If and when that Lifetime TV movie being developed by Johnny Depp’s company about William R. Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter, comes to fruition, a whole new generation will be introduced to Tinseltown’s original trade reporter. For now, Wilkerson’s pioneering publishing work stands as something of a footnote to his LA nightclub and Las Vegas Strip legacies.
To understand the power of Wilkerson’s front-page “Tradeviews” THR op-eds, which he began writing immediately upon launching the paper in 1930, his son William Wilkerson III (pictured, left) tells FishbowlLA one need look no further than an actor who famously went on to not give a damn. “ I personally like the editorials he wrote about someone that made them instant celebrities or movie stars,” Wilkerson says. “Clark Gable was a nobody. On July 13, 1931, my dad wrote about him and it instantaneously made him famous.”
Wilkerson’s column ran for 33 years and tackled issues that in some cases would still be inflammatory today. The original THR office was located a few blocks above Sunset on Highland, and by the end of year number two (1931), the ten-page-or-so newspaper had a national circulation of 25,000. Wilkerson was quickly banned from Hollywood studio lots because of his hardball tactics and battled the moguls, hard, for several decades before finally breaking down their monopolistic ways in 1947.
There is also a rather ominous parallel between Wilkerson’s media baron methods and the scandal dogging Rupert Murdoch. “What my father (pictured, right, with Marilyn Monroe) did in the early 1930s was no different from the phone hacking Murdoch is now accused of,” Wilkerson confesses. “Trust me, you don’t get to be that powerful without playing dirty. It’s just that time has romanticized my dad’s illegal activities.”
The 1933 launch of an LA edition of Variety spearheaded by Sime Silverman was Wilkerson’s version of Pearl Harbor. From that point on, says his son – again, with unvarnished candor – it was a very dirty mafia turf war.
Having grown up in press rooms with ink smeared on his hands, Wilkerson says he is still getting used to reading Hollywood trade news on an iPad. “It just isn’t as romantic as holding a copy of today’s trades.”
[Photos courtesy Ciro’s Books]