If you were to scroll through a list of the great movie agents—Myron Selznick, Lew Wasserman, Sam Cohn, Kevin Huvane—you’d get no sense of who they are from those names. They could be partners in a law firm or four guys slicing corned beef behind the counter at a deli. Then your eye falls on this: “Boaty Boatwright,” the very name a promise of buoyant fun, and you think: Hold it right there, I want to know her.
I’ve been lucky enough to know Boaty for almost 30 years, half of which time she was my agent. She has been a vibrant color on the palette of show business for more than 60 years. Her career is a name-dropper’s paradise: as an agent to some of the most gifted filmmakers of the last 40 years, people such as Alan Pakula, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, and Jonathan Demme; before that as a studio executive; and before that as the casting director behind Fiddler on the Roof, The Man Who Would Be King, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and who, in her very first outing, having never cast one single thing before, discovered the children to play Jem and Scout Finch for director Robert Mulligan in Pakula’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
She was born to do it, by which I mean she was born in Roxboro, North Carolina, in the same decade in which To Kill a Mockingbird was set. Her birth name is Alice Lee Boatwright, but she has almost forever been known as Boaty. When she was five, she and her family moved to Reidsville, North Carolina, where her father, Edgar Vaughn Boatwright, also called Boaty, sold cheap American tobacco to the Soviets for a pleasing profit. She had a brother, Edgar Vaughn Boatwright Jr., hilariously also called Boaty, who was 16 years older than she, and a sister, Martha, who lucked out and got to be called by her actual name. Martha was eight years older. “I was definitely an afterthought,” Boaty said, which, believe me, was the only time she would ever be an afterthought. It was a happy and privileged childhood, but early on she knew something wasn’t right.
“We lived on a big estate, and there were lots of people who worked for us who were people of color,” Boaty told me recently. “And there was a little house in the back where one of my best friends, Martha Ann, who was Black, lived with her parents—they worked for my parents. Martha Ann and I grew up together, and I just loved her. I always thought how strange it is, we go to church on Sunday and I can sit upstairs with her, but she can’t sit downstairs with me. We’d go to the one little cinema in Reidsville, and of course she couldn’t sit downstairs, but I could sit up. One day I said to Mother, ‘Why is it when every time Martha Ann’s family comes in they always come in the back door?’ Without hesitating, Mother said, ‘Because they’re colored.’ And I knew at five years old that was not fair. I don’t know how, but I just did. I knew it instinctively. And then I remember when I was 11 or 12 and my parents brought me to New York for the first time. We went to see South Pacific, which has that wonderful lyric I have never forgotten about how you have to be carefully taught to hate.” (She would later march with Harry Belafonte in Dr. King’s historic 1963 March on Washington.)
Her first trip to New York had its usual, immemorial effect: she was a goner. After studying journalism at the University of North Carolina, she moved to the city. “I think there were 12 newspapers in New York then,” she says. “I went to every one with my typed-out résumé. And they would all ask, ‘Can you type and take shorthand?’ So I said, ‘Well, I can type,’ because all nice girls brought up in the South had to learn how to type.”
But journalism was not to be her calling. She was destined for show business, and like many people she arrived there indirectly. She got a job as a receptionist at an ad agency called Fletcher D. Richards, in Rockefeller Center. Boaty said, “Every night at 6:00 or 6:30, a couple of friends of mine and I would go to P. J. Clarke’s with some of the guys from the office. It was like Mad Men, except we didn’t sleep with them.”
Like it has been for generations before and since, P. J. Clarke’s was something of a clubhouse for her. She made good friends with a waiter there: the future restaurateur Joe Allen. “I was in P. J. Clarke’s one night years later with Joanne Woodward and Gore Vidal and Gore’s friend and partner and my friend, too, Howard Austen, when Joe came over to tell us that Eleanor Roosevelt had just died. There was a hush in the back room of that restaurant I’ve never forgotten. And it was the first time, maybe the only time, I ever saw Gore cry.”
Her career is a name-dropper’s paradise: as an agent to some of the most gifted filmmakers of the last 40 years, people such as Alan Pakula, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, and Jonathan Demme.
She started working for the TV producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who were then the Midases of game shows: To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret, What’s My Line?, The Price Is Right, Match Game, Password, Family Feud. Boaty worked on their unlegendary show Play Your Hunch, hosted by a young Merv Griffin. (Merv invited Boaty to be his date to Judy Garland’s landmark concert at Carnegie Hall, but the night before, he said he couldn’t make it. He gave her the tickets, and the next day he eloped. “I got the best part of that bargain!” she said.)
She then got a job at Universal International, doing press for their movies. One day she was with the actress Myrna Loy, then promoting a Doris Day thriller, Midnight Lace. As inevitably happens with Boaty, they fell to talking about politics. Boaty told Loy that she and a group of her women friends were furious with the Democrats for bypassing their idol, Adlai Stevenson, and nominating the shiny new John F. Kennedy. Because of it, they weren’t going to vote for Kennedy.
Loy mentioned politely this might not be the best way to advance their ideas. When Boaty said that she was meeting these friends the next night, Loy asked if she could come speak to them. “And she did, and she turned everybody there around,” Boaty said. “From that day, I became a good, liberal Democrat, and I never looked back.”
