When It Comes to Giving, Super Producer Brian Grazer Isn’t Afraid to Get His Hands Dirty

The Oscar winner and philanthropist talks about laying bricks in Africa, giving local, and that famous shock of hair

Producer Brian Grazer has enjoyed what is, by any measure, a spectacularly successful career. Over the course of 35 years, he has garnered a handful of Emmys, won an Oscar, penned a New York Times best-seller, and found his way (twice) onto Time’s 100 Most Influential People List. In his recent book, Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, Grazer credits what is perhaps an unlikely source for his success: the personal connections he has formed throughout a career in Hollywood.

On a recent visit to his Santa Monica home, we talked about his extensive philanthropic interests in Los Angeles and beyond; why he prefers to support causes close to home; his partnership with his wife, Veronica; and how not having a beard shaped his professional persona.

Your book is about the power of personal connection. How does that idea inform your philanthropy and the charities you like to give to?

I guess I like to give to things that I can see, feel, and touch. If I can’t see, feel, or touch it, then it’s harder for me to get involved. So I became involved with Best Buddies because its impact was very tangible to me. I’m very active in a residence called Casa de Amma, where my oldest son, Riley, is living. It’s an assisted-living facility in Laguna Beach for people with autism. You have relatively high-functioning kids living in their own apartments. I produced A Beautiful Mind because I saw people all over yelling at garbage cans, screaming at walls. My own son, who went to Malibu High, was teased mercilessly when he was younger. Just coping with even the most minor disability is hard, but places like this make it easier. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have children with autism, and they can not find any place to take care of them. There’s a huge waiting list that all the money in the world won’t help you crack.

Is your son autistic?

He has Asperger’s syndrome, so it’s not so serious. But he’s certainly faced the stigma of being different for most of his life. I want the world to not punish people that have disabilities. So we support this place that helps destigmatize mental disability and lets kids socialize with one another and go on outings and find a job. My son has a job as a bagger at Whole Foods now, which is a big step. It’s hard to find places like this for adults. So I give to things that have personal meaning to me. It’s hard for me to contribute to causes that are more abstract or too far away. I’m not rich enough to give to vague causes. I like to keep it local.

Are there local institutions that you think are particularly important to support?

One of the most important things I’m involved with is USC film school, where I am a board member. I’ve been on the board with Steven [Spielberg] and George Lucas and a few others almost since its inception—probably around 20 years. I make contributions and I teach there.

Rich Polk

What do you teach?

Anything the dean orders me to. (Laughs.) Last year I taught a class to the graduate students called Starting from Zero. It’s about actualizing everything that you learned into a job. Because a lot of these kids, they don’t all have rich parents. They’re on grants or scholarships. They need to get working quickly. They can’t all take unpaid internships. One lesson I am really proud of is called “How to Make the Most of a Serendipitous Moment.” And it came out of a conversation I frequently have with my wife, [Veronica]. Whenever we go out to dinner, every time that Veronica goes to the ladies’ room, someone approaches me with a screenplay idea or pitches their movie or whatever. And they have 15 minutes to make their pitch. Some of them are great; some of them are awful. But the idea was—if you have 15 minutes to get someone hooked, here is how you do it.

I know you were also very involved with LACMA for a while.

I was on the board of LACMA for a long time. It was a great experience because I really believe in [LACMA director] Michael Govan. When he first joined LACMA, it seemed like a vacant lot—a building but with all vacancies. And I saw him transform that, even in its earliest stages, to a bustling world-class museum that matters to people. I think people are a key component of the causes I am attracted to. You want leaders that are efficient and effective and visionary, and Michael is all three. He has this kind of gravitational force that makes me want to participate or do what he wants to do. I left the board a couple of years ago, but my enthusiasm for Michael is undiminished.

You’re involved with a group called World of Children.

That and also WE Villages. It’s this fantastic organization that builds schools in rural areas of countries in Asia and Africa. Sheryl Sandberg and Bobby Kotick turned us on to it. The organization basically trains volunteers of all kinds to work together on projects that improve society. Every year they have an event called WeDay where volunteers from around the word listen to speakers like Oprah and Selena Gomez. We became very taken by that. Under their auspices we have gone to Udaipur, [India]; Burma; Kenya; South Africa; and Israel. And in each place we have made sure to visit an orphanage or visit with the needy. Burma especially has been a wondrous place to visit. We’ve traveled there three times in a year.

