By Nikki Finke | Saturday July 3, 2010 @ 11:08am PDT

Ed Limato had been ill from lung disease and awaiting a lung transplant that never came. He arrived home from Cedars Sinai this week and fell into a coma. In recent days the icon who’d spent four decades in showbiz guidng the careers of some of its biggest stars was surrounded by everyone he loved: his clients and his friends and his colleagues. The untimely passing of this legendary talent agent at age 73 will cast a pall over Hollywood this holiday weekend. But his reputation as one of the greats will live on.

Most recently, Limato was a senior agent at WME Entertainment but he’d spent a lifetime moving between ICM and William Morris agencies. He began his career in the mailroom of the Ashley-Famous Agency in New York in 1966. That tenpercentery eventually became International Famous Agency where Ed was promoted to junior agent. Later, Ashley-Famous merged with Creative Management Associates to become International Creative Management (ICM). He transferred to ICM’s West Coast office but was lured away to the William Morris Agency in 1978 by his idol Stan Kamen’s motion picture talent departmen for a 10-year stay and some of Limato’s most productive years. There he helped discover Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Costner, and Michael Biehn among so many other clients. By 1984, Limato seemed destined to be the town’s next superstar agent. But Limato found the Morris elders’ end-of-year bonus offer insulting and didn’t come into the office for a week. He met with ICM and agreed to return. When Kamen learned what happened, he demanded a new contract for Limato: $250,000 for 1984, $300,000 for 1985, $350,000 for 1986, and a new Jaguar. Limato stayed.

By 1988, Stan Kamen had died, an internal battle was raging to run his department, and it embroiled Limato in another contract dispute that even involved a lawsuit. This time, Ed did go back to ICM where he cemented his reputation as a superstar agent and took all his movie stars, now joined by Denzel Washington and Steve Martin and Billy Crystal and Liam Neeson, to the next level of superstardom. There he rose to become a major administrator of the agency. But after ICM merged with the TV agency Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann in 2006, Limato found himself in the summer of 2007 embroiled in a very bitter and very public contract renewal battle with newly installed ICM president Chris Silbermann.

At issue was whether Ed would remain part of ICM management and if so what he would get paid. One proposal on the table was for Limato to stay as an eminence gris and rep his clients as usual but relinquish his management role so ICM could effect generational change. On the money front, Limato was making $5 million in salary and bonuses with perks like another mil at least for his Oscar party, two script readers, three assistants, and own business affairs person. Plus, Ed insisted that all of his aides eventually be promoted to agent status. ICM wanted him to downsize, especially his annual Friday night pre-Oscar party which for years had been the ne-plus-ultra of Hollywood (where Limato became known as “The Barefoot Contessa’ because of his penchant for hosting shoeless despite his sartorial splendor) until Bryan Lourd’s and Ari Emanuel’s competing parties began to eclipse it. Limato claimed both his authority and stature were being undermined by the new regime, which, he alleged, planned on forcing him into early retirement. Limato wanted out of his contract. ICM refused.

The dispute was taken to arbitration, where Limato challenged a 3-year non-compete clause, which would have forbid him to work for another agency and forced him to remain at ICM as a consultant. During arbitration, Limato’s lawyers argued that his contract dated back to the mid-1990s and violated the California law stemming from the old studio contract system known as the “seven year rule,” stating that anyone who renders extraordinary or unique services cannot be bound to a contract for more than seven years. On August 13, 2007, the arbitrator found in favor of Limato and against ICM. Just a few days later, Limato and his movie clients including some making salaries of more than $20M plus first dollar gross went back to the William Morris Agency and joined his former colleagues Jim Wiatt and Dave Wirtschafter. As Wiatt said at the time, “Over the years I’ve respected and admired Ed as both a colleague and competitor, and I can assure you I prefer him as a colleague.” Limato bid his ICM colleagues a fond farewell.

