Michael Levine paces the lobby of the CBC Broadcasting Centre, cell phone glued to his ear. Behind him, Toronto's media elite, including many of his clients, streams into the Glenn Gould Studio to hear a Holocaust lecture by British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, whom Levine also represents. It's a quintessential Levine moment: a highbrow cultural event with a Jewish theme that simultaneously promotes four of his business interests.
Levine is Canada's one and only superagent, an entertainment lawyer who's acted for everyone from Lloyd Robertson to Adrienne Clarkson. "My husband and I asked him, 'You represent everyone, all the players, all the owners. How does that work?" says broadcaster Valerie Pringle, a long-time Levine client. "It's totally unusual, but I do completely trust he's representing me fairly."
In New York or L.A., Levine would be eaten alive with charges of conflict of interest. But the Canadian media pond is tiny by comparison. Plus it's not a conflict of interest in the strict legal sense of representing both sides on the same deal, but in representing both sides at various times on different deals. In legalese, this is a "business conflict," resolved by everyone accepting that Levine acts for anyone who is anyone. And then some.
All the same, he has asked at least one client to sign a waiver, acknowledging that he had no problem with Levine representing other parties on a particular entertainment project. That's because Michael Levine's biggest client is Michael Levine. Confusingly, he's both a partner at Goodmans LLP and chairman of Westwood Creative Artists (WCA), a literary agency of which he owns 18%. He also owns 20% of a Westwood subgroup, WCA Film & Television. (The Westwood is Bruce Westwood, who declined an interview, although he agreed to verify information I gathered. He also twice offered to give me piles of free books. I passed.)
Only Levine knows how many irons he has in the fire. Consider the pig-farm murders involving dozens of missing Vancouver women. There are several books in the works, and WCA and Levine overlap on two. One is by journalist (and erstwhile Levine client) Stevie Cameron, through the Westwood agency. The other is by Vancouver police officer and investigator Lori Shenher, through his law firm. Inevitably, the books will compete head on for publicity, reviews and sales.
"If you represent too many people, you have to choose," says Peter Kent, a Levine client and co-host of MoneyWise on Global TV. "The person lowest on the totem pole will have to find someone else, or be less well served."
Others shrug off the problem. "Michael is conflicted all over the place, but everyone knows that, so it becomes immaterial," says John Honderich, publisher of the Toronto Star. "He's the agent for the media in Toronto."
Patrick Watson, the broadcaster and author, has such faith in his agent that he bought Levine's old convertible Volkswagen Rabbit. Calling him "Mr. Conflict of Interest," Watson adds, "he seems to represent people on two sides of every deal, but I don't even think of that because it all works out."
Indeed, Levine represented Margaret Trudeau when she got her shows on CJOH television in Ottawa in the early 1980s and later during her divorce from Pierre. And then he represented the former prime minister when he auctioned off his memoirs.
"He's uber, uber, uber," says Gloria Goodman, who handles rights sales at Random House of Canada. Levine is so uber it sometimes feels incestuous. Last year, Maclean's put him on its list of "50 most influential Canadians." The editor Anthony Wilson-Smith isn't a client, but Levine has represented his wife, Deirdre McMurdy, co-host of Global's MoneyWise. And he collaborated with Wilson-Smith on a Maclean's cover story celebrating the late Mordecai Richler, one of Levine's alpha clients.
"He's a spectacular operator, a Sammy Glick operator running from deal to deal," says Watson, referring to the antihero in the 1941 novel by Budd Schulberg. Jack Rabinovitch, the developer who created the Giller Prize in Canadian literature, invokes the same comparison. "There are those who find him fiercely materialistic," he says, "because he takes the Sammy Glick approach. He's very, very driven. I remember Mordecai and I discussing him. Mordecai looked and me and said, 'Jack, I like him.' Because he was what he was. He's a huckster, a hustler and he was above-board about it. He's the Michael Ovitz of Canada."
Richler took a novelist's perverse delight in Levine. After Solomon Gursky Was Here was published in 1989, Levine read the novel for libel on behalf of the Bronfmans, then recommended they not sue to avoid undue publicity. According to Levine, Richler invited him for breakfast and declared in his trademark cantankerous way, "I always wanted to hire a lawyer that represented the Bronfmans." The Bronfmans didn't protest, so Levine added yet another client to his bulging Rolodex.
