"Yes, Susan?" I called back.
"Come here, please." Also, not unusual. But once I got there, pad in hand: "Get your dad on the phone for me."
"Excuse me?" fumbled out of my mouth.
"I want you to get your dad on the phone for me now," she answered.
"Uhm … why?" Granted, I was only 23 years old, and I had never held a job as someone's assistant before, but I was still pretty sure such a request was at least a little unorthodox.
"I want to tell him something. Just get him for me," she said before taking a sip from the warm Diet Coke that had likely been sitting next to the large bottle of Advil for several hours.
I turned and walked back to my desk, passing Susan's other assistant who asked, "What did she want?"
As I sat and dialed, I uttered in disbelief, "She wants to talk to my dad."
Unfortunately, my father answered the phone, I explained to him that my boss wanted to speak with him for reasons unknown, and then I let Susan know he was on the line.
"Mr. Dobbs?" (Susan was nothing if not mannered with strangers.)
"Yes. Call me Stephen," I heard my father say as I gripped the phone tightly, covering the mouthpiece while I listened.
"Well, Stephen," she said, "I'm Susan Smith, and you know, your son Aaron has worked for me for the past year, and I just want you to know that I think he's extraordinary. He's so smart, and I just know he's going to be very important in this industry one day."
Susan Smith passed away on Saturday. As anyone who worked for her can tell you, she was not always the easiest person to answer to, but as dozens of Tweets and comments on this Deadline story show, lots of people admire and love her.
I had a complicated relationship with her precisely because of such conflicting feelings. I learned a lot from her and other times she drove me nuts. She went through assistants rapidly. During my 26-plus months as her senior assistant, I had nine junior assistants come and go. Their tenures spanned from six months to six hours, figures that are neither hyperbole nor poetic license. (The first person to work in Susan's office with me, was Julie Plec, who left for and continued to go on to much bigger and better things, becoming a very successful television writer and showrunner.)
Susan believed in and supported me probably more than any other person in my career, and certainly more than any other boss. Her faith in me, even when unhappy with something I may have done (key word: "may") always seemed to remain unblemished and unconditional. She knew I never had the desire to be an agent, and she repeatedly wrote glowing recommendations for me as I searched for new jobs in production or development.
In the years since, I communicated with Susan infrequently, but as I discovered by talking to others who were in closer contact, she always had kind and loving words to say about me. (That was something of a rarity, saved for a select few among the assistant corps that worked for her over the past 45 years.)
I last exchanged a few emails with her over the summer, shared with her the news of my wedding this past year, and promised that I would call so we could catch-up in more detail. I had heard how sick she had been over the last several years, and she seemed enthusiastic to hear from me. But I arrived home on Saturday and saw the "Breaking News" email from The Hollywood Reporterannouncing "Talent Agent Susan Smith Dies," and I got sad and mad: Mad that I hadn't taken the time to follow-through and follow-up. Sad that we never had that last conversation. Sad for her and mad at myself that during this time of illness – about which I knew, but she never even mentioned in her emails – I hadn't made the time to call her to even verbally thank her for the kindness of the last sentences in her last email to me: "I'm just glad I know you!! Let me hear from you whenever it is you wish. You will always be cherished by moi!!"I can only speak to the over 2-1/2 years during which I worked at Susan Smith & Associates in the mid-'90s. The offices were located along San Vicente Blvd, just north of Wilshire in Beverly Hills and were believed haunted by a previous tenant, a plastic surgeon who had killed himself. (At least, I seem to remember that mythology. The building was recently torn down to make way for new construction.)
I was hired first as the receptionist in Feb. 1994 for $275 per week. I was 22, and I'm sure I thought I deserved better, but the receptionist desk at SSA was a boutique agency version of the mail room at CAA, ICM or William Morris. I had no agenting ambitions, but I desperately wanted to get my foot into the proverbial film industry door. And within a week, I was desperate to leave reception for an agent's desk.
The only desk I didn't want was Susan's. I watched as she went through four assistants during my first five months. But also during that period, as positions on other desks opened and were filled, I remained stuck up front, without even a computer to occupy me. For far too long, I was ignorant to the reality that I expressed my boredom outwardly, and in doing so, I had lost the confidence of the other six agents.
I still don't know what compelled Susan to give me a shot or even to strangely call my father to compliment me. I have yet to fulfill the prediction she made on that call, and so I don't claim the following applies to me, but nobody can deny that she had an incredible eye and great taste in talent. A remarkable list of actors potentially could have gone unnoticed had she not fought for them. She would do anything for her clients, not just because their success meant her success, but because if she believed in a client, she considered it her responsibility to do everything she could to get that actor working.
The agency business had changed and consolidated a great deal by the time I joined Susan Smith & Associates, but she never stopped fighting to sign new talent she felt passionate about. She provided the personal care of a manager - wanting to nurture her clients' careers and guide them to the right material - with the negotiating prowess of an agent. During my tenure, she regularly railed against managers, even those with whom she had productive relationships and considered friends. She regularly complained that her ten-percent was regulated by state law, it was illegal for managers to negotiate deals, and so she did all the hard work; meanwhile random managers were getting higher commissions simply to nag her. And yet, closing her agency to dedicate herself to a smaller client list as a manager seemed inevitable.
I watched as Susan focused determinedly to sign a few people, but I never saw her more focused than after attending a screening of Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. Kate Winslet was all the rage - every major agency wanted her - but Susan was far more interested in her costar, Melanie Lynskey, who was barely 17 at the time and living halfway around the world in New Zealand. Susan gave Melanie a place to stay during trips to the U.S. and was determined to get her work. I still don't believe I've seen an audition on tape as amazing as Melanie's for the Nicholas Hytner version of The Crucible starring Winona Ryder, which she did almost immediately after signing with Susan.
Susan's business was her life. Her family was tiny. She never married and had no children. Melanie became like a surrogate daughter. She was devoted to her closest friends – particularly casting directors Marion Dougherty and Phyllis Huffman, and her clients Brian Dennehy and Kathy Bates. That devotion extended to much of the rest of her impressive client list as well. I witnessed her go above and beyond to help other clients like David Paymer (the nicest person alive, for what it's worth) and Greta Scacchi through personal challenges. And during my time there, she loved her dog Barnaby, her other child.
Her company was her extended family as well, albeit an often dysfunctional one. She definitely played favorites, and although Susan loved her employees, she didn't necessarily like them all. In a way that breaks every agent cliché, I imagine she was incapable of even saying the phrase, "It's only business, not personal," so whether an employee or a client, for better or worse, if someone chose to leave, she regularly felt hurt, maybe even betrayed.
I think the primary reason she didn't join the managerial ranks sooner was her fiercely independent personality. She justifiably took great pride in starting and running a successful talent agency for over three decades. For roughly two decades, it had even been bicoastal. Larger agencies regularly approached her seeking to merge with or absorb her company and client list, but she always declined. What was the point in having to share control of her fiefdom? Besides, she fought to hard to have her name on the door, especially in such a male-dominated industry.
In August, I wrote about the wonderful new documentary Casting By in advance of its HBO premiere and which will receive a limited theatrical release on Nov. 1. I saw the film last year on Oct. 12 at the New York Film Festival, one year to the day before Susan died. I hadn't spoken to her in close to 10 years when her face popped-up on the Walter Reade screen, and I found myself unexpectedly saddened by that fact.
It prompted me to write her, even though it took me a few more months, and I'm glad I did. I'm sorry I did not have the chance to speak with or even see her one more time, to thank her for her faith in me and let her know that I've never forgotten my years as her assistant or that very strange but amazing phone call.
Rest in peace, Susan. You were one of a kind.