feelings I had about the material, I vowed to leave Hollywood. The fact that Erin Jo is a Texan led us here.”

That was in the early Seventies. One of the first things the Jurows did was travel to East Texas to a town Erin Jo had visited as a child. The town was 25 miles south of Jefferson, a place the Jurows had been urged to see before returning to Dallas. When they saw it, they fell in love with it. “We were eventually able to buy an 1840 Greek Revival house that we have come to think of as home.”

The Jurows traveled the state extensively, viewing locations, shooting low-budget “test” pictures to assess the Texas talent pool. They decided that it was too early.

“Then one night,” Jurow says, “my wife and some spiritual intuition said, ’Why aren’t you using a talent that has laid dormant? Why not try to pass the Texas bar?’”

With characteristic vigor, Jurow plunged into preparations for the legal exam as if training for a marathon. Sequestering himself in SMU’s Underwood Law Library for as many as 12 hours at a time, he mastered 16 subjects sufficiently to score a passing mark on the bar. “It was such an accomplishment,” Jurow says, “that the chief justice personally autographed my certificate.

“Once that was accomplished, there was only one person in Dallas I wanted to work for-District Attorney Henry Wade. For the next 2 1/2 years, I was in a state of true refreshment, following the procedures at the D.A.’s office. I met so many wonderful young people, many of whom are still friends. I guess they thought of me as some sort of mascot.”

Throughout his tenure with Wade, Jurow never lost his foothold in films. He became an adviser to the burgeoning Texas Film Commission. He worked with the USA Film Festival in arranging retrospectives and taught a popular film production seminar at SMU. “There are two bridges I have always wanted to see crossed,” he says. “Students and film, and theater and film. Too often there is a lack of realization of how tightly knit theater and film should be.”

In 1978, the first overtures sounded to beckon Jurow back to film. Sally Sharp Jacobson, the daughter of his friend Ruth Sharp, asked him to produce an adaptation of a turn-of-the-century novel called The Awakening by Kate Chopin. “Sally played the lead in the movie, which we titled The End of August,” Jurow says. “We shot it for very little money in Mobile, Alabama. The movie got extremely good critical notices- especially in Europe-but, unfortunately, it suffered here from very poor distribution.”

Soon thereafter, Jurow launched another project at the behest of his goddaughter, actress Anne Archer, and her husband, Terry Jastrow. Together, they made the movie Waltz Across Texas, which starred Archer and Jastrow and was filmed in Midland. It was through a member of that cast, Mary Kay Place, that Jurow found his way to James Brooks, director of Terms of Endearment. Brooks had taken the screenplay of Terms to five studios and had faced rejection at each. “They all thought a movie about a girl dying of cancer wouldn’t work,” he says. Brooks looked to Jurow for help in devising a budget the studios could swallow. “Finally, we got a boon when NBC pre-bought it, and MTM Productions fronted some cash, too. We went back to Paramount, where 20 years before I had produced Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Riding the tide of success, Jurow went to Ray Stark-a man he deems one of the most visionary producers in the United States- and asked for “a canopy, an umbrella” under which he could continue his work in Texas. Stark agreed, but on the condition that he make Sylvester first. And so we come full circle in a story that spans several decades and several astonishing careers.

In the future, Jurow sees possibilities aswide as the silver screen itself. He believesthat the Eighties will see the continued emergence of women in meaningful roles and themaking of movies directly for cassettes.”Just around the corner is an absolute revolution in the home, with video cassettes,cable, pay TV. The marketing potential forfilms today goes way beyond the box office,”Jurow says. His immediate plans are to produce a film adaptation of Papa Was a Preacher by local author Aleyne Porter. Hehas negotiated rights to produce film versions of two of Louis LAmour’s Westernnovels, a genre he believes is on the verge ofresurgence. “We must initiate and be moreinnovative about our own developing andeven distributing,” Jurow says. “We havewell-developed technical crews, nearly complete processing and staging facilities andsome fine talent here. But we’re just one ofmany states seeking to induce filmmakersto work here. And neither Los Angeles norNew York likes it. We must think of ourselves as an ally. I myself am beyond vanityand conceit. My wish is simply to continueto be as excited about the next film projectas the last.”