Bill Robinson, the well-liked talent agent and manager who represented the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Carol Burnett, James Garner and Robert Duvall during his long career, has died. He was 92.
Robinson died Aug. 6 at his home in Malibu after a long illness, his family announced.
Robinson’s clients also included Judith Anderson, Tony Bill, Glenda Jackson, Waylon Jennings, Jayne Mansfield and Maggie Smith, and he gave Mike Medavoy (real first name: Morris) his first job as an agent.
“‘You’re gonna have a hard time in this business as a Morris,’ Bill Robinson told me when he hired me … at his agency,” Medavoy, the producer and studio executive, wrote in his 2002 book, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot.
“‘You got a middle name?’ ‘Mike,’ I told him. I was never crazy about my first name anyway. Besides, I had nothing to do with my naming. ‘Mike … Medavoy,’ he repeated. ‘That works.’”
Said Burnett said in a statement. “I knew Bill for many, many years … since 1959. We met while I was doing The Garry Moore Show. Later on, he became my manager when I was doing my show. But not just my manager. He was one of my closest friends in the world. I loved him very much … and I will miss him.”
Born in 1929 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Robinson and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 16. After graduating from high school, he worked as a dress salesman.
Following a stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Robinson landed a job as an NBC page and met actress-director Ida Lupino, who urged him to become an agent. He heeded her advice and took a position in the MCA mailroom; there, he apprenticed under Lew Wasserman and was promoted to talent agent, representing small-time musical acts throughout the Southwest.
He jumped to the Kurt Frings Agency, where he represented Hepburn, and then to the Ashley-Famous Agency. When he left to start his own agency, Ashley-Famous founder Ted Ashley gave him a check for $50,000 to help him get started.
Robinson was known for his casual dress and his golden retriever named Marmalade, who went to work with him every day and carried his packages up and down Rodeo Drive.
He eventually sold the Robinson Agency and joined ICM as a senior vp, where he mentored fledgling agents. He also taught at UCLA and Pepperdine.
Actor-producer Bill said Robinson was unique because he “never ‘signed a client’ … because he never had a contract with any of them. It was an honor, and always fun, to be represented by Bill: a friend to the end.”
Garner, in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files, wrote that “he turned down so many scripts, my manager Bill Robinson always says he’d rather have 5 percent of what I turn down than 10 percent of what I do.”
In the book, Robinson contributed an inside look at movie star finances:
“Actors don’t make what people think they make. Here’s the basic formula: All actors have an agent who gets 10 percent of the gross. If the actor is paid $1 million for a movie, the agent gets $100,000. When a studio pays an actor $1 million, it’s required to deduct a 25 percent withholding tax. So the actor doesn’t get $1 million from which to pay the agent $100,000, he gets only $750,000.
“In addition to the agent who gets 10 percent, there’s usually a business manager who gets anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of the gross and, frequently, a monthly guarantee. If the actor is out of work for a year, the business manager still has as much work to do as when the actor is working. He’s managing investments, filing income tax returns, writing checks, paying bills, so he still gets paid month after month.
“Then there’s the public relations person. The good ones used to work on percentages, but they don’t anymore. Now they get a monthly fee, anywhere from $600 to $2,500, for the same reason: when the actor’s not working, they’re still doing their job; they’re still arranging interviews, getting his picture on magazine covers, et cetera.
“Managers have come into the picture in the last 20 years. Managers are permitted by the State of California to produce a movie and cast their client in it, so the manager can make whatever he can as the producer and commission his client for acting in it. Managers get anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of the gross. So, if an actor is paid $1 million for a movie, his check from the studio is only $750,000 because of the withholding tax, he’s paying $100,000 to his agent, say $50,000 to his PR person, another $50,000 to his business manager, and another $100,000 to his manager. He’s left with $300,000 out of $1 million. It’s not ‘poor actor’ — movie stars are still paid astronomical sums, but it’s not what people think.”
Survivors include his wife of 38 years, Mandy, and their daughter, Hannah. The family lost their home in the 2018 Woolsey Fire but remained in Malibu.