She started working for the TV producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who were then the Midases of game shows.
Once, she was in London, and her friend the actor Hugh O’Brian, who played Wyatt Earp on TV, asked her to dinner. “And on the way to dinner, Hugh said, ‘We’re going to stop by the Savoy and have drinks with Ike and Mamie.’ I kid you not, I thought he said, ‘Mike and Amy.’ Then in the elevator at the Savoy, Hugh said, ‘Have you ever met Ike and Mamie?,’ and I realized whom we were about to meet. I said, ‘Not only have I never met them, I didn’t vote for him!’ Of course I didn’t bring that up during cocktails. And, really, I must say, they were very charming.” When she got back to her hotel room, she discovered that all her jewelry had been stolen. “I was sure it was my punishment for having had such a good time with Republicans!”
One of Boaty’s early assignments at Universal was to look after Anna May Wong on a press tour for a Lana Turner picture called Portrait in Black. Anna May Wong was a Chinese-American actress who had endured years of old-world Asian stereotyping. “Every time she’d enter a scene,” Boaty said, “a gong would sound on the soundtrack.” Hollywood hadn’t been easy for Anna May Wong, and by the time Boaty was looking after her on the press tour, Boaty said, Wong “got drunk and locked herself in the bathroom. I had to go and get her out. When I did, she threw up all over me. Later she apologized and said Chinese people shouldn’t drink too much.”
Around this time, Boaty became great friends with the future superagent and force of nature Sue Mengers. They met through their mutual friend, a man who seemed to be everybody’s mutual friend, Roddy McDowall. “When Roddy introduced me to her, Sue said, ‘I know you—are you sleeping with Marty Balsam?,’ and I said, ‘I wish!,’ and Sue said, ‘Well, I am.’ From that moment, we were friends until the end.”
One night, they were having dinner at Sardi’s. Boaty had just read To Kill a Mockingbird. Sue told her that Alan Pakula had acquired the film rights—he was then a producer and had not yet started directing. “And we’re sitting there and Roddy McDowall came over with Alan Pakula! I threw myself at his feet and said, ‘You must hire me to cast those children. I know those children.’”
The force of her enthusiasm, and the luminosity of her personality, dissolved anything as trivial as the commonsense observation that she had never cast a movie before. Boaty descended on the South to find her stars. “Being Southern, I would just go where I had old friends from school. I’d call them up and I’d say, ‘I’m coming down to find the children for To Kill a Mockingbird. Could you line up some for me?’ So I’d go to Richmond, to Charlotte, to Nashville.”
But finding the right children for those challenging roles was exhausting work. “At one point, I got so frustrated, I called Alan in tears and said, ‘I never want to speak to anybody again under the age of 30.’
Boaty became great friends with the future superagent and force of nature Sue Mengers. They met through their mutual friend, a man who seemed to be everybody’s mutual friend, Roddy McDowall.
“Then I went to Birmingham to stay with my oldest and closest friend from Reidsville, a girl named Gene-Watt Stokes. So Gene picks me up at the airport, and she said—I will never forget it, I always have to give her the credit—she said, ‘I found Scout. But I have to slip her to you because her father doesn’t approve of showbiz.’
“The girl’s father was an elderly gentleman called Colonel Badham. Remember a very good director named John Badham? John was Colonel Badham’s son from an earlier marriage, and was at Yale theater school. Apparently the colonel had taken to bed when John told him he was going to major in theater. So we had to handle everything very carefully with John’s stepsister so we didn’t rile up Colonel Badham. Her name was Mary, Mary Badham, and when she walked in, she was wearing jeans and a little striped T-shirt, with her hair cut short like an eight-year-old Audrey Hepburn. The cutest thing you ever saw and with the most Southern accent. And I said, ‘How old are you?’ She said, ‘Nine.’ And I said, ‘Well, you look so much younger.’ And she said, ‘Well, if you smoked as many corn silks as I have, you might be smaller, too.’ And I rushed to the phone and called Alan and Bob in L.A. and said, ‘I found Scout!’
“And then after all that searching,” Boaty continued, “the very afternoon that I had met Mary, I was taken to a school in Birmingham, a public school, and Phillip Alford was doing a scene in a play that they let me watch rehearse. And I knew he was Jem.”
The movie seemed to have a serendipity to it. Boaty recalled, “One day, a woman named Isabel Halliburton, who worked for Alan, had gone to the Neighborhood Playhouse and seen The Crucible. She said to us, ‘You’ve got to go see it. It has the most wonderful young actor in it.’ It was Robert Duvall, and of course he ended up playing Boo Radley. It was his first movie part.”
Around this time, Boaty met her husband, Terence Baker. It happened in a roundabout sort of way, with the usual Niagara of famous names. She said, “I met Terence after I had been on the Greek islands on a boat with Gore and Howard and Sue [Mengers]. Sue and I laughed because we thought it was going to be some wonderful yacht. It was more like a floating raft. And we had a cook with one tooth who laughed all the time, and a great guide named Thinos. Of course Gore thought he knew more about the Greek history than Thinos. So they’d fight all the time.