At the invitation-only Sir Martin Gilbert lecture, Levine not only represents the speaker but also the master of ceremonies, Ken Whyte, editor-in-chief of the National Post. Another client, Paul Kennedy, hosts CBC Radio's Ideas show, for which the lecture is being taped. Then there's Irving Abella, who introduces Sir Martin. In 1990, Abella wrote the companion book for a Levine multimedia project, A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada.
Coat of Many Colours was sponsored by Andrea and Charles Bronfman of the Seagram fortune, for whom Levine also worked--with client Patrick Watson--on the video vignettes of Canadian history known as Heritage Minutes. And to return full circle to this evening's event, Levine has arranged for Sir Martin to write an as-told-to biography of Charles Bronfman this year.
At 6 p.m., the uber-agent takes a seat in the fourth row of the acoustically perfect Glenn Gould Studio. Levine, who turns 60 in April, is as nondescript as an insurance broker: medium height, with an open, pleasant face and a bald pate fringed by soft white hair, combed to the right. He turns slightly to scrutinize the audience, not that he wants to be scrutinized himself. When I called him earlier for an interview, he phoned back to say, "Seppuku is not my favourite occupation," referring to the Japanese ritual of self-disembowelment. But he agreed to think it over.
The next day he called back. He hadn't changed his mind. "I'm having lunch today with Eddie Greenspon," he added somewhat threateningly, dropping the name of The Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief. "I have been his lawyer. " That didn't have much effect, so Levine tried a little flattery--I think he called me "sensitive." When I scoffed, he quickly said, "My friend Mordecai always claimed that he 'gotcha,'" alluding to a 1997 "Lunch With" column I wrote, and the author's subsequent riposte.
Besides Richler, there's another name Levine loves to drop. "In the course of a single conversation, he will likely drop the name of the Bronfmans seven times," one Toronto publisher confides over lunch. "Good for him. Nice to know he remembers our name," says Andrea Bronfman, in a telephone interview from her home in Palm Beach, Fla.
"He came out of the womb name-dropping," says Hana Gartner of the CBC's the fifth estate and a Levine client. "I'm sure he was a strange and precocious baby."
For someone who adores the famous, Levine is paradoxically private. Like the title character in the Woody Allen film Zelig, he inserts himself next to important people but always goes unnoticed. Says Gartner, "He's developed a very Waspy kind of demeanour. He fits everywhere."
The sole magazine profile of Levine ran in 1998 in Lifestyles, dubbed by one wag "Lifestyles of the Rich and Jewish." Sample prose: "His clever eyes sparkle with humour and excitement and a love of life." ("I got diabetes reading that," says Gartner.)
Levine discourages media attention largely because so many in the media are beholden to him, or once were, or would like to be. When Ken Whyte was editor of Saturday Night magazine, he sent Jacob Richler, son of Mordecai, to profile Levine. Young Richler discovered that Levine didn't want to be profiled. But he did want him as a client. Junior came into the fold.
What's more, his detractors are mostly silent, fearing his power. "Maybe if he drops an acid word, you get blacklisted," says one media executive, requesting anonymity. Authors and film producers also declined to speak on the record. "He just has to pick up the phone and say, 'Don't do her movie deal,'" says one author.
But Levine did talk to my colleague James Adams to promote seven posthumous Richler projects. "The names were dropping like anvils,'' Adams recalls, including my name. In fact, kibbitzing away, Levine made the point that he's worked with many, many writers at The Globe--and that I'm one of them.
I'm not, but Levine is inflation-prone. Last fall, he told the National Post he was Richler's literary executor. "I am the sole literary executrix," says Richler's widow, Florence, in a telephone interview from London. "This is in Mordecai's will." In the same Post article, Levine claimed former Ontario premier Bob Rae as a "childhood friend," odd considering that Levine spent his childhood in Toronto and Rae spent his in Ottawa, Washington and Geneva, following his father's diplomatic postings. Rae, who is Levine's law partner and client, says, "Michael and I met at university. I don't know if that counts as 'childhood.'"
