Schmoozing with celebrities on Israel's behalf

Hyler is one of the most powerful names in Hollywood and has represented Dylan, Streep, and Madonna.

joan hyler 88 (photo credit: )
joan hyler 88
(photo credit: )
The United Jewish Communities General Assembly (GA) in Los Angeles was the place to be earlier this month if you wished to hobnob with 5,000 or so North American Jewish professionals and the Israeli political elite, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. A plethora of panels and discussion sessions took place over the four-day conference, but one seemed particularly fitting given the GA's setting this year near Hollywood. The event was the UJC National Women's Philanthropy Luncheon, and the topic was "Mel Gibson, Madonna and Me - How Hollywood Is Finally Getting It Right." The featured speaker was Joan Hyler, the founder of Hyler Management and a former vice president of the William Morris talent agency. Hyler is one of the most powerful names in Hollywood, where she has worked for over 25 years. In that period, the Jewish talent manager has represented everyone from Bob Dylan and Meryl Streep to Madonna and Peter O'Toole. Academy Award nominee Diane Lane has been a client for 29 years, ever since she was discovered as a precocious 13-year-old. Hyler also represents Chocolat and Spider-Man 2 star Alfred Molina, Emmy winner Eric McCormack (Will and Grace) and Dougray Scott (currently of Desperate Housewives) to name but a few. But Hyler does more than just represent actors and writers. She has spent many years heavily involved in work relating to the three identities she says have made her tick over the years: being a woman, being Jewish and being in show business. Hyler first got involved in the "industry" after moving to New York following college and landing a job at a talent agency. Among the people she represented during that time was artist Andy Warhol, whose ultimate dream, he confided to Hyler, was to appear in an episode of The Love Boat. "I delivered," Hyler said. As past president of Women in Film, a non-profit group that promotes women in the movie industry, Hyler currently co-chairs the group's outreach committee. She's also created the National Foundation of Jewish Culture's Entertainment Council, and along with Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman founded the Jewish Image Awards, now in its fifth year. With all these strings in her bow, Hyler was a natural choice to talk at the GA about working to encourage greater Hollywood support for Israel. Unlike members of the Hollywood elite you might read about in People magazine or US Weekly, you'd be hard-pressed to find Hyler strutting around in designer clothes or cozying up with her Blackberry. You're far more likely to find her in sweats and a tee-shirt, and every Sunday morning she can be found in a Torah study class organized by IKAR, a non-affiliated synagogue that promotes Judaism and social justice in Los Angeles. Smart and tough, Hyler didn't climb the Hollywood ladder without learning how to stand on her own two feet. But she's also incredibly forthright, willing to wear her heart on her sleeve. She exudes a warmth and generosity of spirit that's contagious and deeply rooted in her love of Torah and her many years of Jewish study. Nowhere were these qualities more evident than at the GA, where Hyler asked her client and lifelong friend, Emmy-winning writer Bruce Vilanch, to introduce her. Best known for his appearances on Hollywood Squares and work writing scripts for the Oscars over the last 17 years, Vilanch recounted his visit with Hyler to the Tunisian set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Hyler "outed" all the Jews on the set and organized a Rosh Hashana service. Describing his friend's place in Hollywood, Vilanch said, "In a sea of barracudas, [Hyler] is a lone davening tuna." Speaking to her GA audience, Hyler said that the relationship between the entertainment industry and "Jewish identity and Israel are often negative, negligible or non-existent." But, she said, the summer's war in Israel, combined with Mel Gibson's now infamous anti-Semitic tirade, "have conspired to awaken Hollywood to some extent." She spoke proudly of Madonna's trip to Israel in late 2004. "Although I no longer represented her," Hyler said, "I watched in appreciation when she and her Kabbala friends went to Israel …wearing their red strings and dancing at the Western Wall." The pop singer's visit, Hyler continued, both boosted the Israeli economy and "gave Israel a vital injection of support when most of Hollywood had turned its back on Ariel Sharon." "No matter what you think of Madonna and her cohorts," Hyler said, "I admire her and them for showing up and shouting out their love of Israel." But it hasn't been just Hyler's ex-clients who've helped Israel. Hyler herself has been instrumental in bolstering support for Israel during the last few years. At the height of the intifada, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation created a master course at Tel Aviv University that brought high-level film professionals to work with both American and Israeli filmmakers in Tel Aviv. Hyler joined other top Hollywood producers and talent managers in making the trip to teach in Tel Aviv. Raised in a Conservative home in Ohio, Hyler began her own involvement in the Jewish community after being invited to a Shabbat meal in the home of Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbi Wolf Kelman. She found herself becoming a permanent guest at his Shabbat table, she said, "lighting candles for the first time and breaking challah" with luminaries including Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal. Hyler went on to represent Wiesenthal, working to adapt his book The Sunflower into a play. While the play never came to fruition, it was with Wiesenthal that Hyler said she began "a path of weaving [together] my love of show business and my growing love of being Jewish." Hyler made her first trip to Israel after moving to Hollywood in the Eighties, where she represented Dylan and found herself increasingly involved in the local Jewish community. It's a path she's continued on ever since. One of her biggest professional contributions to Israel to date, she says, was to send one of her more prominent clients to Israel to make a movie this past summer. Molina, whose high-profile recent efforts include playing Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 and earning a Tony nomination as Tevye in Broadway's latest staging of Fiddler on the Roof, recently finished filming The Little Traitor - an adaptation of Amos Oz novella The Panther in the Basement. Molina, Hyler said, is "not Jewish [but] considers himself a wannabe Jew." (The actor's first wife was Jewish and his daughter is Jewish, she said.) The stars aligned for the film, and Molina took on the role of a British soldier in pre-state Palestine who forges a friendship with a young Jewish boy. Filming began over the summer - as did Israel's war with Hizbullah. "I would call [Molina] daily and promised to parachute him home," Hyler said, "but he waved me away." "He was committed to the movie and the Israeli cast and crew, who were momentarily being called up to reserve duty, requiring them to put down their cameras and pick up their guns," Hyler said. After returning to Los Angeles when the film shoot wrapped, Molina participated in a speaking tour organized by Hyler, telling audiences about his experience in Israel in order to raise money for rebuilding and to educate Americans about what had happened during the war. Never one to rest on her laurels, Hyler is already working with colleagues at the Creative Artists Agency to bring the LA-Tel Aviv master class to Los Angeles in the summer of 2007. The class, she hopes, will allow Israeli film professionals to meet studio and network heads, as well as other top-tier Hollywood professionals. Potential Hollywood participants "are starting to open up their homes and workspaces for this program," Hyler said. Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, has already proven his talent for mobilizing Hollywood in support of Israel, and he's requested a private meeting with Hyler to discuss ways she can continue to promote Israel in Hollywood. Many Hollywood notables are happy to lend their support to Israel and the Jewish community if asked, Hyler said. Two of her former colleagues at the William Morris Agency have organized a trip to Israel by top filmmakers, among them Under the Tuscan Sun director Audrey Wells and Academy Award-winning Sideways screenwriter and director Alexander Payne. Hyler's activism goes well beyond Israel, though her Judaism plays a central role in her volunteer work. She was scheduled to spend Thursday morning at the IKAR synagogue in west Los Angeles, packaging Thanksgiving meals and taking them to a women's shelter with other volunteers. Among those expected to join Hyler was another of her celebrity clients - talk show host Ricki Lake - who like so many others has helped Hyler to combine her passion for women, Judaism and show business.