Entertainment Attorney Ira Epstein, Counsel to the Stars
Where there is a celebrity, there is an attorney, and in the case of the entertainment attorney profiled here, Ira Epstein, this Beverly Hills-based lawyer never lost the taste for show business he acquired as a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb. In a diverse life and career he’s touched many different aspects of the human condition, the legal profession, and the entertainment industry, working with some genuine legends along the way.
Entertainment Attorney Ira Epstein, Counsel to the Stars
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Veteran west coast entertainment attorney Ira Epstein, a counsel to high-profile clients in film and television, traces his show biz roots to growing-up in Omaha, where he and his brother, Arnold “Tuffy” Epstein, a well-known Omaha woodwind player, performed in area fairs and amateur shows during the Great Depression.
Born and raised here, the brothers, studied music at the prodding of their grocer parents, Harry and Jenny, the proprietors of their own mom-and-pop store, Epstein’s Grocery, originally located at 27th and Maple and later at 20th and Martha. The family lived above the stores. As kids, Ira and Tuffy were prevailed upon by their parents to entertain salesmen pitching wares. “Ira would play the accordion and I would sing,” Tuffy recalls, adding their stage mother booked them “wherever she could get us,” including two neighborhood movie theaters, the Roseland and Corby, where the boys were billed as Ruffy and Tuffy for amateur show performances. Their younger siblings, Allen and Gloria, also performed.
Graduating to the piano, Ira performed in music programs at his school, Central High, where he cut short his senior year in order to join a touring big band headed by Skippy Anderson. While he downplays his own musical talent, Ira was, in Tuffy’s estimation, “an excellent jazz pianist.” With the help of money his mother saved, Ira attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and took paying gigs to pay his tuition, room and board. “I worked my way through school playing in bands,” he says. Often, he and Tiffy found themselves jamming on the same stage.
By the time Ira started college, the Korean War erupted and the military draft loomed large. The then-social work major sought a field of study that would keep him in school. That’s when he and a pair of buddies decided “we’d take the law school exams. We didn’t have anything better to do.”
What began as “a lark” turned into a distinguished career nearing its half-century mark. But his frivolous attitude toward the exams nearly quashed his plans. Certain he’d failed, the silver-tongued Epstein proceeded to talk his way into law school with the personal chutzpah and charm that made him a natural for the courtroom.
As Epstein remembers, it happened this way: “The dean called me in and said, ‘Ira, you really didn’t do well on these tests.’ I told him why. That I left early every day to conduct cheerleading tryouts in my role as Yell King. That I was in every activity imaginable at Nebraska. I was a member of the gymnastics team, the student council, the Nebraska athletic board. I was active in Jewish activities, including AZA. I was president of the campus chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu. And the dean said, ‘Because of all your activities. we’re going to let you into law school.’ And that’s how I got started. I ended up enjoying the law and doing pretty well.”
In typical Epstein fashion, he ran with the opportunity, becoming editor of the campus law review and earning a law fellowship in trial procedure evidence. During his fellowship, Epstein got a chance to work with and learn under famous personal injury defense attorney Melvin Beli, who was trying a case in Omaha at the time. “He came into Omaha to try a medical malpractice case against a foot surgeon. Beli had a national reputation. He was the big man from the west coast up against a small town country lawyer, who was one of the best defense lawyers in the business. Beli took him to the cleaners…and back in those days you couldn’t easily recover against doctors. It was really tough. Beli brought me in to help do the research. He was a great scholar and a great guy. I was very impressed…I got some good experience and we got to be good friends.”
Coming out of college, Epstein harbored designs on working for one of Omaha’s prestige Gentile law firms, which he says then maintained an unspoken but nonetheless rigid country club policy barring Jews, regardless of their credentials. “When I graduated law school I was a pretty hot prospect with a lot of enthusiasm and I decided I wanted to break the barrier in Omaha and go into a non-Jewish law firm.” he says. “Well, I interviewed with most of the major non-Jewish firms…at least 10 of them…and I could not get hired. Here I was editor of the law review and, while I didn’t finish first or second in my class, I was in the top 20 percent, plus I was in all kinds of organizations, and yet I couldn’t break the barrier. That was anti-Semitism at its best. Now, it’s changed, of course.”
