Monday, June 22, 2009

Sam Haskell: "Gomer Pyle in a Suit"?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 3:22 PM

b415/1245701501-dolly_sam.jpg "I thought I knew you better than anyone, but after reading your book, I realize I didn't know you at all. Now I love you even more."

That's Dolly Parton speaking to her agent, Sam Haskell, and she's referring to Haskell's book (written with the help of David Rensin), Promises I Made My Mother (Ballantine Books). But Parton was far from being Haskell's only and biggest client at the William Morris Agency in Los Angeles, where he worked — from the mailroom fresh out of Ole Miss to heading the company's worldwide television division — for 26 years.

Count, among Haskell's clients and in no particular order: George Clooney, Bill Cosby, Kathie Lee Gifford, Ray Romano (the Gomer Pyle reference above appears in Romano's foreword to the book), Whoopi Goldberg, Nell Carter, Debbie Allen, Delta Burke, Martin Short, Kirstie Alley, Tony Danza, Lily Tomlin, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Swoosie Kurtz, Lucie Arnaz, and His Royal Highness the Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex (youngest son of Queen Elizabeth).

And count, among the TV shows Haskell is most proud to have been behind and in no particular order: The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Mad About You, Everybody Loves Raymond, Lost, Murphy Brown, Sisters, Suddenly Susan, Live with Regis & Kathie Lee, King of Queens, and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?.

What's a guy from Amory, Mississippi (pop. 7,000, not far from Tupelo) doing in such company and behind such shows? He's doing his best to honor the lessons taught by his mother, as promised in the title of his book. Haskell will be signing at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Monday, June 22nd, at 6 p.m.

And note: All proceeds from the sale of the book go directly to the author's favorite charities, among them the Rotary Foundation of America. Why the Rotary? Because, as Haskell said with a laugh in a recent phone conversation, "I was Rotary Boy of the Year in 1973!"

Here, in his own words: Sam Haskell.

a19a/1245701587-promises_jacket_final.jpg On writing Promises I Made My Mother:

"When I finished the first draft a year ago this month, my editors in New York said: 'Well, I guess you're perfect.' I went, 'That sounds a little condescending. What do you mean?' 'Don't you want people to relate to you?' they asked. 'Well, yeah.' 'They're not going to relate to you if you're perfect. Where are your failures? Your disappointments? Your problems? Your warts?'

"Suddenly a light went on in my head. How can people relate to me if I don't share with them what I went through to get here? What's the real journey? It's then that I remembered my mother saying something she termed 'standing in the light': You've got to show them everything about you. If you do that, more people will react to you.

"I went back and restructured the whole book. I made my mother the focal point. Every chapter began with a lesson she'd taught me and how I used it in my life. When I turned the book back in last September, my editors called, laughing and crying. They said, 'Now, now we've got a book!'"

On Haskell's mother's big piece of advice:

"We have to think about what we really want in life. It can be as simple as accomplishing something on a daily basis or in the grand scheme of things. Then we have to think about who can help us to attain it. Then we have to think about making those people happy about helping us. I think of it as being 'thoughtfully political.'

"That's stuck with me. I've used it in every aspect of my life. I teach it to anyone who will listen."

On Haskell's difficult relationship with a very difficult father:

"I tried to be fair in the book, but he was not a good parent. He was not nurturing. But the one lesson he taught and that I've never forgotten comes from the world of business: You can play in the toy shop, but don't become one of the toys. That's rung true for me for many, many years. I've tried to live up to it."

On Haskell maybe missing his days at William Morris:

"I miss the daily contact with my friends and former clients. Most of my clients, though, like Ray Romano, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Dolly Parton ... they're still very much in my life. I'm like their secret agent. I look at scripts. Ray has a new pilot and wanted my opinion. For him to include me, that means a lot."

On Haskell's visits to Memphis growing up:

"I think of Memphis almost as home. And my idea of an incredible, great weekend was my mother loading us up in the car and driving to Memphis. We'd stay at a Holiday Inn. We'd go to Shoney's. And we'd go to the movies, especially one theater. This was back in the 1960s. It was the first theater in Memphis to have overstuffed chairs that rocked. They'd serve orange drinks in a plastic cup in the shape of an orange. We saw The Sound of Music and Thoroughly Modern Millie. We'd go to the movie on Saturday night, the zoo the next afternoon. My huge joy was to go to Memphis."

On Haskell's charitable giving:

"I've raised thousands of dollars from my appearances, because all proceeds from the sale of my book go to charities. In Beaumont, Texas, for example, a community theater made $25,000 at a fund-raiser that included my book as a gift. And at a Greenville, Mississippi, Rotary meeting where I spoke, the woman who organized it told me if I sold eight or nine books, I'd be lucky. She said these men don't hang around after a talk. I sold 119 books!

"When I speak, people respond. My wife Mary and I leave money in every town we go to."

On a question put to Haskell when he appeared on the Today show in April:

"Matt Lauer asked: 'What do you want people to take away from this book? What do you want people to know about you and your relationship with your mother?'

"I said I want people to look into their hearts and think of something their mother taught them to do and that they still do. It can be something as simple as writing thank-you notes or just being kind. If you still do what your mother taught you to do, call her and thank her. If, like me, you have to look heavenward to thank her, look heavenward. Then think of some promises of your own. That's what my book is about. I think God is present in all of this. My mother too.

"But look, I'm just an ordinary guy, a boy from Mississippi with a dream. I'm fortunate enough to have lived an extraordinary life. I want to share it. I know it's what my mother would want me to do. She always said a blessing is not blessing unless it's shared. It's not about me. I'm, I guess, just the vessel."

For even more on Sam Haskell and especially the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation, founded in honor of Haskell's mother, go here.

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