Then there's the Lifestyles profile. As the interviewer reports, Levine said Sir Martin's History of the Twentieth Century mentions that the funeral of Levine's grandfather, also named Michael Levine, "stopped the Armistice parade in Toronto." Sir Martin doesn't mention Levine the elder by name. The relevant passage goes like this: "In Toronto, on the day chosen by the city fathers to mark the Allied victory, the victory parade itself had to come to a halt, during its triumphant march through the city, to allow a funeral cortege of two victims of influenza to pass."
Finally, there are Levine's much-trumpeted family ties to the Bronfmans. He talks about them so often that everyone assumes he's a blood relative. "He's not related to my husband," says Andrea Bronfman. She explains that Charles's aunt--not from the Bronfman side of the family--married Michael's uncle. "It's the second marriage for both."
If Levine is claiming to be my agent, then maybe I'll claim his table. I phone up City Grill.
Me: Three for lunch, Friday, 12:30 for, um, Michael Levine. The regular table, please.
City Grill: No problem.
Since I can't interview the man himself, I can at least explore his habitat. It turns out that City Grill is a shopper's pit stop, smack dab in the Eaton Centre mall. The tablecloths are mustard vinyl, the muzak soft rock. At lunch, the restaurant is packed with office workers. It's hardly the place to power-lunch, so the allure must be time-management. I do a dry run and discover it takes barely five minutes, including express elevator, to get from Levine's 26th-floor office to his favourite table. And he doesn't even have to go outside.
For Levine, whose clients say he charges $300 to $600 an hour (the answers vary), a minute is worth $5, possibly $10. "All I know is I want to get him off the phone," says Pringle. "When they break ground on his new home, I'll have paid for the left wing."
Levine takes a literary agent fee when negotiating book contracts. As a lawyer--for something like an employment contract, a multimedia project or movie deal unaffiliated with Westwood--he charges an hourly fee, depending on what the traffic will bear.
Not that Levine makes all his clients wealthy. At a dinner for the late Timothy Findley (a client), journalist June Callwood sighed aloud that she had written 30 books and "only one had ever made real money." Levine, sitting at her table, leaned over and said, "I'm going to make you rich." The advance on Callwood's subsequent book, The Man Who Lost Himself, was $30,000. The Westwood agency took 15% of Callwood's half, $15,000, and Levine took 15% of the other half from Terry Evanshen, the football player who suffered brain damage and is the subject of the book. "Take off two agents and split it," says Callwood, "and you're not going to Florida." The book has never made money. "He did try," says Callwood, calling Levine "a total charmer. I don't hold it against him." He also managed to sell options on the film rights, but for a mere $5,000 to CTV, split between Callwood and Evanshen.
On the appointed Friday, I drag a friend to City Grill for lunch. "Mr. Levine's upstairs, first booth on the right," the hostess says. My heart stops. Does she mean Mr. Levine himself is upstairs, or does she merely mean his table is upstairs? Stupidly, I had never considered that he would take my reservation. But, there he is, a smidgen of pinstriped elbow peeking out from behind the wall of his booth. With two guests. Just like my reservation said. Of course, he'd be having lunch with clients. He never stops working. My guest and I dive into the only vacant table, the one--this is true--right behind him (decently separated by the path to the stairwell). The high walls of his booth shelter him from prying eyes. But a walk-by reveals he's already scarfed his food by 12:35. The waiter helpfully informs us that Levine had the $8.95 "executive sandwich special," ham and mozzarella on focaccia, with a bowl of soup. Alas, we can't recognize either of his guests.
Friends say Levine is preternaturally energetic. After meetings, he follows up with detailed memos, according to Maclean's Wilson-Smith and others. "I'm sure he triple bills," Gartner jokes. Whenever he puts her on the speakerphone, she demands, "Are you cleaning out your drawer? Rearranging your Rolodex?"
Levine manages on four or five hours of sleep a night. On the mornings he isn't playing tennis, a personal trainer sometimes arrives before dawn to count his 300 sit-ups. "Michael is completely consumed by his job," says Hugh Brewster, his landlord, who is publisher of Madison Press Books and has done books with Levine clients such as Robert Bateman and Peter C. Newman. "Even before I'm up in the morning, I hear Michael leaving. And he comes home after I'm in bed," says Brewster, who lives upstairs from Levine in the same Rosedale duplex. "I'll be putting out garbage at 10:30 at night and he pulls up and starts talking about a deal. I'll say, 'Michael, the office is closed.'"
