Lots of people have been talking about 20th anniversary of Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out. We forget what a different world it was in 1997. Being gay wasn’t something celebrities screamed from rooftops. Getting an actor to play a gay role was difficult. But one of the people who helped usher in that change of perception was Sandy Gallin, who passed away on April 21 after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Throughout his life, Gallin eschewed labels. He was a producer, a manager, and an agent. He could pick up a phone and make things happen. And he wasn’t shy about saying he was gay.
The story goes that in 1994 — three years before Ellen’s landmark announcement —Out magazine was putting together its “Hollywood Power” issue, and having a devil of a time finding people to participate. Out founder and former Editor-in-Chief Michael Goff recently recalled that the only person on their target list who not only agreed to be featured but would also be on the cover of the magazine was Sandy Gallin.
“He just said ‘Yes’ and joked in the interview that in addition to getting to be a role model, he might find a boyfriend. If only because of how many others didn’t do it, it was a brave thing at the time.”
For someone who craved the spotlight, he was publicly the least known of what was called Hollywood’s Gay Mafia. While he wielded more power than most in his circle, he also wasn’t nearly as wealthy as some of his peers — not that he was ever hurting financially. Whether being openly gay adversely affected his career, he never said. He simply lived his life, did his own thing, and didn’t care what others thought.
He got started the way moguls have gotten started since the beginning of time — at the bottom. You hear about people getting their first job in the mailroom? In 1962, Sandy worked in the mailroom at General Artists Corporation — an agency that later became ICM. He knew what he wanted.
“As soon as I could speak, I talked about having millions of dollars, knowing famous people and becoming a star,” he once told Ingrid Sischy. In short order, he was working with agents booking talent on shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show.” One of his first clients was Richard Pryor, who asked Gallin to help him after he was arrested at the Mexican border for possession of marijuana. After handling that, he was on his way. He became a junior agent, and then an agent. Shortly thereafter, he moved to LA and started a management company and never looked back.
I first became aware of Gallin in the early ‘80s when he was managing the career of Joan Rivers. As I was soon to learn, that was only the tip of the iceberg. At various times he handled the careers of Cher, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Barbra Streisand, and oodles of others. If they were a gay icon, Gallin had his hand in their career. His hand went back so far that he even worked with Paul Lynde! In fact, one of Sandy’s first producing credits was “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special.”
While Gallin’s client list was vast and varied, he especially loved his divas. A special place in his heart was reserved solely for Dolly Parton. The two met after Dolly asked singer Mac Davis who should help with her career. Davis said, “You should talk to Sandy Gallin — he’s my manager.” Sandy had one goal — to make Dolly a mainstream star. The first thing he did was set up a recording session for the song, “Here You Come Again.” Dolly was hesitant. “She said, ‘A monkey could sing this song and have a hit with it.’ She was very nervous that it would turn off the country market, which she was very loyal to.” Gallin made a deal with her — if the song wasn’t No. 1 on the pop charts AND the country charts, he’d never get involved in her musical decisions again. Dolly took the deal — and lost. From then on, she and Sandy were inseparable. They considered each other beyond best friends and almost soul mates. “My husband didn’t love to travel, and Sandy was gay and he did,” said Dolly.
With Parton, Gallin formed Sandollar Productions, which produced such films as “Father of the Bride,” “Shining Through” and the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But where they really hit a home run was when he served as executive producer of “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt.” The 1990 documentary is credited with raising global awareness of the AIDS crisis. While it won an Oscar, it didn’t further Gallin’s hopes of becoming a major film producer.
Around 2001, Gallin left the management game to indulge his other passion – architecture and design. He loved putting his years of detail-oriented work into all the aspects that made a luxury home ideal for specific people. He notoriously arranged the books in his library not by title, not by author, but by color! Barbra Streisand told producer Mark Burnett about a house Gallin finished. Burnett saw it and bought it for $30 million. Gallin’s architect partner, Scott Mitchell, once said, “Barbra Streisand was our Realtor!” Whether she took a commission is unknown. This shift in careers did cause one major fallout — his relationship with Dolly. “We did have that small separation for maybe three years. I felt a little bit left out and lonely.”
Sandy was obsessive about documenting his life and loved ones in meticulously arranged photo albums. When showing them to a writer from “Vanity Fair,” he said, “The sad thing is looking at the older books and seeing how many people have died. It’s mind-boggling.” That may have been of inspiration when Gallin’s friends privately mourned his passing. Mrs. Barry Diller, designer Diane von Furstenberg, came up with an idea for all of Sandy’s friends to put together their favorite Gallin photos and stories and make a coffee table book about his life and his contributions. “And because he wants to be on everyone’s coffee table, for sure,” she added.
I think Sandy would approve — and take a commission!