After William Morris merged with Endeavor in June 2009, and despite Wiatt’s ouster from the new company, Limato seamlessly transitioned into WME Entertainment where he was treated with the respect he deserved. At one staff meeting last December, Patrick Whitesell gave accolades to Limato as WME’s “Iron Man” in the vein of MVP QB Brett Favre and presented Ed with a Minnesota Vikings jersey emblazoned with the name “Limato” on the back as staffers stood and applauded. Now, everyone there knew that Ed would rather go to the symphony than attend a football game. But he gamely accepted the jersey and exclaimed, “I can’t wait to wear it on Saturday night.”

Today, WME Entertainment issued this statement to me: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague Ed Limato. He was the consummate agent, launching the careers of some of the most celebrated artists of our time, always with his signature style and class. His passion for this business was contagious, inspiring so many who had the privilege of knowing him. A true legend, Ed has left an indelible mark on our industry. We will miss him dearly.”

After Limato’s departure, ICM’s already troubled motion picture talent edepartment never recovered. ICM Chairman and CEO Jeff Berg gave me this statement on Limato’s passing: “Ed was valued colleague for many years, and he had a remarkable impact on the entertainment business. He dedicated his life to his clients and guided the careers of many important artists in our industry.”

Jim Wiatt emailed me today: “I am saddened by the passing of my friend Ed Limato. I had the privilege to work with Ed for over 30 years, at ICM and the William Morris Agency. He loved his clients, and represented them with style, class and the ultimate commitment to their art. He will be missed, but always remembered.”

Today, Limato’s friends issued this obituary to me, and I can attest that this part is accurate:

“Ed Limato was in a class by himself – an iconoclast, as Vanity Fair once called him – a talent agent who glided through Hollywood with poise and panache. He hearkened back to the Golden Age, a time when men were more refined and elegant, as if he were preparing for an evening at the Mocambo. Yet despite his reverence for Hollywood of yore, his client list kept him active and relevant into the 21st century. He was as colorful as he was powerful. Always handsomely coiffed and impeccably dressed, Limato would promenade into the office wearing Italian suits of mustard yellow or salmon pink, rallying to his assistants, ‘Let’s talk to the stars.’

“Limato’s love for old Hollywood was not just apparent in his demeanor. His Coldwater Canyon Estate, known as “Heather House”, was built in 1936 by Hollywood stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell and later owned by George Raft. The game room was adorned with Hirschfeld caricatures acquired from the old MGM commissary, and his screening room was named after Marlene Dietrich. He even gave his assistants a list of classic Hollywood films that they were to watch and report back to him with analysis.

“Limato is the last of the great talent agents – a breed that dwindled with the loss of Stan Kamen and Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar. Over the years, his client list read like a who’s who of Hollywood legends and Oscar winners, including Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep, Wynona Ryder, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Costner, Goldie Hawn, Dennis Quaid, Madonna, Nicholas Cage, Robert Downey, Jr., and Liam Neeson. To Limato, his clients were less business and more family. Instead of family photographs in his living room, he kept exquisitely framed headshots of every actor he ever represented. Limato could be as obstreperous as any Hollywood bad boy, throwing tantrums and hanging up the phone on the most powerful players. However, he would often follow up with an apology or bouquet of flowers.”

I was fortunate to have known Limato personally and professionally and interviewed him extensively over the years. Here’s my take on why Ed was such an extraordinary Hollywood agent: he was a throwback to the pre-Ovitz days of the Hollywood talent agent where even small actors came before big deals, where clients’ problems came before his own, where brutal honesty came before feigned sincerity. Average height (which made him tall in Hollywood), moody and a heavy smoker, he was born to be an agent. He loved the adrenaline rush of the phone calls and the negotiations and the power lunches with the stars. His official bio noted:

“Although it’s common for clients to jump from agency to agency, Limato inspired loyalty from the likes of Gere, Gibson and Washington, who have been with him for most of their careers. He was often criticized for maintaining his own agency within the agency, because his office consisted of three trainees, a personal assistant, a lawyer and a story editor. But while most agents are all about the deal, Limato serviced the client. Because of his unique style, Gere, Gibson, Washington and Martin did not have managers. Limato was a full-service agent.”

