March 16, 2016

On Sunday night, Ari Emanuel got onstage in front of 500 Jews and did something cinematic and shocking: He turned to his brother Zeke and said, “I love you” — three times — and very nearly cried.

The emotional display was miles apart from the pervasive mythos about Ari, Hollywood’s most famous talent agent, which goes something like this:

“We all know Ari Emanuel is an a–hole,” Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke once wrote with characteristic bluntness. She was being nice.

The music mega-manager Irving Azoff once called Emanuel a “psychopath” and asked his assistant to block Emanuel from ever emailing him again. At a 2013 technology conference, a Fortune magazine editor referred to Emanuel as a “lunatic,” prompting Emanuel’s WME (now WME | IMG) partner Patrick Whitesell to chuckle and defend his “tenacity.”

In Hollywood, the adjectives used to describe Ari are endless: “ruthless,” “brash,” “hotheaded,” “aggressive” — only Tad Friend, writing in The New Yorker, saw fit to compliment the legendary agent as “savvy.”

Most of what the public believes about Emanuel was shaped by the Ari Gold character on the HBO series “Entourage,” in which Jeremy Piven plays an agent based on Emanuel. Piven’s Gold is a puerile, narcissistic industry type prone to tirades, temper tantrums and curse words.

“Most people know Ari from ‘Entourage,’ and they think that that’s Ari,” Emanuel’s longtime client, writer Aaron Sorkin, told me in 2008. “While Ari does speak fast and is in no way cowardly when he’s talking to you, he’s not a cardboard cutout. He’s not a stereotypical central casting agent. He’s massively smart and genuinely a good guy — that’s why clients don’t leave him. You’re not going to find anybody who used to be a client of Ari’s.”

But to colleagues and underlings, Emanuel is known for sending dismissive “one- or two-word only email messages,” as Finke put it. And a friend of mine who used to work for WME, the talent agency he heads, told me that young female assistants took great pains to dress stylishly for work, because if Emanuel even looked at you, it was a good day. 

But what if most of what we think we know about Emanuel is misguided? A mere shade in a multifarious self. People are often more complicated and interesting than their reputations, so what if I told you Emanuel can also be loving, sensitive, even soulful?

On Sunday night, everyone present at American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) 30th anniversary gala witnessed a surprising twist in the Ari Emanuel mythos when he took to the podium to honor his brother Ezekiel “Zeke” Emanuel and revealed his softer side with a touching and emotional tribute.

“As I’m looking through my notes, I realize the chutzpah of AJWS,” Ari Emanuel began, “they have written a speech for me, about my brother.

“Only Jews!” he said, wryly.

The Emanuel brothers are three of the most famous Jews in America today, each one a major figure in his field. Zeke, the oldest, is chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania and considered one of the country’s foremost authorities on health care — he is often referred to as the architect of President Barack Obama’s landmark health care legislation. Rahm, the middle child, is mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff. Ari is the youngest and a major figure in Hollywood. “Of the three brothers, Rahm is the most famous, Ari is the richest, and Zeke, over time, will probably be the most important,” Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in 1997 in The New York Times. (The Emanuels also have an adopted sister, Shoshana, who their father took in after she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.) 

At Sunday’s event, Ari was playful and funny, telling Zeke that the speech AJWS prepared for him wasn’t “horrible.” “They talk about our parents; the importance of love and education; about you failing calculus and still getting into Harvard; how we [referring to himself and Rahm] had to live up to your grades…,” Ari said, adding that it was “all true.” 

But then he went off script, addressing the audience with more personal comments.

“Our father was an Israeli, he was a pediatrician, [and] our mother was an activist,” he said. “Zeke followed in both of their footsteps.” 

Patriarch Benjamin Emanuel was born in Jerusalem and later became a member of the Irgun, the militant Zionist organization that preceded the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). So it made sense when Zeke later joked that Ari left him bloodied “almost every night” as a child. Their mother, Marsha, however, was a crusading civil rights activist who taught them to care for the oppressed. 

“Our parents believed in justice and equality,” Ari said, “[that] no matter how much money you made, you treat people well and you lift people up.”

For a family so well known for its hot-blooded, Israeli-inspired toughness, Ari revealed a childhood shaped by religious values. “[Zeke] is loving; he’s forceful; he’s a thoughtful doctor; he’s a great dad and he’s a believer like my mother,” Ari said.

It became clear that Ari sees his older brother as a role model, someone who, far from the flashing lights of Hollywood, is trying to make the world better. “[When] we talk, I say, ‘Why do you do what you do?’ ” Ari said. “And [Zeke] always talks about wanting to make a difference in the world, and wanting to help people.” 

Deep down, beneath the surface bellicosity of brothers, is a deep humanity that expresses itself in love, loyalty and a sense of mission.

“As Jews, the most important thing — [which] you just heard from the president — is helping one person,” Emanuel said, referring to an earlier video address by President Obama, who spoke of the talmudic idea that to save one life is to save a world.

Toward the end of his speech, Ari took off his glasses and turned away from the teleprompter. He looked over at his brother, who was standing next to the stage.

“I wrote [Zeke] an email the other day saying how proud I was of him, because of the health care bill,” Ari said, choking up. “I know that was an emotional time for him, and my brother [Rahm], and I don’t think [health care legislation] could have happened without my brother [Zeke].

“So I love you very much,” he concluded. “That’s the only reason I’m here, because I do really, really love you. So thank you everybody for honoring my brother.”

So that’s Ari Emanuel, an agent with soul. 

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