Then, in 1957, Epstein applied for and received a direct commission into the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General or JAG court. The recently married (to the former Noddy Schein of Omaha) JAG officer was first assigned to San Francisco, where he looked up Beli, who officed in the city on the hill, to see about joining the famed attorney’s practice and thereby supplement his low military salary. “I ended up working part-time for him while in the service. At that point I got a good flavor of personal injury law and decided that just was not my bag.” Meanwhile, his JAG duties helped him develop keen lawyering skills. “JAG was really a good experience for me. I tried a lot of cases…a lot of court martials. For being a closet introvert, I was a pretty good trial lawyer.”
He had no longer settled in his next station, cushy Long Beach, when a mid-air collision of Air Force and Navy planes over civilian air space caused severe property damage and personal injuries, resulting in a flood of claims he handled. This, too, proved a valuable training ground. “As a result of that very serious accident I spent a year settling claims for the government. It was a tremendous experience. By the time I joined a law firm in 1959 I was an experienced lawyer already.”
With his JAG commitment up, he interviewed with private L.A. law firms and got hired by an established entertainment law firm. It was familiar territory. “I felt comfortable from the very beginning,” he says. “I was always interested in entertainment. It was appealing to me.” Besides, as a former performer, he understood the fragile creative personality. “It’s not so much just temperamental artists, it’s temperamental producers, too. They’re all the same. They all have that mind set, which they’re entitled to. It’s an ego business. You have to have a particular kind of mentality to represent them. You have to be pretty patient. You have to be more of a psychologist, bordering on a psychiatrist, than a lawyer.”
Among his first clients was Larry Harmon Productions, whose stable of artists included TV’s Bozo the Clown. Another Harmon artist, animator Lou Scheimer, became one of Epstein’s closest friends. When Scheimer left Harmon to start his own animation shop, Epstein continued representing him. At the time, there were only a few independent animation companies, and when Epstein’s boss ordered him to drop Scheimer to avoid potential conflicts with competing animators, Epstein remained loyal to his friend. “I said, ‘Well, I’d just as well drop the firm than drop the client,’ which was a dumb thing on my part because the guy had nothing going. That was 1963. So, I went out on my own with this partner, and don’t ask me why, but we got a lot of clients. We were doing pretty well, only my friend Lou Scheimer was doing nothing.” That soon changed when CBS plunged into Saturday morning animation and a major player in comic books, National Periodical, sought somebody to animate their signature Superman franchise. Scheimer got the job and Epstein bought a piece of his studio, Filmation.
“Superman launched the company and really got me started in animation. After Superman we started doing all the action heroes. Batman. Aquaman. Captain Marvel. Then we branched into other animation series. We did Fat Albert. We did Masters of the Universe – that was a big series. We ended up selling the company in 1969 to a cable company called Teleprompter that was the predecessor of all the big cable companies. Teleprompter ended up selling to Westinghouse and as a result we made quite a bit of money for young guys at the time.”
Outside animation, a good share of Epstein’s early clients were in the music business. When he was still a law firm employee in the early ‘60s, he did work for Liberty Records, a kitsch pop label whose recording artists included Julie London, Bobby Vee and the Chipmonks. “I learned a little about the music industry, but I knew music anyway.” When he opened his own firm, he rode the wave of the soulful black music movement. “I set up the California corporation for Motown Records, which then moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. I worked with many Motown artists. My personal client from their stable was Hal Davis, who wrote and produced many Jackson 5 and Diana Ross hits.”
Then Cooper set about reinventing himself and his practice again. “In 1975 I left my then partner and went with another attorney, Jay Cooper, who was and still is the outstanding music lawyer in the country.” With the addition of a third partner, the firm of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz became a player in the entertainment law arena for 20 years. “We started with about six lawyers and built it up to about 60. We had one of the best entertainment law firms in Los Angeles,” he says. “We had a lot of good lawyers. We had a lot of good clients, It was really a major firm.”
Although Epstein did select legal work for legendary stars Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand and Mary Tyler Moore, his biggest client during this time was Carroll O’Connor, the late actor forever identified with the role of Archie Bunker on the classic, ground-breaking CBS series All in the Family. “I represented Carroll through All in the Family, and all his battles with its producer Norman Lear, and up through his last series, In the Heat of the Night. I also represented him throughout all his problems with his late son and the lawsuits that evolved from that.”