Levine once told Michael Posner, a Globe reporter (and recent Levine client), that he thrives on work. "People don't get tired from hard work," he said. "They get tired from stress. I work all the time, but I love what I do and I'm never tired."
Indeed, he's perennially hungry for more clients. When Shelagh Rogers was having trouble at CBC Radio, friends urged her to phone Levine for legal help. "I've been expecting your call for three years," he told her.
"He knows your name, who you are," adds former Globe reporter John Gray, who isn't a client and is currently writing a biography of Paul Martin. "Who am I? Yet he keeps track." Filmmaker Robin Benger, another non-client, met Levine at a reception. "It was like: Okay, what have you done, send me your CV. He's all over me like a dirty shirt. For a documentary filmmaker to be wooed like that is like a wino to be invited to dinner at Winston's."
Al Cummings, CEO of Madison Press, recalls pulling up to a stoplight when he noticed Levine's BMW in front of him. Levine wasn't on his cellphone. "So I dialled him up and said, 'So, it's a very quiet day?' He said, 'Who is this!?'"
His friends call him a human switchboard, a networking wonder. In Ottawa, he stays at Rideau Hall with his old client who is now, of course, Governor-General. In 1999, when Richard Addis arrived from Fleet Street to edit The Globe and Mail, Levine quickly invited him to play tennis with Rae and Rabinovitch.
When Levine scuba-dives with Patrick Watson, it's partly because they once worked on a film about an Arctic shipwreck and Levine wanted Prince Charles to participate. Watson remembers attending a musical, Starlight Express, with Levine in London in 1983 when Levine announced he was going to duck out for a meeting at Buckingham Palace. "Sure enough," Watson chuckled, "he came back just as the lights were going down after the interval. Meeting over. Mission accomplished." (Prince Charles eventually appeared in the film's introduction.)
In January, Levine went to New York with William Thorsell, CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum. While Thorsell stayed at the Hilton, Levine chose the Sherry-Netherland, where the Bronfmans used to keep an apartment. Both Levine and Andrea Bronfman are involved in the ROM's $200-million redesign project. He's the deputy-chair of the project's oversight committee; she was on the selection committee to choose the architect, Daniel Libeskind, who recently won the competition to rebuild Ground Zero. Libeskind also happened to be in New York at the time of Thorsell's and Levine's visit. Naturally, Levine arranged for everyone--the Bronfmans included--to have dinner together.
He rarely misses out on a deal, but it happens. The Lifestyles profile claimed that "he was in at the very beginning of Titanic fever, long before it became a blockbuster film, and even before the sunken ship was discovered in 1985....Levine also commissioned the original documentary films and books on the discovery." He was there at the beginning, acting on behalf of Robert Ballard, an American who discovered the Titanic. Levine sold rights to CTV, among others. But things got messy: Other groups claimed they had rights to the story, and a dispute arose about whether the material was in the public domain. "Michael was taken off the case," says Cummings, who published Ballard's best-selling book, The Discovery of the Titanic. "Michael wasn't in place when the deal went down."
Mostly, he keeps his eye on the main chance. When Addis's contract ended in mid-2002, before any public announcement, Levine was on the phone to Globe publisher Phillip Crawley, audaciously proposing Ken Whyte as replacement. In an e-mail from the Financial Times in London, where he now works, Addis confirmed the anecdote, "except that Phillip never took the suggestion seriously for a second and would not have hired Ken Whyte under any circs."
But the newspaper war had been the opening Levine needed. Unlike the broadcast media, newspapers had studiously avoided the celebrity system. But that all changed when Conrad Black (a sometime Levine client) launched the National Post, and everyone began poaching talent.
You can measure Levine's influence by charting his relations with successive Globe editors. Geoff Stevens, managing editor in the 1980s, remembers Levine primarily as someone to avoid. "He had the reputation of someone who takes your balls and has them for lunch." Towards the end of Thorsell's tenure, Levine had begun representing writers, inside and outside The Globe. By the Addis era, Levine knew the newsroom layout so intimately that he once called up executive editor Edward Greenspon, who sat across from Addis's office. He was frustrated that papers for his client, writer and CTV host Dominic Patten, were languishing on Addis's desk. He hadn't even met Greenspon at this point, never mind had a conversation with him. But ever direct, Levine introduced himself and asked Greenspon to give Addis a nudge.
