Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ted Ashley...Warner Brothers...and "the New Hollywood"

I’d never heard of studio exec Ted Ashley until I became engrossed in the life and career of silent film star John Gilbert earlier this year. When I spoke with her in August, the actor’s daughter Leatrice mentioned that in the 1970s she had been invited to visit the storied home her father had built in the 1920s by its current owner, Ted Ashley. Leatrice was in the process of researching her biography of her father then, and Ashley had graciously welcomed her into his home.

Ted Ashley, Jack Warner, Jack Valenti
Leatrice’s memories of the 1400 Tower Grove Road property intrigued me and inspired me to look further into its history (click here to learn more about “The House That Jack Built”). I learned that the Gilbert estate had been home to industry names for 55 years. Among its noteworthy owners, Ted Ashley, in residence from 1969 – 1977, had been Chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. from 1969 to 1980.

I soon discovered that Ashley's regime dramatically rejuvenated Warner Bros. when he took over – and this prompted me to find out more about him…

The Brooklyn-born son of a tailor, Ted Ashley entered the world on August 2, 1922 as Theodore Assofsky. At age 15, young Ted went to work in the offices of New York’s famed William Morris Agency, the premier talent agency in the U.S. During this time he attended City College of New York and studied accounting. Deeply ambitious, Ashley was running his own talent firm while still in his 20s. The Ashley-Steiner agency represented artists in the fields of literature, theater, films and, later, TV.

To understand a bit more about Ted Ashley's ascent in the movie industry, I took a quick look into the business of talent…

The William Morris Agency began in 1898 when a young man by that name became a vaudeville agent.
In 1918 the company incorporated in New York and, as silent films emerged, Morris encouraged its clients to work in the new medium while most competitors stuck with vaudeville. The company began to dominate the agency business with a client list that included Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers and Mae West. As radio developed, Morris clients were urged to work in this new medium as well. By 1930, the agency had opened an office in Los Angeles where movies, by this time talking films, were booming. William Morris died in the early 1930s, but his agency carried on under his son in the west coast office and long-time partner, Abe Lastfogel, in New York. 

MCA (Music Corporation of America) began in the 1920s in Chicago packaging band performances for hotels and radio broadcasts and arrived in Hollywood in the late '30s. In 1946, company founder Jules Stein named 33-year old Lew Wasserman president of the company. By this time MCA was reputed to represent about half the industry’s stars and had become known as "the octopus," an agency with its tentacles everywhere in the industry.

In 1962, MCA acquired Universal Pictures and merged with Decca Records and was forced, under anti-trust laws, to divest itself of its talent interests. As a result, the William Morris agency regained its eminence and other agencies made significant inroads as well. CMA (Creative Management Associates), founded in 1960 by Freddie Fields and David Begelman, became a boutique agency for major stars of the day like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.

With MCA’s divestiture, Ted Ashley’s Ashley-Steiner signed some of MCA’s foremost clients. Merging with Famous Artists, it became the Ashley-Famous agency. Among many things, Ashley-Famous was noted for packaging and selling TV shows such as “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” “Mission Impossible” and quite a few others.

Together with Lew Wasserman of MCA and David Begelman and Freddie Fields of CMA, Ted Ashley was part of an elite group widely considered Hollywood’s first generation of “super-agents.”

One of Ted Ashley’s long-time friends was business czar Steve Ross whose Kinney Corp. acquired Ashley’s agency in 1967. In 1969, Ashley helped Kinney acquire Warner Bros. (Jack Warner retired the following year). Ashley was made Chairman and CEO; his talent agency was sold to avoid a conflict of interest; the agency ultimately evolved into ICM (International Creative Management) through a merger with CMA in 1975.

At the time Ted Ashley took the helm at Warner’s, the ailing studio had some recent groundbreaking films to its  credit but was financially unstable and had made negligible profit during the year prior to his arrival. After its first year under Ashley, the revitalized studio made tens of millions.

What had happened to Warner Brothers? By the end of the 1940s, the post-war decline of the movie industry had hit the studio hard and it continued to struggle through the next decade. One contract player, James Dean, became a star but  was killed in 1955, just as his films were being released.  That same year the studio entered into a TV deal with ABC Television. It had a hit with the western series, “Cheyenne,” and this led to a run of successful western and detective shows over the next several years, including classics like “Maverick,” “77 Sunset Strip,” and “The Untouchables.”

Films remained a hit-and-miss proposition for Warner's into the 1960s, and in 1967 Jack Warner sold his
company stock to Seven Arts. A market slump in 1969 led to the deal with Kinney and Ashley’s ascendancy.

Committing to the kind of films that reflected contemporary themes and tastes, starred popular and emerging stars and featured auteur directors like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, Warner's proved itself willing to take chances and set trends. And it was Ashley who gave the green light on all Warner's projects of the day as well as those of First Artists, Orion and the Ladd Company.