That Limato was out of the closet was accepted by his peers and clients as readily as his availability 24 hours a day. In turn, his showbiz clients and friends became his surrogate family. He cared so deeply about his actors that pals wondered if Limato would go the way of Sue Mengers and burn out. But Limato had staying power.

A self-made man, Edward Frank Limato was born in Mount Vernon NY, the son of Italian-American blue collar laborers. Limato early on gravitated to gangs. “I was in a lot of trouble in junior high school,” he once told me, and was thrown out of high school three months before graduation. Limato loved going to the movies on Saturdays and wanted to make a living somehow in the film business. So, as a teenager, he headed off to New York City. “But I didn’t have the guts to become an actor,” he recalled. He bummed around Europe where, in Rome in 1966, he met director Franco Zeffirelli who offered him an assistant’s job on the set of The Taming Of The Shrewi. On the set, Michael York said to him, “You should be an agent.” From that moment on, he was.

He built up a client base of TV actors but wanted to rep movie stars. Soon, Richard Gere walked into Limato’s office. The agent signed him on the spot. But Gere wanted to be a musician: he played nine different instruments, including the clarinet (his skill was later showcased in The Cotton Club). But Limato argued that Gere should concentrate on a dramatic career. The rushes of Gere’s performance in 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar were enough for Paramount’s Don Simpson to immediately call Limato and say he had to have Gere for his next movie, American Gigolo, then a dark picture about a male prostitute caught up in a gruesome murder. While Gere hemmed and hawed about whether to do the film, Simpson offered the movie to John Travolta, who following Saturday Night Fever was the hottest star in Hollywood at that moment. Limato was puttering around his new cottage in Laurel Canyon when director Paul Schrader phoned to inform him that Travolta had passed on American Gigolo.

“If Travolta doesn’t want to do it, then I don’t want it,” Gere told his agent.

“Just put the crap aside,” Limato patiently counseled.

The role initially was a homosexual prostitute, then a bisexual male hooker. One scene called for the character to hang out in a gay bar. Gere decided to research the role, so he dragged along his agent Limato, his friend and studio exec Craig Baumgarten, his director Paul Schrader, and his co-star Lauren Hutton from gay bar to gay bar. “It was hysterical. Ed maintained he knew nothing about where anybody went, but we kept teasing him all night,” recalled Craig Baumgarten (who like Limato maintained Gere is “100% heterosexual” and was convinced that the rumors about the actor’s alleged homosexuality all stem from that night of research). Subsequently, Limato talked Gere into starring in An Officer and a Gentleman. Suddenly, Limato was handling one of the biggest stars in the world.

If the true measure of an agent is not just what other superstars he can steal, but what careers he can create, then Limato was a better agent than CAA’s Mike Ovitz or Ron Meyer. At the time, the Australian film industry was just beginning to make an impact on Hollywood. An Australian agent sent over a photo and a resume of a client he thought Limato might want. As Limato slipped the photograph from the envelope, it took his breath away. But could Mel Gibson act? Limato would soon find out. Gibson had just made Mad Max, a low-budget Australian movie directed by George Miller which had fared well in Europe. The agent expected to be disappointed. Instead, he was awestruck. From the very first frame of film, Gibson showed range.

As it turned out, Gibson had already visited several agencies, including CAA. “CAA asked him to ‘read,’ Limato recalled to me. “I really want you to be my client,” Limato said to him. As Gibson’s star rose, so, too, did Limato’s.

When Kamen’s longtime protege Gary Lucchesi left Morris, Limato inherited his clients, including the Orange Country beauty queen turned model, Michelle Pfeiffer, who ended up in Grease 2. She’d been discovered by casting director Wally Nicita. According to Ed’s bio, “Limato was a voracious reader and believed that good material was the key to stardom. He suggested Michelle Pfeiffer for the role in Scarface”, which launched her serious film career.