Last summer, after Pringle began a CTV travel series, Levine bombarded The Globe's travel editor with calls and notes, the latter copied to Greenspon, by that point editor, and Ivan Fecan, CEO of Bell GlobeMedia (also a onetime Levine client). Levine's convergence brainwave: a Pringle column promoting her travel series. His in-your-face style didn't succeed. "I think he thought he was helping me. It just got torpedoed," says Pringle. One column ran, and nothing more.
Levine always says he's a dealmaker, not a deal breaker. If the salary scale is a sticking point, he'll get around it with an additional "advisory fee," as he did for Steve Paikin, co-host of TVOntario's Studio 2. Or he'll knock out an onerous clause at the CBC, which tried to claim the lion's share of a host's extracurricular income, as he did for Paul Kennedy. For Shelagh Rogers's unhappiness at CBC Radio, it took Levine 10 minutes with management to get her substantially more money. After Rogers took a medical leave, citing high blood pressure, management began tinkering with her mishmash of a show, Sounds Like Canada. "It's being redesigned around Shelagh," says a CBC spokesperson.
Then there are prima-donna perks, a tad unseemly to demand yourself. "If you want a limo picking you up at 4:30, better have Michael asking for you," says Star publisher Honderich.
His clients may desire limos, but Levine himself favours anonymous dark suits, patternless ties, white shirts and sturdy black dress shoes. At City Grill, we're supposedly observing Levine. Around 1:30, we suddenly realize he's long gone, although his guests, oddly, are still there. He must have ducked out through the smoking section and down the back stairs. Like Zelig, Levine blends in and vanishes at will. "He'd be the perfect spy," says David Macfarlane, author, Levine client and tennis partner.
Michael Allan Levine was born in 1943, the descendant of British and Eastern European Jews who owned clothing stores in Toronto. He grew up in tony Forest Hill and attended Forest Hill Collegiate. His family belonged to the Island Yacht Club. His classmates viewed him as a nerd, so he strove to improve his image with sharp clothes and fast cars.
His father, Murray David Levine, supplied uniforms to parochial schools and the Canadian military. He also made those purple cloth bags for Seagram's whisky, another Bronfman connection. Cummings of Madison Press remembers selling the gold-crested blazers to his Grade 13 classmates at St. Michael's High School. "I always tease Michael," he says. "Here I am sweating to sell blazers for your father's company to pay for you to go through law school to come back and bite me on the ankles."
At the University of Toronto, Levine studied political science and economics, played on the University College water polo team and was president of the student Liberal Party. He was "effervescent," the kind of guy who "pollinates,'' says Bruce Kidd, the Olympic runner and a classmate. "You can see those skills today."
Many times, Levine took notes for Kidd when he was away at a competition. "The handwriting was very clear. They were wonderful notes," says Kidd, now dean of the faculty of phys ed and health at U of T. Every year Levine sends him a holiday card, he adds, and invites him to lunch at--where else?--City Grill.
Levine was raised Jewish, complete with a bar mitzvah. But he didn't embrace that identity as a young man. At university, he had a nose job. "One minute he has a beak ten-feet long. The next minute he has a little tiny Gentile nose," says one acquaintance.
While at law school, he met Carol Cowan. They dated through her last year at Glendon College, when she was studying for her undergrad in languages. Her family had anglicized their surname, Cohen, several generations earlier. Levine would eventually plant the seed with friends that she was related to Two-Gun Cohen, the Canadian cardsharp, conman and bodyguard to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, president of republican China. In fact, there's no relation, according to Carol Cowan-Levine, now a child and family therapist who chairs the board of Women's College Hospital.
While her religious background is both Jewish and Christian, Cowan-Levine was blonde, Waspy, a Branksome Hall private-school girl from Rosedale. Levine liked that. In 1968, they had a lavish wedding at Holy Blossom Temple. When she left grad school with a degree in social work in 1969, he took a deferment. They moved to Tanzania for nearly two years, where she taught French to high-school students and he spent a year negotiating freight rates under the auspices of the Canadian International Development Agency. Back in Toronto, Levine articled, passed his bar exams and eventually joined a law firm that ended up merging with other firms to create Goodmans.