A selection of films made during Ted Ashley’s tenure includes a slew of Oscar winners and nominees as well as blockbusters, trendsetters and niche films: Woodstock (1970), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Klute (1971), Summer of ’42 (1971), Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Deliverance (1972), Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), the studio’s first blockbuster of the era, The Exorcist (1973), Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), the Mel Brooks sensation, Blazing Saddles (1974), disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974), Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Superman (1978) and Chariots of Fire (1981).

Box office smashes like Dirty Harry and Superman spawned lucrative film franchises.

Ashley also oversaw production of several popular TV series, including “Alice,” “Wonder Woman,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and “Chico and the Man.” In the mid-‘70s he hired David L. Wolper to develop a new form of TV programming, the mini-series. In 1977 Wolper produced the historic series “Roots” for Warner Bros., a powerful launch of the genre and winner of nine Emmy Awards.

Some have referred to the Ashley years as “the silver age” or “the second great age of Warner Bros.” When he departed as chairman/CEO in 1980,  the stage had been set for modern filmmaking and marketing.

After leaving his post at Warner Bros., Ashley became Vice Chairman of Warner Communications, the studio’s holding company, which also owned the Atari video game company and the Six Flags theme parks. Ashley retired from WC in 1988 and the following year Warner merged with Time, Inc., becoming Time Warner.

Ted Ashley’s retirement years were devoted to his impressive art collection which included paintings by Leger, Gris, Miro and Rothko as well as sculptures by Brancusi, Matisse and Degas.

He died on August 24, 2002 in New York at age 80 of leukemia.

John Calley, who had been hired as production chief when Ashley took over Warner Bros., recalled, “He was one of the smartest men I’ve known. The studio had been losing money year after year. The first year we got there, the studio made $35 million...”  Others remembered Ashley as a caring as well as shrewd, knowledgeable and successful Hollywood studio executive.


  1. Great article, Eve. I learned a lot about Ashley, Warner Bros., and the early years of William Morris. You must have done a lot of research for this. Great work.

  2. Thanks, Kim. The research was done (fortunately) off and on over a period of about 6 weeks. The history of movies and Hollywood has always interested me (am enjoying TCM's current "Moguls & Movie Stars" series), and my curiosity about Ted Ashley took me in unexpected directions - I learned a lot.

  3. Super article, Eve, on Ashley and the talent agency business. Interestingly, I just watched the 1940s episode TCM's MOGULS & MOVIE STARS, which addressed the creation of MCA and the influence of Lew Wasserman. Ashley's regime at Warner Bros. was certainly impressive in terms of the number of memorable movies produced by the studio. Johjn Calley's description of Ashley is pretty amazing, too. (Plus, apparently, Ashley had good tastes in architecture!)

  4. Great work! A fantastic amount of research obviously went into this. I learned a lot.

  5. Thanks Rick and Magic. As I was cleaning up the draft of this post last night I was also watching the latest installment of "Moguls & Movie Stars" and realized there was a nice coincidence re: MCA.

    As to Ashley's taste - yes, he seemed to have that - both in architecture and art.

  6. Hi Eve

    That's a very informative article. I'm really interested in film history and I've learned a lot reading your article.

    Thank you!

  7. Thanks, Juan. Hope you're able to see the TCM "Moguls & Movie Star" series - really well done. If not available in your area, I'm sure it will be out on DVD once it's aired.

  8. Eve, one of the most fascinating things about research is that one area (learning about Leatrice and her father, John Gilbert) will often open the door into other interesting and unknown areas. This was a very well-researched look into Ted Ashley, Hollywood talent agencies, and the diversification of studios into television and the TV mini-series. I thoroughly enjoyed your most excellent article!

  9. You are so right and so perceptive, Toto. This all began with an interest in Gilbert's career that led to the interview and, later, an interest in the history of Gilbert's home...then Ted Ashley, and - voila - a blog that turned into a bit of a Hollywood history lesson. Other doors to other areas were also opened, but a blog must be a reasonable length!

  10. great piece..I am glad that you went "off the beam" and focused more on the developement and background of the studio system..ASHLEY was a force majeur..was he really born ASSOFSKY??? that is worse than A BOY NAMED SUE!!!

  11. Ted Ashley’s retirement years were devoted to his impressive art collection which included paintings by Leger, Gris, Miro and Rothko as well as sculptures by Brancusi, Matisse and Degas.

  12. Eve, Thank you for writting this wonderful article on, Ted Ashley. I never knew that much about him.

  13. I'm in college at Boston U. in 1974 and am on the same coed dorm floor as someone named Diane Ashley. That Spring she flew out to see the Academy Awards with her boyfriend Alex as supposedly her father was the Chairman of Warner Bros. We couldn't check that on Google but that is where she went, so we just shrugged. Diane was a really nice kid, like her dad I guess. Very pretty too.

  14. Thank you, Anonymous. Google makes things so much easier these days, doesn't it? Today you can confirm such things quickly - & with pictures.