More than a client, O’Connor was a friend, Epstein says. “We had great rapport with each other. We became extremely close. I shared all his joys and sorrows. It was a lasting relationship. I still represent the O’Connor estate.” Bigoted Archie Bunker was far removed from the man Epstein knew. “He was not that character. He was the antithesis of Archie Bunker. He was an extreme liberal. A champion of human rights.” Given that Epstein is a self-described “extreme conservative,” their friendship made for “an interesting relationship.” He says as different as O’Connor was from A.B., the actor struggled escaping the persona he so indelibly fixed in people’s minds. “I represented him on Broadway, where he was never able to have a successful play. It just wouldn’t work. He got so closely tied to the role of Archie Bunker that the public just wouldn’t buy him as a legitimate stage actor, where he got his start. But he was a great actor and a wonderful guy.”
The television landscape Epstein and his clients knew in the ‘70s an ‘80s was vastly different than the one that’s emerged today. Back then, the medium centered around the Big Three networks, monolithic television-focused businesses which got most of their product from independent producers. Today, technology has created an expanded television pie sliced up among dozens of networks and hundreds of channels while at the same time economic forces have seen a consolidation of power, programming and production among a few major multimedia giants. “The television business has been considerably impacted by consolidation,” he says. “An independent television producer today doesn’t have a chance because the majors have taken over almost all of the production. It’s all pretty much integrated vertically. It’s all just controlled by a very small group of people.”
Making television deals for clients today requires Epstein know more than just what the U.S. television market will bear. He must also be well-versed in foreign distribution and in the home video and spin-off markets. “The business has changed a lot. There was no such thing as a foreign television market in the early years. Now, foreign markets produce about 50 percent of the income for television series. With the advent of home video and product merchandising, I have to know these aspects. If you do a major animated show like Masters of the Universe, your income is coming out of merchandising as much as it’s coming out of television. I made a deal a couple years ago bringing the Japanese animated series, Yu-gi-oh to this country and it made all its money in the merchandising area.”
Other forces impacting his work include the ever changing home entertainment market, which has seen VHS and laser disk formats supplanted by DVD, and the proliferation of cable TV and its ever expanding programming menu to serve an insatiable viewing habit. In this wide open environment, anyone or anything can be a hit, as evidenced by the Reality TV phenomenon that makes people from all walks of life instant celebrities. In his quest to stay current, Epstein represents a professional gambler trying to make it on the popular TV poker playing circuit. He also represents Peter Funt, producer of Candid Camera and the son of the show’s creator, the late Alan Funt, who did Reality TV before it had a name. The growth of televised sports and the birth of sports celebrities is another sea change, says Epstein, who’s “done deals” for such figures as George Foreman and Hulk Hogan.
So. what’s the next big thing? Epstein says a mass-market, user-friendly technology to download movies off the Internet is sure to one day replace DVDs by virtue of the ease, speed and convenience of select-and-click home movie viewing.
By 1994, Epstein resigned as managing partner of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz and went into a semi-retired mode that saw him work some 10 years at Weissmann Wolf. Then, in 2002, at the urging of his former partner, Jay Cooper, Epstein joined the huge international firm Greenberg Traurig and its growing entertainment practice, where he’s rejoined his old friend. Epstein, who’s recently represented producers and distributors of mini-series and features, operates autonomously there. At age 72, he thinks of retiring, but remains too much in the game to leave now. “When I went into semi-retirement the whole idea was I would phase out and quit soon. Well, I’m still phasing out. I hope to quite real soon, believe me, but I don’t know, I seem to stay with it. I do very little of what is called the traditional practice of law. I advise my clients far beyond the lawyering. It’s fun.”
He also is a senior member of the board of directors for Image Entertainment.
A new challenge occupying much of his time these days is his presidency of the North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach, Calif., whose move to a planned facility in a neighboring community he’s spearheading. His association with this theater company fulfills a dream to be “involved in the legitimate theater.”
Two days a week find Epstein in Los Angeles, attending to his law clients, and the rest of the week at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, a short drive from the theater. He and his wife Noddy are the parents of three grown sons and the grandparents of six — four girls and two boys. He rarely gets back to Nebraska these days, although he was here last fall for the 50th reunion of his Innocents Society pledge class. “We had a wonderful reunion…a lot of fun.” He stays in contact with family and “a lot of good friends in Omaha,” including former schoolmate Ben Nachman.
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