Cowan-Levine, a youthful, attractive woman, had health problems that nearly precluded her from having children. But thanks to medical intervention, they had Elizabeth and then triplets, Peter, Alexis and Tamara. (They were born as quadruplets, but one of the babies, Katherine, died at five-and-a-half months, after heart surgery.) The marriage disintegrated in 1983, but the couple did not finalize their divorce until 1998. "He cried on me through three cities and five restaurants," recalls Cummings, who was on a business trip to Europe with Levine at the time. Cowan-Levine, who still uses her ex-husband's name professionally, has since remarried.
For Levine's part, his subsequent romances include a glamorous franco-Ontarian broadcaster named Charlotte Gobeil, who once dated Henry Kissinger. (Her sister, Madeleine, once dated Pierre Trudeau.) In 1987, Levine and Gobeil attended an exhibit of paintings by client Robert Bateman at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The following year, he and Gobeil were invited to a costume party at Adrienne Clarkson's Yorkville home in Toronto. Levine dressed as Napoleon; Gobeil went as Désirée, his pre-Josephine lover.
For the past decade or more, Levine has dated Donna Orenstein, his first cousin and the widow of a high-school friend. Orenstein's father and Levine's mother are siblings. Like him, his cousin has four grown children. They live separately but plan to move in together. In 2001, they jointly paid $965,000 for a vacant plot in the Bridle Path, zoned for a 12,000-square-foot house. Ground hasn't been broken yet, but friends say they want a dining room large enough to seat 20--all their kids and friends for Shabbat dinners.
Levine is close to his children, taking each one on a special trip on their 21st birthday. "He'll call me at least twice a week to touch base, so you can imagine how many times he talks to his kids," says his best friend, Trent University English Professor Michael Peterman, who is godfather to Elizabeth Levine. (Levine is godfather to Peterman's daughter.)
He and Levine see the Blue Jays together, and every year, for the past quarter-century, they've driven to Stratford to take in two plays and dinner. Levine was in Los Angeles last December, the day before Peterman's surprise 60th birthday party. He flew the red eye to Toronto, drove straight to Peterborough, spoke at the party, then drove right back to Toronto. "He gets every iota he can out of a day," says Peterman. "He genuinely loves what he does. You always have the sense he's not in it to make money, but to make a significant contribution to culture."
The man who once surgically altered his nose is now also re-embracing his Judaism, a journey not uncommon for someone of Levine's age and intellectual pursuits. When Gartner read Primo Levi's memoir of Auschwitz, she passed on a copy to Levine. He was so moved by the book that he wrote her a note of gratitude. "That is a totally different side, his Hebraic side," she says.
In the 1990s, Levine was an executive producer of Hollywoodism, a documentary about the six Jewish moguls who invented Hollywood. Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici says that Levine was crucial--initially by using his Bronfman connection to open the vaults for key archival footage from Universal. At the premiere in 1998, Levine brought his children and spoke movingly about what the film meant to him. "He said, 'These are where my ancestors came from. They had to create dreams because the real world was closed off to them,'" Jacobovici recalls.
At the Glenn Gould Studio, Levine sits in the fourth row. He listens intently, fingertips fanned in front of him, as Sir Martin describes the unsung heroes of the Holocaust, the petty thieves, pious Catholics and Bosnian Muslims who saved Jews at great personal risk to themselves. Just once, Levine suppresses a yawn. When Sir Martin finishes an hour later, Levine joins in the applause. Loyally, he doesn't stop until the last clap dies away.
His fidelity is legendary. "I've seen him stand by people through thick and thin, with no particular advantage to him," says Slawko Klymkiw, executive director of network programming for CBC television and a sometime client. "With Michael Ignatieff, when his BBC show [The Late Show]went south [in the mid-1990s] he stood by him through a very difficult period. He went after absolutely everyone to get work for Michael Ignatieff. Michael Levine wasn't going to get rich representing Michael Ignatieff at that point, but he believed he was a voice for Canada."