Why Burma?

Tom Freston, who’s the chairman of the (RED) organization with Bono, had first suggested we go there. Tom is a fearless adventurer; we have gone to a lot of places together, like Senegal and Mali. Other places, like Yemen and Afghanistan, I am too scared to follow him. But Burma really moved me. We went to a couple of orphanages that he brought to our attention. And I gave to them because I saw the dire conditions they were living in.

That seems to go against your rule of only giving to things that are close and personal.

Yeah, but I saw and felt and touched these people. I talked to them, and I could sense their crisis, and I did it just impulsively.

Do you usually bring your children on these trips?

Yes. We take all of our four kids and sometimes even our nephews and nieces and their friends. Our first trip was to Israel. Since then we’ve been to all these far-flung places where we get involved in building the schools for WE Villages or housing for people who literally have nothing. They’re for people that make like $5 a week. They live in little villages, sometimes in these mud huts that look like tiny brown igloos. Getting to these places is always an adventure. On the last one we spent hours driving on a bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the closest city. It was nighttime. There wasn’t a single light in the street, and we’re speeding through these little mountain villages to get there.

And what do you do when you arrive?

We do whatever we’re asked to do. In this case we were asked to help build a school.


I don’t want to overstate things, like we built an entire school. (Laughs.) But the experience certainly exposed all of us to the mission and the grueling work of laying bricks.

You literally were laying bricks?

We were literally laying bricks.

I would pay good money to see that. (Laughs.)

I’m sure we have pictures of it. But, yeah, I was literally laying bricks. What you do is, there’s a foundation, and then you lay bricks on top of cement, and you have that little thing that makes it even. It’s like a scraper. I don’t love doing it, but … I’m trying to be a good role model. Also, being exposed to stuff gives you a deeper perspective. Both Veronica and I are grateful for the lives we have been able to lead, for our families, and for good health. Health is really important, because I see a lot of our friends that were very powerful, and as esteemed or talented as they are, some are plagued with physical problems.

I had a friend, Jerry Perenchio, who donated incredible amounts of money to medical school, to everybody—everybody and everything. He bought the Beverly Hillbillies house, spent about a billion dollars on it. He just lived the most amazing life. He was my mentor. He died of cancer.

Was he young?

No, he wasn’t young. He was like 76, maybe 78. But his health was always a problem for him, despite all the money and, you know, Pavarotti singing at his wedding and Andy Williams singing “Moon River” at his chateau in Bel-Air. He had everything. He was the greatest curator of human beings. He’s the producer who promoted the Fight of the Century, the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. He sold Univision for $13 billion and made $9 billion personally. He just did great things.

What happened?

About 20 or 25 years ago, he was laid up on his back for an entire year. And he said, “I’d trade everything for good health.” So the next day I thought, “Wow, that’s heavy.” I went out in my backyard at the beach. On the beach alone I had a couple of hits of pot and thought, “I don’t have to trade everything in the way Jerry’s saying it because I have good health, I have the thing he wants so badly. So I’m not going to take that for granted. I’m just going to be super grateful every single day that I am healthy and not sick.”

Rich Polk

Are you interested in medical charities?

Not hospitals so much, but the World of Children does a ton of health stuff, and Veronica was really active in a group called Mothers2Mothers, which educated and empowered women in Africa who were diagnosed with HIV. So many women with HIV don’t realize that they can take a pill and prevent themselves from passing the virus to their children. Mother2Mothers [educates], and it helps take care of women who’ve been exiled for being HIV positive. It’s a great organization, and it’s run by a world-famous doctor who happens to be married to Annie Lennox.

What other causes are you into?

We do a lot of stuff with the homeless, and we are both very interested in the environment [and] Jewish and Christian groups. We actually donate a lot of money to St. Monica church, which Veronica is very taken with.

Tell me about that. Why that church?

