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Bernie Brillstein (1931-2008) was Jim Henson's manager and close friend throughout most of Henson's career. Brillstein was working as an agent in 1960 at the New York offices of William Morris Agency when he became Henson's first talent agent. At William Morris, Brillstein sold Rowlf the Dog (puppeteered by Henson) as a regular guest on The Jimmy Dean Show. When Brillstein left William Morris in 1964 to become a manager at Kummer and Associates, Henson followed him. Thus Brillstein transitioned from being Henson's agent to being his talent manager—a relationship that lasted until Henson's passing in 1990.
Brillstein secured many of the first season guest stars for The Muppet Show. In additon, Brillstein pushed for the merchandising of the Sesame Street Muppet characters, something Henson was reluctant to do until Brillstein convinced him that profits from the deal would allow Henson artistic freedom for the rest of his life.
Brillstein has signed and developed such talents as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Lorne Michaels, Alan Zweibel, Rob Lowe, Martin Short, John Larroquette, Bob Odenkirk, Wayne Brady, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, Dennis Miller, Molly Shannon and David Spade.
Brillstein's autobiography, Where Did I Go Right? You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead, captures many moments of behind-the-scenes dealings and personal stories associated with Henson and the Muppets. Although Brillstein also represented Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels and several cast members, Brillstein states in his memoir that including the Muppets in season 1 of the show was the idea of executives at NBC. The book also contains several photos with Henson and associates, as well as Brillstein's Muppet likeness.
The Name "Bernie"
In addition to being Henson's manager, Brillstein was also Henson's close personal friend; thus, writers often included tributes to Brillstein's name in their scripts.
- Bernie is the long-running agent or manager referred to by the Muppets in various scripts and appearances.
- In the Sesame Street sketch "Singin' in the Rain" (EKA: Episode 3112) starring Prairie Dawn and Grover, Grover leaves the set to take lunch with Bernie.
- Brillstein's name was used in episode 519 of The Muppet Show as a fictitious guest who refused to come on the show, Benny Brillstein the Yiddish Yodeler.
- In one version of "Doin' the Pigeon," before Bert begins singing, he shows a live-action film which he has taped in Asbury Park of a group of pigeons. One of them he has named Bernie (he's the one with the feathers), whom Bert claims to really be a character.
- Peter Falk's guess at Kermit's story in The Great Muppet Caper includes a brother-in-law named Bernie.
- In Into the Night, Jim Henson makes a cameo appearance as "Man on Phone" who is having an argument with someone named Bernie.
A New Yorker, Brillstein first came into contact with show business through his uncle, Jack Pearl, a Ziegfield Follies star. Following graduation from New York University, he landed his first industry job working in the William Morris mailroom. Remaining with the agency for nine years, Brillstein left in 1964 to join Kummer and Associates, which later became Management III, where he continued to specialize in talent representation.
In 1967, Brillstein moved to Los Angeles to open a West Coast office of Management III. Realizing that he had no chance at the "big name" stars, he decided to sign writers, producers and directors as a means of survival. As these clients rose to television stardom, Brillstein became a packager and in 1969, The Brillstein Company was launched.
Brillstein's first big package was Hee Haw. He was subsequently instrumental in the generation of many movie and television products including The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, Saturday Night Live, and Fraggle Rock.
By capitalizing on multi-talented Muppeteer Jim Henson's genius and ability to diversify into all mediums, Brillstein broke barriers in both television and in the movies. Together with Henson, Brillstein launched The Muppet Show on network television at a time when it was unheard of for a network show to star "puppets."
Brillstein executive-produced the award-winning TV series ALF, It's Garry Shandling's Show and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. In feature films, Brillstein's credits as executive producer included such box office phenomenons as Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, The Blues Brothers, Dragnet, Spies Like Us, Hexed and The Cable Guy.
In 1999, Little Brown Inc. released Where Did I Go Right?, Brillstein's candid memoir telling of his rise from the mailroom at William Morris to become head of Brillstein-Grey. The book remained on L.A.'s bestseller list for ten weeks. The biography features many behind-the-scenes stories of Jim Henson and the Muppets.
Brillstein received a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2001, in acknowledgement of his hard work and dedication to the Hollywood community.
Brillstein served on the Dean's Council at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He is survived by his wife and five children.
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation interviewed Brillstein in 2001 for the Archive of American Television. The four hour interview was posted on YouTube in 2009.