March 30, 2020

Trafficking in People (Gary Mann and The Traffic School of America)

Road rules provide captive audience.
It’s 7:45 a.m. on a Friday morning, and the Koo Koo Roo on South Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills is almost full. I am here for traffic school. I ran a red light at the intersection of Robertson and Beverly boulevards, and the city of Beverly Hills has the photo to prove it.

Our instructor, Gary Mann, is a handsome, trim gentleman in his early 60s, who looks 10 years younger. It seems too early, but he already appears to be having a good time. Over the next several hours, as I become reacquainted with the rules, regulations and philosophy inspiring the traffic regulations, I will also wonder: Who is Gary Mann and why is he teaching this course?

Mann teaches by the Socratic method — that is if Socrates was working a Vegas casino lounge. Everyone is asked about their lives, their birthplace, their current profession and the infraction that brought them to class. Our group this morning is a mix of the young and the old; the wealthy and the just getting by; a 90210 rainbow coalition of white, black, Asian and Hispanic. As each attendee relates his life and crime, Mann explains the subtleties of traffic law, as well as the finer points of Hollywood and Mann’s personal history.

Mann is caustic, meandering, yet the class is fun. In truth, there are fewer and fewer occasions in Los Angeles where chance throws you together in common cause with so wide a variety of fellow citizens. Basically, it’s jury duty and traffic school.

“The law plays no favorites,” Mann says. “Everybody gets tickets. But the disparate types attending the class is my whole reason for doing this.”

Which makes me want to know more about Mann.

So a few weeks later, we meet at his office, and over lunch at Koo Koo Roo (turns out he is a shareholder), I learn the evolution of Mann:

Once upon a time, Gary Mann was Gary Manacher, a New York boy. His mother was born in Israel to the Manischewitz clan. Mann’s father found success in the residential coal delivery business. Returning to New York after college and military service, Mann first got work as a soap opera actor. Then a bit part in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” brought him to Hollywood in the 1960s.

Mann’s father gave him a letter of introduction to Ben Silverstein, who owned the Beverly Hills Hotel. Silverstein was a legendarily antisocial person in a very public business.

For some reason, he took a shine to Mann. He gave him a locker and pool privileges at the hotel. This proved good for Mann’s health. It didn’t hurt his acting career either.

It’s true, Mann says, that Bob Evans was discovered at the Beverly Hills pool, but what is also true is that “when you’re a bad actor, you’re a bad actor.”

Evans quickly moved to producing. Mann credits Martin Ritt with telling him that he didn’t have the talent to make it as an actor. So Mann moved on as well.

At 23, Mann was a television development executive at Screen Gems — the television arm of Columbia — working for Jackie Cooper at a time when Screen Gems fielded talented writers and producers liked Bert Schneider, Sidney Sheldon, Danny Simon and Al Ruddy (of “Godfather” fame).

A regular card game with Richard Zanuck led to a job working for Arthur Jacobs on “Planet of the Apes,” learning physical production. Being a hands-on producer led to European tax-shelter movies.

The late 1970s and early 1980s found Mann working for another iconic Hollywood power player, Ray Stark, on such films as “The Slugger’s Wife” and “The Competition” — the movie that made many a young man fall in love with Amy Irving.

Through another friend, Mann developed a second career as a voice-over performer, all this supporting a family, kids in private school. Somehow he managed.

Then one day about five years ago, Mann got a ticket and went to the Improv Comedy Traffic School. After attending the class, he thought: I can do this.

He auditioned — turns out you have to audition for traffic school — and was turned down. But another company thought he had the right stuff — and he got the gig. Once qualified to teach, Mann decided to start his own school, the Traffic School of America. Ever since, it’s been one long group therapy session. For Mann, it’s about the mix of people — and the captive audience.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I lived in the bottom half of a duplex. My landlord owned several of the adjacent buildings, and as I got to know my fellow tenants, I realized one strange truth: no one on our block went into an office. Everyone paid his or her rent, but no one had what in New York would conventionally pass for a job. I liked that. There are lives that can only be led in Los Angeles. Mann is one example.

Recently, Mann was talking to some of his childhood friends who had gone on to careers as partners at such institutions as Lehman Brothers.

“They asked me if I regretted moving out to California.”

Mann’s answer: “Absolutely not. Who could give up the opportunity of meeting all these people?”