Because Veronica came to L.A., and within a week we met—crazily. And as you know she’s a devout Catholic and an all-round spiritual person. So she was looking for a church, and one day she found St. Monica. She always wanted me to go to church. I said no because religion is a choice. And eventually I met her monsignor. His name is Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson. And I liked him so much. I grew up with both faiths: a Catholic dad and a Jewish mom. I had a Jewish grandmother who was a very strong influence. But my dad sort of made me go to catechism classes. I found them really scary. It was all about institutionalizing fear when I went. In Judaism things were different. It was funnier. The Jews are funny; the Jews are funny, and I’m a funny Jew, sort of. And I made a lot of money being a funny Jew, you know. So I grew up with both things. And so once I escaped being hypnotized by that fear institution, I thought, “I’m not going back to that.” But then I met this Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson, who’s a very open-minded. … He’s quite liberal. And I liked him so much that I…like the church, and I like what they stand for.

Your interest in Christianity developed rather late in life.

Really late in my life—it basically happened in the last five years.

How has it changed you?

It makes me more grateful. You know I’m already pretty grateful, but it just makes me more aware and appreciative of all the little things in the world. When I went to Israel, I began to see my Judaism in a different way—the religious aspects of it that I was not really exposed to before then. I had my hand on the Wailing Wall; trying to understand my own conflicts of faith. And so when you have spiritual experiences like that, it makes you think about things more deeply. I live a life with a lot of experiences that I like to reflect upon, and it helps to have a religious mentor. It’s another channel for reflection.

Do you still feel connected to Judaism?

 Yes—by having gone to Israel. …Recently I became more connected to Judaism. But neither Judaism nor Christianity were foisted upon me. I mean I carried the cross [in Israel] because the monsignor was there for a couple of days. And my Jewish guide, Avi, was shocked. “Why would you carry the cross,” he said. “What are you doing now?” That kind of thing. I said, “I’ll do it.” And I did it. That was OK. But at the same time I became much more connected to my Judaism as well. I was honored by the Museum of Tolerance recently and won some Jewish award, and I was really moved by that honor. And in the same way that I love and respect the monsignor, I also love and respect Rabbi Marvin Hier, who leads that museum. He’s even counseled me once in a while. I’ve gone to his house on Shabbat, and it’s always joyful. Once I asked him why Jews are so funny. He’s always laughing.

What did he answer?

He’s got good answers. Like, “Why? Because we’ve been tortured our whole lives. We’re trying to survive.” … I just … Jews are funny. In the 17 years of making hit comedies, I always paired Jewish writers with goyim actors. Never Jew on Jew; never goy on goy. Always Jew on Tom Hanks. Jew on Steve Martin. Jew on Eddie [Murphy]. (Laughs.)

Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg, Bob Iger, Rabbi Marvin Hier and Brian Grazer at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s National Tribute Dinner in April at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills

Presley Ann

In your new book you write that personal interaction has enabled many of the great social and cultural changes of our time. To what extent does that play out in your day-to-day life?

I try to stay humble and accessible and open to people. I don’t hide out in some sort of privileged cocoon. Bob Iger is the same way. He makes all his own calls for example. He doesn’t go through all the drama of having an assistant call someone and then make them wait for him on the phone. I have always thought that there’s sort of a dick-size element to many of the customs in this town. Yeah, there’s kind of a dick-size thing in Hollywood, but that’s of no concern to me. I don’t suffer in that department, let’s put it that way. (Laughs.)

There’s a book about philanthropy that recently came out, and it’s making lots of waves. It’s called Winners Take All. The idea behind it is that the way we do charitable giving is designed for rich people to look good, but that takes away from the change that society needs, that the government should be doing. It makes everyone dependent on money from wealthy people because they can control the dialogue and discourse.

I haven’t read the book, but I think there’s some truth to this premise.

How much of the charity that people give in Hollywood is driven by what other people are going to see? If people could no longer get their names on buildings and plaques, do you think donations would dip precipitously?

Well I think they would take a plunge, but that’s true everywhere I think not just Hollywood. People here are not the only ones who suffer from vanity and ego. But that desire for status and showing up your peers does seem more pronounced in segments of the entertainment industry. I’ve been doing this for over 35 years. I have no idea how I’ve survived and succeeded within this very opaque system of power dynamics that are indiscernible. Quite frankly I just try to do the right thing. I don’t know how other people look at it. Honestly I think the most powerful people do it right. Bob Iger places his own calls, certainly to me and I to him. And I know that he picks up his own pizza from Milo & Olive and brings it to his house. He and I are extremely close friends. I know that’s how he operates in life, with total respect toward everybody, but if someone violates that respect, then his personality metamorphosizes.

