U.S. Marine to Hollywood honcho: Ron Meyer discusses life growing up in West L.A. and becoming a Hollywood executive
Annenberg Media sat down with one of the founders of CAA, the leading artist agency in the entertainment business.
From the U.S. Marine Corps to the Hollywood mailroom, becoming one of the founders of CAA to being vice chairman at NBCUniversal, Ron Meyer has experienced a lot since growing up in West L.A.
Annenberg Media: Tell me about your family and your life growing up?
Meyer: My mother and father escaped Nazi Germany in 1939. They both immigrated and met in Los Angeles. They were German Jews; my father was a lady's dress salesman and my mother worked with him until she had me and my sister. We had a very simple life here in west Los Angeles.
Annenberg Media: What is the most distinct memory of your mother and your father?
Meyer: They were loving and supportive parents. My father traveled four out of six weeks so he was gone a lot of the time. My mother raised us on a full-time basis. They were great parents and we loved each other unconditionally.
NBCUNIVERSAL EXECUTIVES -- Pictured: Ron Meyer, Vice Chairman, NBCUniversal -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)
Annenberg Media: What challenges did you face at school and in the community?
Meyer: I created challenges for myself. We didn't have money so that wasn't really an issue as none of us in that neighborhood had money. I worked from the age of about 12-years-old where I delivered and sold newspapers. If I saw a shirt that I liked, I had to work to pay for it. I washed cars at every job you could imagine. I did what I had to do. I was in trouble as a kid but I created most of it, so that definitely made it more challenging for my parents to deal with me. I went to three different junior high and high schools. I spent very little time going to school and I was suspended a lot. I don't think I ever spent a full day in high school. When I was 16, I legally dropped out. That is what led me to the Marine Corps.
Annenberg Media: What made you want to join the Marines and what was your military occupational specialty (MOS)?
Meyer: I used to box and I was told there was a boxing program in the Marines. There was an active draft back then, so I had a draft card at 17. I thought I was a tough guy and the Marine Corps seemed like a good idea. I found out that there was no boxing program after joining. It was a different kind of Corps; corporal punishment was allowed, and you could fight bare knuckles. They could put hands on you, and you could put hands on them. It was a different kind of world back then.
I was a rifleman, which was my main MOS. I worked in the motor pool and as a radio man. I was a driver as well.
Annenberg Media: What values were stressed at home?
Meyer: My parents were good, honest and hardworking people. I was taught an early lesson when we went to someone's house for a visit. When I came back home, I had four or five quarters in my pocket. When I told my mother and made up some story, she was not having it. She made me go back down, return the quarters and apologize. My parents never tolerated stealing. They taught me my values that never changed throughout my life.
Annenberg Media: What drew you to film and media while growing up?
Meyer: When I was in the Marine Corps, I got the measles and I was quarantined. I had never read a book in my life at that point. My mother sent me two books: "Amboy Dukes" which was about kids in trouble and a book called, "The Flesh Peddlers" by Steven Longstreet about a young guy in the agency business. I thought when I got out, I didn't want to be this jerk anymore so I went looking for a job in the agency business. I didn't have any friends or connections in the business, I just knew about it as a viewer. When a movie came out on a Friday, I thought it was finished on Thursday. I had no concept of the process. It seemed like a good way to make a living. Agents were salesmen and my father was a salesman. I was going to be a salesman of some kind so selling talent seemed like a thing to look into, so I went after it.
Annenberg Media: What was it like starting at the Kohner Agency?
Meyer: It was a great experience and I was lucky to get the job. I was a messenger there for six years. It was a fun time to live in L.A. back then. It was hard work and I worked five days-a-week and then was on call on the weekends for Mr. Kohner. It really was the best time of my life. Hollywood was a lot of fun on the Sunset Strip with all the restaurants and bars. It was just great and looking back on the time it was very Andy Hardy-ish.
Ron Meyer with reporter, Joel Searls at NBCUniversal. (Photo courtesy of: Joel Searls)
Annenberg Media: What leadership lessons in life and from the service have helped you most in your career?
Meyer: The most lasting value comes from what the Marine Corps taught me, teamwork is everything. At CAA it was about teamwork and certainly here at NBCUniversal it is about teamwork. I felt that way at CAA, you were either for us or against us.
We are all in it together. If we succeed, we all succeed and if we fail, we all fail together. You can't be pointing your finger as a leader. If you trusted the wrong people to do the job, then you must be responsible for it. As a leader you are in it more than anyone else. It is pretty basic: you treat people the way you want to be treated, you tell the best truth you can, you do what you say you are going to do. Once you are a team those are all the fundamentals. You do the best that you can.
Annenberg Media: What are the keywords that you live by?
Meyer: I wish I could say I invented it, but when I was very young, I saw a sign that said, "Assumption is the mother of all f***! ups." If you assume something you are at risk, I have lived by that forever and I believe that. Don't assume anyone else is going to take care of the problem or assume you know what someone else is thinking.
Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Tom Hanks and Ron Meyer at the APOLLO 13 premiere. (Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal/Alex Berliner)
Annenberg Media: What are your top three films while you have been at NBCUniversal?
Meyer: The films that I am most proud of being a part of are "Brokeback Mountain," "United 93" and "Apollo 13." I am proud of these films and they had a very important significance for me. "Apollo 13" was a perfect movie since we knew how it ended, but you were on the edge of your seat until the very ending. It entertained you and it made you care. "Brokeback Mountain" broke barriers that no one ever imagined before. It was two men falling in love with each other and the beauty of it. I was proud to be part of the studio that made it. "United 93" made you proud to be an American and it told a story of what people are capable of in the worst of circumstances. It was an extraordinary movie and it was the first post 9/11 film. There were no stars in it, and it was what really happened. I saw it with the families of the victims of Flight 93. It deserves to be a classic film and it is important for America. These are the three films that really stand out for me.
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