All week, the whispering on both coasts grew louder: “Page Six” killed Jay Moloney. The onetime Hollywood superagent and recalcitrant drug addict had hanged himself two days after his 35th birthday and the very morning the New York Post reported he had crashed and burned yet again.
Well, the Post didn’t kill Jay Moloney. Hollywood did.
The real blame lies with the entertainment industry’s aberrant values system, which infects everything and deforms it: Power becomes a weapon. Wealth turns into greed. This is a town whose citizens pray for, make possible, and derive real pleasure from the failures of their own kind.
And while authentic tears were shed after Moloney’s suicide, the truth is that he achieved success not merely by embracing Hollywood but by reveling in its dark side. He’d spent much of his brief adult life growing from foot-soldier-in-training to full-fledged Hollywood gangsta agent. He employed the tools (seducing, wheedling, and, if necessary, threatening, cheating, and lying) and enjoyed the spoils (the $1 million salary by age 30, the celebrity girlfriends, the Picassos, the Santa Barbara hideaways) of a Wilshire Boulevard conquistador. How fitting that Variety’s postmortem likening of Moloney to a “youthful Jay Gatsby” was meant as a sort of compliment. Wasn’t Gatsby, after all, a racketeer?
Was Moloney’s death tragic, or was it karma? His former clients and co-workers will no doubt find such a question unnecessarily harsh because they knew Moloney to be “that great guy.” And he was, so long as your name was Steven Spielberg, Bill Murray, David Letterman, or the like. But it was as if, from the moment he began working here, the town virtually conspired to steal his soul.
Take, for instance, when Moloney dropped out of USC to begin working full-time at Creative Artists Agency in 1986. He received a check for $10,000 from Mike Ovitz, then CAA’s chairman and already Moloney’s mentor, with a card that read: “Congratulations on your graduation. Now go buy yourself some Armani suits.” As it turned out, according to the trainee’s USC chums, Moloney was still short some credits and had not officially graduated. But Moloney didn’t explain that; he cashed the check and did as he was told.
Over the course of six years, when he was at CAA and afterward, I spent 30 hours interviewing Moloney, trying to find out what made agents like him tick. He was a charter member of a close-knit group of five up-and-comers at CAA who, by the late eighties, had come to be known as the Young Turks – hyperambitious, good-looking males, all in their twenties, who in 1995 would take over the agency from founders Mike Ovitz, Ron Meyer, and Bill Haber.
Son of a frustrated Malibu screenwriter, Moloney was the youngest Turk. If Jim Moloney taught his son anything, it was that you had to be someone big in the entertainment industry or it would crush you like a sand flea. With no real notion of what he wanted to be other than a member of the showbiz elite, Jay enrolled at USC, the best industry-networking school next to Harvard. After his freshman year, in June 1983, Moloney, thanks to veteran agent Marty Baum, who knew his father, landed one of CAA’s plum internships.
As a “Summer Camper,” Moloney didn’t work in the office alongside the scions of Hollywood’s rich and famous or Wall Street’s Establishment offspring. Instead, he was a nanny at Ovitz’s Brentwood home, watching the kids, changing diapers, and driving the chairman’s wife around town. Eventually, Moloney was moved into the mail room. Charming, affable, loyal, he worshiped his boss and took every opportunity to kiss ass – his words. His reward was being assigned to Ovitz’s inner sanctum.
Moloney was quick to emulate Ovitz’s ingratiating and manipulative ways, making contacts and promoting himself. He became Wolfgang Puck’s unofficial reservations vetter, verifying for Spago’s maître d’ who was deserving of an A table on any given night. Other Ovitz assistants had been discreet team players who used their influence to protect or help their friends and co-workers; not Moloney.
Once, two of his college buddies showed him their screenplay about two young athletes trying to make it to the big time. “This is great,” Moloney told them. “Let me see what I can do with it.” Months went by and they didn’t hear back. Years later, however, one was chatting with an acquaintance who had visited the set of a movie in production. “What’s it about?” the screenwriter asked. Suddenly, the USC grad was hearing his own story line. “Wait a minute, let me tell you how it ends,” he said.
The screenwriters confronted first Moloney, who denied any wrongdoing, and then an entertainment attorney. “It’s an obvious lift,” the lawyer told them. “But you’re up against an enormous machine. I charge $250 an hour. And you’ll just lose.” Later in his career, Moloney often had fingers pointed at him whenever a lawsuit was threatened or filed against CAA for theft of intellectual property. But what made this particular tale stunning was the fact that Moloney was living in one of the writers’ apartments at the time.