“At some point I got a call from Universal asking me to go to London and see a Peter Shaffer play they were thinking about buying, and then Burt Shevelove, who wrote Funny Thing, asked me to a party with all those wonderful actors. Michael Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave and John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Radie Harris was there. Radie Harris, you know, was a big, big showbiz columnist, and of course was infamous because she had a wooden leg, which she got from a horseback-riding accident.
“John Gielgud looked at Radie, surrounded by all these people who wanted to be in her column, and said to me, ‘There is Radie Harris with all of London at her foot.’ Anyway, when I was leaving the party, in the lift going down was Terence Baker, a young, handsome agent. He handled writers mostly, and he asked me out. Did I mention he was handsome? So I said yes.”
There was a courtship, and on June 1, 1966, they were married in Reidsville, with Sue Mengers and Norman Jewison among the rice-tossers. It was an über-Southern event with butlers serving mint juleps for breakfast. Boaty and Baker then moved to London, where they had two children: their daughter, Kara (godparents: Myrna Loy and Norman Jewison), and a son, Patrick (godparents: Burt Shevelove and Lee Remick). Boaty continued to work, looking for properties for studios, casting, and doing P.R. work.
She worked for a while for Alexander Cohen, who was presenting Marlene Dietrich in concert in the West End. “Alex told me I had a very special job to do: I needed to take to Ms. Dietrich her dress, this very elegant dress designed by Jean Louis: a light-beige chiffon dress, totally form-fitting, covered in tiny pearls, and wrapped in tissue paper. I was to put it in the hands of Marlene Dietrich herself and her hands only. The elevator man brought me up. I walked down a long hall at the end of which was her door. I knocked.
“There was a long wait, and then she, Marlene Dietrich herself, opened the door. She was in a bathrobe, wearing dark glasses, and had pieces of tape all over her face to pull the skin back, the way they used to do, a sort of do-it-yourself face-lift. She extended both her arms. I realized that was my cue to put the dress in her hands. So I did. Then she backed up, having not said word one, and closed the door with her foot.”
In London, Boaty became close to the Heyman family: John, a producer; his wife, Norma, a producer; and their son, David, also a producer. For many years, Boaty and the Heymans shared Christmas Eve dinners. Years later, David told her he’d just optioned a new manuscript that he was very excited about. “What’s it called?” she asked. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” She said, “The first thing you’ll have to do is change that title!” Boaty laughs. “He reminds me of that every time I see him.”
Boaty’s marriage was not to last, nor was her time in London. Jay Kantor called and offered her a job running Twentieth Century Fox’s New York office. So she packed up the kids and their little Tibetan terrier, whose name she’s not sure how to spell but says is pronounced “Inchy,” and went to the Wyndham Hotel on West 58th Street, where she would live while looking for an apartment. When she was checking in, she was distressed to learn that the hotel didn’t allow pets. Boaty turned to a young bellhop, 17 or 18 years old, and said, “This is my dog Inchy. Would you walk him around the block while I sort this out?” She gave the bellhop five dollars for his services. The bellhop was Kevin Huvane.
So she worked for Fox, and then MGM, and then, very briefly, United Artists. “After United Artists, I’d run out of studios in New York, and I knew I didn’t want to live in L.A., a single mother with two kids. No, thank you.” So she stopped buying and started selling: she became an agent, mostly for filmmakers but with some actors too, first at William Morris, in 1983, and then, in 1991, encouraged by her friends and former William Morris agents Toni Howard and Ed Limato, who had moved to ICM, she did the same. “I got to work with the great and wildly eccentric Sam Cohn,” she said. She recently celebrated her 30th anniversary at ICM. That is an almost unheard-of kind of longevity in a business known for shortevity.
She has had her share of heartbreaks—her mother died from ovarian cancer the day after Boaty graduated from high school, and so many of the friends who pepper her stories have died. But she remains an ebullient force. What’s her secret? It’s not much of a secret: Honor the past but don’t live in it, keep meeting new people, work hard, and if the choice is between tears and laughter, choose laughter. She is working with Tina Fey now on something. There are not many people who have Anna May Wong and Tina Fey on their résumé.
When I called Boaty to interview her for this piece, the hours flew merrily by. My only disappointment was that we got through our time without one of the malapropisms at which she is helplessly gifted. She once said to her client Mike Hoffman, who was scouting locations in Eastern Europe, “I hope you don’t have to work in one of those iron-clad countries.” When a movie star dropped out of a client’s film at the last minute, Boaty said, “Oh, darling, it’s not the end of the Third World.” She once inquired after a client’s sister who suffered from bulimia by asking, “And how is that cute little thing with the bull mania?” The producer Leslie Urdang says it is very hard to make Steve Martin laugh—he is so quick and nothing surprises him. But the Boatyisms always get him.
After her divorce, Boaty was unsure whether to keep her married name. John Huston gave her the right advice. “Listen,” he said, “no one will remember Boaty Baker. But everyone will remember Boaty Boatwright.”
Douglas McGrath is a filmmaker and playwright, and a columnist for AIR MAIL