By Robert Ast
Born in a hospital in New York’s theatre district, Stevie Phillips jokes that her career in show business was “probably pre-ordained.” But as she is quick to point out—and her varied, successful career attests—accidents of chance have influenced her life in ways that her best-laid plans could never have anticipated.
Her first serendipitous accident came when she took a job as a floating secretary at the powerful talent agency Music Corporation of America (MCA), known in Hollywood as “The Octopus” for its habit of extending its tentacles into all aspects of the entertainment industry. When the Department of Justice began to investigate MCA for antitrust violations, the company left the agency business to purchase Universal Studios, and Phillips was at a crossroads.
“[MCA head] Lew Wasserman closed the doors, and people ran around stealing office supplies and starting companies,” she says. “Freddie Fields and David Begelman were the two that seemed to me to be the most charming, the most flamboyant, and the most prepared to face a difficult world in the entertainment business, and they became my champions and mentors.”
She followed Fields and Begelman to their fledgling agency, Creative Management Associates (CMA). “Freddie Fields decided he needed someone who would put his agency on the map, and that person was Judy Garland. He thought that if he could give her her 67th, 133rd, 211th—or whatever number it was—comeback, that that would establish his firm,” she says. Phillips hit it off with Garland and subsequently embarked on tour with her, serving as both the shows’ road manager and as Garland’s handler.
“I called the shows, stage-managed, organized the press, the load-in, absolutely everything,” Phillips recalls. “Judy wasn’t easy; sadly, she was the queen of tragedy.”
For all its difficulty, the tour was successful: Garland had established her reliability and once again began receiving film and television offers, and Phillips became an agent in training, climbing up the ranks of CMA until she became a partner.
“I learned very quickly that, in the agency business, the agency belongs in the hands of the people who sign the clients,” Phillips says. “So it became very clear, very quickly to me that I had to become a client signer. I signed Redford, signed Pacino, signed Liza, and ultimately I became one of Judy’s agents, not just her schlepper.”
In addition to generating new business, Phillips worked as a packaging agent, helping to assemble talent for such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, all the while operating in what was almost exclusively an all-male landscape.
“I had some thrilling moments. I had an associate in California by the name of Sue Mengers, who represented some wonderful people as well. One day we locked ourselves in an office and called the heads of all the studios and told them they had to deal with us, not our bosses, which opened the door for women that followed us. I say that immodestly, but I know it’s true.”
In 1975 CMA merged with another agency to form International Creative Management (ICM), and many of its agents left for jobs at studios. Phillips, who by then had infant children, refused to leave New York for California and instead became president of a small energy company that helped bring solar and wind energy to New York City.
“The very talented architect Travis Lee Price had discovered, with wind energy collected in a sweat-equity building on the Lower East Side, how to reverse the meter and feed excess energy into the Consolidated Edison grid, charging the same rates to Con Ed that they were charging to people in the building,” Phillips says.
Con Ed brought the case to the New York State Energy Commission, arguing that its 10-million-kilowatt grid might not be able to handle surges from the 2-kilowatt windmill. With assistance from former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who volunteered his services, the building residents prevailed. A year later, the principles of the commission’s ruling became federal law, with the passage of the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978.
“It is now statutory law that any company that generates excess alternate energy can feed it back into the local utility grid and charge the same rates that the utility is charging tenants,” Phillips said. “That’s one of the things of which I’m most proud, helping to create precedential law in the land.”
Ultimately, however, Phillips realized that her company’s days were numbered. “I saw that, in 1977, there was not enough government interest in subsidization for alternative forms of energy and that I was not going to be able to make a living doing that,” she says.
Just in time, another fortuitous accident intervened when the screenwriter William Goldman and his wife Eileen invited her to a performance by Peter Masterson at The Actors Studio.
“I went along and saw a loose accumulation of scenes that had the smell, taste, and feel of Texas. I thought the work was wonderful and went backstage and offered to buy it. I didn’t know anything about Broadway, but you can’t allow those things to stop you.”
With the support of Universal, Phillips presented The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas off-Broadway, with Masterson and Tommy Tune directing.
“Again, a wonderful accident happened,” Phillips says. “Apart from the fact that the show was terrific, Jacqueline Kennedy came on the third night. My press agent was alert enough to get a photographer there quickly and get a picture of her entering under the word “whorehouse” on the marquee. It appeared on the front page of The New York Post, and we were sold out thereafter.
“Within six weeks we moved to Broadway and the cost of our doing so was $750,000, all in. We paid it back in two and a half months; there isn’t a show that I can think of that can do that anymore. And we ran for five years. It was an extraordinary blessing that really benefited from two accidents, more than my expertise, although the expertise of everybody involved was significant. And that set me on the track of my new career as a Broadway producer.”
Today, Phillips continues to develop both film and stage projects, and in April she returned to GS to speak to current students about building a career in the industry. At the same time, she keeps up a busy life outside the industry, collecting Native American crafts, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for her 60th birthday, and spending time with her family. “Looking back, I realize I actually had a life while I was doing all this stuff,” she said.