At CAA, Moloney was Ovitz’s spy, routinely reporting back to the boss everything the underlings said and did. When Moloney told Ovitz a senior agent had confessed a reluctance to steal clients from smaller agencies, the agent was soon pushed out. In return, Ovitz gave Moloney incredible access, allowing him to sit in on meetings where other assistants weren’t allowed. Once Moloney was made an agent, Ovitz served him his most prized clients – Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray – on a silver platter. No agent has ever been given such a huge leg up at the outset of his career.
Eventually, Moloney would also represent directors Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, both signed by Ovitz. As Ron Meyer used to explain to Jay’s jealous colleagues, “Mike always thought that anybody he trained was better than anybody else.” Later, Moloney added to his own myth by helping steal directors Mike Nichols from ICM and Tim Burton from William Morris.
Moloney may not have had a strict devotion to the truth (Connery ended up leaving him after the agent brazenly lied to him), but his charming glibness served him well in Hollywood. The tallest and best-looking of the Turks, he flaunted a brief fling with Sherilyn Fenn at the height of her Twin Peaks fame and also dated Jennifer Grey and Gina Gershon, among other starlets.
By the early nineties, the Young Turks were working hard and playing hard together. They hung out at Mortons or Spago at dinner, the Peninsula hotel for drinks, Matsuhisa for sushi. They went to the same nightclubs, attended the same charity events, flew to Hawaii for golf or Colorado for white-water rafting or the Bahamas for a tan. Moloney rented a house in Santa Barbara where they would party when they tired of his Hollywood Hills and Malibu pads.
Being dependent on Ovitz was both the key to Moloney’s success and a deep source of insecurity. Once, at the posh Hotel du Cap, where lounge chairs were reserved with a small place card, Moloney booked his as “Michael Ovitz” even though the chairman was in California. Another time, Moloney had a Hollywood auto broker deliver four different cars in a week. Originally ordering a souped-up Ford Explorer, Moloney had decided the “car isn’t me,” and kept changing his mind until he settled on a BMW, the stereotypical agent’s car driven by Ovitz.
Moloney seemed too slick even for Hollywood. Stories circulated about how he’d slap you on the shoulder with one hand and put a knife in your back with the other. But none of that mattered in the early nineties at CAA, where real trophies were given out for horrible behavior. Moloney thought nothing of dropping references to a star’s alcoholism or a rival agent’s sexual orientation over lunch or cocktails. The fact that it might be false or do irreparable professional harm was not his concern, as long as a new star was signed or a CAA client got the job.
In 1995, the story swept through Hollywood that a star ICM agent had AIDS. ICM finally traced it back to CAA and lodged a complaint. Ron Meyer told the CAA staff: “If I find out who has been spreading this rumor, I will fire that person on the spot.” Only much later did I discover Moloney had been the culprit. Another time, Moloney called a major rival’s client, whom he was trying to represent, and left the following message on the star’s answering machine: “Why are you with a drug addict as an agent?” It was a startling accusation coming from Moloney, who at that moment had a severe drug problem of his own.
Moloney dated the start of his cocaine habit to the spring of 1995, after a year in which his father died and Ovitz began lying about his intentions at CAA. Moloney’s friends, colleagues and bosses maintain they didn’t know about his addiction until 1996, but in fact it was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood as early as 1993. Moloney wasn’t just doing drugs but flaunting them in every hip club and restaurant from coast to coast. That year, a screenwriter who had gone to USC with him used the restroom in a hot downtown L.A. spot. The writer swung open the bathroom door, surprising Moloney and two pals, who were snorting cocaine out of glass vials. The writer and Moloney stared at one another, frozen in recognition. “That’s really bad business,” the screenwriter told the agent. “You ought to keep that under cover, don’t you think?” Suddenly Moloney was in his face. “If you fucking tell anyone, I’m going to ruin you.”
No one looked too closely at Moloney’s behavior because, as “Mike’s boy,” he was an untouchable. But eventually the agent once known as Ovitz’s heir apparent simply unraveled: At one point, he was found sitting in his home, utterly wrecked, with garbage bags covering the windows.
It’s always hard to know whether bad people are drawn to Hollywood or good people go bad here. But one thing is certain: Unfettered access to Hollywood’s renowned excess brought out the worst in Jay Moloney. The industry’s most famous trainee had learned everything – except how to survive it.