From the outside looking in, it may seem like a glamorous life of red-carpet movie premieres and Beverly Hills power lunches. In reality, the professional life of the typical Hollywood agent is defined by two basic functions: paranoid baby sitter and ruthless big-game hunter. In addition to forever massaging the egos of their biggest clients and scrounging to find them work, agents also have to be perpetually on the hunt for big-time actors, actresses, directors and writers who are feeling sufficiently neglected by their representatives that they can be sweet-talked into jumping ship.
Mark Roesler, though, is not the typical Hollywood agent.
First of all, the headquarters of CMG Worldwide, the agency he founded in 1981, is not even in Los Angeles; it’s 2,000 miles away, in Indianapolis. More important, even though Roesler represents some of the most legendary names in Hollywood and in the sports world, he doesn’t spend any time at all scaring up new game. “We don’t really have time to go out and pursue clients that aren’t interested in our services,” he says nonchalantly. In fact, Roesler turns away the vast majority of people who contact him asking for representation — a not-insignificant? number. “I probably get one or two a day contacting us to represent them,” he says. Nor does Roesler have to spend any time trying to cheer his acting clients up when they don’t get a big role or place angry phone calls to studio executives because their trailer on the set isn’t swanky enough.
The reason Roesler has such an enviable position as sought-after agent who has to do no hand-holding is that the overwhelming majority of the 350 clients he represents are dead.
To say that Roesler and his 45 employees at CMG represent big stars is a vast understatement. Put simply, Roesler is the agent representing the estates of some of the most iconic names of American cinema: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, John Belushi and on and on. Nor are Roesler’s clients limited to Hollywood. Authors like Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac and Oscar Wilde, along with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, war heroes such as Gen. George Patton, and baseball greats like Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson — and even political activists like Malcolm X — all count on Roesler from beyond to help their heirs cash in on their still extremely valuable names.
And to be clear, this is big business. For instance, each year Forbes magazine issues a list of the top-earning dead celebrities. In the most recent roundup, Michael Jackson topped the list, bringing in some $170 million in 2011, followed by Elvis Presley at $55 million and Monroe at $27 million. While these sorts of marquee names continue to bring in big dollars to have their images on clothing or in major advertising campaigns, the reality is that only the tiniest percentage of famous actors and athletes — far fewer even than the handful who become household names during their lifetimes — have lasting appeal. That’s why Roesler is so picky. “If we represent a deceased personality, it really demonstrates that we think they have a career that is long-term in nature,” says Roesler, giving the example of one of his very first clients, James Dean, who appeared in only three movies in his lifetime. “During his life, his career was less than five years, if you go back and count his TV career from the time he left his hometown in Indiana until he died at age 24. He’s been deceased for 57 years now; that’s a long career since he died.”