David Macfarlane appreciates his agent's unwavering dedication. In 1995, the author's family memoir, The Danger Tree, was turned into a documentary. Macfarlane assured Levine he didn't have to attend the premiere. After all, it was in a theatre in rural Newfoundland. Levine went anyway. "I think he stayed in a motel on the highway leading into Grand Falls," says Macfarlane. "It was absolutely above and beyond the call of duty."
In 1996, when Macfarlane was writing his novel, Summer Gone, he hit what he calls "a very black period" of financial and creative trouble. Levine proposed that his client ghostwrite To Russia with Fries, the memoirs of George Cohon, then senior chairman of McDonald's in Canada. "Others would say he brought some crass commercial undertaking to a writer when he's at his most vulnerable," says Macfarlane. "But I made the money that allowed me to continue writing the novel. Plus I enjoyed meeting George, travelling in Russia and meeting Mikhail Gorbachev."
In 1999, Macfarlane repaid the favour. Levine had produced a TV program based on the Oscar Wilde novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. His clients, Patrick Watson and young Montreal actor David Hirsh, were its stars and co-writers. Two days before The Age of Dorian aired on Bravo! (founded by Levine client Moses Znaimer), Macfarlane publicized the show in his weekly Globe column.
"Four or five times a year, Michael will pitch a column idea to me, something he's involved in. Every now and then something works for me, and that was one of them," says Macfarlane, who's writing a one-man show about Mordecai Richler this year.
Contrary to belief, Levine will take on minor clients. He has recommended Chris Tenove, an unknown young writer, to Maclean's. He finds work for Hirsh, another relative unknown, and even lets the young actor bunk at his Rosedale duplex. As for the major names, Levine was never Richler's literary agent--the author handled his own books in Canada--but Levine handled the film rights, and continues to do so. Thus, he has a financial interest in promoting Richler posthumously. The more the name is out there, the more valuable the franchise.
Last June, on the first anniversary of Richler's death, Levine organized a lavish tribute in Montreal, which, viewed in light of his business ventures, was also a blatant infomercial. Like every Levine project, it multi-tasked. He even found room for Hirsh, the young actor, to read from Richler's works. He co-ordinated book displays at Indigo with the chain's CEO, Heather Reisman. And he worked on the special cover story for Maclean's magazine with Wilson-Smith, even supplying one of Richler's daughters, Emma, to write a reminiscence.
Normally, tributes to dead authors are quiet affairs. This one had 11 sponsors, government funding, wrestler Bret "The Hitman" Hart and a country crooner, just the kind of televised extravaganza Richler would have boycotted. "I'd rather not comment on that, if you don't mind," says Florence Richler. She did allow that there were "a few serious flaws," including "the horrendous ending....It was just one of those moments of very bad taste." The finale had someone belting out Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Alabama Song, which goes, "Show me the way to the next whisky bar...." Richler, a lifelong drinker, died at age 70. The cancer had taken a kidney and ultimately invaded his liver.
Florence was on the phone to Levine the next morning. "I know, I know," he told her. "I'm going to the CBC this morning. I'm going to cut the ending out of the television version."
And he did.
Right after the applause ends, I nab Levine as He's stuck in audience gridlock. He flinches almost imperceptibly. Then he acknowledges arranging Sir Martin's speech and edges away. With his son Peter in tow, Levine heads for the lobby for the post-lecture reception. Normally, this is his ideal habitat: a roomful of clients or potentials lubricated with free wine and canapés. But as Levine works the room, with a big smile, big voice, big hand outstretched, he's the perfect target for a journalistic ambush.
"Ubiquitous," he mutters, when I turn up at his elbow for the fourth time. He keeps sidling away, so I return to the auditorium to plant myself next to Sir Martin, who's autographing books, and start asking questions. Presto! Levine materializes a moment later. "Martin," he says urgently, "I'm taking you to the lobby." But Sir Martin won't be led away when there's still a fan with a book to sign. Stymied, Levine fills the awkward moments introducing his son to a few clients, CTV's Patten and Seamus O'Regan, the co-host of Canada AM.
It's the perfect moment to ask Levine why he's telling people he's my agent. He splutters. "Pardon me? Absolutely not. Misquoted as usual." And then, Sir Martin or not, Levine hurries back up the aisle with his son.