WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jack Valenti, Hollywood’s emissary to Washington and the man who developed the U.S. movie rating system, died on Thursday at age 85, his long-time spokesman, Warren Cowan, said.
Valenti served as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson before heading the Motion Picture Association of America as the movie industry’s No. 1 lobbyist for 38 years. He retired in August 2004.
Valenti, at the time heading a public relations agency working with the White House, was in President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade, six cars back from the president’s limousine, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
He accompanied Johnson back to Washington and can be seen in the historic photograph of Johnson being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.
Valenti suffered a stroke in March 2007, shortly before he was to begin promoting his memoir, “This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood.”
Cowan said he died at his home in Washington, surrounded by his family.
As head of the MPAA, Valenti crusaded for copyright enforcement, coming out strongly in the 1980s when the rise of videocassette recorders made it easy to copy movies. “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone,” he once testified to Congress.
Valenti stepped up the fight later with the advent of Internet and DVD technologies that made the movie bootleggers’ job even easier.
Born September 5, 1921, in Houston, Valenti’s first exposure to the film business was working as a theater usher.
He was a medal-winning pilot who flew 51 missions during World War Two. After earning degrees from the University of Houston and Harvard University, he co-founded the firm that helped handle media relations for the Kennedy White House.
Johnson made Valenti a special assistant in his presidency and he built a reputation for loyalty. Upset with the way his mentor was portrayed in Oliver Stone’s film “JFK,” he took the unusual step of criticising a Hollywood production, calling it “slime” and a “tissue of lies.”
Still, he supported Hollywood’s right to make movies as it wished and said it was parents’ responsibility to oversee what their children watched. It was that philosophy that led to the movie ratings system in 1968 after the industry had come under increasing fire for the violence, profanity and sexual content of movies.
Figuring it was better to police itself than have someone else do it, the MPAA came up with the system that now rates U.S. films as either G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13), R (children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult) and NC-17 (no one under 17).
Lew Wasserman, the powerful head of the MCA studio, picked Valenti for the MPAA job in 1966. The trade group now represents Hollywood’s six biggest studios — Sony; Buena Vista, owned by the Walt Disney Co.; Paramount, which includes DreamWorks and is owned by Viacom; News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox; Universal Studios, owned by NBC Universal; and Time Warner’s Warner Bros.
White-haired and silver-tongued, Valenti was extremely well-connected in Washington and known as a coalition builder — a skill he said he picked up from Johnson — at the MPAA.
“Some of us have networks, some have cable companies, some have theme parks, some have the Internet. We’re all often truly impossible to deal with. Jack has held us together,” Peter Chernin, chairman of News Corp., which owns the Fox entertainment group, told The New York Times.
After leaving the MPAA, Valenti worked with the television industry to fight tougher decency regulations for television.
Valenti and his wife, Mary Margaret, who once was Johnson’s secretary, had three children.
Additional reporting by Arthur Spiegelman in Los Angeles