Does that make him unusual? It’s not the traditional idea of a Hollywood mogul.

He is unusual that way. But I find that other powerful people are also like that in varying degrees.

Despite the long-standing tradition of screaming at assistants?

You know, who does that stuff? Usually guys with beards do it. (Laughs.) Unfortunately I couldn’t grow a beard so I had to try a different technique. I happened into a hairdo that was like a beard.

But I read somewhere that your hair was a smart way for you to get attention. I thought that was kind of brilliant.

So as I sort of began ascending as a producer, there were three or four other powerful producers, but they all had beards and yelled at their assistants.

Who are these bearded, angry people?

(Laughs.) I’m not saying. But it’s just usually the action guys, and I wasn’t an action guy. For the first 17 years, I only wrote and produced comedies, beginning with Night Shift and then Splash and Parenthood and Nutty Professor and Liar Liar and Housesitter and Kindergarten Cop. I just did comedies. And then there was this sort of threshold moment because I was lucky enough to get [Oscar] nominated as one of the writers of Splash. But I came to a conclusion that you just cannot get respect doing comedies, no matter how good they are.

You talk a lot in your book about the importance of mentoring people. Was there someone who was particularly involved in mentoring you early on?

Many people, actually. But someone I will always remember fondly was Deanne Barkley, who mentored me when I was 22 or 23 years old. She ran NBC at the time; she was theoretically the most powerful woman in the media business. She was best friends with Robert Stigwood and Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, some people sadly that died of AIDS, but this whole power echelon. She was a very smart, quick thinker, and incredibly generous. She took me on as a special project.

Brian Grazer and his wife, Veronica, at the Sun Valley Conference in Idaho

Drew Angerer

Did she offer you lots of sage advice?

(Laughs.) She once said, “You’re going to need a nickname.” I go, “What do you mean?” She goes, “Well, like there’s Swifty Lazar.” Swifty Lazar, as a nickname. And then she started giving me a few Hollywood nicknames, but none of them quite did the trick.

What were they?

I can’t remember most of them. But she once advised me, “Call yourself Shorty Grazer.” I said, “I am not calling myself Shorty Grazer. Forget it.” But it stuck in my mind that you needed to have an iconic identity. I could not grow a beard like my peers, so that was out. So I just happened into this really high hairdo, really high spikes, and I found that it was a litmus test. So when I met anybody, they either thought, “What an asshole for having hair like this,” or they thought, “Hey that’s pretty cool and original.” Most people just thought: “Why are you doing that?” They’re just curious about it. But there were people that thought: “What an asshole.” It all came to a head later through Michael Ovitz, who was my agent. He was the most powerful person in all the media business. He said, “Listen, you’re very successful. You’re not going to be taken seriously with that hairdo.” And I thought, “Taken seriously by whom?” And I thought, well, I guess he must mean he and other agents and businesspeople.

That’s not your demo, I take it.

I want to be taken seriously by artists, the people who create the stories, who make the stories, who act in the stories. And I thought they’ll appreciate the originality. And so I just made this right turn as opposed to the left turn. But I thought about it. He wasn’t wrong, but it was for the demo that appealed to him. [Recently] I was on my friend David Geffen’s boat. I’ve known him for 40 years—since I was a law clerk. He’s always been incredibly kind and supportive. And he actually accelerated my career. I had produced this movie called Night Shift, and it wasn’t a hit. But he stood up in a field of 500 people and clapped his hands and said, “This is brilliant,” in front of Bob Daly and Terry Semel, the entire brass. “This is amazing.” And they all, just like a movie, they all chimed in and said, “Great work.” And it really validated me.

And so now, 40 years later, he said, “Your hair looks so much better when you pop out of the water, and it’s sort of flatter and stuff.” And I thought, “I don’t know, maybe he’s right.” And so a week later, I was at the San Pietro hotel with Veronica, and I got my hair cut. And I couldn’t chop it all the way, but I did conform in some ways to his instinct.

Well, it’s like Samson. Now that it’s kind of cut off, do you think maybe you’ll be less creative and less fabulous?

(Laughs.) I guess only time will tell.

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