But Kevin Costner was the one who got away. Limato first learned about him from celebrity photographer Herb Ritts who asked Ed to meet with a young male model. But weeks went by and the model never phoned for an appointment. Costner’s acting career was being handled by a commercial agency at the time. When Wally Nicita was casting a role in Mike’s Murder, and Costner came into her office and did a cold reading that she told William Morris agent Gary Lucchesi was “incredible”, he signed Costner. (Costner also became best known around Hollywood as the corpse who was edited out of Lawrence Kasdan’s baby-boomer hit The Big Chill.) When Limato was introduced to Costner in the Morris hallway, he thought the name sounded familiar. “Wait a minute, don’t you know Herb Ritts? Weren’t you supposed to call?”

Replied a sheepish Costner: “I didn’t call you because I knew you were too busy. But I would have loved to have met you.”

When Lucchesi left Morris, those clients he didn’t give to Limato were up for grabs. Kevin Costner decided to sign with Lucchesi’s Morris secretary turned junior agent, J.J. Harris. It was her idea to get Costner involved with Limato, then head of Morris’ motion picture talent department. From that point on, Harris and Limato had an intense rivalry over Costner’s career. Limato was instrumental in landing Costner his breakthrough in 1987’s The Untouchables. Initially, Paramount’s then head of production, Dawn Steel, wanted Limato’s other client, Mel Gibson, for the role of Eliot Ness. When Gibson passed, Limato started pushing Costner. “Please, please, go back to Mel,” Steel pleaded. In a wily act of agenting, he kept Paramount waiting for Gibson’s answer for three weeks, all the while calling the studio executives every day, pushing Costner. Finally, Limato could stall no longer. After all, Steel was a good friend who had even dated his key client, Richard Gere, years before. “Dawn, I have some bad news for you and some good news for you,” Limato started. “The bad news is: Mel definitely is not going to do The Untouchables .” Immediately, Steel cut to the chase. “What’s the good news?” Limato preened. “The good news is that Kevin Costner wants to do it.”

“I know that, and I have good news for you,” Steel countered. “We want Kevin.”

Later, Costner’s did No Way Out, which also had gone first to Gibson, who wasn’t interested. Meanwhile, Limato’s relationship with Harris was worse than ever. It fell to Morris business affairs head Roger Davis to mediate what he called “a nightmare”. Not that Limato was always right. It was Harris who first read the script for Bull Durham and knew she was holding gold. Limato worried that the film would fall apart, saying producer Thom Mount had about as much chance of getting it made as seeing snow fall in Malibu. Well, as it turned out, snow fell in Malibu that year, and Bull Durham got made. Limato had another tug-of-war with Harris over Ray Stark’s Revenge. Limato knew that Gere and Gibson had turned it down. And then Limato received a phone call from Costner asking for help. Costner informed Limato he also wanted to do Field of Dreams for Universal. Both movies had the same start dates. Limato persuaded Stark to flip his start date with Field of Dreams, which, because of the growing season for corn, had a schedule that couldn’t be changed.

Then, the unthinkable happened: Limato was about to lose Richard Gere. Since An Officer and a Gentleman, the actor had done one bomb after another, and Limato would pound the conference table with his fist at the Morris’ Wednesday motion picture meetings and snarl, “Goddammit, why aren’t you people finding a job for Richard!” Gere was going to sign with ICM’s Sam Cohn. Immediately, Limato followed Richard out the door to join the rival agency. Morris tried to sue, then settled, and took solace that Costner, now a huge star, had stayed. Limato chose Gere over Costner. Few agents would have done that back then. Ed then orchestrated Gere’s comeback by talking him into doing Pretty Woman.

In lieu of flowers, the family is suggesting donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.