In Memory of Norman Horowitz, Hollywood's Lionhearted Rabble-Rouser From the Bronx

06/23/2015 01:59 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Norman Horowitz was one of the first friends I made when I moved to Los Angeles. I was trying to get a foot into the movie business, and he had fifty years of experience. He had started as a part-time, minimum-wage shipping clerk and messenger and worked his way up to become president of a multi-billion-dollar business. Then in retirement, he was brash and opinionated, and he had stories to tell. I just listened.

He was a big man with a big voice, and he could have intimidated me if he'd wanted to. But Norman didn't believe in intimidation -- neither giving nor receiving it. He taught me to call everyone in the industry by their first name, no matter how important they thought they were.

When someone once asked him how he had the nerve to chat so effortlessly with Sarah Ferguson, The Dutchess of Kent, Norman replied that he had simply asked her if she ever had sex with a Jew from the Bronx.

Norman hated egos. He was fond of the famous William Goldman line, "Nobody knows anything."

"Here I am," he used to say in his heyday, "a forty-something Jewish electrical engineer from the Bronx with one wife, two kids, and a dog who sells movies and television programs throughout the world trying to determine what thirty-year-old Christian mothers want to watch afternoons in Gary, Indiana."

His humility may have sold him short. "You should have seen Norman in his prime," I've been told. "He was the best salesman you'd ever see."

I believe it. He had the best product to sell in the business. He had the truth. He was one of the most fearlessly honest men I've ever met.

When he joined CBS in 1968, the managers asked him what he thought was the best way to reduce the company's headcount by 7.5 percent. He told them to fire the managers who allowed the overhead to get so bloated in the first place. He said this to the managers.

Most people who worked at the studios were afraid of change, but not Norman. When they resisted new technologies that cut prices at the expense of profits, Norman fought back on behalf of consumers. He refused to stand by and watch the big guys collude against the forces of progress. "Had municipalities never paved roads," he once quipped, "we would still have horses and wagons, but alas, no one ever organized the horses!"

In his later years, he directed the same ire at politicians who didn't seem to give a damn about anyone but themselves. He saw the abuse of power all around him. He was apoplectic when studio executive David Begelman got sentenced to community service for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars, while a poor black mother was sent to jail for years for welfare fraud. He took it as a personal insult when Chris Christie berated an audience member who had very politely asked why the politician was defunding public schools while sending his own kids to private school. If Norman had learned anything at the big studios, it's that there were two sets of rules in the world: one for the rich and powerful, and one for everybody else.

"Bring back the antitrust division!" he'd growl.

He fancied himself a latter-day Howard Beale, "The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves" from the classic movie Network, admonishing everyone to run to their windows, stick their heads out, and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Upon first impression, Norman might have been the last person you'd expect to be sentimental. When he spoke, it was deep and gruff and irreverent, and if you haven't noticed by now, it was usually directed at someone or something. And yet, he was never unkind. In fact, he was deeply compassionate. That's where his furious rabble-rousing came from -- he put the passion in compassion.

When he was running MGM/UA Telecommunications, some people actually thought he was too nice. In the entertainment industry, you see, a lot of managers think they're supposed to rule by fear and intimidation. Norman didn't see it that way.

He hated bullies. He used to say, with his classic vulgarity, "If you have a dick, you don't have to walk around proving that you have a dick. It's only the men who have no dick who behave like dicks!"

Norman was fiercely protective of his employees. One time, he was giving the president of Columbia Pictures Television a tour of his office, when the president said, "Norman, you don't really need all of these people, do you?"

"No, we don't," said Norman, "but we were doing very badly in the softball studio league, so I hired a bunch of ringers."

His compassion spanned the globe. He regularly mourned the loss of life in our military conquests abroad -- American and foreign, all human life was equal to Norman. When he spoke of their deaths, his anger would turn to profound sadness.

Like many of us, I think Norman was afraid to die. The only time he ever admitted to being terrified was in the Air Force when he was ordered to guard a warehouse during the Korean War. The warehouse was in upstate New York.

He lived so fearlessly and experienced so many joys -- so many lucrative deals signed and beautiful women wooed -- but it all goes away so fast.

At the end, he spoke openly of loss and loneliness. I think he protested so loudly because he cared so deeply. Two years after his last dog left him, Norman still had two boxes of dog biscuits in the cupboard and one box in his car.

His vulnerability always struck me like an arrow. Since his passing, I've been re-reading his posts on my blog. I'll leave you with my favorite. This is "Wispy White Clouds" by Norman the Lionhearted:

Nearly three quarters of my lifetime ago, I loved and then I married.

Nearly one quarter of my lifetime ago, I loved again.

Nearly four years ago, I met Valerie, the light and love of my life.

Nearly two years ago, the light that was the physical presence of Valerie flickered and then went out.

I shared only two years with Valerie and was with her at the moment of her death when her beautiful blue eyes closed for the last time.

And now I have a few rhetorical mind-blowing questions that I have pondered before and now think of again because of Valerie:

Was there ever a time before the beginning of time?

Will there be a time after the end of time?

Was there ever a time that there was space at the end of space?

Was there ever space before the beginning of space?

Belief in God allows you to ignore these questions or not care about their answers.

As a rule, I don't care about these answers, but thinking about and pining for Valerie made me re-think my not caring.

Belief in an unknown higher power like God will allow you to at least try to explain the otherwise inexplicable.

A goldfish believes that there is a higher power because food is regularly sprinkled on top of its bowl and someone regularly changes the water.

I consider myself to be an atheist. Do I from time to time wonder whether all that exists can be some sort of cosmic accident? Yes, I do, and yet I find the notion of God to be similar to the notion that there is a Santa Claus or a Tooth Fairy.

I have for many years wondered about reincarnation. I found myself overlooking Long Island Sound shortly after sunrise last Friday. As I looked overhead, there was a bevy of weirdly-shaped wispy white clouds. I inexplicably wondered if my friend Valerie was actually one of those clouds.

To explain the inexplicable a little further, Valerie was not "riding" on a particular cloud but was now, two years after her death, a wispy white cloud peacefully floating above the earth.

Valerie often called me "Norman, my Norman," and I was to be "hers," all of me.

She was a wispy woman during her life, so why would her soul not become a wispy white cloud after her death? She would have liked that, I think.

I wonder.

Wonder no more, old friend. For eighty-two years, you showed us how to fight the good fight. At long last, you can rest that great big voice. We'll take it from here.