On Movies: 'Supermensch': Real-life Zelig who got things done

Shep Gordon with Alice Cooper, whose career he still manages. It was Gordon who once tossed a live chicken into the audience at a Cooper concert, which didn't go well for the bird.
Shep Gordon with Alice Cooper, whose career he still manages. It was Gordon who once tossed a live chicken into the audience at a Cooper concert, which didn't go well for the bird.
Posted: June 09, 2014

Shep Gordon, like Zelig and Forrest Gump before him, has crossed paths with world leaders, lunched with legends, mingled meaningfully with movie stars and musicians, the glamorous and the great. The big difference, of course, is that Gordon - a fabled manager, music impresario, film exec, and showbiz playmaker - is a real person.

The other difference is that though chance, or fate, or what-have-you brought Zelig, or Gump, or Gordon together with famous figures, Gordon acted on his encounters.

"It's happenstance, and then I get proactive," offers the 68-year-old Hollywood insider, who, over the decades before his retirement to Maui, managed the careers of Alice Cooper, Raquel Welch, and the late Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass. (He still manages Cooper.) "That's what happens: I find myself standing next to someone, and then I try to apply what I do to them, if they're willing to accept it."

What Gordon does - and did - can best be gleaned by watching Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, an affectionate and awe-inspiring documentary directed and narrated by one of Gordon's many friends, Wayne's World and Austin Powers star Mike Myers. The film, which has been touring festivals and which arrives at the Ritz Bourse on Friday, recounts, and in some instances reenacts, the Gumpian life story of the Long Island native who studied sociology in college and then, by accident, showed up poolside at a Hollywood motel in 1968 - a Hollywood motel where Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and Cooper were hanging out.

Gordon, with college buddy Joe Greenberg, said they were managers. (They weren't.) Alice Cooper said he needed one. The rest - including Gordon tossing a live chicken into the audience at an Alice Cooper concert, a poor bird infamously torn into McNuggets - is history.

The stories - of Playboy Mansion debaucheries, of backstage drugfests, of his turn toward Buddhism and his friendship with the Dalai Lama - are great. And most of them are true.

Though not the one about meeting Pablo Picasso in a bar, as Myers gleefully tells his subject in the film.

"I think there's something about telling the same story over and over again, for years and years and years, that maybe it morphs a little bit," Gordon, on the phone from Los Angeles, says with a laugh. "I still, to this day, this moment, see Pablo Picasso sitting having a drink at the bar. And I know Mike has proved to me that he was dead two years before, so I couldn't be right. But as I sit here now, I still see him.

"So, I can only assume that maybe some of my other stories are similarly conceived. But in most cases, Mike has gone and fact-checked everything."

Among clients he has shepherded over the years, Gordon counts Cooper and Pendergrass as two of the most significant. (Some of the others in his stable: Deborah Harry, Anne Murray, Groucho Marx, Rick James.)

"Alice and I are unbelievably close friends, but we're completely different people," he says. "Teddy and I were real kindred spirits. . . . I miss him. He was a great entertainer."

In the film, Gordon suggests that the Philadelphia soul singer's crippling 1982 car crash on Lincoln Drive was, in some ways, karmic. Just weeks earlier, Pendergrass walked away from a concert on the outskirts of London - an eleventh-hour decision that left thousands of fans angry and disappointed. Gordon begged the singer to do the show, to no avail.

"He did cancel, and he did have the accident shortly thereafter," Gordon says. "In my brain, I believe that karmically it's very possible. Of course, it could have been something else, but for me it always was the karma. . . . With karma, you never really know if it's real or not real. But it surely doesn't hurt your approach to life to believe in it.

"There's no downside to believing."

Myers' movie covers another aspect of Gordon's life, and career, that may have escaped the notice of music and movie fans. (On the movie side, Gordon's indie label, now-defunct Island Alive, produced and/or distributed Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads doc, Stop Making Sense, the Oscar contenders El Norte and Kiss of the Spider Woman, and a dozen other titles.)

Through a friendship, and mentorship, with nouvelle cuisine god Roger Vergé, Gordon took on the business careers of Dean Fearing, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, and other American kitchen maestros. He arranged for his chefs to do public appearances, to cook for awards shows such as the Grammys and the Oscars. He encouraged Reese Schonfeld, a CNN founder, to launch the Food Network.

So was born the era of the celebrity chef.

"I was very lucky to have been mentored by one of the world's great chefs," he says of Vergé. "And in many ways, I feel like he - I don't know if 'he saved my life' is the right thing to say, but he pushed me in a direction of happiness, and I think I was probably headed in a direction of sadness. And I always felt I owed him everything for that."

These days, when he's not out with Myers promoting the documentary, Gordon is content to stay at his surfside house on Maui in Hawaii. (One of the few instances in Supermensch that makes Gordon wince is when the house's worth, $15 mil, is brought up. Another: his comments about his mother, whose cruelty to Gordon can only be described as aggressive. Still, he says, she loved him.)

Friends - Cooper, Myers, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Arnold, Willie Nelson (all of whom show up in the film) - drop by. And Gordon has an adoptive family, four orphaned children he's supported from their childhood days. It's a story that gives Supermensch a whole other dimension.

"I've been unbelievably lucky and blessed," he says. "I do feel like I'm living Forrest Gump's life."





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