Lawrence Barnett, who as president of the MCA Talent Agency in the 1960s represented the likes of Jack Benny, Marlon Brando, Judy Garland and Ronald Reagan, died June 11 in Los Angeles. He was 98.
After 37 years with MCA, Barnett served as an executive with such entertainment organizations as General Artist Corp. (a forerunner of ICM), Warner Communications, United Television and Chris-Craft.
In 1948, Barnett was one of the original eight employees to be sold stock in MCA by company founder Jules Stein. After MCA became a public company in the 1950s and acquired Universal Pictures in 1962, the Department of Justice brought an antitrust action against MCA for owning both the talent agency and movie studio, and MCA was forced to dissolve the agency.
A native of Orrville, Ohio, Barnett was a booking agent when Stein hired him and sent him to MCA’s West Coast offices, where he would handle the careers of many of the big bandleaders of the day, including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo and Harry James, as well as such singers as Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne and Dinah Shore.
As MCA was expanding into representing movie stars to become the world’s largest talent agency, Barnett also repped Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis and George Burns in addition to Benny, Brando, Garland and Reagan.
At one time, Barnett acknowledged counseling Brando to remain focused on his acting career, rather than go on the road and play drums in a band. And after Reagan’s divorce from actress Jane Wyman, Barnett and Reagan went on a horseback-riding trip in Death Valley to help Reagan clear his head.
Barnett was a generous philanthropist who served as the founding chair of the ALS Association, which aims to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He and his late wife of 53 years, Isabel, helped fund research that eventually isolated the first gene associated with ALS and sponsored the inaugural Lawrence and Isabel Barnett Post-Doctoral Fellowship Award for ALS research.
“Every organization has a George Washington, and Larry Barnett was the George Washington of the ALS Association,” said ALS Association national board of trustees chair Jay Daugherty.
In 1993, the Barnetts established the Ohio State University Arts Administration Program, endowing numerous graduate fellowships, and later, the Public Policy and the Arts Symposium, which now attracts worldwide attention to its presentations. The program brings notable members of the entertainment industry to Ohio State to speak about their experiences; the first two speakers were Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier, both former clients of Barnett.
Barnett’s survivors include children Robert, William, Claudia, Lawrence Jr., James and Laurey; 16 grandchildren; and five great grandchildren. As Isabel Bigley, his wife won a Tony Award in 1951 for her role as Sarah Brown in the original Broadway production of Guys & Dolls. She died in 2006.
The family has asked that donations in Barnett’s memory be made to the Washington-based ALS Association.